So much of comedy is context. Things are often especially funny when they are incongruous with the background. For example, the behavior of the Blues Brothers in a fancy restaurant is much funnier because their vulgarity is especially out of place in a formal setting.
But in many ways not just the setting but also the history and cultural background is needed to “get” a joke. For example, when Aristophanes makes a joke about Cleonymus throwing away his shield, we have to know that shield throwing is shorthand for cowardice, and that Cleonymus had a reputation along those lines. Not knowing who that person is or what it means to throw down a shield, such a joke just can’t land.
Or to get a joke about Hercules at the dinner table one must know that the demigod’s insatiable appetite was something of a cliché in Aristophanes’ time.
Obviously, these are not great examples. A modern person who has never held a sword may still understand the implications of throwing down one’s shield. And even if Hercules is not a regular character in our comedic repertoire these days, gluttony is still readily understandable. But I am at a disadvantage in picking my examples; the best of them go right over my own head.
As a result of this need for background information, much ancient (or otherwise culturally remote) comedy is quite inaccessible. Certain people, customs, or places that form the butt of jokes might not be known, so the joke must fall flat.
Aristophanes is often accessible. In The Clouds, for example, a lizard defecates onto Socrates’s face. Classic. However, at other times, I just feel like I am not in on the joke. He lampoons people that I’ve never heard of, and makes all manner of social comments that are simply beyond me.
Beer of the week: Pacifico Clara – This is yet another bland Mexican lager. There is not much else to say about it. It is a little sweet and a lot bland. Pacifico is not bad, but there is just not much to it.
Reading for the week: The Wasps by Aristophanes, Lines 986-1121 – In this part of the play, Aristophanes (through the chorus) lets us know that there is much more at stake than getting his jokes. He believes that there are bigger, more important things going on in his satire than getting laughs.
Question for the week: What about comedy is truly universal?
Near the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson found himself in a tight spot financially. He had spent the previous 60 years or so in the public service as President, Vice-President, Governor, Ambassador, Regent of the University of Virginia, etc. These various services to his country and state kept him, so he claimed, from properly attending to his own affairs. As a result, he ended up deep in debt.
His solution was to sell some of his property to pay off his creditors. However, the land was very valuable and the market was very depressed, so he feared that there would be nobody willing to pay full price. As an alternative to traditional sale, he proposed a lottery. By putting up the property as the prize of a lottery, he believed that he stood a better chance of receiving full value for the land. The only problem was the the Commonwealth of Virginia regulates all lotteries, so Jefferson would need special dispensation from the legislature. So he made an appeal, recounting all of his services to state and country and waxing philosophical about the moral implications of gambling.
Jefferson starts this appeal by acknowledging that “chance” is merely the name given to causes that we do not or cannot know. “If we know the cause [of a thing], we do not call it chance; but if we do not know it, we say it was produced by chance.” So every human endeavor includes some element of chance. He calls the farmer “the greatest of all gamblers” because the farmer risks his rent, his seeds, and his labor on a crop that may fail because of things beyond his control. And because all human action is a gamble to some extent, gambling cannot be immoral per se. So far, so good.
But then Jefferson holds in opposition those games of chance that are not productive in the way that insurance or capital investment are. (I briefly observe that games of chance are productive in the form of entertainment, which can be hard to measure but clearly has value.) He writes of “cards, dice, billiards, &c.” as games “which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them.” And he lauds the state’s suppression of these games for the sake of those who would be injured by playing and losing. Here, I think, Jefferson busts.
Jefferson acknowledges that there is a natural right to gamble. This, I take it, is based on two considerations: first, as discussed above, gambling is not immoral per se, but is merely another term for the risks that all of us take in each of our daily actions; and second, that the natural right to property necessarily includes the right to dispose of it by sale, gift, or game of chance. (A previous post on this blog discusses the curious relationship between Jefferson’s and Locke’s notions of the natural right to property.) So once gambling is acknowledged as a natural right, how can its prohibition be justified?
The justification is by way of analogy. The analogy drawn by Jefferson is between degenerate gambling and “insanity, infancy, imbecility, &c.” If a gambling addiction is a sort of madness, then the state is right to prohibit gambling for the protection of the addicts. But even if we agree that a gambling addiction is akin to a mental handicap – which is at least debatable – the analogy is somewhat unfair. Why should all table games be banned for the protection of the fraction of the population that suffers from a gambling addiction? If we do not allow children or the mentally ill to drive cars by virtue of their infancy or insanity, that does not mean that we would authorize the state to ban cars outright. And if cars are too modern a concept, then consider an example of what children and the insane could not do in Jefferson’s day: neither group was capable of entering into legally binding contracts. Yet Jefferson would not have advocated the notion that the enforcement of all contracts should be banned for the sake of the children and the insane. Rather, the intervention of the state should be limited to protecting the narrow subset of individuals while interfering as little as possible with the rights of everybody else.
Beer of the week: Wieselburger Gold – Jefferson may have found himself short on gold, but who isn’t? If the name “Gold” is used to describe the color this Austrian beer, the name is not very apt. This brew is much more pale than anything that I would call gold. If the name refers to the quality of the beer, they still come up a bit short; this is a bronze medal beer, silver at best. What little head there is dissipates quickly, and there is hardly an aroma to speak of. However, the flavor is not without its charms. There is a bit of malt sweetness up front, and a floral, hoppy finish that leaves the mouth feeling dry, always encouraging the next sip.
Reading for the week: Thoughts on Lotteries by Thomas Jefferson – There is more to dislike about this appeal than the weak analogy between gamblers and the insane. Notably, Jefferson discusses his own political career at length and argues that he should be entitled to exceptional treatment by the legislature on those grounds.
Question for the week: Is there a formula for what percent of the population is impacted before rightful actions should be banned?
My grandmother felt a very real connection to her Pennsylvania-Dutch roots. Her great-great-etc.-grandfather came to these shores from the old world, and his son fought in the American Revolution. My grandmother was born, educated, married, and died in Pennsylvania. That’s not to say that she wasn’t worldly. She left her part of the state to attend Gettysburg College, one of the two Lutheran colleges in the state that admitted women. She travelled to India, Hawaii, Hong Kong, and more. But she stayed firmly connected to her ethnic roots in a way that I haven’t.
Nikola Tesla is another example of somebody strongly attached to his own cultural identity, even when physically separated from it. Tesla was a Serbian, but he was born and raised in what is now Croatia. His education took him to Vienna and to Prague, and his work took him to France and the United States. In fact, it doesn’t appear that he spent much (or any) time at all in Serbia proper. Still, his entire life, Tesla regarded himself as a Serbian. He founded the Serbian Culture Club at his university in Austria, he memorized and translated Serbian poetry, and is now regarded as a national hero in Serbia (and namesake of the largest airport in the country.) So why is his Serbian connection so strong despite never living in Serbia?
For one thing, Tesla strongly believed in a unified Balkan Peninsula. “The fact is,” he wrote, “that all Yugoslavs-Serbians, Slavonians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Dalmations, Montenagrins, Croatians and Slovenes – are of the same race, speak the same language and have common national ideals and traditions.” (It seems that the Serbo-Croatian language has fractured along political boundaries, but Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin remain mutually intelligible.) This belief in a shared identity helps elucidate how somebody born in Croatia would see no incongruity in asserting his own Serbian-ness.
Another determining factor in Tesla’s connection to his Serbian identity was his education. His mother memorized and recited Serbian epic poetry. And in that poetry, he found the same sort of grand feats and noble traits that draw people to the ancient and proud identities of Sparta or Rome. “For in Milosh [Obilich, hero of the Battle of Kosovo,] we see both Leonidas and Mucius, and, more than this, a martyr, for he does not die an easy death on the battle-field like the Greek, but pays for his daring deed with a death of fearful torture. It is not astonishing that the poetry of a nation capable of producing such heroes should be pervaded with a spirit of nobility and chivalry.” It is the poetry, with all of the history and ideality it contains, that kept Tesla a Serbian, first and foremost. In many ways, that is far more important than geography or blood.
Beer of the week: Spirit Tesla – This week’s beer, named for the man himself, is intertwined with these questions of identity and national pride. The idea to name this beer after Tesla apparently came from an American importer keen to capitalize on the popularity of the inventor. (In some circles, Tesla is something of an obsession.) In Serbia, the same beer is sold under the brewery’s trade name, Valjevsko. Whatever it is called, this is a decent Euro lager. There is not much head to speak of, and it is perhaps a bit on the sweet side, but I like that it is a solid malty offering. Unlike so many cheep lagers, this one has some flavor.
Reading of the week: Zmai Iovan Iovanovich – The Chief Servian Poet of To-Day by Nikola Tesla – The love of Serbian poetry that Tesla inherited from his mother stayed with him his whole life. In fact, he assisted in translating a fair bit into English.
Question of the week – Do you associate more with where you are from or where your ancestors are from? And even if those are the same, do you consider yourself primarily of your town, region, nation, or continent?
Bowling is an excellent sport. Like most of my preferred sports, it is a recreational option for the young and the old alike, it goes well with beer, and is very social.
In fact, the routine of the game creates a very interesting social dynamic. Conversation during a round of bowling naturally diverges and converges as each participant steps away from the others to take his or her turn. With three players, this occasionally results in three distinct conversations being carried on throughout the game, one between each pair of bowlers. This constantly shifting one-on-one aspect can be really fun.
With a larger group, the dynamics change less with each player stepping away. Nonetheless, the conversation still shifts markedly. In my experience, it helps to ensure that everybody stays involved because the group conversation is less easy for one person to dominate. It also forces couples to interact with the rest of the group by being separated by each one’s turns. This is even true if one of the party is not bowling. In fact, one of my favorite trips to the lanes involved an infant who was passed from hand to hand as each new bowler stood up.
“Nice pick-up! Here, have a baby!”
Beer of the week: Pabst Blue Ribbon – Let’s be honest, this beer is not very good. No head retention, smells like cheap grain. Tastes like, well, cheap beer. That said, I am certainly not above downing a few pitchers of the stuff at the bowling alley or throwing back a few PBRs on a warm day. It’s just bland; that’s the worst thing about it. It most certainly could be worse.
Reading of the week: Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving – The evening that Rip Van Winkle spent with the mysterious Dutchmen was full of drinking and bowling. However, the drink in the story is Dutch gin. At least PBR doesn’t leave me passed out in the woods for a couple decades.
Question of the week: Are there better social games than bowling?
It may be surprising to people with an American education to learn that at the very same time that the United States of America was at war with the Confederate States of America, a French army was pushing its way across Mexico. The Monroe Doctrine had been in place for nearly 40 years, so the thought of a full-on European invasion of Mexico seems rather shocking.
Shortly before the American Civil War, Mexico had its own, known as the Reform War. The immediate result was a fractured and bankrupt Mexican government. In 1861, the president of Mexico declared a moratorium on paying its debts, and the French were none too happy about that. Emperor Napoleon III, who had been elected as President Bonaparte but refused to leave when his term ended, decided that a Mexican regime change was in order. He sent a small army to “negotiate”. On the 5th of May, 1862, an outnumbered rag-tag Mexican army crushed the better trained and better equipped French invaders. Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated ever since.
It is always interesting to put historical events into context. While the Americans were being divided over the question of self-determination (and slavery), Mexicans were fighting for their own right to govern themselves. Their success at the Battle of Puebla was short lived, though. Just three years later, Maximilian I, born in Vienna into the powerful Hapsburg Dynasty, sat on his throne in Mexico City as Emperor.
As it turned out, Maximilian’s empire did not last long either. A successful republican revolt culminated in Maximilian’s execution by firing squad, just two years after the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Sic semper indeed.
Beer of the week: Tecate – Cerveza Tecate is a standard Mexican adjunct lager. It is pale gold in color and quite fizzy. As far as aroma and flavor, there is not much to write. Cheap grain supplies the bulk of both. I could surely down more than a few of these on a hot day, but generally I would pick something more flavorful. Even the addition of lime and salt doesn’t do much for it.
Reading for the week: Memorabilia by Xenophon, Book I, Chapter 2, Sections 39-50 – Whether government is monarchical or democratic in form, it’s nature is always coercive. This reading by Xenophon includes a brief dialogue between Alcibiades and Pericles. In it, Alcibiades gets Pericles to define government coercion as “not law, but force.” The logical conclusion is that all conventional “laws”, from tyrants’ dictates to democratic legislation, are not law at all, but mere force.
Question for the week: When have you been surprised to learn that two historic events were much closer in time than your had realized?
This weekend is ANZAC weekend. That means that it has been 101 years since some nine-hundred thousand young men from around the globe engaged in bloody battle in rocky terrain of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. The Turks successfully defended their homeland against the foreign invaders, but only after 9 months of brutal trench warfare. Winston Churchill, the mastermind of the Campaign, resigned in disgrace even before the final retreat. (Of course, he found his way back into power later on in life.)
The Battle of Gallipoli is particularly interesting because of the way that it encapsulated the notion of a “World War”. From the point of view of Western Europeans and Americans, this campaign was fought in an obscure theater, between obscure nations. Little enough attention is paid to WWI in schools as it is, but American students certainly learn next to nothing about the Turkish defense of the Dardanelles against Australians and New Zealanders. (To say nothing of the English colonials from Canada and India.) Only the fighting in Africa or Asia seems more remote to the traditional narrative of World War I.
Of course, the Gallipoli Campaign also inspired one of the great anti-war folk songs of all time, And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda by Eric Bogle. One of the scenes presented in the lyrics is the trooper ships departing Circular Quay in Sydney. “And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears, we sailed off for Gallipoli.” This is echoed in a later verse when “the crippled, the wounded, [and] the maimed” soldiers are shipped home, only to find that “nobody cheered, they just stood and stared, then they turned all their faces away.” The imagery calls to mind the beginning and the end of the Sicilian Expedition as described by Thucydides:
“Early in the morning of the day appointed for their departure, the Athenian forces and such of their allies as had already joined them went down to the Piraeus and began to man the ships. Almost the entire population of Athens accompanied them, citizens and strangers alike. The citizens came to take farewell, one of an acquaintance, another of a kinsman, another of a son, and as they passed along were full of hope and full of tears; hope of conquering Sicily, tears because they doubted whether they would ever see their friends again, when they thought of the long voyage on which they were going away. At the last moment of parting the danger was nearer; and terrors which had never occurred to them when they were voting the expedition now entered into their souls. Nevertheless their spirits revived at the sight of the armament in all its strength and of the abundant provision which they had made. The strangers and the rest of the multitude came out of curiosity, desiring to witness an enterprise of which the greatness exceeded belief.”
Like the ANZACs some 2,330 years later, the Athenians met with disaster when they decided to wage war across the sea. In the end, nearly the entire Athenian force was captured. The vast majority died in the wretched conditions of a make-shift prison camp in a rock quarry. It is cliche to say that history repeats itself, but somebody has to say it if we are ever to break the cycle.
Beer of the week: Ledenika Special – Bulgaria did not enter World War I until after the Gallipoli Campaign was well underway. As it turns out, Bulgaria ended up joining the wrong side. The Turks won the Battle of Gallipoli, but they and their allies lost the war. Ledenika is my first ever Bulgarian beer. The brew is very clear, very pale, and smells of crackers. The flavor is also reminiscent of crackers. Ledenika is very average, but it is always nice to try a brew from another country.
Reading of the week: History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book VI, Chapters 8-15 – Not everybody was waving flags and cheering at the Piraeus as the Athenians boarded their ships. Nicias, one of the generals, had tried in vain to convince the people that the Sicilian Expedition was a bad idea. This reading is one of his speeches, which, prophetic as it was, failed to dissuade the population once the war drums had been beat.
Question of the week: What is different about the Sicilian Expedition and the Gallipoli Campaign?
There are complaints in some circles that there are not enough “strong female characters” in modern entertainment. And perhaps that really is a problem with modern entertainment. But maybe that just means that we should look to the ancients. After all, strong female characters are as old as theater itself. Consider The Oresteia by Aeschylus:
The trilogy starts with Clytemnestra, Queen of the Argives, taking revenge on her husband for killing her daughter. Despite the name of the play, she is clearly the main character of Agamemnon. She is both sympathetic and relentless in her determination to make Agamemnon pay for his sins. A woman wronged, Clytemnestra kills the warrior king who led the sack of Troy. A strong female indeed.
The final play of the trilogy, The Eumenidies, is regarded as the first dramatic presentation of a jury trial. And who are the principle participants in the trial of Orestes? The judge: Athena, goddess of wisdom. The prosecution: the Furies, ancient goddesses of retribution. It is true that the Apollo’s defense of Orestes results in an acquittal, and Athena specifically declares outright that she prefers the masculine to the feminine. But the play ends with the female immortals negotiating and eventually contracting an alliance that will preserve the city of Athens and the institution of trial by jury under their patronage. It is the strong, benevolent goddesses that we have to thank for many of the central aspects of our culture.
Beer of the week: Zlatopramen 11 Degrees – Zlatopramen makes a wide range of flavored radlers, but this is their standard Czech lager. It is fairly basic, with a golden color and fluffy white head that fades just a bit too quickly. Aromatic hops lead the smell, with hints of grass. The taste is also dominated by the hops. The beer is not too bitter by any means, but they did not skimp on the bitterness either. Overall, I think this is Czech lager is quite good.
Reading for the week: Antigone by Sophocles – How about Antigone for a strong female lead? Her sister told her that women could not contend with men, and you know what Antigone had to say? “Maybe you can’t contend with men, but just watch me!”
Question for the week: Who is your favorite female character? (Ancient or modern.)