Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Stephen E. Kidd, Nonsense and Meaning in Ancient Greek Comedy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. vi, 208. ISBN 9781107050150. $103.00.

Reviewed by Sarah Nooter, University of Chicago (

Version at BMCR home site


[This review appears after the initial reviewer was unable to complete the task.  BMCR is grateful to the present author for undertaking the work.]

Where is the comic? Stephen Kidd's excellent and elegant book on ancient Greek comedy is rooted in the generative notion that comedy is located where meaning is most strenuously resisted: in nonsense. In Nonsense and Meaning in Ancient Greek Comedy, Kidd pushes back against the scholarly trend of hunting for political and literary allusion, metapoetic gestures, and other forms of serious intent in comedy. Lyric poetry gives us obscure language, suggests Kidd, inviting ever more strenuous attempts to unravel it, but comedy "often suggests a different interpretative gesture, which is not to interpret at all" (3). Kidd leaps into this interpretive void, carefully mapping out its coordinates in puns, allegories, metaphors, coinages, and repetitions that veer away from coherence.

Kidd starts from the proposition that nonsense is not simply inarticulate noise or speech but "certain phenomena (utterances, gestures, data, etc.) that present themselves as being interpretable, but turn out not to be" (4). He offers a plethora of illustrations to help pick apart the obscure from the truly indecipherable, such as, "[o]ne would never call the stars 'nonsense,' but might call the read-outs from machines charting the pulses of the stars 'nonsense'" (4). But Kidd also points to trouble in these interpretative waters when he asks from what perspective an utterance is meaningless. What if someone disagrees? He turns to Chomsky, Lecercle, and Deleuze—with a light touch—to puzzle through sentences that are grammatical but (arguably) nonsensical, as opposed to those that are gibberish yet still (arguably) informative. So do nonsensical lines deliver no meaning or an excess of it? If language actually accumulates "delirious significance" as it travels from "some gravitational, unifying sense" (7) that limits meaning, then perhaps there is no such thing as nonsense? But, wait, Kidd bids us: all languages have a notion of nonsense, and ancient Greek had several ("phluaria, lēros, phlēnaphia, and hythlos" [7]). Nonsense may not be an objective category but it is still alive and well as an "intersubjective … label" (8) that refers intelligibly to language perceived as having no serious meaning. It is most often pronounced as an aspersion, Kidd suggests, yet it is also the category that encompasses the ever-just-ungraspable pleasure of comedy. Just as Frost described poetry as what gets lost in translation, so Kidd implies that nonsense is what gets lost in interpretation.

I have taken some care to explain these first pages because so much of the intrinsic gesture and nature of Kidd's book are to be found here. At a moment when we are told that Reception Studies is the next/present/passing wave of scholarship, Kidd's book shows that a fine-grained study of the ways that comedy is received by other scholars can reveal the very core of comedy itself, and many of his insights reside in analysis of the work of his forebears—the Newigers and the Silks. His book also includes plenty of textual analysis of Old Comedy, but embedded within this analysis is the application of the idea that our own scholarly touch affects the objects we encounter—the very interpretative uncertainty principle that Charles Martindale and others have unfurled for classicists over the last several decades. This acute scholarly self-consciousness puts Kidd in a bit of a bind, since, as he notes, there is no particular line or passage of text that can be definitely understood as nonsensical, since someone may find meaning in it. Thus there are no formal features to nonsense and no firm markers to hold it in place while we interpret it, since our interpretation of it is precisely the act that will make nonsense vanish. So what is an author of a book on nonsense in ancient comedy to do?

What Kidd does is to roll back this declaration a bit in Chapter 1 ("Greek notions of nonsense"), in which he looks to classical rhetoric to provide a context to help define two of the most common Greek words for nonsense: φλυαρεῖν and ληρεῖν. Here he shows that the accusation that someone is speaking nonsense is often meant to signal that the speaker-of-nonsense is not dangerous (as someone who speaks lies is) but mentally impaired or just foolish. Kidd walks a line here between suggesting that it is merely the state of mind of the speaker that is implicated—that the same statement can be nonsense or not, depending on the manner in which it is spoken—and arguing that there are in fact rhetorical elements that make some statements more given to the accusation of being nonsense than others. These include "excessive repetition" and "excessively rambling speech" (35). Here, as Kidd points out, the units of language under discussion are not words or phrases but entire ideas, not instances of anaphora but of redundant periodic statements. Kidd then moves on to a different kind of nonsense, the kind that resides in the world of play, which he defines through a variety of classical examples as a kind of talk or activity that is willingly entered upon in the service of joy that "gets nowhere" and "says nothing" (48). Speakers of nonsense, then, may be compared to people who are mentally ill on one hand, or to children on the other, as Kidd unfolds at greater length in Chapter 4.

In Chapter 2 ("Nonsense as 'no reference': riddles, allegories, metaphors"), Kidd turns to close readings of comedy by way of "language without reference," that is, language that is intelligible in its own right but that refers to nonexistent objects, as opposed to language that is internally indecipherable. Kidd's argument is that devices that usually have references hidden away—riddles, allegories, and metaphors—pointedly lose them in Old Comedy and that this loss is made explicit for the audience's benefit. But what is the point of this referential bait-and-switch? Kidd suggests that a strategic gear-shift into "meaningless language … causes more irrational reactions in lieu of the cerebral interpretative response—discomfort, frustration, rage, laughter, and others" (54). To illustrate this point, he turns to a passage that takes on insolubility in riddles in Antiphanes' Gut and also to his play that is actually called Riddle. In both cases, Kidd suggests that the "more physical or emotional response" (62) of aggravated characters onstage might offer a clue as to how the audience was meant to perceive these riddles. The audience's irritation at the lack of reference in riddles would have given way, suggests Kidd, to the "surrender of the interpretative urge" (65); this surrender, or submission, would allow nonsense to reign. As Kidd moves into the more familiar territory of Aristophanic comedy, he turns to elements of "broken signification" (71) within allegorical frameworks and features that burst abstractions apart, like the all-too-literal jokes about sex with Reconciliation in Peace. He ends the chapter by considering metaphors that don't cash out, as in another moment of sexual innuendo gone wild in Peace, in which images of wrestling and horse-racing standing in for sex suddenly seem to lose their footing and skitter off into absurdity.

Kidd steps back to look at "broader stretches of comic action" (87) in Chapter 3 ("Nonsense as 'no-serious sense': the case of Cinesias"), framing his question around the phenomenon of "onomasti komoidein ("mocking by name"), by way of Aristophanes' onslaughts on the character, poetry, constitution, and digestive state of Cinesias. Didn't Cinesias and other mocked figures take such comic aggression and insult seriously? If so, why do we have no evidence for outrage and lawsuits? (Kidd glosses curiously over the case of the possibly more litigious Cleon in just a non-descriptive footnote.) Kidd poses and then works his way through this problem deliberately, trying out different solutions and sifting through a handful of passages before coming to his punchline: this is play-aggression, not aggression-aggression. This line turns out to be critical for Kidd's overall argument. He acknowledges that Old Comedy contains meaningful content and reference, but seeks to delineate the ways that the genre uses content and reference as decoys for something far less (literally) significant, yet far more intrinsic to human life—play. If Cinesias didn't sue or commit suicide, it is (argues Kidd) because he understood the joke; he perceived the "play signal" that scholars do not often recognize.

In Chapter 4 ("Nonsense as 'no-sense': jokes, puns, and language play'), Kidd reverses the order of argument: whereas he previously uses play to explain how aggression on stage was excused, here he uses aggression and contemporary political references to explain how play to the point of delirium was made palatable. Toward this end, he examines instances of wordplay—short and extended, new words and nonwords, puns and repetitions. Kidd turns to anthropology to draw on the phenomenon of play-fighting (all mammals do it) and to suggest that the thrill that arises as play-fighting comes close to the boundary of the real (but does not cross it) is a useful comparandum for the pleasure we find in aggressive, punchy comedy. Kidd is not so much interested in suggesting an evolutionary model for comedy (along the lines of "we enjoy it because it helps us survive") as with dislodging the place of formalism from the interpretation of jokes and wordplay. Thus he discusses and dismisses Aristotle's valiant attempt to explain that jokes are fun because we learn something (but no one ever accused Aristotle of being too fun), merely by looking at a few Aristophanic puns and asking what the audience might have learned; not much, it appears.

Kidd finds much more to work with in Freud, who suggests that children take great pleasure in aspects of language that make adults recoil, like strings of syllables that rhyme or alliterate. Thus adults feel desire for the pleasure derived from soundplay and nonsense but are stymied by their own learned disgust. In order to enjoy the nonsensically delirious, they must cloak it in mature meaning: political jokes and gestures of aggression. This explanation may seem a long way around to come to why Old Comedy works the way it does and certainly it raises as many questions as it answers: Why do children like strings of sounds? Why do adults recoil from it but still like it? Do we really all react the same way, ahistorically and forever, to stimuli of this kind? But I do not see these interpretative tangles as a drawback to Kidd's argument. His process of thinking-through—always on display as he moves through interpretative possibilities—invites an endless array of further thoughts. Even if his theory is not completely correct (and who knows?), it is certainly rich and generative.

Kidd's fifth chapter ("Playing it straight: comedy's 'nonsense!' accusations") adds support to his overall thesis by looking at the reception of "nonsense" by characters in comedies that act as "straight men." Kidd suggests that this character is an "on-stage element…that is rebuking the comedy itself" (163). When on-stage characters scold one another for their deployment of nonsense, Kidd argues, the audience is relieved of this function and can simply enjoy the fun. This model is perhaps itself a rebuke to other moments in Kidd's text, where it appears that characters' responses to nonsense are typifying audience's reactions (as in some examples from Chapter 2), but this more complex dynamic nonetheless bears fruit. By seemingly pushing back the tide of nonsense, the straight man allows for what Kidd sees as the illusion of comedy's "forward movement," an illusion that lets adults give their time to the seeking of comic climaxes. For Kidd, all this staging of meaning merely allows for a setting in which pleasurable nonsense can flourish, if ever so briefly.

This slim book rather extraordinarily proposes a theory for the whole "wild cognitive storm" (189) of Old Comedy, and indeed for humor itself. To do so, it draws on-stage action, audience reaction, far-flung theoretical models, and scholarly reception resolutely into its orbit. I am sure I will never teach Old Comedy again without reference to Kidd's ideas, whether in agreement or otherwise. He writes very well, making liberal use of the figurative in a sprightly and inviting way (e.g., "regarding allegories, some feverish readers discover them everywhere" [54], "leaving λίθῳ to hang flaccidly at the end of the line" [138]) and allowing his own authorial voice to guide the proceedings, so that we readers may feel that we are fellow-travelers along for the ride of his own explorations. It is a good book for reading in order and in its entirety. I would suggest that anyone interested in Old Comedy, and in comedy fullstop, do just this.

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