BMCR 1994.11.04

1994.11.04, Pratt, Lying and Poetry from Homer to Pindar

, Lying and poetry from Homer to Pindar : falsehood and deception in archaic Greek poetics. Michigan monographs in classical antiquity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. viii, 180 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780472104178. $34.50 (cloth).

The topic of truth and falsehood in the ancient world has always attracted attention, especially recently. Louise Pratt’s book appeared in the same year as Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, the collected papers from a University of Exeter colloquium that she acknowledges but was not able to cite. 1 The last 30 years have seen classical scholars move from conceiving the archaic Greek poet as a “master of truth” to speculating whether it may not be more accurate to picture him as a master of fiction. P.’s study examines whether poets in the 8th-5th centuries share Nabokov’s perception that the liar and the poet have an innate affinity. Her answer to this question is yes: the analogy between poets and trickster figures suggests that lying, as an expression of imaginative power and inventiveness, might serve as an early model of fiction. P. hopes to “establish that the way reflection on truth and lies is formulated in archaic poetry leaves room for archaic appreciation of fictional narrative” (p. 7). The larger portion of the book deals with the evidence from Homer, Hesiod, and the Homeric Hymns, but there are also smaller forays in epinician “truth” and various critiques of poetic deception from the presocratics down to Plato.

An introduction sketches her thesis and briefly summarizes the upcoming chapters. Chapter 1, “Aletheia and Poetry: Iliad 2.484-87 and Odyssey 8.487-91 as Models of Archaic Narrative,” has a defensive purpose: to assert that the evidence for an archaic connection between poetry and truth is not as strong as has been assumed. P. examines two passages that seem to suggest a commitment to truth on the part of the archaic narrator. The invocation to the Muses in Iliad 2 and Odysseus’ compliment to Demodocus in Odyssey 8 are often taken to imply that the Muses dispense inaccessible knowledge and that the aim of the poet is to present an accurate account of the past. P. disputes the conclusion that aletheia must mean memory, associating lethe instead with an absence of awareness. P. defines aletheia as “an absence of hiddeness that might give rise to a failure of perception or awareness … [It] excludes not only forgetfulness but also invention, falsehood, fiction, intentional omission, insincerity, equivocation—anything that might prevent the hearer’s perceiving accurately the subject matter under discussion” (20-21).

How, then, should we read the invocations to the Muses in the epics? Do their demands for accuracy and truth in particular instances affect the truth-status of the narrative as a whole? P. finds demands for universal accuracy difficult to reconcile with the archaic awareness of competing versions of myth. She examines the numerous passages in archaic poetry that suggest that song was valued for the pleasure it created. Strict aletheia would not, therefore, be preeminent in archaic poetics; the archaic emphasis on pleasure, and certain affinities between poet and liar suggest that epic narrative has an uncertain truth value. If epic narrative preserves information about the past, this does not entail that the entire narrative is a non-fictional representation of that past. Since fiction “marries the real and the imaginary” and exists in an uncertain relationship with “truth,” P. concludes that “Homeric narrative is essentially a fictional variety of discourse” (p. 37).

I have some reservations about the exclusivity of P.’s definition of aletheia. She needs this exclusivity in order to prove that a pseudos may be a tool for the revelation of a more broadly-based ethical truth. While I would accept that aletheia implies an absence of hiddeness, I am not sure that this entails a moratorium on invention. This is, of course, the point at issue throughout the whole book. If invention is positively viewed, and if it must be categorized as falsehood, then falsehood may be positively viewed. This argument is suggestive, but may not be valid. First, one misses any indisputable evidence that aletheia does not allow for the representation of “truth” through invented elements. Second, as a colleague has remarked to me, a speech act may be approved under one description, but not under another. I may approve of Odysseus’ lying tales qua inventions, but not qua falsehoods. The question of overlap between the concepts of invention, fiction, and falsehood is a troublesome one. Another area of possible disagreement is the concept of “fiction.” P. assumes that an awareness of invention is tantamount to recognizing the category of fiction (p. 23-24). Yet his assumption is not self-evident. C. Gill has remarked that there is a difference between saying that fiction is a universal human practice and that “‘fiction’ signifies a determinate practice … performed in some societies under some explicit or implicit description which we can recognize as being that of ‘fiction’.”2 Poetry may be characterized by “a hierarchy of values that leaves room for fictional representation” (p. 32), but the very weakness of this formulation suggests how problematic it is to claim that Homeric narrative is essentially fictional and that the Greeks saw it as such. Admiration of invention may be consistent with modern notions of fiction, but it does not mandate an awareness of the category. In P.’s eyes, fictional and truthful (but not alethic) speech overlap: nonfiction, seen as analogous to Homeric aletheia, is an exclusive category. Homeric narrative is thus fictional and truthful but not alethic. One wonders, however, whether the early Greeks would have recognized a technical notion of aletheia as nonfiction. Those who think that the rise of the first philosophers marks a fundamental reconception of early Greek notions of truth, falsehood, and validity (among whom I include myself) may be reluctant to think so. Not all readers, then, will accept the definitions of the first chapter. Yet despite the difficulties of applying modern conceptions of fictionality, it is useful to bring them into play. Moreover, P.’s discussion of aletheia marks an important advance over the framework of Detienne and his followers. Her criticism of Detienne’s model of truth as unforgetfulness is penetrating, and pinpoints difficulties that are too often ignored.

Chapter 2, “Odysseus and Other Tricksters: Lying Kata Kosmon,” deals with the positive associations of lying. Both the Odyssey and the Hymn to Hermes suggest affinities between poets and the tricksters Odysseus and Hermes. The attention thus thrown on the possibility of poetic deception is taken by P. to affirm the fictionality of poetry. Ethical norms are thrown into confusion: aesthetics are valued more than strict truth, and P. interprets this alternate hierarchy of values as offering “a certain justification of fiction” (p. 55). P. lists four principles that interfere with the assumption that telling the truth is good and lying is bad. 1) Taking advantage of and deceiving one’s enemies is good. 2) Not everyone deserves to hear the truth. 3) Some falsehoods may be the vehicles of truth. (This principle seems to me to be less self-evident from the texts themselves.) 4) The truth is not always pleasant and must sometimes be hidden.

Having established these principles, P. moves on to Odysseus’ association with the Homeric bard. Lying and fictionalizing are similar, and Homer justifies his own use of fiction by creating Odysseus as an acceptable model of a liar. The lies and deceptions of Hermes in the Homeric Hymn are also associated with poetry. The bard is a practitioner of a techne; consciousness of this calls attention to poetic inventiveness. That archaic poetry values thelxis (enchantment) and apate (deception) does not prove the poets saw their work as fictional, but P. finds it difficult to reconcile with strict aletheia. Moreover, she points out, enchantment, the engagement of imaginative rather than critical faculties, is seen as the hallmark of fictional narration in modern discussions. P. suggests that the poet’s ability to speak in many voices also associates him with the liar; archaic poets must therefore differentiate between good and bad uses of their skills. Here again, Odysseus is a model. Like good poetic fiction, his lies do not harm his philoi and are appropriate and pleasurable. Lies are acceptable when they preserve ethical truth and promote cultural values; they are then pseudea etumoisin homoia (lies like truths).

The possibility of affinities between trickster figures such as Odysseus and archaic poets is intriguing. One might, however, argue the extent to which a potential affinity suggests that Odysseus may be a model for the poet. 3 The differences of situation between Odysseus and a bard are as striking as the similarities. Odysseus is in a situation where his life is at risk. His lies are (almost) always motivated and serve a purpose that is not always an ethical one, except insofar as he is justified in attempting to complete a successful homecoming. A bard, by contrast, is more detached and has other motivations. Odysseus’ falsehoods have a pragmatic base, and this is underlined by his association with Athena, whom we might, on P.’s paradigm, identify as his Muse. Yet such a formulation shows us the limitations of the analogy between Odysseus and the poet. Even if poets share some techniques with Odysseus and Athena, she is not a Muse and he is not a poet. P.’s analogy paints the background against which we must evaluate the poet’s task: the Odyssean paradigm is a possibility for the bard, but probably one he must deny (just as Phemius must deny political involvement in Odyssey 23).

Chapter 3 is entitled “Other Models of Archaic Narrative and Poetic Truth: Hesiod’s Etetuma, Lies Like Truths, and Other Aenigmata,” and examines Hesiod’s commitment to truth. The Works and Days claims to offer valid advice, not the accurate account of a reliable eyewitness. Hesiod’s use of fable, and his presentation of two alternate explanations for mankind’s life of toil ( both of which cannot be literally true) suggest that narrative’s paradigmatic function is more important than its literal truth. The presence of similar paradigmatic stories in the Iliad and Odyssey indicates that epic narrative may have lost its non-fictional and commemorative function and come to a fictional and paradigmatic one. We may characterize this model for poetic “truth” by the adjective etetumos (rather than alethes). Etetumos describes a correspondence between words and reality. It may thus allow for a more metaphorical form of expression, since it describes words which are valid even if not “alethic.”Etetumos may be used to characterize various forms of enigmatic speech and may also be applied to poetic wisdom. While it may be inappropriate, therefore, to characterize poetry as alethes, it is acceptable to call it etetumos (valid and meaningful).

P. takes a similar approach to the problematic statements of the Muses at Theog. 22-35. She disputes the usual assumption that the “lies like true things” in line 27 are negative. If all Hesiod’s stories about Pandora and the Myth of the Races are true, this implies an extended notion of truth, but one then wonders precisely what pseudea would be. P.’s solution is that the Muses offer a riddling description of poetry: the best artist will mix the truth with plausible fictions, and we will therefore never be able to tell when the Muses are speaking alethea and when they are speaking pseudea.

One of the great merits of this chapter is that it compels one to reconsider the nature of the relationship between alethea, etetuma and pseudea, and possibly to reconceive the thrust of the Theogony proem. P.’s interpretation is challenging and subtly argued; I offer some of my discomforts here in the spirit of continuing the discussion. Earlier chapters imply that anything which is not alethes is pseudes. Anything that is alethes is also etetumos, but the reverse is not true (p. 101). It follows, then, that anything etetumos but not alethes is pseudes. This is an uncomfortable formulation, however; would an archaic Greek have accepted that a falsehood could be etumos /valid? If we replace the word “falsehood” with the word “fiction” the proposition becomes easier, and we can arrive at P.’s “fictional truth” (p. 103). Yet where does this leave us with regard to Theog. 27? Hesiod does not speak of falsehoods that are valid, but of falsehoods which are like valid things, but which are not, presumably, identical with them. P.’s answer, I think, is that the Muses’ formulation is consciously riddling and paradoxical (p. 110) and implies that a good poet confounds truth (and here I take her to be referring to alethic truth) and fiction, but her translation of the phrase (“lies like true things”) is inconsistent with her own conclusions about the adjective etetumos. On P.’s reading, pseudea etumoisin homoia should juxtapose not truth and fiction, but fiction and validity. If there is no problem with “fiction” being “valid,” where is the paradox? P. is probably right to say that Hesiod makes no claim to nonfictionality, but this may be because he has no developed notion of fiction to begin with.

In chapter 4, P. considers truth and lies in epinician poetry. Both Pindar and Bacchylides make claims to truth, but they restrict these claims to the validity of their poetry and do not imply that fictional elements should not enter their mythological narrative. Aletheia in epinician is the correct apportionment of praise; pseudea are the improper attribution of blame. Yet neither blame nor lies are rejected outright; they are what one does to one’s enemies. Pindar thus creates categories of truth and lying appropriate to his genre. He never claims aletheia for his mythological narratives, merely appropriateness. The rhetorical strategy of O. 1, where Pindar rejects the cannibalistic banquet of the gods, implies that even the “truthful” poet of praise will fictionalize.

This treatment of epinician “truth” is on the whole thorough and convincing. Yet again, the introduction of the concept of fiction is troubling. P. states that the assertions of truth and the rejections of lies should not be taken to imply the rejection of fictional elements in the myths (p. 115) and that the epinician poet’s explicit responsibility to truth tells us little about his appreciation of fictional narrative (p. 119). It is worth noting that P. formulates these assertions negatively rather than positively: the rhetorical strategy of O. 1 implies that a poet may fictionalize; assertions of truth should not be taken to imply the rejection of fiction; the responsibility to truth tells us little about any appreciation for fiction. This may be so. But nowhere do Pindar or Bacchylides say that they fictionalize. This is not the same as saying that they do not fictionalize (from our point of view); rather, it is to say that they do not formulate and perhaps do not recognize the category. Even if Pindar invents his version of the Pelops myth out of whole cloth, we may still question whether he would see that invention as a fiction. Archaic Greek poetic practice is compatible with our notion of fiction, but this may be the most that we can say.

The final chapter, “Lying Not Well: Other Critiques of the Tradition,” surveys archaic and classical critiques of poetry that seem to demand truthful representation and that might therefore seem to imply that archaic culture had no appreciation for fictionality. P. examines some representative authors: Stesichorus, Xenophanes, early allegorists, Heraclitus, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato, and concludes that none of their critiques excludes a recognition of poetic fiction. Rather, they are directed against specific and inappropriate poetic texts. Stesichorus’Palinode thus competes with Homer’s version of the story of Helen in the realm of appropriateness, not that of truth. Xenophanes does not reject poetic tales about the gods because they are fictional but because they are ethically harmful. The practice of the early allegorists also suggests that poetry was thought to function on an ethical level. P. suggests that Herodotus and Thucydides see traditional narrative as fiction. Both are sceptical about the truth status of Homer, and recognize that the principles that govern poetry may be different from their own. Finally, P. examines Plato’s attack on the poets in the Republic and uses it as a confirmation of the trends she sees in many of the previous critiques. Plato is more interested in the effects of poetry on character than in its historical truth. The Platonic dialogues are Plato’s own attempt to create acceptable fiction. The analysis P. attempts in this chapter is provocative, and demands further attention than is possible in a review of this scope. The range of authors covered entails that P.’s examination must be cursory, as she herself realizes (p. 132).

What, then, are the achievements of this book? P.’s analysis is valuable in its refusal to oversimplify complex issues. P. writes clearly, organizes her arguments well, and deals at length with competing approaches to the topic of truth in archaic literature. One may suspect that modern conceptions of fiction are misapplied to archaic poetry, but this does not alter the fact that examining archaic poetics from this angle generates a fruitful meditation on assumptions we have taken for granted. P. proves to my satisfaction (and relief) that it is reductive and uninformative to conceive poetic aletheia“as a kind of ‘unforgetfulness’ distinct from modern notions of truth” (p. 103). She proves that there is a potential (but not, I think, an innate) affinity between the poet and liar or trickster figures. She raises telling doubts about the extent to which we should read Homeric requests for accurate information from the Muses as a program for epic narrative. My disagreement with some of P.’s contentions might lead a reader to believe that I am dubious about the value of this book. On the contrary, my disagreements are an index of the excitement it generates.

  • [1] C. Gill and T. P. Wiseman, edd., Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (Austin, 1993). [2] C. Gill, “Plato on Falsehood—not Fiction,” in Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, pp. 69-71. [3] Compare the remarks of Gill, pp. 70-71.