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first person plural and sea voyage genre

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  • Ken Olson
    ... From what I have learned about many of your examples--Hanno/Third Syrian War/etc--they do not provide any evidence that their use of the first-person
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 18, 2003
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      Vernon K Robbins wrote to Chris Price:

      >>You, S. Porter, Ben Witherington III, and others are setting up a requirement for my thesis that it is not necessary for my thesis to meet.<<

      and Chris Price responded:

      >>I am sorry if that is the case, but I suspect it is not. In order for me to believe that there existed literary convention for describing extended sea-voyages in the first-person plural, I have to have some evidence that such a convention existed.

      From what I have learned about many of your examples--Hanno/Third Syrian War/etc--they do not provide any evidence that their use of the first-person plural was due to the presence of a sea-voyage. Rather, they seem to be explained by established literary conventions-using "I" or "we" to describe one's own experiences or the experiences of a
      fictitious main character.<<

      Pardon my butting in, but I am having difficulty understanding the terms of the debate here. It strikes me as something of a false dilemma to suggest that *either* the first person plural is a result of 'established literary conventions-using "I" or "we" to describe one's own experiences or the experiences of a fictitious main character' *or* 'the first-person plural was due to the presence of a sea-voyage.' I may have misunderstood, but I took it that Dr. Robbins is arguing that the use of the first person plural to describe one's own experiences or those of a fictitious main character had become so common in the sea voyage genre by the time Luke wrote that it could be called a convention of that genre.

      I will break down the issue as I see it into three questions in the hope that this will clarify matters (at least for me).

      1) Is there a convention for using the first person plural to describe a group travelling together by sea?

      2) If so, was there a sea voyage genre that commonly used the first person plural form of narration?

      3) If so, to what extent did the author of sea voyage stories employing first person narration (plural or singular) mean to imply his own participation in the events he recounted? Did he mean to be taken seriously or did he expect his audience to recognize the convention as merely a convention? [I suspect Dr. Robbins means something in between these two extremes, but I'd like to get some idea as to where that something lies].

      I will now try to address the questions I raise. My first two responses involve literary examples taken from Dr. Robbins' paper.

      1) In his autobiography, which is largely told in the first person singular, Josephus uses the first person plural to refer to himself and his shipmates in telling of his trip to Rome:

      >>I reached Rome after being in great jeopardy at sea. For our ship foundered in the midst of the sea of Adria, and our company of some six hundred souls had to swim all that night. About daybreak, through God's good providence, we sighted a ship of Cyrene, and I and certain others, about eighty in all, outstripped the others and were taken on board. Landing safely at Dicaearchia, which the Italians call Puteoli, I formed a friendship with Aliturus, an actor who was a special favorite of Nero and of Jewish origin<< (Josephus, _Life_, 3.14-16; trans. H. St. J. Thackeray, LCL).

      Josephus' account is presumably meant to be taken as a true story of an actual shipwreck in which the author was a participant. As far as we can tell from the story, Josephus uses the first person plural to refer to this group because they were travelling with him by ship and for no other reason. In the _Life_, Josephus also uses the first person plural to refer to his family and to the Jewish people. Interestingly, he only infrequently uses the first person plural to refer to the group consisting of himself and the troops he is leading through much of the book. Apparently there was a stronger impetus to use the first person plural to describe shipmates than to describe fellow-soldiers or subordinates.

      2) That a genre of fictional, or fictionalized, sea voyages really existed is shown by the fact that Lucian parodied it in the mid-to-late second century with his _A True Story_. He describes the genre as going back to the tale that Odysseus told to Alcinous in Homer's Odyssey (Book IX). Lucian says:

      >>Many others, with the same intent, have written about imaginary travels and journeys of theirs, telling of huge beasts, cruel men and strange ways of living. Their guide and instructor in this sort of charlatanry is Homer's Odysseus, who tells Alcinous and his court about winds in bondage, one-eyed men, cannibals and savages ; also about animals with many heads, and transformations of his comrades wrought with drugs. This stuff, and much more like it, is what our friend humbugged the illiterate Phaeacians with! Well, on reading these authors, I did not find much fault with them for their lying, as I saw that this was already a common practice even among men who profess philosophy. I did wonder, though, that they thought that they could write untruths and not get caught at it. Therefore, as I myself, thanks to my vanity, was eager to hand something down to posterity that I might not be the only one excluded from the privileges of poetic license, and as I had nothing true to tell, not having had any adventures of significance, I took to lying. But my lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar. I think I can escape the censure of the world by my own admission that I am not telling a word of truth. Be it understood, then, that I am writing about things I have never seen nor had to do with nor learned from others-which, in fact, do not exist at all and, in the nature of things, cannot exist. Therefore my readers should on no account believe in them<< (Lucian, _A True Story_ 1.3-4; trans. A. M. Harmon, LCL).

      This is a spoof of the prefaces found in "historical" accounts (cf. Lk. 1.1-4). Lucian discusses his predecessors in this kind of writing, his reasons for writing his account, the extent of his own participation in the events he recounts, the care with which he researched his account, and the security with which his audience may take his account to be accurate. He tells us that his predecessors were liars, he writes to satisfy his vanity, he never experienced any of the things he narrates, nor ever heard them reported, and that we may feel secure that not a word he says is true.

      Immediately following the "preface," Lucian begins his narrative with a story of setting out to sea and being caught in a storm and forced to land on an island. The storm-and-island motif was apparently a staple of the sea voyage genre that he is parodying. He begins his narrative as follows:

      >>Once upon a time, setting out from the Pillars of Hercules and heading for the western ocean with a fair wind, I went a-voyaging. The motive and purpose of my journey lay in my intellectual activity and desire for adventure, and in my wish to find out what the end of the ocean was, and who the people who lived on the other side. On this account, I put aboard a good store of provisions, stowed water enough, enlisted in the venture fifty of my acquaintances who were like-minded with myself, got together also a great quantity of arms, shipped the best sailing-master to be had at a big inducement, and put my boat-she was a pinnace-in trim for a long and difficult voyage. Well, for a day and a night we sailed before the wind without making very much offing, as land was still dimly in sight ; but at sunrise on the second day the wind freshened, the sea rose, darkness came on, and before we knew it we could no longer even get our canvas in. Committing ourselves to the gale and giving up, we drove for seventy-nine days. On the eightieth day, however, the sun came out suddenly and at no great distance we saw a high, wooded island ringed about with sounding surf, which, however, was not rough, as already the worst of the storm was abating<< (1.5-6)

      Note the shift from first person singular to first person plural once the voyage begins. Lucian continues to use the first person plural to designate himself and his shipmates when they are on land. He also uses the first person singular to designate himself (or, rather, his fictional alter ego). He continues directly after the passage cited above:

      >>Putting in and going ashore, we lay on the ground in consequence of our long misery, but finally we arose and told off thirty of our number to stay and guard the ship and twenty to go inland with me to look over the island<< (1.6).

      Lucian's story continues for two books with ever more fantastic accounts of the narrator's adventures. He continues to use both the first person singular to designate himself and the first person plural to designate himself with his fellow voyagers.

      3) If it was common to regard shipmates as members of a group that could be designated by the first person plural, and this usage was common in narratives of the sea voyage genre, it still remains to see how this relates to the We-passages in Acts. What does the author mean to indicate with his use of the first person plural? Joseph Fitzmyer, who seems to take Dr. Robbins to be specifically denying that the author of Acts meant to imply that he was a shipmate of Paul in the We-passages, formulates the question as follows:



      >>The use of the first person plural may be more naturally explained as an expression of the sociological character of such an experience. Robbins himself acknowledges this. But the question rises whether that sociological experience is ever so recounted by those who have not been part of it-or at least, who wished to give the impression that they have been part of it, sea voyage, shipwreck, or what have you. That there may have been such a sea voyage genre I am ready to admit; that it was used in fiction is also admissible. But that it accounts for the We-sections in Acts is another matter, even if one wants to admit that the imitative historiography in which the author writes might tolerate it<< (Fitzmyer, _Luke the Theologian_, 22).

      The question Fitzmyer raises is a good one. Was the convention of first person plural narration ever used without the author at least wishing to imply that he had participated in the events he narrates? It isn't entirely clear to me whether Dr. Robbins is claiming that the author of Acts meant to imply that he was a participant in those voyages or not. If the author was claiming to be a participant, but was not, then we might be tempted to say that he used the device of a fictitious narrator in the We-passages. It seems to me one of Dr. Robbins points is that there is no hard and fast line between historical narrative and fictional narrative, and for that reason he has avoided categorizing things as "historical" and "fictional." All narrative accounts are to some extent "fictionalized," and ancient historical narratives are probably "fictionalized" to a greater extent than most modern histories or biographies.

      Nonetheless, I would like to press Dr. Robbins on this point: to what extent does the narrator of Acts mean to imply that he was along on Paul's voyages in the We-passages and how would his audience have interpreted the first person plural in these passages? Specifically, would they have understood him to be claiming to be a companion of Paul, and how seriously would they have taken the claim? Would they have recognized the first person plural as a convention of the sea voyage genre, and if so, what would this have meant to them?

      At present, my own answers to the three questions I asked would be: (1) Yes, (2) Yes, and (3) I don't know.

      Best Wishes

      Ken

      kaolson@...

      Kenneth A. Olson
      Graduate Student
      University of Maryland
      Department of History
      2115 Francis Scott Key Hall
      College Park, MD 20742-7315



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