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Playful Imaginations

In the immortal words of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight! Some of the writers in this category whisper, “What fools these mortals be!” while others, perhaps wiser, merely smile and say instead, “What lovable fools these mortals be!” Here is the realm of every sort of laughter—wit, irony, repartee, satire, gallows humor, imaginative exuberance, the fanciful and the surreal. The resulting literary vaudeville show ranges from skits about the outrageous nightlife of the gods to the antic oafishness of a bumbling clown to the manic wordplay of S. J. Perelman. A good time is had by all.

LUCIAN (c. 115–200 b.c.)

The True History; Lucius, or The Ass; Dialogues of the Dead; Essays

Speak of the ancient Greeks, and one immediately thinks of noble philosophers, tragic dramatists, mournful choruses and a fair amount of rape, incest, madness, sacrifice, and blood. No matter what these serious-minded folk undertake, they almost never seem to be doing it just for fun.

Aristophanes is the most obvious exception to this generalization. His plays satirize philosophy, sex, war—anything. The philosopher Diogenes—the one who went searching in vain for an honest man—also possessed a playful spirit and a dry wit. When he observed a beggar drink from the palm of his hand, the philosopher threw away his cup; when Alexander the Great stood over him and offered to grant any wish, Diogenes—who had been working on his tan—simply asked the master of the world to stop blocking the sun’s rays.

Arguably the most amusing of all the Greeks, though, is the writer history knows as Lucian. (In fact, there may have been both a Lucian and a Pseudo-Lucian, but scholars have suspected this only in modern times.) The True History takes us on the kind of journey we associate with Odysseus or Jason and the Argonauts and turns it into the adventures of a Greek Baron Munchausen. Lucius, or The Ass is a picaresque and sometimes bawdy tale about a young man transformed into a donkey by witchcraft. It climaxes with a sex-crazed matron wondering what the beast would be like in bed; the next morning Lucius’s owner decides he wants to sell tickets for a follow-up performance.

Lucian’s numerous dialogues—almost brief playlets—read as if written by a Greek Bernard Shaw. In the Dialogues of the Dead, the characters complain about the boring society of Hades. Charon grouses that his boat is too small and, what’s more, it leaks; Hannibal and Alexander argue over who was the better general; Socrates assures us that he really did know nothing and wasn’t being at all ironic; and Tiresias is asked to describe, in detail, his transformation from woman to man. In the Dialogues of the Heterae old whores discuss sex, passion, jealousy, and money with younger women new to the game, while in the Dialogues of the Gods Jupiter, like a tired executive, patiently explains Ganymede’s new duties as cup-bearer, though the young shepherd cannot quite grasp why he has to sleep with the ruler of the universe.

Lucian refuses to show respect or reverence for anyone or anything, and his preferred genres—the dialogue and short essay—offer abundant opportunity for parody and humor, as well as for social commentary. As H. W. Fowler and his brother F. G. Fowler observe in their introduction to a translation of this ancient scoffer’s collected works:

Lucian . . . will supply no one with a religion or a philosophy; but it may be doubted whether any writer will supply more fully both example and precept in favour of doing one’s thinking for oneself; and it may be doubted also whether any other intellectual lesson is more necessary . . . He is individualist to the core. No religion or philosophy, he seems to say, will save you; the thing is to think for yourself and be a man of sense.

Little wonder, then, that Lucian’s example—his bright analytic intelligence, his savage indignation—can be detected in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, Thomas More’s Utopia, Ben Jonson’s play Volpone, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, especially the voyage to Laputa. Very early on, he may even have influenced the Latin writer Apuleius, whose magic-filled novel The Golden Ass essentially reprises the plot of The Ass (but also enhances it with the story of Cupid and Psyche, perhaps the most beautiful fairy tale of antiquity).

For modern readers, The True History may be the most attractive of all Lucian’s works. It is essentially a tall tale, with elements of science fiction (a trip into space) and fantasy (life inside a giant sea monster), and even a dollop of postmodern playfulness: The preface to this “true history” ends with the caution, “I am telling you frankly, here and now, that I have no intention whatever of telling the truth . . . So mind you do not believe a word I say.” My own favorite section recounts a visit to the Isles of the Blessed. There the narrator (Lucian himself) meets glorious poets and heroes and, like a crack reporter, promptly interviews several of them, asking Homer, for example, about the precise critical importance of the word “wrath” in the opening sentence of the Iliad. Homer blithely answers: “No significance whatsoever. It was the first word that came into my head.” Later, when Lucian is about to leave the Isles of the Blessed, Odysseus surreptitiously slips him a note to deliver to Calypso, which Lucian, naturally, reads. It is, of course, a love letter, one in which Odysseus explains how sorry he is for sailing off and turning down the goddess’s offer of immortality and how he promises to sneak away and come see her as soon as he can.

The True History and The Ass are among the dozen or so ancient Greek “novels” that have survived to the present day. Most of the others are tales of lovers separated by cruel fortune, who are finally reunited after myriad adventures. The earliest is Chaereas and Callirhoe; the longest, Heliodorus’s An Ethiopian Story; and the most charming is Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, the very model for what we think of as pastoral romance. All these are currently being rediscovered and freshly appreciated, but none offers as much fun as Lucian’s tall tales.

Denis Diderot (1713–1784)
Rameau’s Nephew; other works

Of all the polymaths of the French Enlightenment, the most likable and modern is Denis Diderot. Voltaire might be wittier and Rousseau a greater master of prose, but the editor of the Encyclopedia—that “systematic dictionary of the arts, sciences, and trades”—possessed the kind of restless, original mind that throws off ideas like a Fourth of July sparkler. He is irresistible.

With equal ease and brilliance, Diderot could analyze the manufacture of steel or stockings, virtually create modern art criticism, dash off a pornographic novel (The Indiscreet Jewels, wherein private parts are made to talk), compose a whimsical essay about his old dressing gown, author a play in which a character writes the play the audience is seeing, establish a major theory of acting (that great actors are in fact coolly deliberative when they seem most emotional), defend radical sexual freedom (in the innocently titled Supplement to the Voyage to Bougainville), undermine religion while reflecting on the blind, almost invent an encoding machine and a kind of typewriter, out-talk the best conversationalists in Paris at a time when salons were at their most sparkling, pass hours alone with Catherine the Great arguing about a constitution for Russia, compose dizzyingly ahead-of-their-time novels (The Nun treats lesbianism with considerable sympathy), and die quietly after eating an apricot.

E: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Times; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Times New Roman'" One might readily view Diderot as the philosophical equivalent of a performance artist. He instinctively prefers dialogue to discourse, repeatedly setting up conversations or playlike situations in his best essays, metaphysical speculations, and fictions. The apotheosis of this technique comes in the urbane Rameau’s Nephew, a sprightly yet disturbing “satire” that sometimes recalls Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, sometimes Kafka. The nephew himself is one of the great scalawags of French literature. As Diderot begins (in L. W. Tancock’s translation):

Come rain or shine, my custom is to go for a stroll in the Palais-Royal every afternoon at about five. I am always to be seen there alone, sitting on a seat in the Alle;e d’Argenson, meditating. I hold discussions with myself on politics, love, taste or philosophy, and let my thoughts wander in complete abandon, leaving them free to follow the first wise or foolish idea that comes along, like those young rakes we see in the Alle;e de Foy who run after a giddy-looking little piece with a laughing face, sparkling eye and tip-tilted nose, only to leave her for another, accosting them all, but sticking to none. In my case my thoughts are my wenches.

The narrator, “Diderot,” goes on to explain how one rainy day, when he had moved inside to watch the chess players at the Cafe; de la Re;gence, he was accosted by the strangest man in France, the nephew of the famous composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. Rameau’s nephew, gifted with some musical talent, though not enough for real accomplishment, has chosen to live as a professional sponge, toady, and flatterer—all of which he candidly, even blithely, admits. From this unexpected avowal the conversation modulates into a series of arguments about morality, music, sex (Rameau regrets the early death of his wife because he had hoped to prostitute her), genius, education, and much else as the slightly prim “Diderot” verbally fences with this ruthlessly self-aware and intelligent parasite. Rameau readily confesses that he is a fool, but so, he maintains, is everyone else, up to and including the king. “I am jester to Bertin and a host of others—to you, perhaps, at this moment,” he says. But then he quietly slips in the kicker: “Or possibly you are mine.”
Copyright © 2007 by Michael Dirda

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Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Literature -- History and criticism.
Canon (Literature)