InterviewsWeekend

An Interview with a Dead Greek Poet

Cooper - Playboy cover with BAM program
(courtesy the author)

Last night I got very depressed when I read that the BAM production (and US premiere) of Alexandre Singh’s The Humans — a play (which started as an installation piece at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam) inspired by the comedies of my favorite Greek poet, Aristophanes — had sold out before I got around to buying tickets. So to console myself, I got stoned and picked up a Playboy from August 1982. But as I was flipping back and forth between an interview with Sony’s Akio Morita (“We are not invading,” he insists. “We just make things you like.”) and a photo spread of Cathy St. George (whose “Turn Ons” include the Manhattan skyline at dusk, traveling, massages, credit cards), my longing to see Aristophanes only grew worse and worse and worse, until at last it was utterly unbearable. I knew what I had to do: swallow $2.50 in quarters for raft fare across the Styx, and strangle myself.

I came ashore in the region of Tartarus, which wasn’t at all what I was expecting. You don’t go there for lying or cheating or killing just one or two people. You land in Tartarus if the waste you cause to be created on Earth is above a certain quantitative threshold, in which case you have to live in that shit for all eternity. I saw Henry Ford; John Von Neumann; Akio Morita crawling over a mountain of broken Walkmans looking vainly for something to eat; Steve Jobs. My impact on the world had been practically nil, so I had no trouble gaining entrance to the Land of the Blessed. Aristophanes was in a dogfight over the Chair of Comedy, which he’d just managed to wrest back from Molière when dark horse contender Salvador Dalí arrived and snatched it. Though still fuming with indignation at the affront, Aristophanes agreed to a brief interview.

*   *   *

Samuel Cooper: Do you keep up with what’s going on upstairs?

Aristophanes: A little. I read Nature, The Wall Street Journal, Seventeen.

SC: What about Playboy?

A: I used to. I hate the new glossy, superthin pages, that cheap glue binding, every girl shaved, waxed hairless. We Greeks like a girl paratetilmena — plucked, trimmed, like you would a vine, not stripped, bleached and waxed. But with you guys, it’s the Apple aesthetic everywhere, no exceptions. You can’t even look at pussy unless it looks like an iPhone.

SC: Have you tried internet porn? Do you get wi-fi down here?

Cooper, Aristophanes Birds CoverA: No, thank God! I stay hard and happy with the local girls. The gender ratio in the Land of the Blessed is skewed very favorably to men: there aren’t many of us. The human population has always been 49.8% female, but the fraction of that 49.8% that significantly shits up the world has historically been miniscule. That’s changing, though. In Lysistrata and Assembly Women I imagined women saving the world by being women, not conquering it by becoming men. Now, with so many women in politics and business, and men getting so much lazier — they just watch porn all the time — and with the world human population expanding like it is, I expect the ratio down here to flip-flop before long. So let’s make this quick.

SC: How else has the world changed since the 5th century BC?

A: Are you shitting me? I said quick! Look, I could tell you it hasn’t changed a bit: it all still boils down to sex and money. The problem is it’s not boiling down, it’s crystallizing — money, I mean, is a cancerous, omnivorous, bloodsuckingnetworkbuilding, stressarousalandviolencerefining enzyme. We Greeks were the first humans to monetize our economy, did you know that? And I was the first poet to realize that from then on it would be all sex and money — more and more money, less and less sex — though for some reason I never get credit for this.

SC: You Greeks may have invented money, but we’ve come up with a lot of new things you could never have dreamed of: cars, computers, cell phones … which new invention do you find the most surprising?

A: The corporation. It’s like a polis except you’re usually not domiciled there, and if you don’t like it, it’s easy to leave and go join another one. It’s a breathtakingly simple idea: you build a corporate body, and you program that body to turn whatever it eats into money by vomiting, in exchange for money, a product or service people either already want or can be made to want. Talk about a path to limitless power! If I were going to re-write Birds today, I would have Peisetaerus persuade the birds to offer humans fabulous new services — cartography, surveillance, communications, delivery — in exchange for money, not sacrifices. Birds, Inc. I had them build a fortified aerial city and threaten war. I understood, you know, that war was all about money—and lust for power, but power is just control of material resources, so basically money …

SC: “For you alone are the cause of all things good and evil, says Chremylos to Wealth in Wealth. “The side you’re on is certainly stronger in war.”  

A: Let’s say I understood that money was inextricably linked to every aspect of war. But I never imagined that you could keep the money and the fighting and all but eliminate the face-to-face shedding of human blood. I certainly could never have imagined that the elegantly abstract, bloodless yet blazinglyboringly violent form of warfare that corporate competition has made possible would become the foundation for a new form of human life.

CREATE YOUTOPIA, photo credit Erin Cooper
(photo by Erin Cooper)

SC: This new way of living, is it a good thing or a bad thing?

A: Depends. It’s good for human population numbers, bad for most other living things.

SC: Let’s talk about art. What’s your problem with Señor Dalí?

A: Are you kidding?? Talk about an empty alazôn! He’s a very clever painter, I’ll give him that. His imagination is permanently orgasmic. But he lacks any critical insight whatsoever. Whatever he finds dull or depressing he simply ignores: Seventeen’s target audience has the same psychological profile. He’s like a cross between a clown, a certified Grand Poobah sommelier, and a fetish escort. A clown, definitely, but not a fool: compared to Shakespeare’s fools and their nose for the truth, he’s got a gnat’s nostrils.

SC: Many people dismiss comedy in general, and your comedies in particular, as escapist fantasy, vulgar wish-fulfillment. What is your response?

A: If by “vulgar” you mean “concerned with ordinary people and their problems” — their stifling, relentless, ubiquitous economic problems in particular — then I am happy to be called vulgar. As for fantasy, it’s everywhere; it goes cock-in-mouth with money. Individual fantasies that fuel and sustain globally pernicious behaviors are often quite refined and gentle. The task of true comedy is to expose and trample those fantasies that have the worst effects, and to nourish the best ones.

SC: Are there any good authors alive right now?

A: My favorite is Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist. That American, Franzen, is okay, though he’s obsessed with monogamous romantic love, which is something I’ve never understood — even though Plato, when he invented the idea, put it in my mouth! He still won’t tell me why, but I know why: it was supposed to be payback for my perverse treatment of poor Socrates in Clouds. Plato’s a friend, though we don’t see much of each other. A book I read recently made me think of him … oh yeah, Coetzee’s Childhood of Jesus. He’s another good one.

SC: Coetzee is a vegetarian. What’s your take on vegetarianism?

A: I don’t get the anti-violence argument at all. Eating another living thing, animal or vegetable, is inherently violent. Back when I was alive, though, humans and other animals — and plants — had a more level playing field. That strikes me as more just, or at least, as we say in Greek, metrios: moderate, measured.

Cooper, Singh Masks image
Alexander Singh, “The Humans”

SC: I asked you earlier about new inventions — what about scientific discoveries? Did you follow the hunt for the Higgs boson?

A: Attataî … I’ve no idea what that’s about or what it’s good for. But I’ve learned to cut science some slack. In my day, astronomy seemed completely pointless, because it was: staring at the stars wasn’t going to solve any of your problems —

SC: I’m thinking of that nice gag from Clouds: Strepsiades sees one of Socrates’ students on his hands and knees staring at the ground and asks, “What’s he doing?” And another student replies, “His asshole is learning astronomy all by itself!”

A: Hehe, yeah I like that one too. But the thing is, you guys have actually built ships that can take you to outer space — and your astronomers have discovered other planets you could live on! You’re not ready to understand or admit it, but that’s your future.

SC: Is there a particular exoplanet you think would be a good candidate for human colonization?

A: Gliese 667 Cc. It’s 4½ times the size of Earth and hotter, so sex would be slower and sweatier. Needs a better name though.

SC: What kind of world would you like to live in?

A: Trygaeus in Peace sums it up pretty well: “I rode to heaven on the back of a beetle so the Greeks would be able, in rural safety, to fuck, to fuck and to sleep.” Kinein te kai katheudein: maybe the most poignant line I ever wrote.

SC: Sleepfuckfuckland?

A: Exactly.

Alexandre Singh’s The Humans was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM Fisher, 321 Ashland Place, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) from November 13 through November 17.

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