Lunar New Year Reads, #48: The Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius

This is a Roman novel, which is a first for me: I’ve read Roman poetry, and Roman speeches, but never a Roman novel until now. Well, strictly speaking it’s actually not a Roman novel, but a Carthaginean novel, though it was written in Latin. The translation is a very old one, by William Adlington, which is normal in the Wordsworth Classics series: the texts are very inexpensive, but one must read very old and somewhat difficult translations. The difficulty, though, is apparently reflective in Apuleius’ own handling of the Latin language, one he may have learned as his natuve tongue was probably Punic — but I must admit, unlike some kinds of books, which, when they are compelling, I can ready even when very sleepy, this book sometimes became so intractable that I simply had to put it down and not read for a while.

The proper title of the novel, by the way, is Metamorphoses, and it was based on a lost Greek book called Various tales of Metamorphosis by Lucius of Patrae. As with the Divine Comedy, which Dante never called “Divine”, the “Golden” was an epithet added to the book in appreciation of its quality by the readerly public.

golden assThe book is hilarious, rollickingly funny, and gave me a very interesting view into the Classical Era. Basically, it’s a tale of a “civilized” (Greek- and Roman-educated) man who went traveling to Thessaly. Big mistake, for Thessaly in the world of this novel is “the Orient” in the mysterious 19th century British sense of the word: a place of magic, barbarity, doom and curses and cruelty, and horror. The protagonist discovers that his host’s wife can work magic and transform people into other shapes, and seduces her maidservant in order to sneakily get a chance to experience such a transformation.

Such a transformation he undergoes, but he becomes no bird. Rather, he becomes an ass, a donkey. Lest you think this is an amusing, Shakespearean kind of twist, well, think again. His suffering begins rapidly, as he is taken by one cruel master after another. His struggles begin early on, as a band of robbers kidnap him and use him to transport their stolen booty to their hideout. At some points, I felt as if the figure of the knowing, intelligent man trapped in the form of a donkey, trapped in the life of a slaving animal, was some kind of metonym for human slavery, which after all was widely practiced in Apuleius’ world. But there is also the horror of being just an animal, of being consumed — for many people threaten to cook and eat him, especially when he shows human-like stubbornness. Then again, perhaps this, too, is somewhat metaphorical for the experience of the enslaved man. It’s a reading not suggested by the editor, S. Gaselee, or the writer of the Introduction, James Morwood, but I think one could perhaps make some hay with it.

Yet it’s not a gloomy protest novel by any means — not even i such a thing were possible in that time period. No, there is also glittering comedy throughout: the ass gets diarrhea from eating improper foods, he hears all kinds of bawdy fabliaux (naughty & funny tales) during his wanderings, manages to kick people in some very amusing situations, and even beds a rich noblewoman. As the book progresses, you begin to see some links to Boccacio and Chaucer, because the fabliaux become not only more plentiful but also more perverse as the story goes on. For every moment of horror — and there are those too, most powerfully when he is enslaved to work in a mill and sees the other animals and people working there, in the awful din and gloom, a scene ripe for a Hell-Canto — there are two of twisted, rollicking mirth.

After reading this book, I have a much clearer sense of the connection between the Middle Ages and the Classical era, as well. The image of the terrifyingly carnal, lustful woman abounds, which was something I’d previously, in my ignorance, thought had been a Medieval Christian invention, to serve as a contrast to the divine, wonderful, heavenly Virgin Mary. Hardly: there are many precursor figures to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath here: lovers who conspire against their lovers, wives who seek to cuckold their husbands, and women who want nothing more than sex, sex, sex — and who are sometimes (but not always) horribly punished by the vicious chauvanistic narrative logic of Apuleius’ world.

But these awful female figures do serve as a contrast, to another female of divine import: Isis. It is Isis who is the ass’ salvation, Isis who delivers him from the fate won him by dabblings in wicked magic. (Amusingly, in real life, the author was sued by the family of his wife, a rich widow whom they claimed he won over to his bed by witchcraft. He defended himself with this apparently brilliant Apology which I intend to read once I get back from holidays.) I won’t give away the ending, but it’s funny how this actually seems like a kind of religious testimonial — though not one anyone could write today, not seriously anyway. Then again, Lucius was only serious below the surface: I’m certain a lot of the original, in the original, is uproariously funny.

There is also a very long, and I suspect important, tale about Cupid and Psyche which, according to the notes at the beginning of the book, suggests that Psyche (the soul) is saved by Cupid (love). I’m not sure how transparent that allegory is, as for me, on first reading, it was tough enough to get through that tale without losing track of what was going on in the bigger narrative. But it sounds like it’s on the right track as readings go.

Anyway, this book is strange, amusing, and definitely worthwhile, but I would see if I could get my hands on a more recent translation, if only for the sake of ease of reading.

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