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Classical Studies Professor Ralph Rosen uses ancient satire to predict and describe modern-day controversies.

Credit: Dani Blum

Sitting down for a free-flowing discussion with Classical Studies Professor Ralph Rosen is a lot like flipping blindly through an encyclopedia.

For a man whose intellectual curiosity far extends the parameters of his professional expertise, hardly any topic is off limits for analysis. This is, of course, a professor who related the Roman satirist Horace’s poetry to Snoop Dogg’s nasty rhymes in his paper, “Comedies of Transgression in Gangsta Rap and Ancient Classical Poetry.”

In the same conversation, Rosen can span topics from Jesus to Eminem, all the while exploring one of his favorite concepts: satire. His research pays close attention to this delicate art, which Rosen considers more “nuanced” than people think.

“I’ve always been interested in transgressive language — the phenomenon of it,” Rosen said.

“I think he spent a lot of time in the principal’s office,” his wife, Ellen, responded.

Throughout his academic career, Ralph has combined a professional study of the classics with a consistent appreciation of scandalous art.

Rosen's research on ancient transgressive satire remains applicable in a modern context where satire is still treated with apprehension. This was apparent in the controversy over the shooting at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Muslim extremists on Jan. 7.

Satire, Rosen said, begins firmly with the prospect of danger.

Satirists play up their outsider persona, he said. Even for satirists like Horace, who critiqued Roman society without a significant threat of censorship, playing up an abject persona “went with the territory of satire,” Rosen explained.

“The notion of the danger of satire has become part of the genre,” he said.

A recent example of the seriousness of this danger is in the Hebdo shooting, which killed 12 people.

French Muslims, who “are not interested in assimilating to the hegemonic culture,” proved ripe for the satirists’ mighty pen, Rosen said. A history of targeting outsiders is ingrained in the lineage of satirists. The Roman poet Juvenal also took aim at cultural outsiders, at times offering vicious, xenophobic invectives toward foreigners.

Rosen repeatedly emphasized the unique nature of satire against Muslims when compared to the oeuvre of other transgressive mocking. Traditionally, satirists go after the powerful. Political comedian Jon Stewart, for example, shines a light on corruption and hypocrisy among the elite. Juvenal also railed against hypocrisy among the patrician ruling class.

However, targeting a minority group subject to discrimination, like French Muslims, is unusual.

Rosen believes that the “otherization” of Muslims in France contributed to their ridicule by satirists. He drew a distinction from satire by comedians like Stewart, who criticize America’s politicians but remain an active part of its political system.

“It’s like joking within your family. You can get away with a lot inside of your family,” he said. Such “shared history and shared relationships” were not altogether present with the French Muslims and the mainstream French culture.

“You’re dealing with completely incompatible attitudes toward free speech,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Muslims may not hold power over the hegemonic culture in France, but some extremist sects are “powerful enough” to retaliate against actions that they find reprehensible, like Charlie Hebdo’s parodic drawings of Mohammed.

Many critics of Charlie Hebdo’s satire have upheld the sacredness of Muslim symbols, yet Rosen sees the issue as much more broad.

“There’s not a lot of laughter in the Gospels,” he said.

“Jesus Christ is a very un-humorous person, whereas the Greeks are very full of laughter as a culture,” he said.

Rosen later referred to the cult around the Greek goddess Demeter, whose worshipers would often invoke obscene language and mockery into their rituals. For the Greeks, honoring Demeter could involve obscenity and laughter, while other religions like Christianity and Islam have generally frowned upon mockery of their symbols and prophets.

The relationship between transgressive satire and religion figures prominently in Ralph’s signature course, "Scandalous Arts in Ancient and Modern Society."

Students in his class study the boundaries of what is considered “artistic” and “obscene” through pairings of ancient and modern artists.

College freshman Izzy Korostoff spoke highly of Scandalous Arts. When asked for his favorite aspect of the class, Korostoff responded point-blank: “Ralph.”

“He was so enthusiastic about the material that he carried the class himself in such a delightful manner,” Korostoff said.

College senior Diamond Irwin took Rosen’s class this fall and found the experience very rewarding.

“He broached a lot of different topics, so it wasn’t just literature or music," Irwin said. "He made the material very accessible and interesting.”

Ralph said that he is not the only one applying classical studies to the modern day. In comparison to some of his colleagues, “Ralph is boring,” his wife said with a smile.

Ralph Rosen certainly reflects the interdisciplinary and fluid nature of the humanities, where study of Aristotle, Horace and Juvenal can often predict and describe modern-day controversies. While he appreciates the application of his research to modern satire, Ralph is sincere about the lack of definite answers in the humanities.

“There will never be a stable answer,” he said.

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