In Search of Aristotle’s ‘On Comedy’ August 29, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
In 1928 that old grumpystiltskins K.K. Smith wrote that ‘Like many another Lost Atlantis the chapter on comedy which Aristotle may have written to conclude his analysis of Poetics has lured many a searcher into waters beyond his depths.’
And, mindful of the warning, Beachcombing straps on his Little Kitty armbands and struggles bravely into the waves in search of Aristotle’s On Comedy a work that not only befuddled the minds of numerous nineteenth-century philologists, but that also provided Umberto Eco (in The Name of the Rose) with the most original murder weapon – ice bullets apart – in the history of detective fiction.
On Comedy, if it existed – a fact not universally accepted – was a coda to Aristotle’s Poetics (that does, of course, survive). Poetics itself comes to us by a tortuous route: two inadequate medieval manuscripts that have been supplemented and checked against a translation into Latin, a translation into Arabic and part of a translation into Syriac.
Even the surviving texts then have only survived in a manner of speaking and that is before we even address the problem of whether Aristotle or Aristotle’s hangers-on or Aristotle’s hangers-on” hangers-on wrote the originals.
In On Comedy Aristotle likely put comedy in its ‘proper’ place beneath tragedy – at least to judge by his other writings on the subject . This position was not generally shared in ancient Greece where comedy was believed to be a higher form than tragedy. Beachcombing is very much of the traditional view here and would far prefer to spend half an hour in the company of Buster Keaton than, say, with a Shakespearean king in a faux thunder storm.
But, yes, Beachcombing would still dearly love to run his fingers all over On Comedy.
So what are the chances?
Well, it has been estimated that between a quarter and three quarters of Aristotles’ works were flushed down into the sewer of time and most of these are not coming back.
But there is an outside chance that On Comedy might yet make it through. Beachcombing refers not to that last ditch, desperate hope of enervated classicists, the sands of Egypt, still less carbonised manuscripts from Herculaneum in the shadow of angry Vesuvius.
No, he is thinking instead of an extremely obscure text, the Tractatus Coislinianus that, appearing in a tenth-century manuscript, may be a summary of On Comedy. This idea has been around since the nineteenth century but was restated with force by Richard Janko, Classics Professor at Michigan, in 1984. Certainly the Tractatus was written in the shadow of Aristotle and contains several ideas that the tutor of Alexander the Great would have found amenable.
For anything on Aristotle’s lost works: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com