Rhetoric, Comedy, and the Violence of Language in Aristophanes' Clouds

By Daphne Elizabeth O'Regan | Go to book overview

9
Comic Justice: Lines 1303-1510

The clouds' song at the end of the scene with the creditors ( 1303-20) warns the audience that the end of the play is at hand and hints at the form it will take. 1 In the characteristic dynamic of the Clouds, we are about to witness the joke that will turn everything preceding on its head. Put in other terms, we will see comic justice at work, witnessing a "comedy of inversion," in which characters are entrapped by their desires and enmeshed in their own schemes. 2 This process should not be confused with moral justice, although the effects may appear similar. Comic justice, like comic triumph, functions not morally but logistically. The end remains true to the strategy we have been studying all along: the creation of a metaphoric vision which operates by taking a logos "seriously," or "literally," rendering it concrete, and then drawing, or rather staging, the unexpected consequences. 3 As the clouds indicate, this process is to begin with Strepsiades: this comic madman is going to find out what it is to "love" (eran 1303) the wrong things. Besotted (erastheis 1304) with the idea of denying his debts and the city's justice, he will feel the results of his desires: in the person of his son, Strepsiades, the "sophist" ( 1309-20), will experience what the hetton logos is really all about. However, the reversals will go further than that. Not just Strepsiades, but Pheidippides and Socrates too, will find themselves in the world designed by their desires and their logoi. 4 The triumphant progress of rhetoric will be derailed as we discover the real meaning of the denial of binding obligations, the isolation of the sophist, the assimilation of language and violence, and life in the oven of the purely natural world. The only trouble is that the consequences, while ridiculous, are not happy. 5 Nevertheless, we are not confronted with tragedy. The overly perfect and mocking symmetry of the end, coupled with delicate play with the audience's responses, continue to remind us that we are watching comic logos, not life, at work. The entire Clouds performs on a larger scale the function of the cloud chorus, mockery that reflects in appropriate (not identical) shapes the manias of its subjects -- which are certainly not confined to Strepsiades but include Socrates, Pheidippides, and the Athenian public as well.

The pattern of the end begins to come clear when Strepsiades erupts from his house screaming for help ( 1321). After beating his unfortunate creditors, now he himself is beaten by a sophist, his own son. Apparently, Pheidippides, too, has learned the violent lesson implicit in sophistic martial imagery, 6 a lesson so highly compatible with the disposition and desires of natural man. Accomplished speaker that he is, Pheidippides has deserted language. Why, and what this means, is

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