‘Lucian and the Paradoxical Encomium’
Introductory essay from Visions of Lucian Vol. 2: The Fly / The Mole
Mulita Small Editions, 2020
Writing in Athens in the second century AD, Lucian of Samosata found fame with his biting satirical prose, designed to puncture and deflate celebrity egos. But look deeper into his canon and we find he could also write attractive rhetorical pieces, as he does with The Fly, a short work from much earlier in his career.
The Fly takes the form of a paradoxical encomium, in which praise is heaped upon something generally thought to be unworthy. The form is sometimes considered to be unworthy in itself — a showy display of eloquence in which the writer uses high language to talk of low things, thereby awarding them an entertaining excess of importance.
Over the centuries critics of the paradoxical encomium have argued that the greater test of skill is to write convincingly about the virtues of, say, money, war, or duty, than of hedgehogs, buttons, or commas. That might be true, but if paying close attention to small things was in itself an unworthy occupation, then we would be forced to disregard too many creative minds and their works. As Jonathan Miller has frequently remarked, a creative act becomes significant when it succeeds in ‘finding the considerable in the negligible’. Robert Frost had a similar thought and wrote a poem about a speck of dust. The ceramicist Edmund de Vaal’s descriptions of the textures and contours of his netsuke in The Hare with the Amber Eyes remind us of the intense joy in having small things described to us well. And David Attenborough’s hoarse-whispered descriptions of life among the minuscule have kept millions of television viewers captivated for generations. Beyond that, generations of physicists have peered deeper and deeper into invisibly tiny atomic particles, finding ever more considerable worlds inside ever more negligible spaces.
For Lucian the fly was ‘not the smallest of winged things’ he could think of to write about but it suited his purposes. It seems most likely that The Fly was conceived principally as a means to advertise his developing rhetorical skills. Indeed, it is almost certainly a working-up of an earlier street performance, something which, as a young rhetorician still trying to make his name, he would have given regularly.
But for the serious rhetorician it was speech writing and representation in court that were the main events. And so it is probable that Lucian, in preparing his encomium, deliberately picked the most bothersome creature he could think of to defend, so that he might create the best possible advertisement for his talents. If that was the idea, it worked, but only up to a point: in the end the legal profession didn’t suit his temperament. ‘As soon as I realised,’ he quotes himself in The Fisherman, ‘the ugly things lawyers had to go in for — tricks, lies, bluster, browbeating, throwing their weight around — as you’d expect, I made my escape.’
Fortunately his remarkable talent as a speaker made him a big draw on the lecture circuit, and so he kept up with his public performances — but to increasingly refined, and wealthy, audiences. Within ten years he would become a well-to-do man of considerable reputation, financially secure, and ready to embark upon the second phase of his life as a writer of comic satires.
Whether or not he was entirely sincere in his eloquent appreciation of the fly is an interesting question: with Lucian you sometimes have to be careful. Bearing in mind his later career as a literary trickster, it is just possible that Lucian chose the form of the paradoxical encomium as a way of mocking the well-worn stylistic tropes of his forebears. There is also a sense that he may be pulling the reader's leg, too: the passage concerning the revival of a dead fly with a sprinkling of ashes looks like a typical Lucian bluff designed to discover credulity in his audience. But no — it is, amazingly, true (at least, in the case of an apparently drowned fly; the ashes draw the moisture from its waterlogged spiracles, allowing it to breathe again and waking it from its coma).
Perhaps Lucian, as a satirist in the making, saw something of his emerging self in the fly — a creature irresistibly drawn to the scent of corruption, buzzing around and irritating his targets, wearing them down and always ‘having his bite’. But he was still young when he wrote The Fly, largely untainted by the hypocrisy and cupidity that he would soon find in the world, and that he would spend the rest of his life railing against. And so, for once, we might dare to take this junior version of Lucian at face value, and draw simple pleasure from his description of the humble housefly without too much concern for irony.
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