Tuesday, January 4, 2022

A Cult Classic: Apuleius's "The Golden Ass"

        



Apuleius's dazzling novel, The Golden Ass, is classic and a joy to read.  Yet it is unknown to the majority of readers of the Western canon,  because they have been taught that the novel was not invented till the eighteenth century.
 

Fans of the classics will be intrigued, but not surprised that the Greeks and Romans preceded the Europeans in novel-writing. And  The Golden Ass, written in Latin in the second century A.D.,  is a masterpiece that has achieved the status of a cult classic.  Hilarious, wild, bawdy, and religious, it is too politically incorrect to appeal widely these days; at least that is my assumption.  Yet one imagines John Barth and Ursula K. Le Guin poring over this strange mix of comedy, magic realism, eroticism, philosophy, religion, and metafiction.

 

Does it sound too weird? Apuleius tries to prepare us in his Address to the Reader.  "If you are not put off by the Egyptian story-telling convention which allows humans to be changed into animals and, after various adventures, restored to their proper shapes, you should be amused by this queer novel, a string of anecdotes in the popular Milesian style, but intended only for your private ear, which I call my Transformations."  

 It centers on the consequences of curiosity: Lucius, the narrator, is transformed into an ass for spying on a witch - beware of witches!   Lucius relates his adventures while he is a beast of burden, in the form of the animal most hated by the goddess Isis - and we wait with bated breath for him to escape his captors and be transformed back into a human.  Apuleius interweaves many mesmerizing tales in the narrative, including a long, beautifully-written version of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.  
 

Apuleius was born around 125 A.D. at Madaurus in Africa Proconsularis, and educated in Carthage, Athens, and Rome.  He traveled widely, became a professional orator in Rome, and a priest of the imperial cult in his province.  Unfortunately, magic did not happen not only in books:  it was widely believed in and practiced. After agreeing to marry an ex-student's mother to keep the money in the family, Apuleius had to defend himself against charges of magic from relatives who believed he had used magic to become the heir.  His defense speech, the Apology, is extant.

Apuleius's Latin style is convoluted and archaic, a challenge to English translators.  Robert Graves explains that he did not attempt to imitate it. He writes: "paradoxically, the effect of oddness is best achieved by writing in convulsed times like the present in as easy and sedate an English as possible. " And Graves's translation is fascinating, if a bit subdued.

There are many adequate translations, and a few excellent ones.  I enjoyed Jack Lindsay's lively translation, and  of course Robert Graves' is superb. 

So now I shall put on my bifocals and get back to my book.  I look forward to reading the Cupid and Psyche myth again. 

9 comments:

  1. I am reading Greek plays at the moment, but have put this book on my list to read next.

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  2. Great title. At a glance I thought you were talking about a spaghetti western called The Golden Ass. Am trying to find a copy of the Lindsay... thanks for a cool post! G

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    1. The title is strange, but all becomes clear upon reading it. I hope you can ind the Lindsay.

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    2. Go to Bookfinder. Enter "The Golden Ass" as title and "Jack Lindsay" as key words and you'll find several copies. It was published by Indiana University Press a few years ago.

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  3. My heavens, another trip down memory lane! I read this one when I was dabbling in the classics; so long ago I don't remember which translation I read (probably the oldest one around). I agree with your assessment of its merits -- its wild, wonderful and very unappreciated.
    My copy of the book, which I had loaned to a friend, actually saved her from a hefty speeding ticket. When she was pulled over, the cop saw The Golden Ass lying on the passenger seat of her car, thought the title was hilarious, laughed & let her go with a warning. Never say the classics aren't useful!
    And, yes, totally agree the Cupid/Psyche myth is gorgeous . . .

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    1. It so much fun. The best story I've heard about it: St. Augustine read it as autobiography apparently: he wasn't quite sure whether Apuleius had reported his actual asinine transformation or made it up. Times were apparently quite different! Thank God your friend was saved by The Golden Ass!

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  4. I read it in William Adlington's translation, which was added as a crib to the Loeb edition. The editor remarked on Adlington's excellent taste in omitting parts in his version. Like Gibbon's untranslated footnotes it concentrated the mind wonderfully, even if on aspects of Latin that weren't going to crop up in "A-level" exams.

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    1. Oh, dear, nothing like a bowdlerized edition! But Adlington was (or is) well-respected. There are quite a few "modern" translations, the newest by a writer I don't care for much, alas, Sarah Ruden. I do love translations, but know from the Latin how difficult their job is, especially with this one!

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