My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
“Questioning is not the mode of conversation among gentlemen,” Samuel Johnson once pointed out to his biographer James Boswell. What he liked least about this mode of speech was the presumption of superiority—the one who led the inquisition perforce had the upper hand.
Dr. Johnson would no doubt have loathed Hippias Minor, the oddball early Platonic dialogue in which Socrates hammers away with a prosecutor’s zeal at the eponymous sophist huckster. But if the method of Hippias Minor is noteworthy, its moral has always been elusive. Plato seems to embrace the paradox that the liar and the truthful person are one and the same, and that the willful criminal is morally superior to his or her unwitting counterpart.
What does this have to do with art? Plenty, according to Paul Chan, who has long been interested in the relation of cunning to creativity, or, more pointedly, to an artist’s work. For years Hippias Minor and the problem of the artful liar has occupied Chan’s mind, so when he was offered an exhibition at the DESTE Foundation’s Project Space Slaughterhouse at Hydra Island, Greece this past summer, he commissioned a new translation of the dialogue as a central part of his project. He had the good fortune of turning to Sarah Ruden, whose translations of a range of Greek and Latin authors have illuminated ancient worlds for a new generation of readers.
Her 2012 rendering of Apuleius’s ribald The Golden Ass caught the ear of many (myself happily included) for its earthy English, the very antithesis of the kind of precious translation that would be completely out of place with the proto-novel. Yet her language wasn’t goofy but particular to the world of Apuleius’s man-turned-donkey; its humor was sui generis, like Ruden’s own. When I met her last spring for the first time in New York, she signed my copy of the book, “With warmest asinine wishes.” And I gave her in turn a souvenir button from a California championship match-up of a pair of racing mules that read “Who Has the Best Ass in Del Mar?” Ruden was one of the few classicists who I knew would find it a laugh.
Ruden is unique in allowing her particular appreciation of both the barnyard funny and the high-horsed serious to inform and enliven each other. In addition to The Golden Ass, she has translated the Satyricon by Petronius, and the Aeneid, among other works, and her translation of Augustine’s Confessions is forthcoming. In 2010 she published the book Paul Among the People, a refreshingly counterintuitive appreciation of the writings of the Evangelist Paul of Tarsus set in the context of Greco-Roman literature. In a phrase that can only be taken as her own bit of playful cunning, she describes herself as a “popularizer of Biblical linguistics.”
Ruden is also a published poet. When we recorded a conversation over the phone this fall, we barely got to that other interest, but we did touch on why the language of the Bible is a source of fascination for her. It is no surprise that she approaches the Good Book with the same curiosity, political awareness, and bonhomie that powers her enthusiasm for the likes of Apuleius—and with the sense of serious play and lively intelligence on display in her translation of Hippias Minor.
— Eric Banks
Eric Banks It was really fun to see you the other night at the launch. Were you surprised at how many people were interested in the book?
Sarah Ruden I was surprised. You know, this is certainly not the best known of Plato’s dialogues.
EB Was it the first time you actually met Paul Chan?
EB How did Hippias Minor [or The Art of Cunning] come about as a project? Did Paul contact you?
SR He did. It was unexpected because my background is in academic and literary translation—and now, here we are, in the art world. I didn’t ever think an artist would be interested in my work of translating ancient literature.
EB Paul has a wide range of enthusiasms and curiosities. He and I were drinking sake somewhere, and he said, “Do you know this woman Sarah Ruden, and do you know anything about her translations?” It blew me away that he had come across your translations too. How did he find out about your work?
SR I’m not sure, but I heard about him through Richard Fletcher, a classicist who wrote the scholarly essay for the book. He knew some people at the University of Michigan; there are Yale connections in there too somewhere, I think.
EB Did you teach at Yale?
SR Well, there was actually a staffing crisis in the classics department at the university, so I taught a couple of classes. That was terrific because it had been quite a long time since I had done any formal teaching. I taught beginning Latin and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass.
EB Oh perfect! My favorite.
SR This was before I had a contract to translate The Golden Ass, and I got to interact with undergraduates around the text, which was a wonderful experience. It is very hard Latin, but they were so diligent and dedicated and interested in the weirdness of it, and that was inspiring for me.
EB Is that not a typical text to assign to students?
SR Not at all. I was a bit leery of second-year Latin students taking on Apuleius. Usually, in the second year you’re reading some Cicero, some Ovid, easy things. Not The Golden Ass.
EB What did they like about it? Was it the humor, or the fact that it is sort of a modern text that is not modern at the same time? That it has a novelistic structure, but one that feels so foreign?
SR They just seemed to be continually surprised by it—they didn’t think Latin could do all that it was doing here.
EB For a somewhat obscure Latin proto-novel, your translation really made its way in the world. I heard about it from people who were not classicists.
SR That’s very gratifying to me because I hardly ever teach these days, so I really like hearing that a translation has gone places.
EB Are you fully spending your time translating now? The last time we talked, you were working on Augustine’s Confessions for Penguin Random House. Is that completed?
SR Yes, the Augustine is completed, though we’re not sure when it will come out. My book on the Bible is coming out in February 2017. It’s a long wait, but I certainly don’t want it coming out during an election year. Talk about nightmares of competing for attention.
EB Was it Bobby Jindal who said that Donald Trump hadn’t read the Bible because he wasn’t in it?
SR That’s wonderful! (laughter)
EB What is the Bible book about exactly?
SR Oh, well, it’s about beauty and meaning in the Bible, and the nexus between beauty and meaning, which is something that comes up all the time in ancient literature. It certainly came up in Hippias Minor. All these words, basic words, are multivalent in literary languages. They mean a bunch of things and are used very playfully. People don’t really think about the Bible this way, but these modes do extend to the Bible and its early translations. In Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—in each language, that is—you have a single word that means spirit, breath, and wind, and means all three of these! So that word is played with—the meanings are intertwining. You have a really intricate literary language that looks to us like a plain, even legalistic language in many passages, but in the original Bible there is no such thing. Meanings are worked out through form, which is not the way that modern languages function, especially English. Last week I was at the University of Colorado lecturing and I got asked whether Augustine believed in infallibility. That is, did he believe that scripture text was infallible? And I had to say, “Well, no, an ancient language doesn’t do that.” The infallibility thesis comes from the modern era and is based on the way that our languages work, which is with extreme precision and using a huge array of words. Each word is assigned an exact meaning within an exact category so that descriptions and instructions—say, engineering specifications—can be conveyed between cultures that are very different.
EB There is an assumption that languages exist to be translatable, that there has to be a functionality built into language in a conscious way. This wasn’t the case with ancient languages. When you are translating from Latin, Greek, or Hebrew you are in a very different relationship to language.
SR Yes, you are—well, actually, you’re working backward. Instead of having, say, fifty different words in one area, you have one word that has fifty different meanings, and they are fluid within the text.
EB In the introduction to Hippias Minor you write that the Greek vocabulary is relatively tiny and the words are so much more multipurpose, and because of that they are loaded with irony and ambiguity, and there is a lot of drama in their use.
SR What was really cool about this project is the shortness of the dialogue for one thing. I have no philosophical training to speak of. You know, I read some Plato in grad school because we all did—but I don’t know Plato from a bar of soap. (laughter)
EB That’s a good name for a bar of soap, by the way. I’m not sure what the aroma would be—
SR Olive oil. Gymnasium sweat and olive oil. (laughter)
EB But the text pulls you right into the philosophy, just in the process of translating it, I guess.
SR It does. You know, the text was something that I could manage easily because of the dialogue’s brevity; and it’s also invitingly tentative. You can sense Plato feeling his way around here, feeling his way forward and then stopping. You have the aporia, the classic “Whoops, can’t go any farther,” but it is a very rudimentary one. It’s kind of silly—
EB It’s a really odd dialogue, and an early one. Paul Chan refers to it as Plato before Plato. You definitely get this sense of what you just called its tentative aspect. As a reader, as soon as you get going in terms of the momentum—it’s not that the entire dialogue comes to an end, but there are about three or four places where you think you know where you’re headed and then it suddenly stops. You’re not sure exactly where Socrates, or Plato, is in relation to this. Is he actually agreeing with the argument that someone who lies knowingly is superior to the one who lies out of ignorance? And does he think that virtuosity in the sphere of justice is somehow not too different from virtuosity in the world of horsemanship?
SR Yes, and you have Hippias’s incurious, rather officious host and fan, Eudicus, who really just wants to orchestrate admiration for Hippias. Then you have Hippias, who is so full of himself. Plato’s Socrates—it’s hard to pin him down and picture him. In some places he’s cautious and polite, and in others he sounds pretty arrogant. The characters, and the tensions among them, and the development of these in tandem with the argument, aren’t so brightly outlined as in other dialogues. In the Republic, for example, Socrates describes his opponent as pouncing on him suddenly and unexpectedly, like a wild animal. So he is set dramatically, if not melodramatically, outside the idealized civilization he will describe with his own (mostly) polite but masterful and devastating argumentation, which stands for the sophisticated power of civilization.
EB Yeah, in Hippias Minor, Socrates is almost badgering at times. He is like a cross-examiner. John Stuart Mill distinguished between the didactic Plato and the elenctic Plato—the Plato who is like an inquisitor—and this seems like a dialogue in which that dogged inquisitional method is in overdrive. It is really tripping up Hippias, who is so wary of entering the dialogue.
SR Yes, Socrates is cunning, but he’s too cunning for his own good.
EB Of course, much of Hippias Minor involves the question of being cunning, and its relation to virtue. Some have tried to translate cunning as “versatile” in the earliest part of the dialogue, when the cunning of Odysseus is being discussed.
SR That has a nice physicality about it, because you can think of an object that is versatile, a tool that can be used in different ways. That kind of works. (laughter) Other traditional translations didn’t work for me at all, such as translating kalos as beautiful. In practice, in Greek literature kalos is so slippery. Kalos could even mean “swell.” Kalos is a word we find in graffiti—it’s the equivalent of notes that kids are writing on bathroom walls about each other. You find “So and so is kalos, he’s swell.”
EB Wasn’t fine the word that was used in the ’60s or ’70s? Like, “She’s so fine.” Or that song by The Chiffons—
SR Yes! Or “Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine, you blow my mind.”
EB That was Toni Basil. It is a very Greek sounding name. It sounds like a patriarch from the Orthodox church. How much do other translations influence your work?
SR I chiefly use other translations in checking my work. When I’ve got something solid started, I feel safe looking at what other people have done. That’s not so important in Plato because he’s a relatively straightforward author. You have a real problem when you are dealing with somebody like Apuleius or Augustine, where the prose is amazingly hard.
EB Is it because their language is much more self-consciously literary?
SR Plato’s language is quite clever and refined. But when I talk about extreme difficulty in prose, I mean the far end of the ancient literary tradition—during and after what’s called the Second Sophistic—with its new, wildly ornate, endlessly self-conscious rhetoric. It’s like mannerism in art, where you’ve gone through a classical period and people have reached certain peaks of expressiveness in what’s considered a high point of the culture. Afterward people aren’t sure what to do, they know what to say but they’re not sure how to get attention in saying it. So they pull all kinds of stunts—one poetic or rhetorical device on top of another, such as metaphors enhanced by goofy alliterations. Plato, on the other hand, is exciting because this is the peak of classical Attic prose. It’s not at all pompous, it isn’t high-flown; it’s earthy, it’s inventive. On the surface it’s fairly plain and easy to read, but there are all kinds of stuff going on.
EB In Hippias Minor, what would you say was the most exceptional aspect that jumped out at you?
SR The thing that jumped out at me, in this dialogue particularly, was that Plato switches between two words for “better.” You have the single word, agathos, for good, and then in the comparative it branches out and you actually have two Greek words, ameinōn and beltiōn, which are quite different in their flavor. But the general practice in translating has been to mash them together and not distinguish them at all.
EB Each has its own connotations?
SR Yes, ameinōn—the one that is used in the early part of the dialogue—is about bravery, nobility, and it has more class connotations than beltiōn, which is something more useful, more fitting—
EB I see.
SR So that would be your horse, not your Homeric hero. (laughter) Toward the end of the dialogue, Socrates slips into questions of performativity and functionality in the democratic community. We’re not in the Homeric world anymore, so we’re not talking about Odysseus and his nobility or his virtue, but rather about how we use things and how citizens fit in. So that is what we get at the end. Socrates just changes that terminology in the middle of the speech.
EB And it is not as if it’s registered in the text. Hippias doesn’t say, “Wait, you are comparing unlike terms. You can’t compare the nobility of a figure from Homeric Greece to the goodness of a horse, or of an instrument.”
SR No, as usual Socrates isn’t called on it. He has interlocutors who can be led around by the nose.
EB Okay. (laughter) Socrates definitely comes out on top. Do you think it is an underappreciated text because of its brevity, its simplicity?
SR I don’t really know. I think it would be interesting in the classroom because it’s such a handy introduction to Socrates as a personality, to this method of argumentation, to the culture of Athens where you have all these hot-shot foreign speakers like Hippias coming in and making the intellectual fermentation even stronger.
EB It is also a great introduction to this particular embrace of paradox. Yet the question of whether Socrates embraces the paradox or not is an exercise in the performative aspect of dialogue.
SR Yeah, and it’s comical in certain ways—like the idea in Hippias Minor of doing a math equation wrong on purpose. The logic is, if you’re really good at math, you’re in control. So you can get it wrong when you want to …
EB If you were really good at math you could only get it wrong if you were intentionally lying. Which is a curious thing. You said that you didn’t come to this project as a fan of Plato.
SR Uh, no, because I’ve run into Plato most often in my translation and translation-related work in the nexus between scripture, on the one side, and philosophy becoming theology, on the other. Here we’re talking mainly about Neoplatonism—and in that sense Plato isn’t any fun, at least not to me. His thoughts are kind of a distraction from all the interesting earthy stuff in scripture. Let me back up and describe one instance. You’ve got somebody like Augustine, who in his late teens goes off the rails and enters what’s really a cult, the Manichaean sect, a tenet of which is that God is a massive blob of good stuff opposed to a blob of evil stuff. Later, with the help of the Neoplatonists, Augustine develops a system relating the material to the immaterial, and he posits that people rise to the immaterial by all these laborious steps. It helps Augustine escape the Manichaeans, true, but it certainly doesn’t bring him to the Bible’s confrontation with life and history. Instead, it’s this vast elitist and hyper-moralistic metaphysics, which makes you want to throw yourself in front of a speeding bus! (laughter) It has about as much to do with the gospels as my little corgi does. So that’s how you experience Plato from my point of view: you see that people who would otherwise be involved in the nitty-gritty of Christianity—or, alternatively, Judaism—are instead hiving off into an extremely lofty abstract realm through a notion of Plato that I don’t think has a lot to do with Plato as a literary author or as a living example of Athenian culture. So, it was healthy for me to consider him closely as a literary author. That also made me more fair to him, because in writing about Plato in connection to Paul of Tarsus, I thought Plato came off badly in comparison: as a snob, as a pederast. But it was somewhat ignorant of me, because I didn’t know enough about Plato as an author or about Socrates as an intricately crafted persona.
EB Hippias Minor is nothing if not lively and oddly dramatic, even if it’s a drama that doesn’t build to a climax. It’s interesting to think about what got lost in philosophy when people stopped writing dialogues. There are exceptions, people like Joseph de Maistre—who wrote a dialogue arguing that dialogues weren’t a good form for philosophy!—and dialogical texts like Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying.” The dialogue as performative and public art, one that is supremely oral even in its written form, disappears almost completely for good in philosophy by the twentieth century.
SR All of ancient literature was performative to a degree we don’t understand anymore. People didn’t read silently when they were alone, they read out loud, they listened to themselves. Otherwise they would probably have felt unbearably lonely. The philosophical dialogue is really an expression of peoples’ love for each other. That sounds highfalutin, but think about how ancient society worked and how men were in public all the time, talking to each other. Women, even cloistered citizen women, visited each other—they had to have company. People loved being together. One thing that blows my mind about Augustine is his attachment to this dialogue form. After he undergoes his great conversion and turns to serious religious commitment, a Christian one, he doesn’t do anything Christian per se. He gathers around him young people and followers his own age, and his mother, and they go off to a villa together and hang out and have philosophical dialogues. Sometimes Monica, Augustine’s mother, chimes in very astutely—although she was probably illiterate. Anyway, they did this because Augustine was so excited about the way his life had changed, and the way he thought he could best express this was through having dialogues. It’s also sad when you think of where our culture is going with online communication and decreasing face-to-face and oral communication. There is less and less actual connection.
EB Which is interesting because this dialogue is going to be in print, a representation of a conversation that takes place as if we were having a face-to-face dialogue, but we are actually talking over the phone, you from Connecticut, I from New York.
SR Well, at least we’re talking!
EB Exactly. Isn’t it Augustine who is astonished to see Ambrose reading in silence?
SR Yes, he and his friends are surprised, they can’t figure out why he’s doing this. They have several theories, but they have clearly never seen it before. And this is the late fourth century AD.
EB How did you first get interested in translation? Did you train to be a classicist and then go off in that direction?
SR No, my translation urge goes much farther back. Languages kind of saved my life. I’m from a scientific family, but I’m spectacularly bad at math, and at anything that requires spatial reasoning. I would have perished in a physics or chemistry class.
EB You couldn’t have been cunning in those areas.
SR No! (laughter) I couldn’t have lied my way out of those subjects. So it was a great relief to find out that I could manage with languages. At sixteen, I went to the local university and started Latin, then Greek a couple of years later. I was so excited about languages—that these things existed and that the auditory was fused with the visual. I would ride around on my bicycle (this is in northwest Ohio, not a picturesque part of the world) and I would look out at the fields—different times of the year, different colors, different shapes of things, and to me they had sounds.
EB A type of synesthesia?
SR I guess so. So I would look at something and be thinking of lines by Virgil and what they might possibly do in English. As an undergrad I was excited about Virgil’s Eclogues, which are pastoral poems about the countryside. He said himself that he was bold, or too bold, because of his youth. That is, he was practically a teenager and overemotional when he wrote this stuff. It’s pretty melodramatic, some of it.
EB So it’s like, Why must I be a teenager in love?
SR Yes, exactly! (laughter) One of the pastoral characters sings about how he’s going to throw himself from a cliff into the sea, etcetera. But it’s all mixed in with these lovely visions of the countryside. I was buzzed about that. My honors thesis was a translation of several Eclogues.
EB That was your first formal translation project then, I guess?
EB Did you get interested in New Testament translation in relation to those early forays into the ancient world? Did it grow out of your background in Greek?
SR The New Testament came much later. I had been in South Africa for nine or ten years, came back here, and was in a very uncertain situation. I spent a year as a resident in a Quaker community in Pendle Hill, which is outside Philadelphia. We studied Paul in one course. The other people weren’t big on Paul—you know, the usual: Paul is antifeminist, authoritarian, sexually repressed, a big fussbudget. But I was suddenly looking at the English and saying, “No, wait a moment, that has to be the Greek for such-and-such, so it can’t mean what the standard English translation suggests.” So I became interested in the general unfairness in the reading of Paul.
I had a blast writing Paul Among the People, because I deployed all this reading I had done for grad school—I was more or less a specialist in bawdy and popular literature. I’d written my dissertation on Petronius’s Satyricon, which is a fragmentary, very dirty novel—
SR —from the Neronian period. What’s especially interesting is that the composition of this book is roughly contemporary with Paul’s arrival in Rome, where he died, probably at the hands of Nero’s thugs during the first massive persecution of Christians. Petronius was forced into suicide by Nero. That’s two very important but very different authors, done in by the same tyrant (who, by the way, fancied himself a literary genius). And in Petronius, who spoofs decadent, dissolute Roman culture—some scholars think he’s spoofing the court of Nero itself—we read in detail about what Paul decries and curses in the Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 1: cynical idolatry, distinctly un-Jewish sexual practices, and all the anarchic cruelty and irresponsibility he understands as resulting. So I thought, Wow, people who write about Paul tend to be theologians or Biblical scholars, and they come through seminaries or divinity schools—they haven’t read all these dirty books that I’ve read.
EB At least not to your knowledge.
SR Secretly, maybe! (laughter) Anyway, I could build up a literary context around Paul and talk about Paul and women, for example. How do you explain the different attitude toward women’s sexuality in the ancient world? It’s the polar opposite of our attitude toward sexuality. The ancients said women are animals. Women have no control over their libidos, they’ll run amok—that’s why we lock them up. Men are naturally chaste, controlled, and disciplined; they’re the leaders of civilization. So to demonstrate that, I translated some of Ovid’s tale of Pasiphae and the bull of Minos, the minotaur. In the myth, Pasiphae falls in love with a bull and seduces him, and the result is the minotaur, half man, half bull. Ovid turns this into a farce: he has her dressing herself up, doing her hair in different ways to try to find a style the bull might like. She’s roving along with the herd, and she sees a pretty cow that catches the bull’s attention—so it’s off to the altar for sacrifice. Cows are disappearing day after day, as my mentor David Ross put it. (laughter) Ovid couches this all in gossipy, horrified language. But it’s the basic formula in the ancient mind: women are absolutely shameless; women will do anything.
EB Isn’t there some odd passage in Aristotle where he argues that short men are still men but short women, he is convinced, are some sort of different and wild species? Anyway, there has been a mountain of recent interest in Paul—Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Daniel Boyarin, for that matter, Paul Chan.
SR My interest is based on personal feeling. Most of my translation is based on that—the feeling of affinity for an author. For Paul, one thing that might have helped was that, coming from a Jewish background, he was relatively friendly toward women. About marriage, for example, he reflects the Jewish law in writing, “Look, you need to be fair and generous in having sex with each other.” That entails an acceptance of male and female sexuality as similar and compatible—which must have blown minds among his Greco-Roman audience.
EB Well, it’s not as if the Christian treatment of marriage has been unproblematic for centuries before recent concerns.
SR Yeah, but it’s interesting to consider that in relation to Paul and his circumstances. One thing that’s funny about him—and this is glaring in the original text—is his bad temper. He’s excited about God, about salvation, about the new covenant. But he’s got all these pesky followers asking him, “Do we have to be virgins? Or just some of us? And how? And why?” His manner—and some of his explicit wording—conveys, “Shut up! This isn’t what your main concern should be. And these things aren’t as hard as they seem: decisions follow from faith—calm down and pay attention to that.”
EB Are you still religious?
SR Yes, certainly. I’m still a Quaker.
EB Still a Quaker (laughter), I like that. Does that in any way affect your theory of translation or how language works? I would imagine it would have quite an impact on it.
SR Yes, it does. I wrote about this in the introduction to the Bible book. I guess I’m with Stanley Fish—if I’m with any theorist, it’s him. I like his idea of interpretive communities. It rings true when you talk about religious groups and their writings. Among Quakers we have a collection of writings that are most important to us, called Faith and Practice. Every region has its own Faith and Practice volume.
EB Oh, really?
SR Yes. In theory, anybody can contribute to Faith and Practice—well, anybody can “minister” verbally in meeting for worship, or write about Quakerism. But the words and the writings that survive are the ones that speak to our community’s condition. There is something about them that is memorable, that is beautiful to us, that stands for us striving to love each other and the rest of humankind. You can see the same thing enacted in the development of the Bible over millennia. We know that myriad writings fell by the wayside; we can extrapolate this from the texts that exist only on a single papyrus. It’s exciting to find them, but they hardly compare as literature, as inspiration, with what’s in the Bible. And then in the Bible itself there are particular parts that are the canon of the canon—things we especially love, that especially speak to us. Even for many people who are seriously religious, the Bible is those few passages. People make those canons for themselves. And I’m privileged to belong to a sect in which we’re letting that happen especially fluidly over time.
EB I was raised a Southern Baptist, we had a very different approach to those texts.
SR Some Quakers adhere pretty strictly to traditional Biblical teachings. I knew several Quakers in South Africa who had long-term associations with mainline churches; they would go to Bible study every week, for example. Or they were involved with development work in a particular church. Some of them had fought apartheid—nonviolently, of course—because, as they said, the Gospel simply commanded it. That is, the Gospel commands equality. I thought that was beautiful. That was as beautiful a rationale for orthodox Christianity as I have ever heard.
Eric Banks is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. A former senior editor of Artforum, he relaunched Bookforum in 2003 and served as editor in chief until 2008. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times Book Review, the Financial Times, Slate, the Wall Street Journal, Aperture, W, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and he has contributed to monographs on artists Franz West and Christopher Wool.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.