In the immortal words of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight! Some of the writers in this category whisper, “What fools these mortals be!” while others, perhaps wiser, merely smile and say instead, “What lovable fools these mortals be!” Here is the realm of every sort of laughter—wit, irony, repartee, satire, gallows humor, imaginative exuberance, the fanciful and the surreal. The resulting literary vaudeville show ranges from skits about the outrageous nightlife of the gods to the antic oafishness of a bumbling clown to the manic wordplay of S. J. Perelman. A good time is had by all.
LUCIAN (c. 115–200 b.c.)
The True History; Lucius, or The Ass; Dialogues of the Dead; Essays
Speak of the ancient Greeks, and one immediately thinks of noble philosophers, tragic dramatists, mournful choruses and a fair amount of rape, incest, madness, sacrifice, and blood. No matter what these serious-minded folk undertake, they almost never seem to be doing it just for fun.
Aristophanes is the most obvious exception to this generalization. His plays satirize philosophy, sex, war—anything. The philosopher Diogenes—the one who went searching in vain for an honest man—also possessed a playful spirit and a dry wit. When he observed a beggar drink from the palm of his hand, the philosopher threw away his cup; when Alexander the Great stood over him and offered to grant any wish, Diogenes—who had been working on his tan—simply asked the master of the world to stop blocking the sun’s rays.
Arguably the most amusing of all the Greeks, though, is the writer history knows as Lucian. (In fact, there may have been both a Lucian and a Pseudo-Lucian, but scholars have suspected this only in modern times.) The True History takes us on the kind of journey we associate with Odysseus or Jason and the Argonauts and turns it into the adventures of a Greek Baron Munchausen. Lucius, or The Ass is a picaresque and sometimes bawdy tale about a young man transformed into a donkey by witchcraft. It climaxes with a sex-crazed matron wondering what the beast would be like in bed; the next morning Lucius’s owner decides he wants to sell tickets for a follow-up performance.
Lucian’s numerous dialogues—almost brief playlets—read as if written by a Greek Bernard Shaw. In the Dialogues of the Dead, the characters complain about the boring society of Hades. Charon grouses that his boat is too small and, what’s more, it leaks; Hannibal and Alexander argue over who was the better general; Socrates assures us that he really did know nothing and wasn’t being at all ironic; and Tiresias is asked to describe, in detail, his transformation from woman to man. In the Dialogues of the Heterae old whores discuss sex, passion, jealousy, and money with younger women new to the game, while in the Dialogues of the Gods Jupiter, like a tired executive, patiently explains Ganymede’s new duties as cup-bearer, though the young shepherd cannot quite grasp why he has to sleep with the ruler of the universe.
Lucian refuses to show respect or reverence for anyone or anything, and his preferred genres—the dialogue and short essay—offer abundant opportunity for parody and humor, as well as for social commentary. As H. W. Fowler and his brother F. G. Fowler observe in their introduction to a translation of this ancient scoffer’s collected works:
Lucian . . . will supply no one with a religion or a philosophy; but it may be doubted whether any writer will supply more fully both example and precept in favour of doing one’s thinking for oneself; and it may be doubted also whether any other intellectual lesson is more necessary . . . He is individualist to the core. No religion or philosophy, he seems to say, will save you; the thing is to think for yourself and be a man of sense.
Little wonder, then, that Lucian’s example—his bright analytic intelligence, his savage indignation—can be detected in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, Thomas More’s Utopia, Ben Jonson’s play Volpone, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, especially the voyage to Laputa. Very early on, he may even have influenced the Latin writer Apuleius, whose magic-filled novel The Golden Ass essentially reprises the plot of The Ass (but also enhances it with the story of Cupid and Psyche, perhaps the most beautiful fairy tale of antiquity).
For modern readers, The True History may be the most attractive of all Lucian’s works. It is essentially a tall tale, with elements of science fiction (a trip into space) and fantasy (life inside a giant sea monster), and even a dollop of postmodern playfulness: The preface to this “true history” ends with the caution, “I am telling you frankly, here and now, that I have no intention whatever of telling the truth . . . So mind you do not believe a word I say.” My own favorite section recounts a visit to the Isles of the Blessed. There the narrator (Lucian himself) meets glorious poets and heroes and, like a crack reporter, promptly interviews several of them, asking Homer, for example, about the precise critical importance of the word “wrath” in the opening sentence of the Iliad. Homer blithely answers: “No significance whatsoever. It was the first word that came into my head.” Later, when Lucian is about to leave the Isles of the Blessed, Odysseus surreptitiously slips him a note to deliver to Calypso, which Lucian, naturally, reads. It is, of course, a love letter, one in which Odysseus explains how sorry he is for sailing off and turning down the goddess’s offer of immortality and how he promises to sneak away and come see her as soon as