- Aristophanes and the Cloak of Comedy: Affect, Aesthetics, and the Canon by Mario Telò
A paradox in the career of Aristophanes has simultaneously spurred and defied explanation ever since antiquity: how did his remarkable comedy Clouds go from a disastrous reception at its debut in 423 b.c.e. to being a canonical classic? Providing a satisfactory explanation of this paradox is, in turn, simultaneously hampered and unfettered by the very little raw information that has been preserved about the initial failure in performance and why the script seems to have enjoyed a conversely robust reputation in later times. Mario Telò argues that Aristophanes' narrative in his scripts largely dictated this process by providing the narratives and metaphors that later readers, especially scholars, used to assess both the play's failure and its redemption. While Telò's own narrative is not impossible, his presentation fails to take into account all of what little is known about the phenomenon, or to anchor it in a sufficiently rigorous framework to make his case compelling.
Telò claims that the narratives Aristophanes embedded in the revised version of the script of Clouds and in the scripts of later plays, primarily Wasps, provided a historical narrative by which scholars in antiquity built up a canon in which Clouds was vital—ironically so, given the play's initial failure, but vital [End Page 140] precisely because Aristophanes argued for its relevance and excellence. Telò further claims that textiles, especially the "cloak" of the book's title, formed a crucial metaphor from Aristophanes' writings that suffused the scholarly conception of Clouds as canonical. Unfortunately, Telò offers hardly a shred (pun intended) of evidence that any scholars in antiquity deployed this metaphor in the way that Telò insists happened. Furthermore, while there is much that is unknown about how much Aristophanes revised the original Clouds into the version that is now available, Telò explicitly dodges the problem generally (126-27), and in particular the short bits of text that do survive of the original Clouds that are distinct from the extant revised version. When so little evidence is available, it is fair, even mandatory, to expect a modern scholar to account for all the evidence that we do possess.
Instead, Telò makes a number of claims about the "affect" of Aristophanes' textile metaphors in the parabases of Clouds and Wasps (a "proto-canonical maneuver" in Telò's terminology). A bewildering range of metaphorical extensions are linked from diverse parts of the plays. For Telò, the scripts are something to navigate without explanation of method, principle, or direction. In an age of dynamic scholarly analysis of plays as performed in real time, such a method at minimum demands rigorous justification. Telò would have been better off capitalizing on such scholarship rather than marginalizing it; for example, Compton-Engle's superb work on costume is relegated to a minor note [125n8]). Instead, Telò draws dramatic conclusions from the skimpiest of linguistic parallels; for example, he seems to find it a marked phenomenon (36) that Aristophanes uses the common verb γιγνώσκω more than once. Telò's repetitive claims earn less sympathy when laced with notes complaining about the tendentiousness of other scholars (126-27, 135). It is unintentionally revealing when Samuel Beckett turns up as a reference point (120, 157), for Telò actually reads Aristophanes as a meditation on literature, authority, and decency as they become manifest in a densely comic world. Indeed, the book may well have been more successful as such a reading rather than as an argument for unsupported historical claims. Consequently, Aristophanes' paradox remains and awaits a more compelling explanation.