Academic journal article Akroterion

Magic Realism in Aristophanes?

Academic journal article Akroterion

Magic Realism in Aristophanes?

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

'This sort of thing does happen, I suppose' (De Bernieres 2005:22). In Louis de Bernieres' magic-realist novel Birds without wings, Iskander the Potter confides that it was said that the beautiful Philothei was born with a full head of hair, and then adds the quoted comment. Although being born with a full head of hair is not all that extraordinary, Iskander's quizzical apophthegm could be taken as the quintessence of magic realism.

The concept and definition of 'magic(al) realism' (the mixture of the quotidian and the fantastic) is treated in Section 2. Here, it suffices to state that this article will attempt to apply this definition to a novella of Italo Calvino, The cloven Viscount. This novella contains both 'realistic' and 'magical' elements, the former a war between Austria and Turkey in the eighteenth century as well as customs and practices typical of the era, the latter a Viscount who is cloven in two and whose two halves live on as independent individuals.

Although critics have identified elements such as 'fantasy' (Whitman 1964:259-280), 'utopia' Reckford (1987:312-329) and 'the absurd' (Cartledge 1990) in Aristophanes' comedies, the term 'magic realism' has not, to my knowledge, been applied to his work. Hence, I propose to examine whether this term, normally reserved for a subgenre of the twentieth-century novel, could be brought to bear on as different a genre as fifth-century Old Comedy.

The eleven extant plays of Aristophanes tend to display a duality between political reality and comic fantasy. 'Realism' is represented by the depiction (usually with comic exaggeration) of the socio-political realities of late fifth-century Athens (e.g. the jury system in Wasps, or the effects of the Peloponnesian War in the three peace plays). The plots of Aristophanic comedies, however, also hinge on fantasy, or 'freedom from everyday logic' (Anderson 1978:24), in which natural laws are inverted, or ignored, by the whims of the comic hero(ine). Trygaios, for instance, ascends to heaven on the back of a beetle in Peace; Dionysos descends to Hades in Frogs. As an example of the duality between political reality and comic fantasy in Aristophanes, Birds will be examined. The fantasy element is represented by the founding of a city in the clouds by Peisetairos and Euelpides, whereas allusions to the political reality of Athens in 414 are spread throughout the comedy, albeit with less urgency than in previous plays.

The penultimate section of this article is devoted to a comparison of The cloven Viscount and Birds, in which both differences and similarities are identified. The main similarity is that both genres betray a duality between fantasy and reality, with the proviso that the fantastic is accepted as normal by the characters. In conclusion, I attempt to account for this similarity, taking recourse to four theoretical frameworks: Genette's metaphor of a palimpsest, Van Boheemen's metaphor of a library, the Jungian collective unconscious, and especially Aristotle's distinction between 'poetry' and 'history', representing two opposite and complementary poles in all genres of literature.

2. Magic realism

The term magic realism was first used in 1925 by Franz Roh, a German art historian. He used the term magischer Realismus with reference to a new movement in painting--that of post-expressionism. The term referred to the celebration of the return to figural representation in painting after more than a decade of the more abstract art of expressionism (Zamora & Faris 1995:15). Impressionism predominantly focused on the depiction of something that already existed, whereas expressionism gave expression to 'the fantastic, extraterrestrial or remote objects' (Roh 1995:16-17). In 1949, Alejo Carpentier published The kingdom of this world, in the introduction of which he develops the concept of lo real maravilloso americano--'the marvellous real of South America' (Zamora & Faris 1995:75). …

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