Translated from the Greek of


Illustrations by Norman Lindsay


_Lysistrata_ is the greatest work by Aristophanes. This blank and rash
statement is made that it may be rejected. But first let it be
understood that I do not mean it is a better written work than the
_Birds_ or the _Frogs_, or that (to descend to the scale of values that
will be naturally imputed to me) it has any more appeal to the
collectors of "curious literature" than the _Ecclesiazusae_ or the
_Thesmophoriazusae_. On the mere grounds of taste I can see an at least
equally good case made out for the _Birds_. That brightly plumaged
fantasy has an aerial wit and colour all its own. But there are certain
works in which a man finds himself at an angle of vision where there is
an especially felicitous union of the aesthetic and emotional elements
which constitute the basic qualities of his uniqueness. We recognize
these works as being welded into a strange unity, as having a
homogeneous texture of ecstasy over them that surpasses any aesthetic
surface of harmonic colour, though that harmony also is understood by
the deeper welling of imagery from the core of creative exaltation. And
I think that this occurs in _Lysistrata_. The intellectual and spiritual
tendrils of the poem are more truly interwoven, the operation of their
centres more nearly unified; and so the work goes deeper into life. It
is his greatest play because of this, because it holds an intimate
perfume of femininity and gives the finest sense of the charm of a
cluster of girls, the sweet sense of their chatter, and the contact of
their bodies, that is to be found before Shakespeare, because that
mocking gaiety we call Aristophanies reaches here its most positive
acclamation of life, vitalizing sex with a deep delight, a rare
happiness of the spirit.

Indeed it is precisely for these reasons that it is _not_ considered
Aristophanes' greatest play.

To take a case which is sufficiently near to the point in question, to
make clear what I mean: the supremacy of _Antony and Cleopatra_ in the
Shakespearean aesthetic is yet jealously disputed, and it seems silly to
the academic to put it up against a work like _Hamlet_. But it is the
comparatively more obvious achievement of _Hamlet_, its surface
intellectuality, which made it the favourite of actors and critics. It
is much more difficult to realize the complex and delicately passionate
edge of the former play's rhythm, its tides of hugely wandering emotion,
the restless, proud, gay, and agonized reaction from life, of the blood,
of the mind, of the heart, which is its unity, than to follow the
relatively straightforward definition of Hamlet's nerves. Not that
anything derogatory to _Hamlet_ or the _Birds_ is intended; but the
value of such works is not enhanced by forcing them into contrast with
other works which cover deeper and wider nexus of aesthetic and
spiritual material. It is the very subtlety of the vitality of such
works as _Antony and Cleopatra_ and _Lysistrata_ that makes it so easy
to undervalue them, to see only a phallic play and political pamphlet in
one, only a chronicle play in a grandiose method in the other. For we
have to be in a highly sensitized condition before we can get to that
subtle point where life and the image mix, and so really perceive the
work at all; whereas we can command the response to a lesser work which
does not call so finely on the full breadth and depth of our spiritual

I amuse myself at times with the fancy that Homer, Sappho, and
Aristophanes are the inviolable Trinity of poetry, even to the extent of
being reducible to One. For the fiery and lucid directness of Sappho, if
her note of personal lyricism is abstracted, is seen to be an element of
Homer, as is the profoundly balanced humour of Aristophanes, at once
tenderly human and cruelly hard, as of a god to whom all sympathies and
tolerances are known, but who is invulnerable somewhere, who sees from a
point in space where the pressure of earth's fear and pain, and so its
pity, is lifted. It is here that the Shakespearean and Homeric worlds
impinge and merge, not to be separated by any academic classifications.
They meet in this sensitivity equally involved and aloof, sympathetic
and arrogant, suffering and joyous; and in this relation we see
Aristophanes as the regen forerunner of Shakespeare, his only one. We see also
that the whole present aesthetic of earth is based in Homer. We live and
grow in the world of consciousness bequeathed to us by him; and if we
grow beyond it through deeper Shakespearean ardours, it is because those
beyond are rooted in the broad basis of the Homeric imagination. To
shift that basis is to find the marshes of primitive night and fear
alone beneath the feet: Christianity.

And here we return to the question of the immorality of _Lysistrata_.
First we may inquire: is it possible for a man whose work has so
tremendous a significance in the spiritual development of mankind--and I
do not think anyone nowadays doubts that a work of art is the sole
stabilizing force that exists for life--is it possible for a man who
stands so grandly at head of an immense stream of liberating effort to
write an immoral work? Surely the only enduring moral virtue which can
be claimed is for that which moves to more power, beauty and delight in
the future? The plea that the question of changing customs arises is not
valid, for customs ratified by Aristophanes, by Rabelais, by
Shakespeare, have no right to change. If they have changed, let us try
immediately to return from our disgraceful refinements to the nobler and
more rarefied heights of lyric laughter, tragic intensity, and wit, for
we cannot have the first two without the last. And anyhow, how can a
social custom claim precedence over the undying material of the senses
and the emotions of man, over the very generating forces of life?

How could the humanistic emotions, such as pity, justice, sympathy,
exist save as pacifistic quietings of the desire to slay, to hurt, to
torment. Where the desire to hurt is gone pity ceases to be a
significant, a central emotion. It must of course continue to exist, but
it is displaced in the spiritual hierarchy; and all that moves
courageously, desirously, and vitally into the action of life takes on a
deeper and subtler intention. Lust, then, which on the lower plane was
something to be very frightened of, becomes a symbol of the highest
spirituality. It is right for Paul to be terrified of sex and so to hate
it, because he has so freshly escaped a bestial condition of life that
it threatens to plunge him back if he listens to one whisper But it is
also right for a Shakespeare to suck every drop of desire from life,
for he is building into a higher condition, one self-willed,
self-responsible, the discipline of which comes from joy, not fear.

Sex, therefore, is an animal function, one admits, one insists; it may
be only that. But also in the bewildering and humorous and tragic
duality of all life's energies, it is the bridge to every eternity which
is not merely a spectral condition of earth disembowelled of its lusts.
For sex holds the substance of the image. But we must remember with
Heine that Aristophanes is the God of this ironic earth, and that all
argument is apparently vitiated from the start by the simple fact that
Wagner and a rooster are given an analogous method of making love. And
therefore it seems impeccable logic to say that all that is most unlike
the rooster is the most spiritual part of love. All will agree on that,
schisms only arise when one tries to decide what does go farthest from
the bird's automatic mechanism. Certainly not a Dante-Beatrice affair
which is only the negation of the rooster in terms of the swooning
bombast of adolescence, the first onslaught of a force which the
sufferer cannot control or inhabit with all the potentialities of his
body and soul. But the rooster is troubled by no dreams of a divine
orgy, no carnival-loves like Beethoven's _Fourth Symphony_, no heroic
and shining lust gathering and swinging into a merry embrace like the
third act of _Siegfried_. It is desire in this sense that goes farthest
from the animal.

Consciously, no one can achieve the act of love on earth as a completed
thing of grace, with whatever delirium of delight, with whatever
ingenious preciosity, we go through its process. Only as an image of
beauty mated in some strange hermaphroditic ecstasy is that possible. I
mean only as a dream projected into a hypothetical, a real heaven. But
on earth we cannot complete the cycle in consciousness that would give
us the freedom of an image in which two identities mysteriously realize
their separate unities by the absorption of a third thing, the
constructive regen rhythm of a work of art. It is thus that Tristan and Isolde
become wholly distinct individuals, yet wholly submerged in the unity
that is Wagner; and so reconcile life's duality by balancing its
opposing laughters in a definite form--thereby sending out into life a
profounder duality than existed before. A Platonic equipoise,
Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence--the only real philosophic problem,
therefore one of which these two philosophers alone are aware.

But though Wagner with Mathilde Wesendonck in his arms was Tristan in
the arms of Isolde, he did not find a melody instead of a kiss on his
lips; he did not find a progression of harmonies melting through the
contours of a warm beauty with a blur of desperate ecstasies, semitones
of desire, he found only the anxious happiness of any other lover.
Nevertheless, he was gathering the substance of the second act of
_Tristan und Isolde_. And it is this that Plato means when he says that
fornication is something immortal in mortality. He does not mean that
the act itself is a godlike thing, a claim which any bedroom mirror
would quickly deride. He means that it is a symbol, an essential
condition, and a part of something that goes deeper into life than any
geometry of earth's absurd, passionate, futile, and very necessary
antics would suggest.

It is a universal fallacy that because works like the comedies of
Aristophanes discuss certain social or ethical problems, they are
inspired by them. Aristophanes wrote to express his vision on life, his
delight in life itself seen behind the warping screen of contemporary
event; and for his purposes anything from Euripides to Cleon served as
ground work. Not that he would think in those terms, naturally: but the
rationalizing protogroup process that goes on in consciousness during the creation
of a work of art, for all its appearance of directing matters, is the
merest weathercock in the wind of the subconscious intention. As an
example of how utterly it is possible to misunderstand the springs of
inspiration in a poem, we may take the following remark of B. B. Rogers:
_It is much to be regretted that the phallus element should be so
conspicuous in this play.... (This) coarseness, so repulsive to
ourselves, was introduced, it is impossible to doubt, for the express
purpose of counter-balancing the extreme earnestness and gravity of the
play_. It seems so logical, so irrefutable; and so completely
misinterprets every creative force of Aristophanes' Psyche that it
certainly deserves a little admiration. It is in the best academic
tradition, and everyone respects a man for writing so mendaciously . The
effort of these castrators is always to show that the parts considered
offensive are not the natural expression of the poet, that they are
dictated externally. They argue that Shakespeare's coarseness is the
result of the age and not personal predilection, completely ignoring the
work of men like Sir Philip Sidney and Spenser, indeed practically all
the pre-Shakespearean writers, in whom none of this so-called grossness
exists. Shakespeare wrote sculduddery because he liked it, and for no
other reason; his sensuality is the measure of his vitality. These liars
pretend similarly that because Rabelais had a humanistic regen reason for much
of his work--the destructior Mediaevalism, and the Church, which purpose
they construe of course as an effort to purify, etc.--therefore he only
put the lewdery to make the rest palatable, when it should be obvious
even to an academic how he glories in his wild humour.

What the academic cannot understand is that in such works, while
attacking certain conditions, the creative power of the vigorous spirits
is so great that it overflows and saturates the intellectual conception
with their own passionate sense of life. It is for this reason that
these works have an eternal significance. If Rabelais were merely a
social reformer, then the value of his work would not have outlived his
generation. If _Lysistrata_ were but a wise political tract, it would
have merely an historical interest, and it would have ceased spiritually
at 404 B.C.

But Panurge is as fantastic and fascinating a character now as he was
300 years ago, Lysistrata and her girls as freshly bodied as any girl
kissed to-day. Therefore the serious part of the play is that which
deals with them, the frivolous part that in which Rogers detects gravity
and earnestness.

Aristophanes is the lord of all who take life as a gay adventure, who
defy all efforts to turn life into a social, economic, or moral
abstraction. Is it therefore just that the critics who, by some dark
instinct, unerringly pick out the exact opposite of any creator's real
virtues as his chief characteristics, should praise him as an idealistic
reformer? An "ideal" state of society was the last thing Aristophanes
desired. He wished, certainly, to eliminate inhumanities and baseness;
but only that there might be free play for laughter, for individual

Consequently the critics lay the emphasis on the effort to cleanse
society, not the method of laughter. Aristophanes wished to destroy
Cleon because that demagogue failed to realize the poet's conception of
dignified government and tended to upset the stability of Hellas. But it
was the stability of life, the vindication of all individual freedoms,
in which he was ultimately interested.


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