Works, by Lucian

A Literary Prometheus

So you will have me a Prometheus? If your meaning is, my good sir, that my works, like his, are of clay, I accept the comparison and hail my prototype; potter me to your heart’s content, though my clay is poor common stuff, trampled by common feet till it is little better than mud. But perhaps it is in exaggerated compliment to my ingenuity that you father my books upon the subtlest of the Titans; in that case I fear men will find a hidden meaning, and detect an Attic curl on your laudatory lips. Where do you find my ingenuity? in what consists the great subtlety, the Prometheanism, of my writings? enough for me if you have not found them sheer earth, all unworthy of Caucasian clay-pits. How much better a claim to kinship with Prometheus have you gentlemen who win fame in the courts, engaged in real contests; your works have true life and breath, ay, and the warmth of fire. That is Promethean indeed, though with the difference, it may be, that you do not work in clay; your creations are oftenest of gold; [Section: 2] we on the other hand who come before popular audiences and offer mere lectures are exhibitors of imitations only. However, I have the general resemblance to Prometheus, as I said before — a resemblance which I share with the dollmakers — that my modelling is in clay; but then there is no motion, as with him, not a sign of life; entertainment and pastime is the beginning and the end of my work. So I must look for light elsewhere; possibly the title is a sort of lucus a non lucendo, applied to me as to Cleon in the comedy:

Full well Prometheus–Cleon plans — the past.

Or again, the Athenians used to call Prometheuses the makers of jars and stoves and other, clay-workers, with playful reference to the material, and perhaps to the use of fire in baking the ware. If that is all your ‘Prometheus’ means, you have aimed your shaft well enough, and flavoured your jest with the right Attic tartness; my productions are as brittle as their pottery; fling a stone, and you may smash them all to pieces.

But here some one offers me a crumb of comfort: ‘That was not the likeness he found between you and Prometheus; he meant to commend your innovating originality: at a time when human beings did not exist, Prometheus conceived and fashioned them; he moulded and elaborated certain living things into agility and beauty; he was practically their creator, though Athene assisted by putting breath into the clay and bringing the models to life.’ So says my some one, giving your remark its politest possible turn. Perhaps he has hit the true meaning; not that I can rest content, however, with the mere credit of innovation, and the absence of any original to which my work can be referred; if it is not good as well as original, I assure you I shall be ashamed of it, bring down my foot and crush it out of existence; its novelty shall not avail (with me at least) to save its ugliness from annihilation. If I thought otherwise, I admit that a round dozen of vultures would be none too many for the liver of a dunce who could not see that ugliness was only aggravated by strangeness.

Ptolemy, son of Lagus, imported two novelties into Egypt; one was a pure black Bactrian camel, the other a piebald man, half absolutely black and half unusually white, the two colours evenly distributed; he invited the Egyptians to the theatre, and concluded a varied show with these two, expecting to bring down the house. The audience, however, was terrified by the camel and almost stampeded; still, it was decked all over with gold, had purple housings and a richly jewelled bridle, the spoil of Darius’ or Cambyses’ treasury, if not of Cyrus’ own. As for the man, a few laughed at him, but most shrank as from a monster. Ptolemy realized that the show was a failure, and the Egyptians proof against mere novelty, preferring harmony and beauty. So he withdrew and ceased to prize them; the camel died forgotten, and the parti-coloured man became the reward of Thespis the fluteplayer for a successful after-dinner performance.

I am afraid my work is a camel in Egypt, and men’s admiration limited to the bridle and purple housings; as to combinations, though the components may be of the most beautiful (as Comedy and Dialogue in the present case), that will not ensure a good effect, unless the mixture is harmonious and well-proportioned; it is possible that the resultant of two beauties may be bizarre. The readiest instance to hand is the centaur: not a lovely creature, you will admit, but a savage, if the paintings of its drunken bouts and murders go for anything. Well, but on the other hand is it not possible for two such components to result in beauty, as the combination of wine and honey in superlative sweetness? That is my belief; but I am not prepared to maintain that my components have that property; I fear the mixture may only have obscured their separate beauties.

For one thing, there was no great original connexion or friendship between Dialogue and Comedy; the former was a stay-at-home, spending his time in solitude, or at most taking a stroll with a few intimates; whereas Comedy put herself in the hands of Dionysus, haunted the theatre, frolicked in company, laughed and mocked and tripped it to the flute when she saw good; nay, she would mount her anapaests, as likely as not, and pelt the friends of Dialogue with nicknames — doctrinaires, airy metaphysicians, and the like. The thing she loved of all else was to chaff them and drench them in holiday impertinence, exhibit them treading on air and arguing with the clouds, or measuring the jump of a flea, as a type of their ethereal refinements. But Dialogue continued his deep speculations upon Nature and Virtue, till, as the musicians say, the interval between them was two full octaves, from the highest to the lowest note. This ill-assorted pair it is that we have dared to unite and harmonize-reluctant and ill — disposed for reconciliation.

And here comes in the apprehension of yet another Promethean analogy: have I confounded male and female, and incurred the penalty? Or no — when will resemblances end? — have I, rather, cheated my hearers by serving them up bones wrapped in fat, comic laughter in philosophic solemnity? As for stealing — for Prometheus is the thief’s patron too — I defy you there; that is the one fault you cannot find with me: from whom should I have stolen? if any one has dealt before me in such forced unions and hybrids, I have never made his acquaintance. But after all, what am I to do? I have made my bed, and I must lie in it; Epimetheus may change his mind, but Prometheus, never.

H.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49