Proteus’ skill and the fictionality of myth

Karin Schlapbach

In Lucian’s dialogue On pantomime one of the characters, Lycinus, explains that Proteus, the mythical master of metamorphoses, was really just a very skilled dancer, a proto-typical pantomime-performer. This reinterpretation of Proteus’ metamorphoses as a form of artistic skill is quite remarkable and invites some further reflection on the relationship between pantomime and its primary subject-matter, myth.
By differentiating carefully between what the myth means (legein) and its narrative form (dihēgeisthai), Lycinus states that Proteus was nothing but a sort of ‘dancer’, a ‘mimetic person’, capable of endless transformations:
§ 19: δοκεῖ γάρ μοι ὁ παλαιὸϲ μῦθοϲ καὶ Πρωτέα τὸν Αἰγύπτιον οὐκ ἄλλο τι ἢ ὀρχηστήν τινα γενέσθαι λέγειν, μιμητικὸν ἄνθρωπον καὶ πρὸϲ πάντα σχηματίζεσθαι καὶ μεταβάλλεσθαι δυνάμενον … ὁ δὲ μῦθοϲ παραλαβὼν πρὸϲ τὸ παραδοξότερον τὴν φύσιν αὐτοῦ διηγήσατο ὡϲ γιγνομένου ταῦτα ἅπερ ἐμιμεῖτο.
In this ‘euhemeristic’ reading, Proteus’ miraculous metamorphoses are translated back into impersonation, and the story is shifted from the mode of the quasi-miraculous, the paradoxon (often associated in Lucian with myth), to a more commonsensical explanation.
It is tempting to pursue this thought further and ask what it implies for the relationship between pantomime and myth in general. Perhaps not only Proteus, but any other mythical character could likewise be imagined as a performer who, just like Proteus, was at some point reinterpreted as the protagonist of a myth… Gods are shape-shifters, like for instance Athena in the words of Odysseus (σὲ γὰρ αὐτὴν παντὶ ἐίσκειϲ, Od. 13,313), or Zeus in his many guises as a seducer. Conversely, on the comic stage, the possibility of becoming a god through mere travesty seems to have been exploited early on, as a fragment by Aristomenes shows (Fr. 5 K.-A., from the Wizards). But if mythical characters are performers, pantomime reenacts the deflation of myth by repeating this simple fact in every single performance. Pantomime is therefore uniquely true to itself, for it is what it represents: the art of pretending.
It seems to me that the reference to Proteus draws attention to the fictionality of both myth and pantomime. Both function on the level of ‘as if’, but while myth ‘paradoxically’ refers to superhuman beings, pantomime gives truth back to myth by representing it just as it ought to be understood according to Lycinus, namely as the fictions of a skilled artist which are inextricably tied to their medium. The explanation of Proteus as a pantomime-performer is an ingenious aition of the narrative shift towards the paradoxon operated by the myth, since the myth only exploits what is already built in in its protagonist, namely fictionality itself, or the ability to represent fictional characters. But while the myth, on Lycinus’ reading, ends up presenting a clear divide between meaning and narrative form (or between signified and signifier), in its pantomimic enactment there is no such gap, since performer and character visibly merge in the body of the dancer.




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