Clouds (Νεφέλαι / Nephelai): How Aristophanes Made Some of Us Laugh as Adults

Nothing clouds the fact that “The Clouds” is a play by the playwright Aristophanes. What may be more nebulous is how he and those acting on stage play with language. (Many a critic has conjectured that Aristophanes’s intention in writing the play is to talk back at Socrates for talking so sharply about how allegedly harmful the language of the playwright is. Plato, therefore, trying to straighten out what Socrates really said, spent his life writing dialogues also to straighten out language. Plato’s Socrates, for example, makes the claim that the masses are mindless when they participate as the audience members when they would do so much better to be more grounded, in their city-states, by following a philosopher-king. Plato’s Socrates also blames this play of Aristophanes for inappropriately lampooning and unfairly caricaturing him, to the point where he needed to offer his famous Defense, his Apology.) The play is making fun of Socrates who’d made fun of the playwrights such as Aristophanes. To listen to Aristophanes’s actor’s Socrates is, rather obviously then, to put oneself in a rather precarious position of being mindless. Ha! Knowing the risks, then, let’s enter the clouds.

Socrates: You want to know the truth about the gods, what they really are? (βούλει τὰ θεῖα πράγματ’ εἰδέναι σαφῶς, ἅττ’ ἐστὶν ὀρθῶς;)

Strepsiades: By God I do, if it’s possible. (νὴ Δί’, εἴπερ ἐστί γε.)

Socrates: And to enter into communion with the Clouds, who are our deities? (καὶ συγγενέσθαι ταῖς Νεφέλαισιν εἰς λόγους, ταῖς ἡμετέραισι δαίμοσιν;)

At this point, Jeffrey Henderson, our English language translator interrupts the play and interjects our reading of it with a footnote:

No Greek would think of worshipping the clouds; they are ‘goddesses’ suitable only for the comic Thinkery of Socrates, who teaches men how to obscure reality by making it as changeable and evanescent as the clouds.

But notice what the Greek audience is thinking!

The word συγγενέσθαι, which Henderson renders “into communion with,” is a Greek euphemism for “having sex with.”

And the Clouds? ταῖς Νεφέλαισιν? Well, they are goddesses, females of the heavens.

Then that word λόγος is the word that’s often used for the word “word.” It’s a rather slippery concept, what women and sophists and playwrights and actors used for rhetoric. Was Helen persuaded by the logos to leave the Greek men behind for the foreigners? asks the sophist Gorgias in his Praise of Helen. And in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, the author has the sophist calling himself a rhetorician. So Aristotle studies under Plato and invents syl-logi-sms and logic to straighten out all of the curvy slipperiness of logos.

And finally of course, the Greek audience hears δαίμοσιν. Readers of the New Testament get these “divinities” translated into English as “demons,” nasty spirits, with forceful powers and the ability to possess those who pay them mind.

There’s more to the story, more in The Clouds, of course. It’s mean to be comic. Things with language aren’t always what they seem, so it seems. You can’t control clouds either.

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5 responses to “Clouds (Νεφέλαι / Nephelai): How Aristophanes Made Some of Us Laugh as Adults

  1. Great post, as usual.

    But, I have the Jeffrey Henderson/Loeb Library translation of Clouds, and that’s not how he translates it or annotates it in that edition (see p. 41,43 — you can find them by looking on Amazon and searching for the word “truth” — for some reason Amazon marks p. 41 as p. 39.)

    • Thanks, Theophrastus.

      You have done well to read Henderson’s Loeb translation because, for that particular volume, he won the prestigious American Philological Association Goodwin Award of Merit (in 2001).

      It’s a bit confusing because Henderson translated The Clouds twice. He did so earlier before producing the translation you’re reading (and that earlier translation is in the edition I’m quoting from). Also confusing perhaps is that fact that The Loeb’s Classical Library includes a translation of The Clouds by Benjamin B. Rogers.

      Let me try to sort this out a bit (by ISBN) and then show the three respective translations:

      Henderson’s first translation is 0-941051-24-2 later published in a larger volume 0-941051-58-7. (See respectively page 31 and page 171 for his footnote I’ve quoted).

      Henderson’s second translation (the award winning Loeb’s edition you have) is 0-674-99537-6.

      Rogers’s translation (now in the first Loeb edition for The Clouds) is 0-67499197-4.

      Henderson’s first translation goes like this:

      Socrates: You want to know the truth about the gods, what they really are?
      Strepsiades: By God I do, if it’s possible.
      Socrates: And to enter into communion with the Clouds, who are our deities?

      Henderson’s second translation goes like this:

      Socrates: Would you like to know the truth about matters divine, what they really are?
      Strepsiades: I certainly would, if it’s actually possible.
      Socrates: And to have converse with the Clouds, our own deities?

      Rogers’s translation goes like this:

      Socrates: Come, would you like to learn celestial matters, How their truth stands?
      Strepsiades: Yes, if there’s any truth
      Socrates: And to hold intercourse with yon bright Clouds, Our virgin Goddesses?

      (As you know, Henderson has a different footnote in his Loeb’s translation.

      And as you can see, Rogers’s translation plays on the word “intercourse” and its double entendre. He also makes us think of Christmas with his classic “yon … virgin” as we hear in “round yon virgin, mother and child”.)

  2. Well, it is funny, because at the time of the original publication of Henderson’s Loeb volumes, all of the reviews (for example, this one stated that Henderson was more racy (and part of the “new” Loeb). But in fact, it seems that Roger’s translation had numerous advantages as well!

  3. Well, based on your comments, I have now purchased Rogers’ three-volume Loeb translation — I found a set that was unread in perfect condition. It is really quite a remarkable translation, and it is a pity that people don’t write that way anymore. While Henderson’s translation has many advantages, Rogers’ is really a (partly interpretive) work of art. It is a pity it is no longer in print.

  4. I’m so glad you see the art of Rogers in his translation work. I’m impressed you’d find his volumes to read. What I like about Rogers is how he recognizes the irony of Socrates as a sophist; he really gets how Aristophanes’s Socrates must have really gotten under Plato’s skin. (See the “General Introduction” to the volumes and the specific “Introduction” to “The Clouds.”)

    Rogers is brilliant with his Strepsiades’s near-mocking reply to Socrates (full of quotations and mimicked voices, page 295):

    Socrates:
    O, then I declare, you can’t be aware
    that ’tis these who the sophists protect,
    Prophets sent beyond sea, quacks of every degree,
    fops signet-and-jewel-bedecked,
    Astrological knaves, and fools who their staves
    of dithyrambs proudly rehearse —
    ‘Tis the Clouds who all these support at their ease,
    because they exalt them in verse.

    Strepsiades:
    ‘Tis for this then they write of ” the on-rushin’ might
    o’ the light-stappin’ rain-drappin’ Cloud,”
    And the ” thousand black curls whilk the Tempest-
    lord whirls,”
    and the ” thunder-blast stormy an’ loud,”
    And ” birds o’ the sky floatin’ upwards on high,”
    and ” air-water leddies ” which ” droon
    Wi’ their saft falling dew the gran’ Ether sae blue,” «
    and then in return they gulp doon
    Huge gobbets o’ fishes an’ bountifu’ dishes
    o’ mavises prime in their season.

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