Footnote 51 of Aristotle’s Poetics. Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.

John Belushi

Ever wonder why Aristotle’s Poetics spends 25 sections detailing all that is dramatic, but only two small paragraphs on comedy? It just so happens that I found the very reason, in Footnote 51 of the 1982 Gerald F. Else translation I picked up at the Strand:

51. So far as comedy is concerned, this is a reference to the lost second book.

Of course. Somebody lost the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics. Beat. Want to bet it was a comedian? Want to bet it involved grapes? Somebody sliping? A torn toga, perhaps? And so, the dramatists get their Sir Laurence Oliviers, Sir Anthony Hopkins’ and Dame Judy Denchs (noticing a pattern?), while we comedic folk, thanks to some ancient Grecian pratfall, are stuck with Carrot Top, Norm McDonald, and Dane Cook.

And want to hear something even funnier? In 1922, a guy named Lane Cooper tried to reproduce the lost book in his Aristotelian Theory of Comedy. What’s so funny about that? I got about 50 pages into the book when I realized that Lane Cooper just happens to be the most seriously unfunny dude in the history of all mankind (ever). A passage, and I quote:

We turn now to the strange fragment or condensation of a theory of comedy known as the Tractatus Coislini- anus, to which I shall not seldom refer as the ‘ Tractate ‘; its obvious relation to the Poetics of Aristotle was noticed by Cramer, who first printed it, in the year i83g,2 from a manuscript of the tenth century, No. 120 in the De Coislin collection at Paris. A better transcript of the manuscript was utilized by Bernays for his Ergdnzung zu Aristoteles’ Poetik (1853, i88o),3 and the text has been several times reprinted, as by Vahlen1 and by Rutherford,2 the best editions being that of Kaibel (1899) in the only part issued of his Comicorum Graecorum Fragmenta3 and that of Kayser (1906)* in De Veterum Arte PoeticaQuaestiones Selectae. Perhaps through a reaction from the effervescent style of Rutherford,5 but mainly in order to strengthen his case against a second book of the Poetics, McMahon goes far in depreciating the significance of the fragment.6 On the other hand, Kayser, the results of whose study of the Tractate McMahon deems ‘ the most credible of all,’ but whom he does not quote, declares that, ‘ Of the ancient commentaries dealing with Greek comedy, as no one will fail to perceive, the most valuable for an investigation into the history of the art of poetry is the ” Tractatus Coislinianus.” ‘7

Seriously, Professor Cooper. Hil-arious! When I got to the part about the Ergdnzung zu Aristoteles, I laughed so hard that tzatziki came out of my nose! Jokes aside, this brings us no closer to Aristotle’s lost book.  

But I’m hardly one to mention a problem without a solution. And so I turn to you, Jerry Seinfeld. Use your riches, the hard-earned and well-deserved spoils from countless years of hilarity, to fund some sort of expedition to the heart of downtown Athens (Greece, not Georgia. I’ve made that mistake before). We shall venture forth like Indiana Jones in search of the Temple of Doom (hint: intersection of Wilshire and Canon), and we shall dig, dig, dig, no matter what the obstacles, no matter how many of our ranks are felled by pick-axes, Grecian cab drivers, tchotchke-vendors, or errant pieces of spanikopita. We shall mine the ancient streets until we have found the lost book and/or start dating Calista Flockhart (I’ve never watched the Temple of Doom, but always figured this was how it ended). And then, we shall know what it means to be funny.

Unless, of course, Jerry Seinfeld already has the lost book… Crafty, Mr. Seinfeld… Very, very crafty…

1 Comment

Filed under Very Close Readings//

One response to “Footnote 51 of Aristotle’s Poetics. Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.

  1. Gowtham

    Hi Martin, I am going through the Poetic s right now. I have learned that Aristotle s book on Humor was lost or destroyed. Still,
    the writer in me wants to have a go at it. By any chance do you think the translation of his work that survived and reproduced in English by Richard Janko an authentic take on Aristotle s theory on comedy??

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