C. Gill & T.P. Wiseman (edd.), Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1993. Pp. xviii + 263. ISBN 0-85989-381-2. UK£26.50.
University of Natal, Durban.
In the bible, the fundamental question 'What is truth?' remains unanswered (John 18.38). In this new volume, eight scholars attempt to define the opposite: 'What is in a lie?' In its centre is the article by T.P. Wiseman, 'Lying Historians: Seven types of mendacity' (pp. 122-46). These seven deadly sins (or perhaps this heptad of imaginary pleasures?) range from tendentiousness via mythos and travellers' tales to the'more complex . . . effect of rhetoric and drama' (p. 132) as well as the repetition of information coming from 'authorities', and finally to 'lies defined as too much detail, and lies defined as not enough' (p. 141). It is tempting to follow up this pattern with a plethora of other categories, from the 'white lie' to the 'utopian dream' (or the inventive 'nightmare' for that matter), not to forget the political manifesto or the PR world of manifold manipulation messages. However, in search of more such lies' species it seems sufficient to go through the other titles of the collection in order to bring together some more of the missing categories. There are: 'Lies, Fiction and Slander in Early Greek Poetry' (pp. 1-37, E.L.Bowie), 'Plato on Falsehood--not Fiction' (pp. 38-87, Christopher Gill), 'Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides' (pp. 88-121, J.L. Moles), 'Fiction, Bewitchment and Story Worlds' (pp. 147-74, Andrew Laird on Apuleius) and 'Make-Believe and Make Believe' (pp. 175-229, J.R. Morgan on 'The Fictionality of the Greek Novels'), concluded by an epilogue 'Towards an Account of the Ancient World's Concept of Fictive Belief' (230-244, D.C. Feeney). Thus we arrive at a second heptad of categories: 'slander', 'falsehood', 'untruth', 'story worlds', 'make-believe', 'fictionality', 'make believe' and 'fictive belief'. The index (pp. 259- 263) supplies yet another colourful cohort of connecting concepts: fables, false stories, fantasy, aphegesis ('story'), plasma ('invention'), deception, docu- drama, dramaticon, enargeia/evidentia ('vivid illustration'), imaginative self-extension, encomiastic strand, (poetic) invention--not to mention phenomena like hagiography, fairy tales, allegory, parables, similes, irony, hyperbole and other figures of non-literal speech; and certainly to hold safe distance from hybrids such as William McNeill's 'mythistory'.
What then is 'the truth' about this world of 'lies'? In the prologue, Michael Wood underlines the double perspective opened up by the volume's title, one ancient and one modern: lie vs fiction, (something like incorrect statement vs intentional fantasy), scrutinised here under three main aspects: logical, epistemological and moral. In the preface the editors point to the tripartite structure of their collection: two studies deal with early Greek poetry and philosophy, two with ancient historiography and two with the hellenistic novels. A final chapter links modernity with antiquity. This does not at all mean that modern views come in through the backdoor at the very end. On the contrary, current literary criticism is present all the way through this collection, holding a healthy dialogue with ancient perspectives. In fact, the book presents itself as an extremely well organised, excellently interwoven discourse of a closely bound scholarly group which aims from many different angles at the very same target. Do they all hit?
Basically, yes; specifically, some more so and others less so. In the beginning, Bowie brings together oracles, epitaphs, dedications, narrative presentations in elegies and epodes, in trochaic and iambic meters, in sympotic poetry and, yes, in dactylic epic, be it heroic or didactic. They all are treated separately; Bowie concludes that 'even within the same genre, different expectations seem to pertain', and that 'certain stances seem to be found running across different genres' (p. 36). He also sees the poet of the Odyssey playing a role 'not wholly different from his fictionalising character Odysseus' (p. 37). It should be mentioned that in the same year as Bowie's study, a book appeared by Louise H. Pratt, evidently covering much of the same ground.[]
Christopher Gill comes to the conclusion 'that the absence in Plato of a clear sense of, or interest in, the distinction between factual and fictional discourse is not a purely idiosyncratic feature of his conceptual framework . . . . but one that reflects deeper and more lasting aspects of the ancient conceptual and literary map' (p. 81). J.L. Moles concludes his wide-ranging discussion on truth and untruth as follows: 'The relationship of ancient historiography to external reality is shifting, ambiguous, multifaceted, messy: in those respects at least, like life itself' (p. 121).
The two chapters dedicated to novels take special interest in 'make-believe and make believe', as J.R. Morgan puts it. He quotes Umberto Eco's bonmot that a novel is 'a machine for generating interpretations' and comes himself to the conclusion that the 'problem with the Greek novels is that they depict not the world as it is, but the world as it ought to be . . . . Religion and the novel are in the same market, and the parallel was not lost on the Greek novelists' (p. 129). Andrew Laird on Apuleius emphasises another point: 'For these story worlds to be convincing . . . . they must have community with the world of the reader's experience and community with other story worlds' (p. 174).
It is difficult to draw a conclusion from such diverse observations and remarks. In the epilogue, D.C.Feeney concentrates again on the problem of belief; he arrives at the conclusion that we must not 'obliterate the interplay between belief and disbelief, the way they define each other', because that 'would make it impossible for us to discriminate between, for example, the different ways in which "deceit" is practised upon, and sustained by, the audience of, on the one hand, a poet and, on the other, a lying orator' (p. 236).
The ten pages of bibliography add a good deal of original Italian, French and German research literature to the English, with some misprints such as (s.v. Stock) 'Gorgemann' (read Görgemanns) or (s.v. Fehling) 'Quellengaben' (read Quellenangaben). An interesting addition could be A.J.L. van Hooff, 'Female suicide between ancient fiction and fact'.[]
In conclusion, this volume covers a vast field of investigation on an unusually high level; it is useful for users and readable for readers. It comes to the fore when 'Seven hundred people a year write to Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street, in the belief not only that he was a real person but that he is still alive; fiction's power can convert past tense to present' (p. 225). I was told that anyone might order a U.S. magazine with the title Lies of our Times. Unfortunately I was not given the address. Can anyone help?
[] Louis H. Pratt, Lying and Poetry from Homer to Pindar (Ann Arbor 1993), reviewed by Kathryn Morgan in BMCR 5.6 (1994) 535-40 and in Electronic Antiquity 2.2 (August 1994).
[] A.J.L. van Hooff, 'Female suicide between ancient fiction and fact', Laverna 3 (1992) 142-172.