Lycophron of Chalcis was appointed by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, son of Ptolemy I Soter, to manage the comedies of the Library of Alexandria, which likely precipitated his scholarly treatise On Comedy. Yet Lycophron’s own dramatic compositions, with the exception of one satyric drama, Menedemus, were tragedies, not comedies.
Lycophron is my favorite mystery. A tragedian tasked with cataloguing comedies; that itself is tragicomic. When did Lycophron ink his first tragedies?—before or after Ptolemy’s commission? If before, was the commission Ptolemy’s joke? If after, was too much laughter poisonous for Lycophron?
There is a third option. Might we suppose tragedy was comedy to this librarian of Alexandria’s labyrinth.
“Here,” wrote the American philosopher William James, “is the core of the religious problem: Help! Help!”
“Comedy,” said Jerry Lewis, “is a man in trouble.”
Pair those and ask: can the core of the religious problem—our ultimate problem—be comic? For James, the answer is no: “The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest.”
Yet, can that core be tragicomic? Jestfully grave?
Lycophron, whom I imagine as a Friedrich Dürrenmatt for the third century B.C.E., perhaps inked a second treatise, a sequel to his On Comedy, perhaps titled On Divine Comedy, a treatise (dedicated to Momus) now lost, in which his broodings on the tragic core of the religious problem effervesce into a laugh at our utter helplessness—into a tragicomic affirmation of life.
And later, perhaps Lycophron, without any change in his official commission, began to catalogue tragedies, his own and others, under the heading of comedies. Perhaps Lycophron reasoned as follows: whosoever might catch my miscataloging, would understand my joke, would be a fellow Momus (daresay I, even a devoted “Momist”), and we could double over in black laughter. But who will discover me? I do it so infrequently, and for obscure works, the unsought works. And who, even getting this far, would think it an intentional misplacement? And my misplacement, at that. Well, that is how it must go. As Empedocles leapt into the molten of Mount Etna, as proof of his deathlessness, so I into the disordering of this library.
Come soon, my reader, my Momus.
Jonathan van Belle is a Philosophy Content Creator for Outlier.org, an online education platform. He previously worked as a bookseller at Powell’s City of Books. Jonathan is the author of several books, including Zenithism, published by Deep Overstock.