Thursday, August 6, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Neil Hopkinson (ed.), Lucian: A Selection. Cambridge Greek and Latin Texts. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. ix, 239. ISBN 9780521603041. $34.99 (pb).
Reviewed by James Brusuelas, Thesaurus Linguae Graecae Project, University of California at Irvine

Though far outside the classical canon, the influence of Lucian of Samosata upon Western literature is unquestionable. One simply has to read Erasmus, Rabelais, or Swift. Yet even in 2009, and with two decades of contemporary scholarship reevaluating the literary merit of the Second Sophistic, commentaries, let alone a seminal commentary to his corpus, are sorely lacking. Hopkinson's current edition for the Cambridge green and yellow series thus attempts to fill a marked gap in classical scholarship. For undergraduate and graduate students -- the primary targets -- this edition and commentary is much needed. We finally have an adequate reading text that reflects current models of Imperial Greek literature. However, as welcome as this edition may be, it has some noticeable gaps of its own. Although it is canvassed with the classical tradition, excellent philology, and a good understanding of the textualist culture of the second century, a presentation of how Lucian transforms the classical tradition and the Attic fetishisms of his time is often missing. And if we miss the joke, or to what end a classical myth is comically parodied and reinvented, then we miss Lucian.

Hopkinson's edition contains seven works: The Dream, You're a Literary Prometheus, The Ignorant Book Collector, Praise of the Fly, Sigma vs. Tau: the Court of the Vowels, Timon, and Dialogues of the Sea Gods. Accordingly it is a fine selection of Lucian's comic and satiric writing. Accompanied by a concise preface to current models of the Second Sophistic, this is a useful introduction to Lucian for both students and scholars.

The text itself is nearly indistinguishable from Macleod's OCT. Overall this is not a bad thing. Macleod constructed a usable text. But in light of Bompaire's new Budé and Nesselrath's lengthy, scathing review of Macleod's work, any editor of Lucian needs to address these scholars. While Bompaire and Nesselrath are not entirely absent, Hopkinson never critically positions himself (or defends Macleod) in context. In fact, nowhere does the reader glimpse the editorial controversy -- established by Nesselrath -- that still haunts the last Oxford edition.

Beyond this, one cannot pass serious criticism upon Hopkinson's linguistic observations. His Greek is impeccable. He is, however, a conservative critic. There are places where established conjecture seems quite preferable to manuscript readings. As Shackleton Bailey once brought Sir Richard Bentley back into the text of Horace, a uniquely critical text to Lucian is possible. An editor still has the opportunity to affect this text. Unfortunately I do not see Hopkinson's mark on the Greek.

The real criticism rests with the commentary. Although Hopkinson's notes are full of keen philological comment and understanding of Greek culture, his analysis is often limited, if not incomplete, when it comes to Lucian's comic voice. This unfortunately stems from his general approach. "A Callimachus or an Ovid seems to invite learned comment, but Lucian does not . . . The apparatus of scholarship feels somehow awkward when applied to these effortless compositions. For my part I have tried to evade the charge of pedantry by keeping the notes brief," Hopkinson says in the preface (p. vii). It is one thing to evade pedantry. It is quite another to ignore the humorous mechanisms of Lucian's seemingly simple prose. The few following observations may illustrate this.

The most pressing issue is that too often we find detailed mythological and literary comments that fail to illuminate Lucian's comic writing. Yes, we need to recognize the Greek tradition at Lucian's fingertips, whether this is Theocritus, Aristophanes, or Herodotus. But without any notion of how Lucian reworks this material, we simply have lots of paint on the canvass, but no picture.

To give one example, and there are many, in the eighth Dialogue of Sea Gods Lucian recasts the myth of how Poseidon saved Amymone from a lustful satyr, resulting in the creation of an eponymous spring. Hopkinson gives a complete account of the myth's appearance in Greek literature, and then simply notes that Lucian's version is lacking the satyr and has an "uncharacteristically frenzied" Poseidon (p. 213). Nowhere does Hopkinson recognize that Lucian's mythic recycling is a comic travesty of a divine affair. Thus, as accurate as his philological comments may be, they do not accentuate Lucian's travesty, nor even bring out why the dialogue is funny.

Similarly, numerous jokes and important Lucianic words lack comment. In The Ignorant Book Collector, after sarcastically comparing the man to Hesiod, Lucian claims that the Muses would have nothing to do with him, that they would bestow lashes μυρρίνηι and μαλάχης φύλλοις instead of δάφνης. In conjunction with the sexual accusation of an impure mouth, Hopkinson fails to see the comic, invective charge of effeminacy. μυρρίνηι is "unexplained" and μαλάχης is ignored (p. 123).

In You're A Literary Prometheus, when comparing his own literary composition to the artistic talents of the mythic Prometheus, Lucian explains that his goal is entertainment and play. Here the pun in παιδιά goes unnoticed. In defining his hippocentaur, Lucian programmatically exploits the linguistic connection between gaming (παιδιά) and intellectual activity (παιδεία). In Greek they are separated by only an epsilon! This is fundamental to understanding Lucian's creation of the comic dialogue, not to mention how it works. It is intellectual entertainment. Go ask Erasmus.

The metafictional consciousness of Lucian's work receives no comment either. Whether a piece depicts a theme from contemporary Antioch, Fifth-Century Greece, or involves a talking rooster, Lucian's text refers to itself as a rhetorical and even performed composition. In The Dream, for example, Lucian describes his tear-soaked introduction to sculpting as the prelude (προοίμια) to his art (τέχνης). Predicated upon his tears, this word underscores the rhetorically fabricated and performed biography that ensues. Similarly, important terms such as σχῆμα, σκηνή, and πλάσμα, which explicitly refer to the stage and rhetorical composition, riddle Lucian's corpus. Yet Hopkinson is unconcerned with how these words function and invigorate, both comically and satirically, Lucian's writing. The Syrian is always commenting upon the second century, always commenting upon the job. This self-consciousness is another seminal aspect of the humorous, inner workings of the comic dialogue.

In terms of a classical text, a classical commentary, and as a reader for students of classics, Hopkinson's edition is very usable. Lucian is linguistically and culturally well situated in the second century. However, we must remember the words of Ewen Bowie: "Lucian developed a form of rhetorical entertainment very different from the standard declamations . . ."1 Indeed, Lucian's text is something different, and thus requires something more than the usual commentary. You can isolate and throw the weight of the classical tradition at him. Yet, if his parodic recycling and the mechanisms of his humor are absent, then you have only scratched the surface of Lucian. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Hopkinson's comments are reminiscent of the much-respected, yet older approach of Bompaire; it is a rhetorical stitching together of classical literature and myth. A greater sensitivity to the complex nature of comedy and the comic dialogue would have made this work stronger. After all, as the saying goes, "drama is easy, comedy is hard."


1.   Bowie, E. 2007: "The Ups and Downs of Aristophanic Travel," in E. Hall and A. Wrigley (Eds.), Aristophanes in Performance 421 BC-AD 2007: Peace, Birds, and Frogs. London: p. 34.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.