Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.03.34

Peter von Möllendorff, Auf der Suche nach der verlogenen Wahrheit: Lukians Wahre Geschichten. Classica Monacensia, vol. 21.   Tübingen:  Gunter Narr, 2000.  Pp. xii + 622.  ISBN 3-8233-4880-9.  

Reviewed by David Larmour, Classics, Texas Tech University (
Word count: 1776 words

The True Histories, a two-book narrative, in the first-person voice of one "Lucian", of a fictional voyage by ship to the moon, inside the stomach of a whale, and to the isles of the blessed, has long drawn attention for its humorous and imaginative content and is one of the archetypal texts of the fantastic journey tradition. Its place within other genres has been a matter of considerable discussion. In addition to parody, pastiche, and satire, it has been variously categorized as romance, allegory, and science fiction, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that it partakes of all these genres.1 Much depends upon the position from which the reader views the text and how he or she chooses to concretize its polyvalent elements. In the past few years, the True Histories has received renewed attention in three monographs, beginning with Ulrich Rütten's Phantasie und Lachkultur (Tübingen 1997), followed by Aristoula Georgiadou and David Larmour's Lucian's Science Fiction Novel (Leiden 1998), and now Peter von Möllendorff's reworked Habilitationsschrift Auf der Suche nach der verlogenen Wahrheit.

M's contribution to the scholarship on the True Histories is by far the longest of the three, and the most traditional in orientation. Apart from one rather startling critical position, namely that the True Histories is not really very humorous at all (in fact it is, he decides, one of the least funny of all Lucian's works),2 M situates his investigation of the text within the consensus of most of his predecessors. Consequently, he is able to tap into and draw upon a large number of secondary sources for the explanation of literary references and allusions, the historical and cultural background, and linguistic and textual peculiarities. The comprehensive nature of his synthesis of the available scholarship is evident not only from perusal of any segment of the volume but also from the extensive bibliography included at the end.

After an Introduction (1-29), the vast majority of the book (30-508) is taken up by discussion of the various episodes which make up the narrative; this discussion is divided into 14 sections, many with two or more subsections. The third part of the book elaborates, again in several sections and subsections, the interpretative approach M has adopted (509-71). At the end come the bibliography, textual matters, and indices rerum et nominum and locorum (572-622). Throughout, an enormous amount of material is presented in a print which is pleasing to the eye, with copious footnotes.3 How much of this material is relevant to any particular reading of the True Histories will inevitably depend upon the temperament and concerns of the individual reader. What we have here is not so much a lemmatized commentary on the True Histories in the mode of, say, Ollier4 as an extended interpretative essay, combined with an exhaustive survey of the available scholarship on this text and Lucianic studies in general. Although structured as a commentary, this volume, with its exhaustive referencing, its excursuses into some areas of literary theory (often embedded in smaller print), and its subdivision into smaller units, has much more of the dissertation about it than anything else.

The Introduction sets out M's main areas of focus, with citation of some theories of intertextuality and reader-response criticism and an attempt to relate them to the process of reading the True Histories. Here is an example: "Die Kommentierung des Textes impliziert einen Leser, der eine erste Lektüre der Wahren Geschichten bereits durchlaufen hat. Nicht nur ist eine mehrfache Lektüre anspruchsvoller literarischer Texte ohnehin grundsätzlich zu untersetellen, nicht nur provoziert auch der Schluss der Wahren Geschichten eine Wiederholung der Rezeption, sondern es ermutigt auch die erwähnte Erkenntnis der äussersten Symmetrie der Disposition, die sich bereits im Verlauf der ersten Lektüre beim Leser einstellen dürfte, in einem oder mehreren weiteren Durchgängen herauszufinden, ob diesem hohen Grad der Organisation der syntagmatischen Ebene eine ähnliche (noch über die Geschlossenheit einzelner motivischer Komplexe hinausgehende) Kohärenz auf der paradigmatischen Ebene entspricht." (26-7) There is plenty more in a similar vein.

M focuses primarily on what he designates as the "intended" or "ideal" reader of the True Histories. He has a particular kind of reader in mind: the reader implied by the text is not just a "competent" one but a highly sophisticated one, or what he terms the pepaideumenos. This reader is a product of the same cultural and intellectual setting that gives rise to the True Histories in the first place, and is, as such, defined fairly closely by historical and social boundaries. The pepaideumenos will use the True Histories to strengthen the powers of his paideia. Focusing on the reader has proved to be an effective approach to the True Histories,5 but if reader-response criticism is going to be deployed as an interpretative strategy, it needs to be brought up to date, beyond Iser, Jauss and Eco. It is disappointing to find that Barthes, for instance, with all that he has to say about readers, texts and intertexts, is not included; also, one might have expected some reference to Fish's development of Iser's ideas--his notion of "interpretive communities", for instance, would fit in nicely with M's preference for the pepaideumenos as reader.6

Acknowledging the necessarily metafictional nature of any narrative which begins by telling the reader that everything which follows is false, M talks a lot about the "metapoetic" aspects of the True Histories--the word "metapoetic", in fact, functions like a critical leitmotif.7 Nor is he blind to the corollary of this metafictional element, namely the embedded promptings towards reading the text in terms of allegories of the reading or writing process. He notes in 2.1 (on 1.5-7a, "The journey out and the arrival at the island of the Vine-women"), for example, that the sea-voyage, with its winds and storms, is a long-standing metaphor for the difficulties of the philosophical pursuit of truth and also for the writer and his writings. Likewise, the sea is the literary tradition (75), next to which the True Histories situates itself; although, somewhat surprisingly, he characterizes the relationship between the two as "alles andere als parodistisch" (72). If, however, you do not find the text very humorous, then you are probably not going to find it very parodic either. Nonetheless, there is often a close relationship between metapoiesis and parody, as Rose and others have shown,8 and in the case of Lucian's text the issue is especially important and cannot be so easily dismissed.

The middle section of the book examines each of the various episodes of the narrative in detail, treating the sources Lucian may have used and parallels from other literary texts and explaining the content by reference to the above-mentioned issues of reading, paideia, and metapoiesis. Much of the material relating to sources will be familiar to those who have been reading the True History with an eye to these elements, but not all, and M makes some perceptive and inventive observations. The treatment accorded the second major episode, the swallowing by the giant whale (206-31), provides a good case in point: M sees two major strands of influence, Homer's Odyssey (pp. 210-22) and Plato's Republic (222-31). While Odyssean elements and allusions in the Whale episode have frequently been pointed out, the Platonic ones have received much less attention. Moving beyond the obvious comparison of the Whale with the Cave, M makes a valuable contribution to our understanding when he connects the three sets of inhabitants of the creature's stomach--Scintharus and his son (who cultivate their garden and live in fear of the neighbors), the visiting travelers, and the numerous strange, non-human tribes--with the trio that make up the picture of the human personality in Republic 9.588-9: the man (either as weakling or farmer), the lion, and the many-headed beast.

In the third section of the book, many of the concerns presented in the Introduction are visited again, with the hindsight gleaned from the intervening 478 pages: in 3.1 ("Paradigmata"), the sources and themes of the True Histories are enumerated and M rightly emphasizes Homer and Plato as the main sources in poetry and prose respectively.9 He continues his analysis of the reading process by the pepaideumenos, who is alert to the text's metaphorical and metapoetic content, and also to allegorical understanding of the voyage. In 3.2 ("Syntagmata"), the organization of the "paradigmatic field" is analyzed, as well as the text's self-referentiality and the interdependence of author, narrator, hero, and reader: "Autor, Erzähler, Held, und Leser--so soll der Rezipient erkennen--bilden bei der Arbeit an diesem Text eine Einheit. Was der Autor konstruiert, berichtet der Erzähler, erlebt der Held und rekonstruiert der Leser...das Meer ist eines der Wörter und der Texte" (544). In 3.3 ("Leben und Sterben"), Lucian and his voyage are linked with Socrates and the myth in the Phaedo and in 3.4 ("Ainigma und Kenodoxia"), the purposes and benefits of the reader's identification with the Odysseus and Socrates figures are summarized in terms of kenodoxia and dianoia akmaiotera. M makes many suggestive comments here; in 3.4.2 ("Mise en abîme") pp.566-69, for instance, he reprises one of the most intriguing items in the narrative, namely the "Mirror on the Moon", which he discussed earlier in the central part of the book, in segment (pp. 182-88), as an instance of the mise en abîme. He draws what he calls a thematic "line", a kind of "middle axis", stretching from the Introduction, through the Mirror and the beryl stele on the Isles of the Blessed (2.28, discussed in segment 2.8.4, pp. 220-24), to the Epilogue (there is a diagram on Tafel 1, which readers are helpfully referred to).10

Lucianic scholars and devotees of the True Histories will react to Auf der Suche nach der verlogenen Wahrheit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, according to their critical orientation and their view of Lucian. They will find few faults with M's philological acumen or his skills at synthesizing the scholarship of his predecessors. This work is, in many ways, an impressive tour de force, stuffed as it is with information. The diminution of the text's humorous and parodic elements, and the concomitant elevation of the serious-minded pepaideumenos to the status of ideal reader, may prove more controversial. Some might detect a contradiction between, on the one hand, all the talk of intertextuality, allusion, and metapoiesis, and, on the other, an interpretative method which, by its very comprehensiveness, often seems to circumscribe the text's indeterminacy of meaning and to restrict the pleasure of the reader's free and associative encounter with it. Some will appreciate the careful attention to organization and earnest desire to elucidate. All readers will, however, at the very least, be reminded of what a thought-provoking and unusual text the True Histories is.


1.   See, e.g., as romance or novel, B. E. Perry, The Ancient Romances Berkeley 1967; as an allegory of reading, D. Larmour, "Sex with Moonmen and Vinewomen: The Reader as Explorer in Lucian's Vera Historia, Intertexts 1.2 (1997); as an extended allegory parodying journeys of the soul, A. Georgiadou and D. Larmour, Lucian's Science Fiction Novel, True Histories: Interpretation and Commentary Leiden 1998; as science fiction, S.C. Fredericks, "Lucian, True History as SF", Science Fiction Studies 3 (1976) and R. A. Swanson, "The True, the False, and the Truly False: Lucian's Philosophical Science Fiction",SFS 6 (1979). A good recent survey is provided by G. Anderson, "Lucian's Verae Historiae, in G. Schmeling, The Novel in the Ancient World Leiden 1996.
2.   Contrast, for instance, J. Bompaire, Lucien Ecrivain. Imitation et Creation Paris 1958, and G. Anderson, Lucian: Theme and Variation in the Second Sophistic and Studies in Lucian's Comic Fiction Leiden 1976, both of whom understand very well the text's parodic and satirical orientation; for the possibility that Lucian parodies a specific work, namely the Wonders beyond Thule by Antonius Diogenes, see K. Reyhl, Antonios Diogenes: Untersuchungen zu den Roman-Fragmenten der "Wunder jenseits von Thule" und zu den "Wahren Geschichten" des Lukian Tübingen 1969.
3.   There are only a few typos, e.g. p. 512, "Theme0n" (Themen) in the title of section 3.1, p. 552 "Dihegesis" (Diegesis).
4.   F. Ollier, Lucien: Histoire vraie Paris 1962. Lucian's Introduction to the narrative of the True Histories, inviting the reader to spot his allusions and parodies, makes it especially vulnerable to commentary.
5.   On reading and allegory and allegories of reading, see e.g. M. Fusillo, "Le Miroir de la Lune" Poétique 73 (1978), and Georgiadou and Larmour, passim; on the complex reading processes provoked by the True Histories, see e.g. Swanson (note 1 above), C. Koelb, The Incredulous Reader: Literature and the Function of Disbelief Ithaca 1984, and Larmour (note 1 above).
6.   S. Fish, "Interpreting the Variorum" in Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities Cambridge, Mass. 1980.
7.   Given that the author frequently speaks from a standpoint underpinned by trends in literary and critical theory, it is unfortunate that the indices do not include many of the critical terms or the literary theorists who are cited. "Parodie" is there (p. 607), but not "Metapoiesis" or "Intertextualität".
8.   M. A. Rose, Parody / Meta-Fiction London 1979; cf. P. Waugh, Metafiction London 1984.
9.   On sources, see e.g. A. Stengel, De Luciani veris historiis diss. Rostock 1911; F. Householder, Literary Quotation and Allusion in Lucian New York 1941; O. Bouquiaux-Simon, Les lectures homériques de Lucien Brussels 1968; Georgiadou and Larmour (note 1 above).
10.   The use of the term "mise en abîme" here (cf. 187) could do with some elaboration and clarification; although L. Dällenbach's 1976 article is cited, his later books are not, Le récit spéculaire: Essai sur la mise en abîme, and The Mirror in the Text Chicago 1989.

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