Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius

Stupid people always dismiss as untrue anything that happens only seldom, or anything that their minds cannot readily grasp; yet when these things are carefully inquired into they are often found not only possible but probable.

The Golden Ass, or the Metamorphoses, by Apuleius is one of the earliest existing examples of what we would now think of as narrative literature. It’s not quite a novel; it’s more like a short story collection with a more-substantial-than-usual wraparound story. Divided into eleven short “books”, it follows the misadventures of a young man, Lucius, as he pursues his interests: magic, women, and living life.

Every section has at least one interstitial story, some longer and better than others. The most famous of these is Psyche and Cupid, appearing for the first time in Western literature. It’s a beautiful story well-told, and maybe the best part of the book. Other stories generally revolve around violent death or poorly hidden affairs; sometimes there’s magic.

Reading The Golden Ass is somewhat strange. It’s been around for such a long time, and has influenced everyone from Shakespeare, to Cervantes, to Augustine, that reading it sometimes brings on episodes of déjà vu. Its elements have been reappropriated so many times, particularly the central gimmick of the protagonist changing into an animal—in this case, the titular ass—that by all rights, The Golden Ass should be dull and predictable. However, it avoids this pitfall in two ways. First, like Don Quixote, it’s an example of a form in flux, and, as such has no qualms about incorporating poetry, folk tales, songs, author self-insertion in ways that feel almost postmodern—ridiculous, right? Secondly, The Golden Ass is quite a ribald piece of work—Philip Roth can’t hold a candle to the debauchery that takes place in these episodes.

In the last book, which is unfinished, the tone changes as Lucius, desperate for reprieve that seems forever out of his grasp, prays for deliverance from his donkey form or, barring that, death. It’s a beautifully written passage, serious where most of the book is silly, and powerful. I’m sure there’s infinitely more to it than I can cover here—the Latin original is supposedly full of wordplay—but The Golden Ass is still a must-read for anyone interested in the capital-C classics, whatever the language.


Christopher said...

Way to misspell "Apuleius," (golden) ass.

Brent Waggoner said...

This is not the comment I was promised.