- Nonsense and Meaning in Ancient Greek Comedy by Stephen E. Kidd
This is an original and welcome addition to recent attempts to articulate how Greek comedy (especially Old Comedy) works. Stephen Kidd seeks to put the fun back into comedy, by arguing that what is central to the genre is nonsense rather than meaning. This is not to deprive scholars of their fun in interpreting [End Page 142] Aristophanes and friends: rather, Kidd makes the provocative claim that meaning in comedy is necessary to allow the nonsense to flourish.
The first substantive chapter reviews the evidence for Greek terms of nonsense (especially , and οὐδὲν λέγειν) and argues for a category related to, but distinct from, lies and play, denoting false and useless speech (or action), and indicative of mental impairment. The meat of the book follows in the next three chapters, where different aspects of comic nonsense are considered, particularly when labeled as such by unimpressed characters.
In chapter 2 Kidd considers riddles without solution, allegories that are not entirely allegorical, and over-extended metaphors. Antiphanes’ Problēma seemed to work better here than his Gut (fr. 122), which actually makes claims for the interpretability (and truth) of riddles. Kidd singles out Aristophanes’ play with false allegorical interpretation in Peace 43–49, but that passage is clearly working hard to point the audience at a Kleon/shit allusion. Kidd argues that allegory should be consistent and perfectly referential, but this seems unreasonable: the cheese-grater in Wasps (however represented) is entirely coherent within that world. Kidd also highlights scholars’ failure to interpret successfully the sexual charioteer metaphor of Peace 904–905, but that seems to indicate a lack of scholarly imagination rather than anything else.
Chapter 3 moves on from lack of reference to lack of seriousness (with a substantial review of the scholarship on this question, amplifying discussion in the introduction). The main argument is a kind of thought-experiment, as to how the dithyrambic poet Kinesias might be understood as not taking the abuse he received seriously. “Taking seriously,” Kidd argues (via Aristotle), has to do with manner and effect: abuse is taken seriously if felt as offensive or wounding. Kidd draws on Bateson to suggest that there is a metacommunicative “play signal” that can lead to abuse not being taken as wounding. As this suggests, the emphasis is much more on play here than it is on nonsense as such, but even so the emphasis on medium rather than message seems extremely problematic to me, as the examples of Sokrates (Kidd’s own starting point in the introduction) and Kleon suggest.
Jokes and wordplay are the focus of the fourth chapter. Contrasting Aristotle’s view of puns as learning opportunities with Freud’s analysis of the childhood acquisition of humor, Kidd derives an argument that nonsense is more fundamental to humor than any formal mechanism. Examples discussed are principally (weak) puns and repetitions. Readers will differ on how much sense is to be found in these. For myself, I found the puns discussed full of sense, if not always very significant in terms of point, while the repetitions, not least Thesm. 618–622, seemed perfectly pointed. Both here and in the previous chapter Kidd tends towards an overstated opposition between aggressive humor and playfulness that seemed unhelpful.
The final chapter looks at allegations of nonsense made by comic interlocutors. Drawing on a remark by Freud about jokes using sense to hide nonsense, Kidd argues that these are a way of avoiding the impression of sustained pure nonsense (which would be irritating and seen as a sign of mental illness) and of refocusing the narrative and point. There is much to be said for this. I would have liked more on the characterizing force of these utterances (the opposite positive evaluations, Kidd notes, are always wrongheaded). The difference between the perceptions of a character and the perceptions of the audience are important. [End Page 143]
Ultimately, I am not convinced by Kidd’s rejection of humor as the larger category...