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Make it Old: Lucian’s A True Story, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Homeric Patterns in Ancient Fiction

From: Comparative Literature Studies
Volume 37, Number 4, 2000
pp. 371-383 | 10.1353/cls.2000.0039

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Comparative Literature Studies 37.4 (2000) 371-383

For fifty years after the publication of Ulysses, the relation between Homer's epic and Joyce's novel was a central feature of Joyce criticism. Since the seventies, as interest in the Homeric parallels began to wane, Bakhtinian and poststructuralist approaches continued to enhance our knowledge of Joyce's ties to antecedent texts and discursive practices. Between the earlier studies of allusion and influence and more recent accounts of Joyce's intertextuality, it may well be that Ulysses' relation to its various traditions has been more widely studied than that of any other literary text. This being the case, it is rather curious that the full extent of Joyce's connection to classical reworkings of Homeric material has yet to be satisfactorily disclosed and generally acknowledged. In particular, Ulysses' resemblances to Lucian's A True Story are not discussed at any length, despite the fact that this Hellenistic text contains parodic versions of Homeric events, and of Homer himself. For this reason alone, Lucian's narrative should be known to Joyceans; in addition, speculation on the possible relations between the two works pose intriguing general questions for Ulysses criticism, for literary history, and concerning modernism's self-presentations.

Joyce scholarship frequently mentions Menippean satire and its tradition, and Lucian's dialogues are occasionally discussed. But somehow his outrageous narrative with the postmodern title, A True Story, has escaped critical notice. Though generally treated by classicists as a parody of fanciful travelogues, pseudo-histories, or philosophical doctrines, this text also recounts a farcically exaggerated series of amazing adventures and epic-style events. These include a seventy-nine day storm at sea, a visit to a land of wine, a voyage to the moon, a descent through the Cloudcuckooland of Aristophanes ("he was a wise man who told the truth," [1.30] we are informed), a twenty-month period inside the belly of a gargantuan whale, a trip to Hades, a voyage to Ogygia, battles with dolphin-riding pirates, and visits to islands of minotaurs and demi-women. That is, many basic features of the seafaring epic exemplified by and originating in the Odyssey are here amplified, exaggerated, and travestied. Specifically odyssean features include the aeolean storm at sea (1.6), the narrator-protagonist's relating his adventures to an assembled company (1.33), the visits to Hades and Calypso's isle, and the scene in which the protagonist, having descended to Hades, receives the same prediction concerning the events of his future that Odysseus had received from Circe (2.28).

Homer is a constant presence in the text. Lucian's narrator occasionally corrects Homer's account, suggesting an alternative explanation for the celestial shower of blood that marked the death of Sarpedon (1.17); at other points he comically corroborates or augments some of Homer's stranger descriptions -- in the city of dreams, "[t]here are four gates, not two as Homer says" (2.33). To crown it all, Homer appears in person; the narrator even has a substantial discussion with him in Hades, where he is presented about as irreverently as Shakespeare is in Joyce's Circe episode (15.3826-29, 3853). One highlight from this scene that may amuse literary scholars and exegetes occurs when the narrator asks Homer why he began the Iliad with the account of the wrath of Achilles: "For no particular reason, he replied; it had just come into his head that way" (2.20). This is a rather intriguing passage insofar as it both foregrounds and dismisses textual origins and their significance. One detects not so much a sense of literary belatedness as an impatience over the continuing cultural and epistemic authority of Homer.

Throughout, Homeric representations are treated with humorous skepticism or downright mockery. At the beginning of his text, Lucian denounces preposterous fabrications passed off as true accounts, and states that the "arch-exponent of, and model for, this sort of tomfoolery is Homer's Odysseus telling the court of Alcinous about a bag with the winds in it, one-eyed giants, cannibals, savages, even many-headed monsters and magic drugs that changed shipmates into swine -- with one such story after another he had...



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