Sneak Preview: Aristophanes and More

Well hello there! It’s Sunday, and that means sneak preview day here on the Jacke Blog.

On Monday, we’ll take a look at the comic plays of Aristophanes on the History of Literature podcast.  What did that comedic pioneer actually invent? What were his satirical targets and how well does the satire hold up?

And the key question: are 2,500-year-old jokes still funny?

Are they as funny as this?

INTERVIEWER: If you came home and saw that your house was on fire, what’s the one thing you’d run into the house to save?

ERIC IDLE: My penis.

What else, what else… how about another run through the best and worst posts of the year? You can see some highlights (and lowlights) from last year here:

The Best

And the Worst

On Thursday, we’ll be back with another edition of the Restless Mind Show, topic TBD. I’m going to scrap the idea of imagining Friedrich Nietzsche playing the part of the Bandit in a modern-day Smokey and the Bandit because, well, some ideas must die. Instead, we might talk about reading Proust in China.

Ad finally, here’s some holiday cheer for you, and by “cheer” I mean that special bluesy kind of cheer that makes all your synapses fire and brings a lump to the back of your throat. There’s no real video, so just click on the link, play this song in the background, think of Wynton and his hero (“Pops is bad, man. Pops is bad”), and think of fireplaces, baking cookies, and snuggling under warm blankets with loved ones. Happy Holidays!

Quick Links:

We Don’t Need The Onion Anymore…

Image Credit: Katerina Plotnikova courtesy of The New York Times

I read things like this NYT description of Faerie Magazine and just…well… scratch my head in wonder…

‘‘Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,’’ wrote W.B. Yeats, ‘‘for I would ride with you upon the wind.’’ Had Yeats read an issue of Faerie Magazine, he might have found what he was yearning for: a rarefied realm where practical concerns are replaced by bathmats made of moss, wearable gowns constructed from 500 English roses and women who maintain close friendships with ravens and crows.

The Man In the High Castle – Best Title Sequence Ever?

I’m three episodes into Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, a new series based on a book of the same name by Philip K. Dick. I’m enjoying the alternative history aspects of the drama – it takes place in the 60s and imagines that Hitler’s Germany won the war (they got the A bomb first and dropped it on D.C., which is not unimaginable) and Japan and Germany have divided America.  There’s a resistance movement, the possibility of a future war between Japan and Germany once Hitler dies and is succeeded, a nation of Americans who have accepted the new regimes, a lawless neutral zone in between the two new occupied territories, and a bunch of people running around with Macguffin-like contraband, a fake documentary in which Germany loses the war. This mysterious film  this is supposed to change everything, if only the word gets out.

(That’s not spoiling anything – it’s the premise of the show and it’s all in the first episode. I’m sure there are a lot of twists and turns along the way, but I haven’t gotten there yet.)

The pilot was excellent. The second episode fell off a bit but was still good. The third episode made some missteps (in my view) and has made me worry.  (New bad guy who’s too cartoonish, lead characters start to seem boring.) I’ll give a few more episodes a try. Hey, my commute’s an hour each way sometimes. Time must be killed.

In the meantime, I wanted to suggest that the title sequence might be the best one I’ve ever seen. Beautiful and haunting:

What’s better than that? The D.C. of House of Cards?

I remember enjoying that the first few times – D.C. has never looked better or more like an actual city – but my enthusiasm has faded. I no longer watch the show, either.

The music and images of Mad Men?

Excellent. I’d say it’s number two on my list. For comedies, maybe The Simpsons? Cheers? This one is pretty damn good too:

Great show, great title sequence. Simple but effective.

Now go binge watch something this weekend! Treat yourself!

Restless Mind Show Episode 9 – Nietzsche’s Children

Continuing the discussion of Greek tragedy, Jacke takes a look at Nietzsche and the impact he has on eager young philosophers. This episode includes the Jacke Wilson story “My Roommate’s Books” from the History of Jacke in 100 Objects series.


Aristophanes and Spike Lee

Our History of Literature journey takes us to Aristophanes next.  I’m working on the episode now, which of course will have a heavy emphasis on his play Lysistrata. And then I realize that the play has been adapted to a modern-day setting for a movie (Chi-Raq) by none other than Spike Lee.

I admire Spike Lee and his films, although I probably have only seen about half of them (and none of the recent ones). I’ve always viewed him as someone with a vision and a voice, who fights to get his movies made, sometimes taking on more commercial projects in order to fund his more personal ones, but not really succeeding at that in any clear way. It seems like there’s a parallel to be found between the career paths of Lee and Orson Welles – wildly successful early film, celebrity, a rush of follow-up projects that don’t go as well, and then a whole patchwork career of artistic successes, even more artistic compromises, tangling with the studios, projects done for money, more celebrity, an utter devotion to film and what it can do (even as the film industry and/or viewing public repeatedly disappoints the filmmaker), and still more celebrity. In short, a filmmaker to be reckoned with, and a model for how a person with talent and an independent streak wrestles with the film establishment of his time.

In any case, it’s easy to see Spike as an artist who can appreciate the potential of a story like Lysistrata…although, well, let’s just say that gender relations have never exactly been one of his strongest suits. And after reading this Stranger review I’m a little worried. A taste:

Here we were, the most antisocial people in the writing world, reaching out to share the pain we had just experienced. The pain of Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s ambitious new film tackling inner-city Chicago violence through the power of the pussy (I wish I were exaggerating, but it’s based on the ancient Greek playLysistrata). A fucking horrible film. This film is so bad, that even after 20 minutes of commiserating with other reviewers, even after bitching about it on my date later in the evening for another 20 minutes, I still don’t know how to pour all my hate for this film into one review.

Ouch. On the other hand, Chi-Raq has also gotten several good reviews. It’s free for those of us who can stream Amazon prime videos.* And–in true History of Literature podcast spirit–we can learn from artistic failures as well as successes. What makes the movie fail (if indeed it does)? What, if anything, does that say about Aristophanes?

I guess I’ll have to watch Chi-Raq to see where I stand on this.

*I was mistaken about this. The movie has been produced by Amazon but is being released in theaters. 

A Sufjan Stevens Christmas

I haven’t listened to Sufjan Stevens in a while, but there was a time when his Michigan album was just about all I listened to. Is he completely unlike anyone else, or do I just not listen to enough music?

In any case, I ran across his Christmas albums the other day. Here’s a taste:

So haunting. It’s my favorite Christmas song (well, tied for first) and I still have a soft spot for the Sinatra version, which makes me think of WWII GIs. This video makes me think of…I don’t know. Death? That might be too much for me for the holidays. A soldier bravely facing death and thinking of his loved ones…more my speed.

Here’s another one called “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day (Well, You Deserved It).”

I love Sufjan when he sings duets. Simply gorgeous. But what a topic. I’m giving him credit for the best parenthetical in a song title since Spinal Tap’s “Tonight I’m Going to Rock You (Tonight).”

What can we end with? All doom and gloom? I’ll skip the one called “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” and all the traditional songs. Sufjan singing “Silent Night” – I’m afraid to click on that one. My heart might just split and fall apart, like a karate-chopped apple.

This one is fun:

Well, okay, I have to admit. I’m the doom and gloom type. The melancholy, wistful, longing, heartbroken type. So not for me, Elf Dance! I’m going with the worst Christmas ever:

Simply gorgeous. And this one, with ends with a note of love, harmony, redemption. A bit of soaring after all that wallowing. I need it! I’ll take it, Sufjan! Thank you!

History of Literature Episode 6 – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides


Author Jacke Wilson examines the works of three great Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides – and attempts to solve the mystery of why Friedrich Nietzsche admired two of the three and despised the other.


Sneak Preview: Nietzsche, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Greeks

Thanks to all of you who made last week the biggest one yet in the brief life of The History of Literature podcast. I’m not sure if Burt Reynolds or Aristotle deserves more credit. (Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve written a sentence that no one has ever, ever written? I just had that feeling.)

This week looks like a good one as well! Tomorrow, we’ll continue our journey through Greek tragedy by looking more closely at the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles (again), and Euripides. This time we’ll use the lens of the young Friedrich Nietzsche, writing his first book in his burgeoning philosopher/poet/madman way.

The trip through Nietzsche, Wagner, and the tragedians made me think of this unbelievably good sequence from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now:

I don’t think Nietzsche would think much of most of our culture – but for what it’s worth, I do think he would have admired that sequence.

Onward and upward!

Quick Links:


“A Crisp and Merciless Clarity”: Mary Beard’s SPQR


I haven’t read the latest book by Mary Beard yet, but this NY Times review is certainly enough to whet my readerly appetite:

How on earth did they do it? The Greek historian Polybius, writing in the second century B.C., was the first to ask the question: “Who could be so indifferent or so idle that they did not want to find out how, and under what kind of political organization, almost the whole of the inhabited world was conquered and fell under the sole power of the Romans in less than 53 years?” It was not as if Rome was a promising spot: a swampy piece of ground up a barely navigable river surrounded by scrubby hills, its few thousand inhabitants alternately flooded out and ravaged by malaria….

In “SPQR,” her wonderful concise history, Mary Beard unpacks the secrets of the city’s success with a crisp and merciless clarity that I have not seen equaled anywhere else.

For those of you not familiar with Mary Beard, she’s worth checking out. She’s one of my favorite guests on the In Our Time show (with Melvyn Bragg) and one of my favorite reviewers in the New York Review of Books. When it comes to the ancients, she’s as consistently excellent (and reliable) as we have.

You can find it here:

Suspense vs. Surprise: A Hitchcockian Look at the Clip “When Adele Was Jenny”

It’s a very familiar explanation and always worth repeating. Here’s Alfred Hitchcock:

There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

Here he is adding another component:

Did you catch that? You need to give the audience information so that their experience is an emotional one. If you withhold the information, you will produce only the emotion of curiosity – which is a fine and upstanding emotion, I guess, but probably not even in the top ten of emotions we hope to gain as an audience. Our time is precious! Let’s get to love and hate and anger and joy and passion and all the other HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WOOOOOORRRLLLDDD emotions first… Curiosity? That’s on the undercard

So file that away, you creative types: Even if you think the heart of your story is a Big Reveal, that doesn’t mean you have to keep that from your audience. Don’t be afraid to provide some information up front.

Now all this is really just a way of introducing this video, which is outstanding. Adele puts on a disguise so she can join a contest…. to impersonate Adele! She can’t look like herself, because that would be too easy. She has to look kind of like herself (like the other contestants who have dressed up to look like Adele) so that her voice alone will carry the day.

Big reveal, right? We know what’s coming: there will be a moment when she starts singing like Adele. And you could imagine the producers of the show thinking that the audience should wait for that moment. Isn’t that how Big Reveals work? They reveal things in a big way? Shouldn’t the clip show us nine imitation singers and then roll out the tenth one, who is actually Adele, and shock and surprise us all?

You could do it that way, but what would that do? That would give us five minutes of not knowing what’s going on, watching singer after singer sound kind of like Adele, and five seconds of surprise, when one is really good – and we, like all the people in the theater, would be amazed and then a little delighted to find out that it was Adele. The first five minutes would probably be a little boring. The last five seconds – where we hear Adele’s voice from someone we didn’t think was Adele – would be a little burst of energy, but then what? Adele with a fake nose singing is not going to be that different from Adele singing. Why wait through five minutes to get to that?

Instead, the clip gives us the news straight away. Adele walks in. The host of the show, who is in on the prank, admires her disguise. We know the Big Reveal: at some point, she’s going to sing, and it’s going to be clear to all the other impersonators.

That’s the genius of this clip: we care more about the reaction of the impersonators than we do about our own. We become invested in their reaction. Why? Because come on, just think about it! You’re just sitting there, watching a computer. You could watch Adele all day if you want (and you probably did when the Hello video came out, if you’re anything like me). Or you could not do that. Either way, your life goes on. Adele with a funny nose? Ho hum.

But what if you loved Adele so much you dressed up like her, went on stage to sing like her, did your best to win a contest for doing so? And then… you heard the real deal? Coming from someone you were just standing with, talking to, considering just another one of your competition.

That’s our experience watching this video. How will these fellow contestants treat her? Will any of them figure it out? Will they say things about her they’ll later regret?

And what will they do when they hear her? Feel cheated that they enter a rigged contest? Claim that she’s not very good? Storm the stage?

Watch this clip and find out. As you do, think about the emotional experience of watching – and how it’s all been enabled by the information you had right up front, at the beginning. It’s a Big Reveal, but not the Big Reveal you were expecting. Not the obvious one, anyway. Well done, BBC. Well done.

Then maybe go back and read our take on Buster Keaton and the Art of Showing (Not Telling).

And then have a great day, full of onwarding and upwarding!