DECEMBER 17, 2008 4:33PM

Literary Feuds (plus a Classical Nude)

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                                                              Ancient Greek Vase Painting (c. 400 BCE)

With all the snipping and sniping and, not to mention, outright flouncing going on at Open Salon lately, I think it worth a reminder that we are a literary community, after all, and the Art of the Feud among such as us has a long and noble tradition.

Aristophanes, Euripides (with Aeschylus thrown in)

The girls today in society go for classical poetry
So to win their hearts one must quote with ease
Aeschylus and Euripides --
Cole Porter Kiss MeKate






When it comes to literary feuds, we have a ways to go before we come close to the grand vitriol of fifth century BCE Greece. Aristophanes wrote not one, but three plays mercilessly skewering Euripides for everything from his personal hygiene and his alleged impotence to his "monotonous metre" and straying from Homeric norms. The divide between them was deep indeed, from the esthetic to the political.

In The Thesmophoriazusae (purportedly the subject of the vase painting above) he has Euripides running around scared witless to avoid the wrath of the women of Athens who are up in arms over his continual depiction of them as demented, depraved and outright murderous (as in his Medea -- see promised nude shot below). This is a substantive point of debate even today: was Euripides a proto-feminist or a misogynist?

Aristophanes clearly thought of himself in the former camp -- his Lysistrata (where the Athenian women famously withhold sex for the cause of peace) had been produced earlier.

And the feud did not cease with the death of Euripides. The very next year saw Aristophanes' The Frogs (the admirable Gilbert Murray translation linked here has a wealth of background) in which Euripides is in Hades and doomed to stay there because he is a worse poet than Aeschylus , whose poetry is also savaged but who is revived and brought back to Athens by Dionysus.

While Aristophanes is generally thought to be a writer of raunchy lightweight plays, he is a deeply humanistic, pacific playwright. True, he sees peace and freedom primarily in terms of food, wine and sex -- but then Sex, Drugs and Rock-and-Roll is a pretty good key to freedom still.

And his raunch is pretty raunchy.

A character says to Euripides: "When you are staging Satyrs, call me; I will do my best to help you from behind, if I can get my tool up."

And what might be one of the most famous of all stage directions (second only to Shakespeare's "Exit, pursued by bear" in The Winter's Tale) is the following from The Birds:

Apollo the Deliverer! what an enormous beak!
He defecates. In the confusion both the jay and the crow fly away.


The Russian Guard: Primus, Secundus, Tertius.



Tolstoy                                                      Dostoyevsky                               Turgenev

Fast forward some twentyfive hundred years to the steppes of Russia in mid-nineteenth century and you come across this troika of titans of world literature. Russia was a seething cauldron politically -- much of the politics seems incomprehensible at this far remove but Tom Stoppard's magisterial, magical The Coast of Utopia magnificently captures the gestalt of those days.

All three of these greats belonged to the landed gentry (though of different ranks, which rankled Dostoyevsky some) in still feudal Russia. All three were activist pro-abolitionist (serfdom was finally abolished in 1861) reformers. But they had their differences.

Turgenev was probably the most "Western-minded" of the lot, looking at German, French and English models to liberate Russia from its shackles. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were more Slavophilic by comparison, looking inwards toward the same end. Turgenev was pretty much an unbeliever, Dostoyevsky deeply Russian Orthodox, Tolstoy a universal soul who was excommunicated after starting his own religion.

And they were not shy about making their differences known.

Tolstoy on Turgenev: "He's wiggling his democratic haunches."[1]

Dostoyevsky on Tolstoy: "He's an historian, not a novelist."[2] He was expressing his opinion that while he was trying to depict the chaos of the present, Tolstoy's were "pious efforts to enshrine for posterity the beauty of the vanishing life of the gentry." So wary were these two of each other, they chose never to personally meet each other in their lifetimes. Tolstoy wept at Dostoyevky's death, then excoriated his writings in a review.

Turgenev gleefully circulated a scurrilous poem about Dostoyevsky fainting at a Royal Ball, so ill at ease was he in these surroundings. Dostoyevsky responded in kind in The Devils (also called The Possessed) by parodying a hardly-disguised Turgenev in the character of Karmazinov, the elderly,effete, effeminate novelist trying to curry favor with the young radicals.

All this feuding reached its apex in 1861when Tolstoy actually challenged Turgenev to a duel. The encounter was to take place in the woods of Bogoslovo, which is translated as "Word of God"(!).The ostensible reason was that Tolstoy had disputed Turgenev's methods of educating his (natural) daughter. Mercifully, the duel did not take place. The protagonists did not speak to each other for the next seventeen years. From his deathbed, Turgenev wrote to Tolstoy, begging him to "please get back to literature" and quit fooling around with his religious mumbo jumbo.


Now these were great feuds on great issues. Modern day literary feuds pale in comparison. And our squabbles on Open Salon.....Pfffft.



                                 Medea by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix

(by courtesy of Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille and The Yorck Project)


[1] Tolstoy by Henri Troyat; Translated by Nancy Amphoux. Doubleday, 1967 Re-issued by Grove Press, 2001

[2] Dostoyevsky : The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 by Joseph Frank Published by Princeton University Press, 1979

The links are to the electronic Googlebooks versions.



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Cool! Erudite and informative, as always, CCC.
I learned something new today, Thanks!

Your avatar is just yummy by the way! (wags tail)
My, my, my - hang out here at Open Salon and you're in great danger of actually learning something.

ORPH! Well, at least that's how Buddy the Lab pronounces it.

I wasn't being sarcastic.
Thank you, thank you. Just thought a treatise on Aristophanes and especially Dostoyevsky would get everyone into the Christmas spirit.


and a SWOOF (that's a smoochy albeit drooly -- we Boxers are naturally drooly-- woof) for Lady Miko. I like yummy.

A fine reminder, dog. More recent reminders appear just about every issue of NY Review of Books, Bookforum, Times Literary Supplememt, London Review of Books, etc. Typically, a letter begins "Regarding the review of my book in last week's issue, I must admonish the author for completely missing the point of my book..." Then the next week, the reviewer responds in kind and on it goes.
I vote for all feuds on OS to be literary!
You dog, you, awakening sleepy synapses. Medea is one of my favorite literary characters. I think she has gotten a bad rap. She was very misunderstood and she went through hell. Her behavior was abysmal, I have to admit, though.

You write a good post, especially for a dog, must be that boxer blood.

The bloodhounds and I all give you a collective aaarrrroooooh.
Lady Miko:

Sorry, I hadn't noticed your comment when I made mine and no snarkiness was intended. For what it's worth, we agree with each other.
Very nice. Especially liked your link "Art of the Feud" which, of course, took one to J. S. Bach (Grrrr... Lord save me from punny dogs). All this and Cole Porter too. Good stuff.
I could NEVER work out what was going on with the politics in Turgenev. Sometimes he comments on what characters' clothing means about their political opinions. And Tolstoy? You can see what his characters think, you just can't see why. Strangely, Dostoyevsky's views still carry resonance, despite his commitment to a Russian orthodox religious world that I for one have no good feeling for.

Wags and no worries! :D
Thanks all.

John: A Christmas WOOF to you, Buddy.

Biblio: the foofaraw between le Carré and Rushdie carried out on the pages of the Guardian was regarding a vitally important issue, but the rest of the current stuff seems picayune. May make for a future post, though :-).

p_f: Medea is one of my favorite tragedies. I saw/heard Claire Bloom do a reading in Boston (not fully staged, sort of a concert piece) that was absolutely mesmerizing. Plus, you'll be happy to know that it is believed that Euripides was bribed by the Corinthians to distort the myth and defame Medea! The "real" myth, according to Robert Graves, has Hera promising Medea that her children will be immortal if sacrificed; Jason is the one who loses the favor of the gods for having broken his oath; and that Medea is a symbol of the Earth Goddess' cult which was being brutally suppressed at Corinth and Athens. Very complicated :-).

Matt: Yes, as you can see from my bio, Dostoyevsky has the greatest resonance for me (second only to Monty patronymic Pythonovich) for me as well, and IMO the greatest influence on modern Western literature, despite occasionally wimping out, as in the last bit in Crime and Punishment. But Tolstoy's "great soul" has had a profound influence, I believe, even beyond the bounds of literature.

And, SB, what can I say, never saw a bad pun nor ever made a good one ;-).

Aw, CCC, you must have written this just for me - Aristophanes and Dostoyevsky In the same post!

I designed the lighting for a DC area production of Dostoyevsky's "Another Man's Wife and Husband Under Bed" several years back. Hysterical. The show was great fun and I ended up working with the same group of Russians for many years - and we did other Dostoyevsky works as well.

I love Aristophanes. If people think Greek theater is stuffy, they obviously have not read or seen The Birds, The Frogs or The Clouds.

Excellent use of literature to make a oh-so-valid point.
Thanks, artsfish.

That "Another Man's Wife...." is truly hysterical. People often charge that Dostoyevsky (a) couldn't do female characters (b) and when he did, they were weak and manipulated. But actually, in his "minor" works there are many female characters who are invariably stronger, smarter and more physically free than the men. Also, in The Brothers Karamazov Grushenka is unforgettable, and really the pivot around which the whole action turns.

Thank you for liking the piece.

GREAT post. I wish I could give more than one thumb... :)
Les chats et les chiens !
Did that character really use the word tool? Was tool an ancient Greek euphemism for a man's naughty bits, or was he referring to a leaf rake or something? Is it even remotely possible that there could be such a staggeringly direct connection between the world of Classical Greece and Beavis? Forgive me but these are the things I worry about.
Extremely interesting. I love the Greeks. All those phalluses, er, phalli, er ... I'll have to look that up.

I'd like to be the Dorothy Parker of any literary feud here on OS that arises, but my gut tells me I am more suited to be the Ethel Frankfurter of it all.

(The who? Right. No one we know. Just my point.)

(Now watch someone come here and say her name is Ethel Frankfurter and she's incensed I've invoked her name. It would only happen to me.)
Great stuff! I love how you make all those Old White Guys (sorry, could not resist small feminist dig) so human and likable in their envious foibles.

Duels though, alarming idea that. I hereby proclaim, with all the authority vested in me (which is none) that "There Shall Be No Duels on Open Salon." No guns, no swords, no slingshots, no blowdarts, no stonings! None - got it?
Nanatehay, these are the great things one ought to worry about. You have made the cosmic connection. Euelpides and Pithetaerus in The Birds were Beavis and Butthead! I can just see a Ph.D. thesis in the making: " Deconstructing Beavis and Butthead: Aristophanic Influence on MTV and beyond". Sure to get an alpha plus, tiger :-).

my first thought was "yep. humanity has come sooo far." but my second was "did you see that blog about being on family feud?" I'm not sure which one I should have gone with, but it's late, and I'm surrendering.
Awright, odette. Showoff! Doesn't often happen to moi, but who the heck is Ethel Frankfurter? Literary type females actually didn't feud much: Lillian Hellman v. Mary McCarthy is the only one that comes to mind. McCarthy and Hannah Arendt were great friends, though the friendship cooled a bit towards the end, they didn't fight.

Feathered, clearly feminist digs were all the rage even in classical times e.g. Mr. A at Mr. E, and of course, Lysistrata etc. But where do you come out on Medea? Or, Anna Karenina and thereby, Tolstoy? Inquiring dawgs want to know :-).

Elektra, ain't the classics great! Nanatehay makes the connection to MTV, you with Family Feud (btw, Mary's post is an all-time classic). Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Ethel is my imaginary rich friend who is giving me money. Which explains why I'm broke.

So, you know more than me, believe me.
I'm not a very good card carrying feminist because I actually loved reading and studying all those Old White Guys, lo these many years ago. The memories are fond if vague. I really had a thing for Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, and Old Will's King Lear.

I liked both Euripedes and Aristophanes. Medea, wow...Sarah Palin's gun-totin', helicopter slaughterin', also, well, ya know, just don't hold a candle to what Medea was capable of, shucks, don't cha know? But at least the Greeks were even handed in creating their child sacrificing characters. Remember Iphigenia, poor thing...she probably trusted Daddy.

It's been SO long since I read Anna K. that the details of her story are foggy...adultery and suicide though I seem to remember. Was she weak or to be pitied as a tragic figure? I just dunno, kinda depends on the mood I'm in from occasion to occasion.
Thank you, Odette. Thank you, Feathered. Thank you for visiting our Classical Colloquium. And full marks to both of you (boy, OR, you got me good on that one :-)). And HAPPY HOLIDAYS.

CCC: I admire your smartness. It makes me want to learn more and read more. :)

I haven't read enough of the Russians. I need to do that.
It's been so long since I read most of the classics that the tales are foggy in my brain. Guess I need to start anew........
Bless you, OR, and thank you. You just take care of yourself and your family (I include, of course, Handsome and Sweet) -- Mrs. C. has had oodles of basal cells nitrogenized, cauterized, procedures-I-have-no-idea-ofized over the years -- and the Russkis can take care of themselves. Shalom.

Altho' the "Literary" component may be questionable, there was a long and heated feud between Hollywood gossip columnists, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper (mother of Dennis). Parsons seems a despicable character, especially in her treatment of actress Frances Farmer. After excoriating her for months, she finally succeeded in having Ms Farmer committed, and actually was in attendance when Farmer underwent a lobotomy.
Now THIS is why I love OpenSalon. Delectable!
Well that was just about perfect - perfect topic, perfect timing (a nice holiday treat of a read), perfect tone, perfectly interesting. And I could go on ...

Thanks CCC, and a very merry to you and yours!
Brilliant! Thanks for the reminder of the humanity of cannon titans :).
Edifying, as always, Woof Man.