Ever since 405 BC, when Aristophanes, in a comedy entitled Frogs, hit upon the sublime idea of staging a literary contest in the Underworld between two dead writers who loathe each other’s work (Euripides and Aeschylus), the best literary criticism has often been a form of sadistic entertainment—one that uses comedy’s tools (humiliation, ridicule, exaggeration) to comment not on society but on art. There is, of course, an equally long tradition of critics who don’t strive to score belly laughs as they illuminate great texts; that tradition, in fact, begins with Aristophanes’ near contemporary Aristotle, to whose Poetics, written sometime in the middle of the fourth century BC, we owe the first full-scale and intellectually sophisticated attempt to analyze the nature of aesthetic pleasure and to systematize the mechanisms by which literary texts produce that pleasure. (Aristotle’s own text is, it must be said, not the most fun to read: it would be hard to find a less humorous explanation of humor than “Comedy is (as we have said) an imitation of inferior people—not, however, with respect to every kind of defect: the laughable is a species of what is disgraceful. The laughable is an error or disgrace that does not involve pain or destruction,” etc., etc.)
If a work like Frogs is more fun for audiences, it’s probably because the play, with its ruthless send-ups of the well-known weaknesses of each of the two contestants, satisfies a primitive pleasure that lies at the heart of all comedy: the Schadenfreude-laden enjoyment of the spectacle of someone else’s humiliation and, ultimately, defeat. After a long verbal duel in which each playwright enumerates his opponent’s flaws with devastating accuracy, Aristophanes provides a brilliant climax which hilariously con-flates a literal and a figurative “weighing” of one poet’s work against the other’s: each approaches a scale and utters a line from his work, and the onlookers peer to see whose words are weightier. Aeschylus—whose diction is famously more ponderous (“bundles of blast and boast,” his antagonist spits) than that of Euripides (who prefers airy vers libre)—naturally wins, and so Euripides must remain in the Underworld, while Aeschylus is restored to the world of the living.
It is worth noting that the comic contest between the two writers is repeatedly referred to in Aristophanes’ text as a krisis, a word that can mean anything from “dispute” to “decision” to “judgment”; the verb it’s related to is krino, “to judge.” Those shades of meaning help illuminate the nature of another derivative from krino, the English word “critic.” As the culminating scene from Frogs reminds us, disputes about the values of an artist’s work are decided by a kind of weighing, which leads to a judgment. The person who performs this weighing, this judging, is the critic.
Critics, of course, are also judged: you somehow suspect that most people would much rather see a performance of Frogs than plow their way …