The Golden Ass
Having done a streak of East Asian novels I am now back in the west with Apuleius’ ”The Golden Ass”.
This book is however not any closer to modernity than the previous novels, quite the contrary. “The Golden Ass” is an 1800 year old novel and the only complete Roman era novel in existence. Or maybe only novel in Latin. In any case ancient stuff, preceding all the other novels so far read in this project.
“The Golden Ass” or “Metamorphoses”, as it is also known as, is the story of a fellow called Lucius whose curiosity gets him in trouble when he insists on witnessing a witch in action. He is himself transformed to an ass and as such wander from one disaster to the next, barely staying alive. He is also encountering tales of many different kinds which are recounted at length in the book. Near the end Lucius, the ass, has a religious experience. A Goddess helps him return to human shape and in return he becomes a monk.
By far the major part of the book consists of alternating stories with the progress of Lucius’ horrific experiences. Although those are certainly adventurous enough they are mostly a vehicle for the stories. As such this is a picaresque style of writing that I know I will be encountering a lot when I get to the renaissance books and beyond.
Personally that sort of writing has always annoyed me because the episodic stories distract me from the main theme and therefore often feels like unnecessary filler. A bit like episodes on X-files not relating to the main theme. In this case though there are a lot of meat on the stories and comparatively little meat on Lucius’ own and it is quite clear that they are the real agenda of the novel.
The stories cover a lot of ground. Some are related to magic and witchcraft, some to horrible crimes, but most of them relate in one way or another to relations between men and women. While there are horrible men most of the villains are women who either out of weakness, jealousy, greed or just meanness are causing the death and/or downfall of men around them. These stories have plenty of fairly explicit sex (though not as much as I was led to believe) and gruesome violence (a lot more than I expected) and certainly enough drama to warrant their inclusion. The most famous story, that of Psyche and Cupid, is almost a novel on its now and seem more like traditional mythology of gods and heroes and their doings and it feels oddly misplaced amid stories of whoring wives and murdering witches.
Whether there is a morality or even a point to the stories I have not been able to figure out. The main function seem to simply entertain and that is okay with me. If I should draw some sort of conclusion it would be that women should be mistrusted and that greed and viciousness is everywhere.
A thing that strikes me reading a novel so far removed in time is how the concept of many things are just different. I have noted similar things reading the Asian novels, but time clearly causes similar problems. A particular element is that of religious beliefs. This story is written sometime between 150 and 180 placing it in the Roman Empire long before Christianity became the dominant religion. The religious environment is super confused. There are elements of Roman religion, lots of Greek, Oriental elements and finally Egyptian. It is like a religious free for all, pick your God and belief. The only thing that is certain is the belief in religion. The cacophony of believes never for a second makes anybody doubt that there is a mystic world with gods and rules of all sorts. Instead it seems like a grasping for the right interpretation, even flirting with the idea that all these gods are different manifestations of a supreme being, maybe a precursor to monotheistic thinking. For me it is difficult enough to cope with Christian thinking. Pre-Christian thinking is even harder to grasp. It is a window into a different world where mysticism is very real and revelations through dream, divine intervention and providence are perfectly plausible and acceptable.
Another odd concept is the cheapness of life. Especially the distinction between free men and slaves. That a person can be the possession of another person is bad enough, but that such a person is barely considered human is difficult to grasp. The same with the degree of violence described, especially when you consider the medical aid a victim of violence could expect. Gruesome.
I have to commend on the translation of the version I read. By using modern words and formulations “The Golden Ass” does not feel as archaic as it is. Yes, it is still a product of its time, but it is absolutely readable and certainly entertaining. If for nothing else you learn a lot about how life was in Roman times and that is always interesting. A good companion to “The Golden Ass” would be to visit Pompeii. Look at the painting on the walls there and think of this book. Very real indeed.