Recently I wrote about the way my interests in nature and in ancient Greek and Latin developed and became linked as an evolving complex I call my “ecoclassicism”. In this post I want to reflect on how my involvement with one particular ancient Greek author, Aristophanes, has been linked to my struggle to reconcile my Southern, white, mixed-class, rural/suburban, religious roots and upbringing with transformative (and at times traumatic) experiences in New York City in my mid-late twenties and early thirties.
I’ve been enabled to think and write about this by reading Eli Clare’s beautiful and hugely important book Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (1999), which I wish I had read years ago.
What Clare writes about leaving Port Orford, Oregon, perfectly captures how I feel, and have long felt, about leaving Alabama:
Only later did I understand what I lost by leaving. Loss of a daily sustaining connection to a landscape that I still carry with me as home. Loss of a rural, white, working-class culture that values neighbors rather than anonymity, that is both tremendously bigoted–particularly racist–and accepting of local eccentricity, that believes in self-sufficiency and depends on family–big extended families not necessarily created in the mold of the Christian right. Loss of a certain pace of life, a certain easy trust. I didn’t know when I left at 17 that I would miss the old cars rusting in every third front yard. Miss being able to hitchhike home, safe because I knew everyone driving by.
If in leaving, I had simply abandoned a whole set of values, a whole way of being in the world, my loss of home would have been of one sort. And I did leave particular pieces of that culture behind: the desperate lack of economic choices faced by the people who stay. But at the same time, I maintained a strong sense of allegiance to the ingenuity that rebuilds cars year after year from the parts found in front yards; to the neighborliness that had my mother trading sugar for eggs, baked goods for hand-me-down clothes, in an endless cycle of borrowing and lending; to the social ethic that has friends dropping by out of the blue for a smoke and a cup of coffee, to catch up on the gossip of help finish shingling the roof; to a plain-spoken, understated way of being. This allegiance underscores that I lost when I left rural Oregon.Eli Clare, Exile and Pride, 19
Like Clare, who writes that everyone in his hometown “assumed I would leave, go to college, and become ‘successful'” (17), I was considered a bright and talented kid destined for success of some kind, very possibly beyond the borders of Alabama. My love of mathematics contributed much to this impression: mathematics is a subject most people everywhere seem to regard as both terrifyingly formidable and highly lucrative, so that enthusiasm and talent for it virtually guarantee success. In elementary school I was at best a slightly above-average performer in math; when we began to split into different tracks in, I think, the sixth grade, it wasn’t a given that I would make the cut for the “advanced track”, though in the end I did. Addition, multiplication, division, and subtraction just didn’t inspire me, nor did word problems about personal finances. I had a good memory but hardly that of a child prodigy: despite having unintentionally memorized, as a toddler, and to my parents’ and grandparents’ delight and astonishment found myself able to recite, a rather lengthy Winnie-the-Pooh audiobook I listened to at night before bed, complete with a version of the narrator’s British accent and the “pings” indicating a turn of the page, I could never memorize multiplication tables or the digits of pi any better than any other diligent student.
If I had any prodigious talent, it was for seeing the poetic beauty of mathematics. I was introduced to this by David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus, which I read in middle school and found hugely inspiring and beautiful. It didn’t enable me to do calculus, but it did enable me, after re-reading certain difficult passages and chapters many times and thinking very, very hard, to feel I understood something of the essential idea of the calculus, and its beauty, far younger than I was supposed to be able to. Around the same time I read Bertrand Russell’s An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, which gave me a similar feeling of glimpsing something of the essence of mathematical logic. These were heady revelations for a twelve- or thirteen-year-old whose parents openly confessed their complete ignorance of even the most basic mathematics. I had glimpsed whole realms of human thought inaccessible to my dad, whom I considered very smart; what other such realms might exist?
Once I found beauty in math, I found that I was able to devote myself to mastering the math needed to excel in school, eventually earning a reputation as the best math student in my grade or the grade ahead of mine. Let me emphasize that I was able to do this not so much because of any innate genius for math as because I devoted huge amounts of time and energy to becoming really good at it–time I did not spend on sports, video games, partying, experimenting with sex, drugs, or alcohol, or talking about girls with guy friends. It wasn’t just the beauty of math that appealed to me; it was also the sense that being really good at math gave me a certain manly power that I otherwise lacked. I might not have been as big, as funny, or as casually confident around girls as the older trombone player, Edmund I think his name was, who had a crush on the same flautist as I, but I was much better at math (which, as it happened, neither impressed the flautist nor intimidated Edmund nearly as much as I imagined it should–recall that this was before Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk became household names). I might never be able to match my dad’s or Pawpaw’s manly feats of wilderness exploration or construction, but I was much better than either of them at math.
I rode this interest in and psychosocial dependence on mathematics to a full tuition scholarship at Vanderbilt, where in my freshman year I took multivariable calculus with linear algebra. My performance and enthusiasm sufficiently impressed my professor, Bruce Hughes, that he suggested I apply for a summer research program for undergraduates run by his friend Stratos Prassidis at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. I did apply, was accepted, and spent a summer in Buffalo, in a group of around six students (of whom I was the youngest), researching algebraic graph theory. Stratos deemed my contributions sufficient to include me as a co-author, along with him, on a paper he managed to get published in Linear and Multilinear Algebra a couple years later. The next year, when I was a sophomore, I took graduate courses in topology, a topic close in spirit to Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. Again, my performance and enthusiasm led to summer research, and more graduate courses the next year. I also won a national scholarship (unfortunately named for Barry M. Goldwater) considered one of the most prestigious in STEM. I was on track to apply for PhD programs in mathematics and get accepted into a good one.
Yet I had been having doubts for some time about the wisdom of pursuing a career in math. The kind of math I cared about and had managed to learn at an advanced level has applications mainly in theoretical physics, so the career paths it opened were mainly being a math or physics professor. While many of my heroes were math or physics professors–Paul Erdős, for example, whose biography, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, obsessed and stuck with me–I had come to doubt my ability to make biography-worthy contributions to either field. Yes, I had learned a lot of math years before I was supposed to be able to, but only through investing immense time and effort into doing so. I had never performed particularly well in any of the competitions designed to measure raw mathematical talent, such as the International Math Olympiad. I feared becoming a run-of-the-mill math professor, someone good enough to learn existing bodies of theory and teach them and publish papers modestly extending existing them, but nowhere near good enough to crack the really glorious problems that even professors like Bruce and Stratos considered out of their league. (If it sounds like I had a hero complex, I did.)
So I ended up applying to PhD programs in Classics–Latin and Greek–instead. I had learned the basics of Latin in high school and started taking Latin literature courses as a freshman at Vanderbilt; I began learning ancient Greek as a sophomore. I saw these Classics courses as my humanities education, and I had ambitions in the humanities as well as in mathematics, including publishing a novel I had begun writing as a senior in high school.
I had wanted keenly to go to an Ivy League school as an undergrad, or at least to be accepted into one, because I felt this would validate my exceptional intelligence and thus my manhood. So I was deeply disappointed when neither Harvard nor Yale accepted me, and I only grudgingly agreed to accept Vanderbilt’s scholarship offer (to the immense relief of my parents, who had feared being stuck borrowing huge sums to pay for the University of Chicago to console me). It was some consolation that being at Vanderbilt meant I was within driving distance of Erin, my girlfriend, who had gone to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa the year before. Part of me had yearned to go far away, specifically to New York City, like Bob Dylan, and abandon the whole world of my childhood in a quest for new experiences; yet part of me shrunk in terror from the prospect of exploring without a companion, without any tether to my home in Alabama. So I embraced Vanderbilt, found in Nashville some scope for adventure, and ended up marrying Erin the summer before my senior year, when I was applying to grad school.
The success of my grad school applications–I got offers from the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, Harvard, and Princeton–provided the kind of validation of my intellectual virility that I had always yearned for, and this validation quickly went to my head. If schools like that wanted to pay me (however modest a stipend) to get a PhD in Classics, then surely all of my projects would succeed just as brilliantly: I would publish my novel to great acclaim and financial reward, record an album that would see me hailed as the new Bob Dylan, make a few contributions to higher mathematics just to demonstrate my chops, and get a PhD in Classics at Princeton.
Needless to say, it didn’t happen quite like that. I wrote lots of poetry and fiction, but despite submitting to all sorts of journals (always noting that I was “a PhD student in Classics at Princeton” in my cover letter), I only had a couple small things published in minor venues (including, in what now seems an eerie bit of foreshadowing, a story set in contemporary Egypt: I had followed the revolution in the news). After an experience I felt had to be novel-worthy, I wrote a novel and sent it to several agents in New York. One actually read it and replied, saying something to the effect that the manuscript showed some promise but contained too many abstract analytical passages; anyway, they wished me luck finding representation elsewhere. I struggled to write one song I felt deserved an audience. I returned every so often to mathematics, hoping thereby to boost my confidence–but I found I could hardly make sense of things I’d thought I’d understood several years previously.
All this was bad enough, but then it got worse. I failed my Roman History general exam, and then I failed the translation part of my Latin Literature exam. If I failed either of those exams on my second attempt, I would be dismissed from the Princeton PhD program in Classics. That prospect–which would have shattered the last remnants of the hubristic confidence I had gained by being accepted into the program and made me an object of pity, disappointment, and worry to Erin and my whole family–utterly terrified me. Failing out of Princeton might well have meant having to move back to Alabama, or else having to rely, like Bob Dylan, on my guitar; and by then, while I didn’t yet know New York well, I knew it well enough to know that success stories like Bob’s came to vanishingly few of the talented young people who dreamed of them.
So I studied very hard indeed, moved with Erin to Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, and passed my general exams. At this point it was necessary to decide on a dissertation topic and adviser, and to write and defend a proposal. For a while I wanted to write on the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who has strong interests in mathematics, ancient Greek philosophy, and social justice, which he manages to combine in ways I found dazzling and appealing but barely comprehensible. What I took from Badiou, in the end, was a new way of imagining “communism” and other words and concepts I’d grown up thinking designated something evil and stupid. In Badiou’s mind, I gathered, communism–not any instance of communism that has yet occurred in the Soviet Union, China, or elsewhere, but his dream of a communism of the future–was the social and economic form corresponding to the deepest beauties of mathematics and of Plato’s Greek. Feeling less and less certain that I would write a bestselling novel or record a platinum record anytime soon, I found Badiou’s dream appealing. I also liked his strident moral critique of contemporary “democracy” (in which he draws on Plato’s critique of Athenian democracy) as a polite facade masking the horrors of capitalism. My French, however, was not good enough to give me the confidence to write a dissertation about a French philosopher. So I settled, finally, on Aristophanes, whose comic plays address many of the same issues of social and economic justice that interest Plato and Badiou, but with a lot more potty and sex jokes.
Part of what appealed to me immediately about Aristophanes was that unlike Plato or Badiou, he seemed like someone who would feel perfectly at home in rural Alabama–or rather, like someone who would feel very imperfectly at home there, as I did. Part of this is about class, which brings us back to Eli Clare. Like Clare, I grew up thinking my family was comfortably middle class and well-educated, then discovered that people in places like Princeton and New York City, when they asked where I was from and I said “Alabama”, invariably appeared taken aback, paused to catch their breath, and then repeated “Alabama…” followed by something like “wow…” or “fuck…”, regarding me with the same mixture of amazement, pity, and anxiety I imagined they’d have felt if I’d said I grew up in Chernobyl. Clare writes,
I believed the class differences I felt in my bones amounted to my being a country bumpkin. I assumed my lack of familiarity with trust funds, new cars, designer clothes, trips to Paris, and credit cards was the same as my lack of familiarity with city buses, skyscrapers, one-way streets, stoplights, and house keys.Eli Clare, Exile and Pride, 41
I grew up knowing about stoplights (all too common on Birmingham’s congested highways) and house keys, but otherwise, this more or less describes the way I felt at Princeton and in New York City. My family’s two-week vacation to Europe, which I knew (from my dad’s stress) had strained the family’s financial resources, was a working-class joke compared to the multinational backgrounds that had made so many of my Princeton peers (and professors) fluent in multiple modern languages by the time they were eighteen. I couldn’t afford to spend years in Paris improving my French to the point where I could talk to people about Badiou and Plato in French and be taken seriously. Even if I could get a scholarship to do that, I was married (at a ridiculously young age, all Princetonians and New Yorkers clearly thought, even if they politely admired how “cute” it was that we had been together since high school). Would Erin be able to find a job in Paris? Given that she spoke virtually no French, unlikely. Would we live in different countries for years? Hard to imagine that working out.
Plus, if I wrote my dissertation about Badiou, what would I tell my family I was writing about? What would I tell Pawpaw I was writing about? The “golden braid” of communism, mathematical set theory, and Platonic philosophy? He would require further explanation, which I would struggle to provide. He might suspect I just wanted to impress the fancy people I’d met in the big city up north…and there would be some truth to that.
Aristophanes, however, seemed to me to love and value the ancient Athenian equivalents of rural people like Pawpaw while also understanding their limitations; and to mock, in Clouds for example, the pretensions of the ancient Athenian equivalents of people like Badiou (and annoying Princetonians). Here, finally, was an ancient Greek author Pawpaw might actually enjoy reading! Like Aristophanes’ protagonists, Pawpaw was always scheming to enjoy the benefits of rural life while minimizing its hardships. Pawpaw’s view of life, like Aristophanes’, seemed to jerk between a despondent belief that nothing could possibly be worse (Aristophanes assumed Athens would lose every battle, even though he naturally wanted Athens to win; Pawpaw, a huge Alabama fan, remained convinced until the last second ran out that Alabama would lose every football game they played, even when all evidence pointed to the contrary–and if Alabama did win, he was certain they would lose the following game), and a magical ability to see ways of making a private utopia for his family and very close friends, like the private peace Dikaiopolis makes with Sparta in Acharnians–a road trip to Alaska, a camping trip to Lake Guntersville, a hike without looking too closely at the map.
Like Dikaiopolis, too, Pawpaw often used offensive language when speaking of “foreigners” and people of ethnic backgrounds different from his (his shameless use of the “n” word sometimes drew a rare disapproving “Jim…” from Nanmama; “Japs” rolled off his tongue), but he was hardly a white supremacist or cheerleader for the US military: I heard him say more than once that if the US and Russia got to have nuclear weapons, he didn’t see why the Iranians or anyone else shouldn’t get to have them too. Pawpaw told me many delightful bedtime stories about cleverly evading the rules and surveillance of his military training camp in order to seek pleasure or avoid labor he considered pointless or mock arrogant drill sergeants; evidently he considered his fighting against Koreans (Koreans!) no more necessary than Dikaiopolis did his own fighting against Spartans. Like Dikaiopolis, Pawpaw liked and trusted a few people he knew personally (this did include, I should point out, some Black people) and disliked and distrusted everyone else.
So Pawpaw and other contemporary country people, in the South and elsewhere, I thought, might “get” Aristophanes, if he were suitably translated and/or adapted for the TV (Nanmama’s and Pawpaw’s favorite medium–they didn’t go to the theater, but Pawpaw always had a state-of-the-art satellite dish capable of receiving channels from exotic places worldwide) with that audience in mind. This struck me as worthy of effort: as worthwhile activism for Classics and the humanities more broadly, broadening their base of engagement, and good for rural audiences, broadening their sense of ancient history beyond what can be found in the Bible. But would my classics professors at Princeton, or my fellow grad students, or people at other universities, see the value in such a project? How could it be squared with the formal requirements and stylistic conventions of the traditional Classics dissertation? Could I–who had spent so many years with his head buried in a math book, and then so many years in the big city up north–actually pull off such a project? I doubted it.
A better plan, I thought, would be to use Aristophanes to explain my grandparents, and my parents, and Alabama, to people in Princeton and New York City–and thereby to convey something about ancient Athens, and about Aristophanes, that those urban elites were missing.
And then, at Parkside Lounge, a bar on New York City’s Lower East Side, I met two characters, Andrew and Andrew, together known as AndrewAndrew, who seemed to have popped out of an urban environment as productive of weird hybrids and novel trends as that of fifth-century Athens, and out of a theatrical imagination as at home with the bizarre and darkly ironic as Aristophanes’.
The first time I met AndrewAndrew, they were stopping by Parkside for a shot of Jameson on the way home from Gourmet, a luxury grocery store chain that turns out also to have branches in Maadi and New Cairo, with expensive groceries. They were dressed conspicuously and eccentrically, with bowties and other pieces suggesting wealth and formality juxtaposed with others, such as their ragged and dirty tennis shoes, that suggested an entirely different class code and aesthetic. One of the Andrews, whom I quickly identified mentally as the “older” one, talked to me for a few minutes (I was drinking a Manhattan) and gave me his number, asking me to write his obituary and send it to him. The next morning, having done a bit of reading about them on the Internet, I wrote this obituary and left it for Andrew in a copy of Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory with one of the bartenders (possibly the bartender also, confusingly, named Andrew) at Parkside:
Andrew had flexed his culture industry connections, so in the obituary I flexed my ancient languages. The first epigraph, oddly enough, is a quote from a novel or a poem (I don’t recall) by Houellebecq that, in yet more eerie foreshadowing, mentions Egypt:
The poet is a holy parasite, like the scarabs of ancient Egypt, he fattens himself on the bodies of societies rich and in decomposition.Michel Houellebecq
The second is a quote from Aristophanes’ last play, Wealth:
Everything bows before wealth.Aristophanes, Wealth
Rereading these epigraphs and the obituary itself, it’s clear I resented how the Andrews had apparently managed to ride their ridiculous gimmick of dressing identically to a measure of fame and fortune, whereas I (a PhD student at Princeton), was daily falling deeper into debt and had yet to make any sort of name for myself whatsoever. But my resentment was directed at society in general, not AndrewAndrew; I thought they were fascinating, was flattered that they were interested in me (erotically and/or otherwise), and wanted to learn their secret.
So began the relationship that (cue ominous music) would end AndrewAndrew, or at least play a very significant role in its death.
This post is already long, and if I try to tell the whole story of me and AndrewAndrew, it will become much too long. So let me fast-forward to (not) performing Aristophanes in the woods.
It eventually came to seem to me that if Pawpaw represented a contemporary version of one side of Aristophanes, the side embodied in characters like Dikaiopolis the farmer, then AndrewAndrew–and especially the older Andrew, to whom I became much closer, who happens to be from Texas–represented another side of Aristophanes, the one represented by the Dikaiopolis who goes to the playwright Euripides and asks to borrow one of his tragic costumes in order to convince his fellow farmers to embrace peace, or by Aristophanes’ Euripides himself: the master (or not) of disguise and the bender of gender, as we see also in Women at the Thesmophoria and other plays. I wanted, then, a project that would combine these two poles, Pawpaw and Andrew(Andrew), and all that they represented. But what sort of project?
A dissertation, yes, but it couldn’t just be a dissertation–neither Pawpaw nor Andrew, nor anyone else I knew who wasn’t a professional academic, read dissertations. What, then? A play? But who would see it? If it were in New York, only the urban, elite, New York crowd. If it were a TV show, then Pawpaw might see it–but could a TV show bridge worlds in the way that I envisioned? I didn’t think so, nor did I have any idea how to go about making one.
So instead of a TV show, I thought of creating a place that would be part performance venue, part wilderness area, and part farm; a place outside the city where different people could come together–rural people and urban people, rich and poor and middle-class and mixed-class people, straight and queer people, Black and white people, and so on–and explore nature and art, the ancient and the contemporary, themselves and other critters. AndrewAndrew, the New York DJs, theater reviewers, and Target Optical designers popular in the queer cabaret scene, and my family of Southern, religious, suburban and country people, would work together. If we could bridge our worlds, we could bridge any worlds.
Such a project required land. Among my family’s holdings were two possibilities, my grandparents’ property in Huntsville and my dad’s property in Mentone. Each of these had advantages and disadvantages. I talked to my dad about the idea of the project, and he said he liked it and would look into setting up a nonprofit organization. But he was clearly uncomfortable about the prospect of having to meet AndrewAndrew in person or interact with them in any way. His attitude, together with AndrewAndrew’s own reservations about working with my dad from Alabama, led me to abandon the idea of collaborating with my family.
Still I dreamed of setting up some sort of Aristophanic eco-theater outside the city; but I didn’t have enough money to buy land (on the contrary, I owed credit card companies thousands of dollars, a debt whose increase was causing me sleepless nights like the one Strepsiades is having at the beginning of Clouds), and the younger Andrew, who controlled the AndrewAndrew purse strings outside of the older Andrew’s unlimited drinks and entertainment budget, did not seem eager to invest.
Then a promising opportunity came along: it so happened that the Andrews’ next-door neighbor, who made a good living as a videographer (or something like that–he had made a music video), had bought a piece of property upstate that he wanted to use for (Andrew told me) something like what we were envisioning, a farm and performance venue. He was happy for Andrew and me to go spend the night at the place and check it out. We did go visit, and we documented our visit with lots of photos and videos. We dreamed big dreams. But in the end the landowner didn’t like our proposals and decided to do his own thing with the property.
My dream of performing Aristophanes in the woods, as an act of ecoclassicism that fosters new rural/urban communities of peace and joy, has lain dormant since then. Now I’m dreaming of performing Aristophanes in the desert.