POXY POXY 413: A Conversation between Collaborators on the translation of Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 413

by Catherine Sarah Chedgzoy
Peter Robert Keith Andrew Davidson
Dominic [James] Alexander Sebastian [Theodore] Montserrat
Jane Barbara Stevenson

c/o Dominic Montserrat
Department of Classics
University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL

DASM: Sallie wants to know why we've 'chosen to do a new reworking of an ancient theme'.

PRKAD: Poor old text, it's not likely that anyone else would have given it so much as the time of day.

DASM: Come, come. Medea Norsa's an important figure from the lesbian past.

PRKAD: And? We might have written a learned little article about tragic waste, reclaiming the past, reading strategies of oppression...Medea Norsa doesn't explain why we've exhumed a Hellenistic medical students' revue.

DASM: Do you remember the Yiddish for the back end of nowhere? The place that's even further away than 'midden Drin'?

PRKAD: I think you're being a bit indirect. Actually, it's 'Alle schwartzen yaren' according to my informants.

DASM: Precisely: 'all the black years'. Shakespeare's 'dark backward and abysm of time'. Time's a bugger you know. There they all were in the desert. Dateline Oxyrhynchus, Middle Egypt, winter 1897. Boring food. Iffy water. Sand in everything. Grenfell and Hunt from Queens' College, Oxford in their little tent, going it for traditional English culture in every way. Dottoressa Medea Norsa from Pisa, up the road in the Grande Hotel du Chameau. Everyone going mad. Just a little mad; or really very very very mad.

PRKAD: -- barkety, bark, bark, bark, as my dog Oliver would say. Medea Norsa is my hero. She was a wonderful scholar.

DASM: Poor woman. A great scholar, terribly misunderstood. Trust those boys from Queens to steal the show. Trust Tony Harrison to write the whole thing up heavy on the male-bonding and the clog- dancing and to forget to mention that there was a great and pioneering woman scholar looking for papyri at Oxyrhynchus as well. It was she who found the poem by Sappho, not that pair of Oxonian inverts.

PRKAD: Often, when I can't sleep, I think about Medea Norsa after they put her away, wrapped up in cotton wool in the asylum. What do you think the nuns can have made of a patient who thought that she *was* an ancient text of Sappho? I don't suppose that they were particularly literary nuns. Anyhow, why are you banging on about 'the dark backward and abysm of time'?

DASM: Loss. Pain and appropriation. Scraps of Euripides, little fragments of Homer and then this backstreet farce more or less intact.

JBS: I think we all got interested because of the amount of text which survived; about two-thirds. Just enough to make you feel that it stood up on its own, but with intriguing gaps, and no ending. In an awful kind of way, it was quite seductive. It wasn't a poor little thing at all. I reckon it led us on. We all went out of our minds for weeks and weeks, trying to get down to its level. I mean, how would *you* translate a line which means, literally, 'go and perform cunnilingus on that bilgepipe?'

PRKAD: You're not on the Late Show yet. Do try and explain. Are you driving at something about the nasty jokes which time plays with texts? About things getting lost in all that sand? About the sand preserving the rubbish?

DASM: It's not only that. Other things get lost too.

PRKAD: What? Why, by the way, do we both go through a hard and uncaring world burdened by so many initials?

DASM: Parents, parents. In fact I've got more initials than you, but I'm a bit closety about some of the more special ones. *Mais, revenons a nos moutons*. Why did we choose this text?

PRKAD: It has no redeeming features whatsoever. It is an incomplete and puerile parody of *Iphigenia in Tauris*, it hasn't even got any good jokes in it. The Greek's degenerate to the point of liquidity, it's a text which contains nothing whatsoever worthwhile, tells us nothing about anything. It only serves to reassure us that some real rubbish, quite as bad as the *Corpus Hermeticum*, was coming out of Hellenistic Egypt.

DASM: You're being judgmental again.

PRKAD: Well, just a little. But given a straight choice, if I'm allowed to express an opinion, I'd rather watch the video of *Brief Encounter* which is, by comparison with this lot, art, I mean art.

DASM: How funny you should happen to mention art, I mean fart. There's plenty of that in our translation.

PRKAD: To quote our moving prologue:

  You asked for Oxyrhynchus 413: that equals FART.
  Fart in the theophany, fart in the text
  fart in the beginning and in what comes next
  fart in the sails and then escape by sea
  and that's Papyrus Oxyrhynchus four one three.

CSC: (a learned friend, from the other side of the room) What I think is that you ought to have something about trans-gender lesbians in this. Dykes with dicks are the flavour of this term so far. What sort of audience do you think we want? Let's get real here.

JBS: Let's get back to the original question. Why did we write this? There are two reasons for writing anything: money or fun. So far this counts as fun; but we might even have a rush of blood to the head and try and get it staged. Dykes with dicks might be this week's news, but fart jokes are forever. Anyway, the cast is jumping with weird deviants of all shapes and sizes --

DASM: -- all of them farting up a storm. Let's try to be sensible. Let's try to summarise what we're trying to tell all the folks back home. We were leafing through the Oxyrhynchus papyri. We found this burlesque of the *Iphigenia*. We were moved by some emotion not unconnected with despair to lavish a vast amount of effort in doing a creative translation of this ghastly travesty. Something to do with this rubbish having survived when so many other things were lost. Trying to find a contemporary style for bottom-of-the-heap Greek was the fun bit. Then of course the fragment's so short, that we had to supply an ending, just by going on burlesquing Euripides. Then we had to find a prologue from somewhere.

PRKAD: As I said, Medea Norsa is my hero. I have a photograph of her in my study, in a silver frame. And I've always hated that populist medic Oliver Sacks with an unreasoning hatred bordering on dementia. Dead simple really. We just matched up the one and the other.

DASM: So the prologue is Dottoressa Norsa in the asylum, muttering Sappho to herself, then a grisly pop-psychiatrist dis- playing her like a performing chimpanzee. He's all smarm and insight, making the demented old bat do her tricks to camera:

  That squinting down a microscope has done in her head
  and worst of all is mixing it with the Lesbian dead-
  no wonder it destroyed her shaky mental equilibrium-  
  and made her a sad composite of pottery and Librium
  eye strain and feminism have certainly got her
  and left her thinking she's a sherd of Sapphic terracotta
  Just think of her self-image -- it tells you a lot --
  to decline from a professor to a piece of a pot.
  Don't think the dottoressa's got any more to say,
  so I'll give you my conclusions from the lecture today.
  The truth is self-evident, in some ways quite sad:
  the bottom line is FEMINISM DRIVES YOU MAD,
  so what you see before you is a mind that's been wrecked
  by obsessive meditation on a separatist text -- 
  her flashes of memory are a neural function,
  traversing like a railway line a tundra of disjunction,
  she's lost her geography, her person, her art 
  because of her misguided and distressing use of 

Norsa (loud and clear)
  F A R T 

JBS: Because it's no use her being serious, of course. Psychiatrists can deal with tragedy; he's well in control as long as she's making some kind of claim for human dignity. But they can't deal with anarchy and irreverence. He accidentally starts her off on Oxyrhynchus 413, and the whole bloody place explodes in farts and laughter. We get whirled out of the asylum into a 'Fifties peplum movie, Medea turns into Our Heroine, the priestess of the Fart Goddess (we didn't make this up, honest) the psychiatrist becomes the king who's keeping her captive, and the other patients become wild barbarian women. Her brother, who's a standard model brainless hero, turns up to rescue her, accompanied by a clown who farts all the time. There's a lot of cliffhanging episodes, they end up in the king's clutches and things are looking pretty black when the Goddess appears in a puff of flatulence, sets them free and blows them back to Thessaly. So you see,

  we got 
  and Parody
    and Anarchy


Oh, and songs too, of course.

Catherine Sarah Chedgzoy
Peter Robert Keith Andrew Davidson
Dominic [James] Alexander Sebastian [Theodore] Montserrat
Jane Barbara Stevenson

(Kate Chedgzoy instructs in early modern literature at the University of Warwick. Her monograph on twentieth-century appropriations of Shakespeare will appear from Manchester in the fall. She is a keen and skilled organic gardener.

Peter Davidson lectures in Renaissance literature at the University of Warwick. He studies and practises the European baroque: thus his interests include visits to Bordighera, fives, cologne, oratories, cufflinks, country cricket and *la philosphia dell'arredamento*.

Dominic Montserrat leads an elegant and slightly mysterious life between London and the University of Warwick, where he is lecturer in Classics. His apartment is decorated with photographs of Prof. Elena Ceausescu, Joan Crawford, Wallis Simpson and Louisa May Alcott. He lives to shop.

Jane Stevenson is lecturer in late antique her/history at the University of Sheffield. She has published on Uranian painting, Irish-language her/history, English women writers, Latin women writers, early modern women writers and football hooliganism. Her hobbies include decorative painting, collecting Greek and Roman jewellery and designing and making gold mules.

CONUNDRUM: Now guess who above is the partner of whom.)