not tragic, just sad

I have a new review essay up at Commonweal of military historian Victor Davis Hanson’s book The Case for Trump. While Hanson’s book is more broadly a panegyric of Trumpist politics, it also makes a peculiar (but erroneous) case for seeing the president as a Sophoclean tragic hero:

Despite Aristotle’s profound influence on our idea of the “tragic,” no literary term has been so misunderstood and misapplied (with the possible exception of “ironic”). It is often erroneously taken as a synonym for “calamitous” or even simply “sad.” But the notion of the tragic—at least as Aristotle sees it—is something more complicated. He famously defines the genre as the “mimesis of an action that is serious, complete, and grand,” one which uses its principal tools of “fear and pity” in order to effect a kind of “catharsis” in viewers. A cursory search of recent academic publications in classics shows that we’re still sparring about what catharsis really means and still confused about why a drama that terrorizes through fear nevertheless produces pleasure.

With his new book, the Greek-military historian Victor Davis Hanson amplifies our misunderstanding of tragedy by shoehorning the current occupant of the White House into the tradition of Sophoclean protagonists, positioning Trump as a so-called “tragic hero.” In The Case for Trump—whose occasional trafficking in Uranium One conspiracy theories and sophomoric Homeric epithets like “polished teleprompter reader Barack Obama” I shall graciously pass over—Hanson asks us to see in Trump a modern Ajax or Antigone, or even a “tribal” “outlier” like Achilles whose “service is never rewarded commensurately by the Greeks’ deep-state leaders.” The problem, of course, is that being a tribal, “unstable loner” has nothing to do with the tragic genre, properly understood. Donald J. Trump may be many things, but a tragic hero he is not.

Head over to Commonweal to read the rest.

Update (5/17): In this article I reference the 1966 article “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex” by E. R. Dodds, and there’s a copy of the article available on Google Scholar. Dodds himself says a good deal about hamartia in this article, but you might also look up Stinton’s 1975 “Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy” in Classical Quarterly, which takes a more expansive view of the idea of hamartia, or Dawe’s 1968 “Some Reflections on Ate and Hamartia” in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. Another good place to look, of course, is simply the dictionary entry for hamartanō, hamartanein (I audaciously use the second aorist infinitive hamartein in the essay) — Logeion is the place to go for that.

quasi labor intus at bmcr

Our volume Quasi Labor Intus: Ambiguity in Latin Literature is the subject of a new review up at Bryn Mawr Classical Review:

What do law and soup have in common? While the answer is not immediately obvious in English, it becomes evident when we switch languages. The Latin word ius is ambiguous between the meanings ‘law’ and ‘soup,’ an ambiguity that Cicero uses strategically to liken Verres’ law (ius Verrinum) to hog soup (ius verrinum).

This example from the introduction of the new volume Quasi labor intus, a collection of papers dedicated to American priest Reginald Foster (beloved by generations of students for his quirky spoken-Latin summer courses in Rome), demonstrates that ambiguity and puns are important devices to create humour. However, unlike puns, ambiguity is not restricted to humorous language; as an inherent feature of language in general it pervades all forms of communication. Acknowledging the fact that ‘ambiguity is a widespread and varied phenomenon of thought and language’ (p. xxviii), the editors Michael Fontaine, Charles McNamara, and William Michael Short have commissioned 13 papers that cover many genres and centuries and feature a diversity of literary and linguistic approaches to the phenomenon of ambiguity.

The reviewer writes that QLI stands as a “welcome and significant contribution to the growing debate on ambiguity in antiquity.” Head over to BMCR to read the rest.

gilded anacoluthon

At this point a dozen or so critics have detailed the architectural infelicities of the billionaire food court that is Hudson Yards, so I’m not going to join the pile-on with something about the “climbable version of an MC Escher drawing” at its center. I instead approached Hudson Yards as a philologist, and I discovered on the ground floor of the “vertical retail space” some labyrinthine syntax that cannot be matched even by the trickiest pages of Thucydides:


HYxOffTheWall is a highly visible and compelling platform on which the work of 13 significant artists an be experienced within the vibrant fabric of New York City. The title, HYxOffTheWall, is inspired by two connected ideas; the artworks are physical extensions of the vibrancy within the walls of Hudson Yards, and the definition of this phrase signals what might be expected: the unusual, remarkable, and curious, that often incorporates a unique sense of humor. With the specific location of Hudson Yards in mind, all artworks relate back to the site’s past, present or future. The large scale pieces welcome interaction, and visitors who engage with the art simultaneously become their activators. By standing in an installation tableau, participating in interactive works, taking photos and sharing individual points of view, people of all ages and backgrounds organically build a HYxOffTheWall community album.

What are these “two connected ideas,” really? How can a phrase signal something “expected” and also “unusual”? Does the inconsistency of serial commas suggest that the “present or future” is paradoxically in apposition to the “past”? Even in my best attempts as an engaging activator, I can’t quite tell what any of this means.

I’m not sure how many millions Hudson Yards paid Culture Corps to provide us this master class in inscrutable Gorgianic irony, but maybe that hefty sum was worth it: here I am, organically building the community album, too.