The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Julie Levy
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I’m always drawn to Sappho. Her words in Greek are so resonant, and my favorite translation to just pick up is Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter. Sometimes I will just sit with a fragment for a while and meditate on impermanence, and other times I take joy in the ability of Sappho to make the most mundane things beautiful just by observing them beautifully.
Of course, I’m also drawn to irony, so I take some comfort in reading Aristophanes’ Frogs and Seneca’s Hercules Furens and Thyestes, too. Angry, biting words, kind of like listening to major key angry music when you’re frustrated.
When did you first come across these texts?
I’m really not sure where I first read Sappho. I started Greek in freshman year of undergraduate, but I’m sure I had read translations before then, and I’m sure I didn’t read the Greek for at least a year or two after that. It’s almost like she’s always been a part of my life. Even my friends who know nothing of Greek will occasionally quote Sappho, particularly Fr. 102.
I first read the Frogs in my undergraduate coursework; a friend and I decided one summer to translate the entire play ourselves and put it on stage the next semester. Everyone kept asking if it was my senior thesis! I suppose it should have been.
But I didn’t read any Latin in undergrad, so I didn’t meet Senecan tragedy until several years into my PhD. I knew who he was, of course, and I’d read bits of his philosophical work, but Prof. James Uden introduced me to the tragedies, and I later asked him to work with me on a Special Topic focused on them. I love the outrageousness of Senecan tragedy, the way it displays every vice writ as large as possible.
Can you tell me a bit about these texts and their context?
Sappho’s corpus is notoriously fragmentary. After quotations in better-preserved sources ran dry, we have scraped trash-heaps and mummy-wrappings for new lines. One can’t help but be caught up in the drama of the latest find, P.Sapph.Obbink, vanished into a private collection through shady gray-market dealing. But once, her poetry was so well-known that Plato referred to her as the tenth Muse, and to know the songs of Sappho was to be sophisticated. It’s tragic that so much has been lost, and I think that may be part of its appeal.
The Frogs comes down to us nearly whole, though, and I’ve always loved its mordant, nearly modern political humor, the way Aristophanes could be writing for SNL and no one would bat an eye. I think what appeals to me most about this play in particular was his metacommentary on other playwrights, sassing even the ones he clearly respects, for performance in the middle of an Athenian festival of plays where every living person he mentions was sure to be.
There’s a lot of question still about whether Seneca wrote his plays as recitations or for performance, though personally I think there’s no reason they wouldn’t have been performed. Yes, they are gory and over-the-top, but the word ‘grotesque’ comes from the period of Nero’s reign for a reason. I like to imagine Seneca, after decrying the theater, deciding to use it as a way to show the outcomes of bad behaviors in a way that would stay with his audience longer than a letter or pretty speech.
What is it about these texts that appeals to you most?
I don’t think I could pick any one thing about Sappho’s writing that is the most appealing. It’s like the feeling of sinking into a comfortable bed or the first moment of viewing a beautiful vista – it seems infinite, comfortable, ineffable.
I think the Frogs is about nostalgia for me. It was such a large part of my undergraduate, and it still holds a special place in my heart. Whenever I need to remind myself that things may be a disaster right now, but they’ll work out, I can make myself laugh by reciting, “Brekekekex koax koax”; in the theater, everything is generally a disaster, but it became our mantra.
Seneca’s plays are also full of beauty, but a terrible beauty, an angry laugh at how bad things can get. When the world is full of pain, it can be cathartic to read the sadistic glee in his tragedies.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Oh, lots of different things for different types of gloom! When I’m lonely, I set up events where I can play games or dance with my friends (online, for the duration). When I’m exhausted, I play video games and hang out with my cat. And when I’m feeling stifled and unproductive, I turn to creativity – writing, drawing, painting, making videos.
Julie Levy is an independent scholar who spends her time tutoring and making YouTube videos for her new channel (message her @Brododaktylos on Twitter for details). Her scholarly interests include early Greek lyric, ancient multiculturalism, and comparative linguistics. She recently left Boston University’s Classical Studies Ph.D. program with her second MA in protest over the unethical treatment of graduate students within both the department and the university. She received her first MA in Classical Philology from Tufts University and her BA in Classical Studies and East Asian Studies from Wesleyan University.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.