Author Archives: mutian zhang

What Comes After Post-Modernism

In our last seminar together, we discussed the ideas of postmodernism and how it began as a reaction against the tenants of the modernist philosophy, namely of the belief of grand narratives, or metanarratives about universal or absolute truths such democracy, progress, science and the belief that these narratives are leading up to some as-yet-unknown great destination. It encouraged an attitude of incredulity and skepticism of everything and the acceptance that there are no single truth but an enormous plurality of competing narratives each containing different aspects of the truth.

In recent years however, a growing number of critics – including such acclaimed scholars as Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett, and our very own Jacob Clark, have began to question the usefulness and the longevity of the postmodern condition.  They argue that merely reacting against metanarratives is not enough if they do not offer a suitable alternative in its place. They say it is far too vague just to say there are countless numbers of localized narratives in the world and that such ways of thinking does not offer much more insight than is already immediately apparent (i.e., certain systems of thought is advance by certain power structures and therefore is not always reliable). They argue perhaps the approach ironically examining and deconstructing existing metanarratives, which may indeed have severed an useful purpose at the time of its conception, has run its course.

Some critics argue that new sensibilities has already begun to evolve. One such proposed alternative is  metamodernism, that is a way of combining both modernist and postmodernist sensibilities. Dutch philosophers Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker says that metamodernism “can be conceived of as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism” an acceptance that “grand narratives are as necessary as they are problematic, hope is not simply something to distrust, love not necessarily something to be ridiculed.” They recognize that while there may be no universal, absolutely unchanging Truth out there in the Platonic sense, it is not futile to try and find pursue some approximation to it to the best of our collective abilities. If we wish to move forward, a balance must be struck between ironic detachment and sincere, passionate engagement, one must “embrace doubt, as well as hope and melancholy, sincerity and irony, affect and apathy, the personal and the political, and technology and techne”.

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The Nude in Non-European Art

In the Way of Seeing, John Berger notes that the artistic convention of the female nude, women exhibiting their unclothed bodies in a way that increases the viewing pleasures of an unknown male spectator, is unique to the European oil painting tradition. To be nude, he contends, is very distinct from simply being naked. Being naked is just the act of not wearing any clothes while being nude is the act of act of totally surrendering the agency of one’s own body to the scrutiny of others. Everything from the posture to expression to the way they are positioned in the painting suggest to the male spectator that they exist only for their pleasure, that they are ready to submit to their every will.

According to Berger, this tradition of presenting women’s bodies in painting for the sake of male strangers is not found in any artistic tradition outside of Europe such as Africa or India, or Mesoamerica. In those cultures, rather than being confined to women, nakedness is always mutual and always active. Rather than a disinterested woman posing for the canvas, in Eastern and African traditions both the men and women are equal participants in the expression of sexual attraction in which “the woman as active as the man, the actions of each absorbing the other” (53).

There exists, however, examples that question Berger’s claim about the depiction of the female body in non-European art. While he says that in “Indian art, Persian art, African art, Pre-Columbian art – nakedness is never supine” (53), the works of the 18th century Japanese woodblock artist Utamaro (1753-1806), for example, often depicts beautiful women posing and exhibiting themselves in ways that were clearly designed to please the male spectator in much the same way as European female nudes. Many of these painting, like Western nudes, also feature the motif of women using mirrors, the purpose of which, according to Berger, “was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight” (51). Utamaro’s paintings were a very popular genre of woodcuts known as Bijin-ga, or “beautiful person pictures”, that thrived from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Utamaro, Bathing Woman, c. 1753


Utamaro, date unknown


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Who are the Subaltern?

The post-colonial theory term, subaltern, is often broadly equated with not only those from colonized cultures without a voice in their larger society, but also with all groups that face discrimination – such as women, workers, minority groups in a developed country, etc. Gyatri Spivak, whose seminal work, “Can the Subaltern speak” , helped popularize the term in 1983  argued in a 1992 interview that by so liberally applying that word, there is a risk that the term will lose its initial significance of giving a name to those who are out of the conventional narrative of civilization.

She states “the subaltern is not just a classy word for ‘oppressed’, for [the] Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie”, rather “everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is Subaltern – a space of difference”. She states that while the working class is oppressed, they are not subaltern and neither are members of “a discriminated-against minority on the university campus”. The reason for this is that these people are able to see “the mechanics of discrimination” utilized by the hegemonic forces to deny them equal treatment. Merely by being aware of the instruments of oppression that is applied against, these groups have the possibility of speaking up and making their voices heard by their oppressors. This group includes people like Spivak and Dabydeen who have the power of subverting the mainstream narrative.

The truly Subaltern people however, are voiceless because they are completely excluded the spheres of hegemonic discourse. They are unaware of the extent and true cause of their oppression and lack the means to either fully realize or to disseminate their discontent to a wider audience. They live in isolated areas, use localized speech not easily understood by outsiders and have little contact with the hegemonic forces yet is still intimately affected by their every action.

Subaltern peoples are unable to reach their oppressors because of various obstacles such as being unable to speak the majority language as well as the different ways of seeing, knowing, and thinking about the world by different cultures. In order to reach a wider audience, they must compromise their ways of seeing into a form that is easily understood by the oppressor, thereby making any such effort to portray the voice of the subaltern in an unfiltered and authentic manner by definition impossible.

Anyone capable of articulating the plight of the subaltern and the need of greater representation of these powerless and marginalized people in society are by definition  part of the cultural hegemony, therefore, in response to Gyatri’s initial question: no, the subaltern cannot speak, they can only be spoken for.

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The Flaneur and the Badaud

The flaneur, as discussed last class, was a romantic figure of nearly mystical proportions in 19th century Parisian – and by extension European – urban life, a connoisseur of the pleasures of the city skilled in the art of looking. He was a gentleman of both time and money, who has the luxury of indulging himself in the multifaceted splendour of the bustling metropolis. As Charles Baudelaire described him, the flaneur is the “lover of universal life” who “enters the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy”. The most important quality of a flaneur however, is his dichotomous qualities of both anonymity and individuality. The flaneur is faceless, blending effortlessly into the crowd, never intruding but always observing but at the same time he is also at all times in total control – his understanding of the cityscape and of its inhabitants is encyclopedic and incomparable and while appreciative of what he sees, he is never so drawn in by what the city has to offer as to lose his own identity and sense of self.

The flaneur’s close counterpart, the badaud, fails precisely in this regard. Although they also employ their ample idle hours by looking at the sights of the city, they do so without understanding. Instead being gentlemen strollers like the flaneurs, they are instead simply gawkers. They gravitate towards anything of the remotest interest, such a street brawl or an upturned cart or just the general debauchery of the cabaret. Unlike the flaneur, who is a person of taste, the badaud exhibits no such discretion. He is not interested in observing human nature, only to entertained by any available spectacles. Unlike the aloof and indifferent flaneur, the badaud is a creature of passion, in the words of Baudelaire, he is “absorbed by the outside world, which ravishes him, which moves him to drunkenness and ecstasy. Under the influence the spectacle that presents itself, the badaud becomes an impersonal creature; he is no longer a man, he is the public, he is the crowd”.

The man in Die Straße sets out to become a flaneur but by failing to become an impartial and analytic observer, he becomes a badaud, just another faceless member of society with no control over his destiny. He allowed himself to become a member of the watched rather than a watcher, as exemplified to the poster of the eyes. The true flaneur does not allow himself to fall prey to the allure of the city and all the dangers it represents, instead he is always vigilant, always critical, and always standing in the fringes, always watching and always remaining himself.

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The Real Nastasya Filipovna

The exquisitely beautiful, proud, yet also stubbornly self-destructive Nastasia Filipovna Brashkova in The Idiot was based on the equally fascinating figure of Polina Prokofyevna Suslova, who in addition to being mistress of Fyodor Dostoevsky was also a short story writer in her own rights. Not only was she the basis for Nastasia, Polina was the prototype for the vast majority of Dostoevsky’s great female protagonists, including Katerina in Crime and Punishment, Lizaveta Nikolaevna in The Possessed, both Katerina and Grushenka in the Brothers Karamazov, and the eponymous Polina in The Gambler. Much like Myshkin and Nastasia, Dostoevsky’s relationship with Polina was a painful and tumultuous one which ultimately resulted in lasting heartbreak for the novelist.

The two first met in  1861 when Polina was a 21 year old student attending a public reading by the 40 year Dostoevsky, who was at that time already a renowned writer and married to his first wife Maria who was at the time dying from consumption. Dostoevsky was enraptured by the attractive young woman and the two soon began a short but passionate affair. Polina repeatedly demanded the writer to leave his wife for her although when Dostoevsky proposed to her after his wife’s death, she turned him down. The relationship eventually ended  in the spring of 1863 due to Polina seeing other lovers and because of Dostoevsky’s increasingly worsening gambling addiction, which has landed him in considerable debt.

In a letter to Polina’s sister, Nadezhda (who interestingly was the first Russian female physician and gynecologist), Dostoevsky wrote that she was a “great egoist. Her egoism and her vanity are colossal. She demands everything of other people, all the perfections, and does not pardon the slightest imperfection in the light of other qualities that one may possess”, and that “I still love her, but I do not want to love her any more. She doesn’t deserve this love …”.

When she was 40 years old, she married the 24 year old Vasily Rozanov, who wrote in diary that he fell in love with her at first sight and that “she is the most wonderful woman I’ve ever met”. Rozanov has the reputation of being one of the most controversial writers of his time who was known for his paradoxical and self-contradicting political comments and held Dostoevsky as his boyhood idol.  Their marriage was an uneasy one as Polina often flirted  with Rozanov’s friends all the while making public scenes of jealousy herself, she was dismissive of Rozanov’s work and left him on two occasions only to be forgiven and begged to return, saying “there was something brilliant (in her temperament) that made me love her blindly and timidly despite all the suffering”. She finally left him in 1886, after six years of marriage although she did not divorce him for another 20 years out of spite, thereby making all the children Rozanov had with his later partner illegitimate.

Even after their relationship has terminated, Polina’s memory never left Dostoevsky’s mind as evidenced by the numerous appearances of proud and selfish heroines and doomed love affairs which were all variations her and their brief time together until the very end of Dostoevsky’s writing career. In the book The Three Loves of Dostoevsky, the critic Mark Slonim described  of Dostoevsky’s longing for Polina by saying “until his death he remembered her caress and slaps in the face. He was devoted to this seductive, cruel, unfaithful and tragic love.”


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The (Deformed) Human Face of Incest?

During Tuesday’s seminar, we had a discussion on the fact that incest has been an universal taboo throughout history for all cultures except in respect to royalty. The idea of royal incest is simply baffling and incomprehensible to most people today. Why did societal morals condemn inbreeding among commoners while at the same time tolerating and in many cases encouraging royals and nobles to do the same? Despite the fact that they clearly knew, as shown by texts such as Oedipus Rex and the Bible, about the birth defects that could result from such unions?

There has been lots and lots of examples throughout history of the physical and intellectual side effects of inbreeding, the most familiar to Western readers are the Habsburgs. The last Habsburg king of Spain, Charles II’s jaw was so deformed that could not chew food properly and had a number of severe mental and physical disabilities in addition to infertility, which caused his line to finally come to an end. On the Austrian branch of the family, Emperor Ferdinand I suffered a host of problems including epilepsy (having up to 20 seizures a day), a speech impediment, and hydrocephalus and when faced with a revolution in 1848, famously remarked to his chief minister: “Are they allowed to do that?” Throughout this blog, I will be mostly examining their particular motives for inbreeding, though inbreeding was also common among many other royal houses throughout history, including the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt to which Cleopatra belonged as well as past Kings of Thailand and Korea.

The reason that inbreeding can cause so many negative characteristics is due to the fact that because the more similar the genetic information of both parents are, the more likely it is for negative genetic traits to be expressed and accentuated until they result in extreme examples like the Habsburg jaw. This greatly increases the chances for rare genetic disorders like hemophilia or schizophrenia to be passed onto their descendants.

The truth, as truths usually are, is a little more complicated than it may at first seem. There has been a good deal of contention over the topic of whether the incest taboo is a result of nature or nurture, whether it is an innate fear that we have or is it something taught to us by culture. Freud would no doubt tell you that this revulsion towards incest is an innate impulse which creates a sense of uncanny but it is also true that the definition of incestuous relationships differ from culture to culture, as well as from period to period.

Endogamy, marrying within one’s own social class or culture or religion in order maintain a distinct identity, has long been a common practice in a majority of societies across the world, royal intermarriage is just an extreme example of that. In many European countries, in order to ensure the elevated position of nobles and royals over commoners, laws were created demanding that people must not marry outside their social class.  In countries like Spain or Austria-Hungary, if the sovereign married a commoner, their children would be disqualified from inheriting the throne. And since according to the Great Chain of Being no one is equal in rank to a monarch except another monarch (not even the highest of nobility). Marrying one’s subject can severely upset the balance of order by causing the consort’s family to become overly ambitious and marrying a noble from one’s own country can cause rivalry between competing noble family. Marrying other royal families abroad is also an excellent way to increase diplomatic ties with another nation, with many important questions such as peace and war often resting on marriage alliances.

Marriage between different royal families was still problematic because this allowed the opportunity for dynastic lands to fall into the hands of rival royal houses; for example, the circumstance could arise where the king died without any issue and the next closest heir is the king of a rival kingdom. The Habsburgs were exceedingly good at this, inheriting huge swathes of territories by marrying into other noble and royal houses during the Middle Ages. This policy even gave rise to a motto: Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube!”, meaning “Let others wage war, you happy Austria, marry!”  Soon the Habsburgs became so terrified that someone else would try to steal all they’ve gained through this same method that they eventually resorted to marrying among themselves.


The Poster Boy of Royal Incest, Charles II of Spain

During the course of my research, I discovered the rather surprising fact that despite the Habsburg’s  reputation for incest, they never really committed incest as it is universally recognizedWhile certain types of inbreeding, such as sister-brother or mother-son relationships, has always been condemned throughout history,  partnerships between blood relations such as cousin-cousin relationships and even avunculate (uncle-niece or less commonly aunt-nephew) relationships were prevalent among all sectors of society in the West until quite recently and is still common in many parts of the world today. In many small, isolated communities, a certain degree of inbreeding was often unavoidable if the population wanted to avoid extinction.

This demonstrates that the original conjecture that there was one set of expectations for inbreeding for royals and one for everyone is far from completely accurate. The reason that inbreeding among royals and the nobility was so common was not so much because of personal preference as much a result of political paranoia. It just came to be that the Habsburgs were often too suspicious of other royals (often for good reasons) to marry them and because they had a duty to ensure the continuance of the House at whatever cost, they had no choice except to engage in interdynasty marriage, whether they liked it or not. As the role of royalty, and consequently royal marriages, became less important on the political stage, the practice royal intermarriage also died out, as monarchs are for the first time in history free to marry for reasons love rather than political expediency.

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Gerard Manley Hopkins: Faith & Loathing in the Catholic Church

It is undeniable that religion played a crucial role in the poetic imagination of Gerard Manley Hopkins even though his writings occasionally contradicted and challenged certain aspects of accepted Catholic doctrine.

Hopkins was born in a deeply religious household belonging to the High Church branch of Anglicanism, which differed from the more evangelical and populist Low Church Anglicanism in its Catholic-like emphasis of ritual, theology, and hierarchical structure. Hopkins also grew up in an artistic family, with his great-uncle, Richard James Lane, being an acclaimed portraitist and of his two of brothers later becoming successful artists. Before realizing his love for poetry, a young Hopkins had ambitions of being a poet. Even as a child, he was highly eccentric, experimenting with asceticism by not trying not to drink water for a week (which was cut short by his tongue turning black and by him passing out) and on another occasion, not eating salt for a week.

When Hopkins first arrived at Oxford to study Classics, he was a generally outgoing and social young man, writing poetry at a prolific pace. However, as time progressed, Hopkins became more shy and withdrawn. During that time, he deeply affected by the writings of the poet Christina Rossetti, medieval mysticism,  the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and the religious arguments concerning the place of ritual and tradition in the High Church versus the more individualist focus of the Low Church. At the age of 21, Hopkins composed his most austere poem to date, “The Habit of Perfection” in which he denounced sensory pleasures and praised poverty. In 1866, Hopkins decided to convert to Catholicism and to dedicate his life to God, alienating himself from many members of his family and friends.

In May, 1868, Hopkins, shortly before entering seminary to become a Jesuit, he made a bonfire of his poems and stopped writing poetry for nearly seven years, believing that it is not possible to dedicate oneself to worldly beauty in addition to God. Eventually, after reading the works of Duns Scotus, Hopkins began to reconcile his love of the natural world with the higher spiritual duties of the priest. In 1875, Hopkins finally resumed writing poetry but only at the insistence of his church superior, who wanted him to write a poem in commemoration of the shipwreck of the SS Deutschland, which had aboard it five nuns fleeing German persecution against Catholics. The resulting “The Wrecking of the S.S. Deutschland” marked a clear departure from Hopkins’ early works by being the first to feature the unusual meter and sprung rhythm common in his later poems. It was not particularly well received, although the Jesuits did not reject it they also did not publish it in their official publications.

In addition to his artistic dilemma, Hopkins might have also conflicted with his chosen faith due to his sexuality. There is strong evidence from his diary and correspondence and poetry that he was in love with fellow poet and cousin of Robert Bridges, Digby Mackworth Dolben. They two regularly wrote letters to each other, after Hopkins’ church superiors forbade them meeting in person, until Dolben drowned in 1867, which had a deep emotional impact on Hopkins.  Two of Hopkins’ poems, “Where art thou friend” and “The Beginning of the End” are explicitly about Dolben, with the second poem containing the line “The sceptic disappointment and the loss/A boy feels when the poet he pores upon/Grows less and less sweet to him, and knows no cause.”

By failing his final theology exam, Hopkins was denied the chance to progress any further in the Jesuit order from his rank of priest He eventually obtained a position of Classics professor at University College Dublin, although by all accounts the shy Hopkins was not a very commanding teacher. Hopkins then entered into an ever-worsening spiral of depression, aggravated by feelings of home-sickness. Hopkins also felt a sense of artistic and religious dilemma, believing on one hand that publishing his poem would expose him to vanity while also feeling that it is crucial for a poet to have an audience. His poems of this era like “I Wake and Feel the Fell of the Dark”, often called the “terrible sonnets”, reflected this growing sense of failure and doom. In 1889, at the age of 44, after suffering long bouts of both physical and mental illness, including chronic diarrhea and severe depression, Hopkins died from typhoid fever. Despite his persistent battles with regret and anguish, his final words were: “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.”

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Calvin and Rousseau

In Rousseau’s dedication to Geneva, he describes the city of his birth as being the envy of the world in its equality and stability. Geneva’s virtues are numerous, including: its peaceful nature, the justness of its magistrates and the obedience of the people, as well as its small size which contributes to a general sense of community spirit. Although the real Geneva of the early 18th century was very different from Rousseau’s idealistic vision, it is possible to see how some Rousseau’s views on proper governance might of developed through an examination of Genevan history, especially of its association with Calvinism.

Since the very beginning, Genevan politics has been a mix of both secular and religious authority. During the Middle Ages, Geneva was administered by the Bishop of Geneva while the Counts (later Dukes) of Savoy appointed the Bishops (usually from its own family) and offered military protection. In 1457, an elected body of delegates known as the Grand Council was established. The Council was initially made up of 50 citizens and made political decisions on behalf of the population as well as replacing the Duke in electing new Bishops.  Overtime, the Council and the Dukes of Savoy became estranged from each other and in the early 1500s, the Council tried to gain independence from the Duke of Savoy, even trying to convince the Pope to excommunicate Duke Charles III. Eventually, Geneva succeeded in breaking away from Savoy and became a republic in the Swiss Federation in 1526.

Around that time, an influx of Protestant Lutheran refugees from France began arriving in Geneva in large numbers and the new faith became popular among the people. There was considerable animosity towards the pro-Savoy Catholic clergy (who mainly came from the nobility), eventually leading the Council to declare official support for Protestantism. In 1536, every citizen of the city took a public oath to the Protestant faith.

In that same year, the French reformer John Calvin came to Geneva and was crowned the spiritual leader of the city, becoming the Pope to the city which soon became known as the Protestant Rome. Under his guidance, the Council created the Consistory, a court made up of lay elders and ministers which examined a slew of impious behaviour ranging from murder to blasphemy to dancing and playing cards. Genevan became the centre of the new Calvinist tradition, which regarded all human passions and worldly desires as sinful and punished them through severe punishments, which ranged from hanging to public flogging. By the time Rousseau was born, Geneva was no longer a democracy but a theocracy in which the clergy held tremendous sway over all aspects of civil and religious life.

This emphasis on correct behaviour and total obedience to the demands of lawmakers is clearly reflected in Rousseau’s writing. Like Calvin, Rousseau believed that everyone in a society should either accept the established law and constitution (which he describes “the declaration of the general will”) or be ejected from it, as had occurred with the systematic banishment of Catholics in Geneva. Rousseau also shared Calvin’s belief that government should have total jurisdiction over all aspects of life, including making sure that people make use of their liberty to the best of their potential. Despite not being nominally a Calvinist writer (having converted to Catholicism early in life), it is clear that the austere totalitarian theocratic structure of 18th century Geneva had a considerable influence in Rousseau’s moral development.


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Creating the Kallipolis

In Plato’s Kallipolis, power is held by an elite class of guardians who are a perfect synthesis of both the roles of the philosopher and the statesman; someone who is able to understand the Form of the Good that underlay reality and guide his people toward that ultimate destination. This ideal of ruler-ship has been influential one and several attempts to realize this particular component of Plato’s vision has been made through out history, to varying degrees of success. In this blog post, I will offer an overview of an attempt made during Plato’s own lifetime to transform a tyrannically governed city into one centred on justice and the contemplation of the good and its subsequent outcomes.

During Plato’s latter years, he made an effort to help shape the tyrants of Syracuse (in what is now Sicily in Italy) into philosopher kings which ended in utter failure. During his visit to there, he became the mentor of Dion of Syracuse, the brother and close adviser to the tyrant of the city, Dionysius the Elder. Dion was a keen philosopher and wanted to reform the tyrannical system of Syracuse to something more closely resembling the Kallipolis as described in Plato’s republic, with an aristocrat guardian and king watching over the commoners.

When Dionysius passed away, he was succeeded by his son Dionysius the Younger, who was said to lead an overly lavish and decadent lifestyle. Dion, in the hopes of reforming his mislead nephew into becoming a philosopher king, called upon Plato to become Dionysius II’s tutor. Though at first the young king seemed to accept Plato’s teachings, he was eventually persuaded by opponents of the new reforms to banish Dion from Syracuse and establishing himself as the absolute ruler of the city. Without Dion’s guidance, he became increasingly tyrannical and lost the support of both the army and the citizenry.

When Plato pleaded for Dion’s return, Dionysius confiscated his uncle properties and gave his wife away to another man. Dion, who until then had been living prosperously in Athens off the sizable income from his Syracuse properties, decided to take action by assembling a small army of mercenaries to conquer Syracuse. With the popular support of the people, Dion quickly took over the city and established himself as the new ruler. However, Dion’s popularity did not last as he soon alienated his new subjects with his autocratic attitude and financial demands, including his refusal to implement democracy and to equally redistribute the land (policies which Dion’s chief rival Heraclides supported).

In the end, the exiled Dionysius II bribed a close friend of Dion, Calippus, to assassinate his uncle. Calippus was a native Athenian who had attended Plato’s Academy and accompanied Dion in his takeover of Syracuse. Using Dionysius’ money to buy over Dion’s own mercenaries, Calippus stabbed Dion moments after taking an oath of loyalty and established himself as the new tyrant of the city. In an even further turn of irony, Calippus himself was assassinated thirteen months later by two of the mercenaries that he bribed earlier using the same sword that he used to kill Dion.

Dion’s efforts to establish the ideal city only sent his beloved Syracuse into an extended cycle of social and political chaos as one despot succeeded another in a seemingly endless series of assassinations and coups that lasted for nearly two decades. During that time, Syracuse’s reputation in the region rapidly plummeted and its economy fell into further ruin as the city fragmented to form smaller cities with their own local tyrants vying for power. Dionysius even managed to come back power towards the very end, only to be deposed yet again by the invading Timoleon of Corinth who finally managed to restore some sense of peace and order to a thoroughly exhausted Syracuse.

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On Phalluses and Satire and Sitcoms

Last class, we discussed the origins of Greek tragedy from the very phallic-heavy fertility ritual of the diathyramb into an entirely new form of storytelling that used new techniques such using actors to show events taking place rather than solely relying on a choir through the course of two centuries (from 7th century BCE to 5th century BCE) by dramatists and playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. This has made me rather curious to find out a bit more about how the other two ancient Greek theatrical genres, the satyr play and comedy, developed. After doing some research into this subject, which I found rather interesting, I thought I would share some of my findings with you.

The satyr play was an early form of burlesque/tragicomedy which was often performed after serious tragedies to lighten the mood. It was developed by Pratinas of Philus around 500 BCE after he combined the newly developed form of tragedy with the earlier diathyramb out of which tragedy originally developed by retaining the religious connection to Dionysus. The City Dionysia festival, which was held in the honour of Dionysus, required each entrant to the dramatic competition to submit one satyr play along with three tragedies. These plays featured a chorus of bawdy satyrs singing rowdy and sexual songs and dance wildly around the stage waving about phallic props all the while the heroes of the story (e.g., mythic heroes like Odysseus and the gods) carried themselves in a dignified manner befitting a tragedy. Very few examples of these plays have survived, the only complete example being The Cyclops by Euripides and this genre of theatre more or less died out with the end of the Classical Greek civilization.

Greek comedy is often divided into three general eras, Old Comedy (archaia), Middle Comedy (mese) and New Comedy (nea) for academic purposes, although in many cases the distinctions are completely arbitrary, especially concerning Old and Middle Comdey. Old comedy, with Aristophanes being its best representative, was primarily focused on political satire and the lampooning of public figures (such as Socrates in The Clouds) in addition to the use of innuendos related to bodily functions and sex. s. Middle Comedy is largely lost, with only a few fragments of texts remaining. Unlike Old Comedy, they did not mock public figures or politics but instead used a wide variety of stock comic characters, such as courtesans, philosophers, lazy vagrants, arrogant soldiers, and conceited cooks. They are more involved with the affairs of the common people than Old Comedy rather than celebrities and politicians. New Comedy emerged after the death of Alexander the Great, during the reign of Macedonian kings in Greece before the Roman takeover. Plays from this era tended to focus on people’s everyday problems with relationships, family life, and social interactions rather than politics and public life or tales involving gods and the supernatural. Put another way, Old Comedy is like Saturday Night Live or the British radio/TV impressions show Dead Ringers, Middle Comedy is a bit like comedia dell’arte, while New Comedy is like Friends or All in the Family.

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