Saturday, November 20, 2010


No this week's diatribe is not a paean to JLo's well appointed posterior and we apologise for disappointing the reader from the outset. Instead it deals with one Lucius Apuleius, a Greek born in the colony of Madaura, in the interior of Morocco in the second century AD. Lucius was a decent barrister of his time yet again, and it is possibly from tis that his obsession with things Asinine stemmed, as any one who has hear d a barrister bleating his case at Court could testify. Lucius studied law at Carthage Universoty and then Platonic philosophy at Athens. While at Athens, a seedy life of woring and drinking left him destitute and being assisted by his kind friend Thyasus, he experienced some kind of religious revelation and was initiated into the mysteries of the Egyptian goddess Isis. After this, he went to Rome where he studied Latin oratory and made a success at the Bar. Later, he travelled widely through Asia Minor and Egypt, studying philosophy and religion. Falling ill at Oea on the Libyan coast, he was nursed back to health by a friend who urged him to marry his widow mother. Soon after the marriage, when the mother fell sick and died, leaving Lucius with a fortune, the rest of the family charged him with having poisoned her and gained her affections by magic. Lucius' successful and very amusing speech in his defence, A Discourse on Magic, survives. I should like to have been present in court to hear him sum up part of his argument with the ludicrously dry: "I have now stated gentlemen, why in my opinion there is nothing at all common between magicians and fish." Most of all however, Lucius has survived historical erosion through the writing of his book "The Golden Ass" an uproariously funny romp about the bawdy misadventures of a youth in Greece who through dabbling with magic, turns into an ass. Bawdy to the extreme and yet scintillating and action packed. Lucius is the master of the double-take. The audience applauds but finds that is had applauded too soon; the real point, even funnier or more macabre than anyone expected was yet to come. One of the more amusing scenes occurs where the hero of the story attempts to seduce a slave-girl so as to learn from her the secrets of magic. The dialogue takes place over a cauldron and is as follows: "Dear Fotis, how daintily, how charmingly you stir that casserole: I love watching you wriggle your hips. And what a wonderful cook you are! The man whom you allow to poke his finger into your little casserole is the luckiest man alive. That sort of stew would tickle the most jaded palate." You get the picture. Quite apart from the jokes and boisterous moments, Lucius is a goldmine of information as to Greek life during the Roman occupation. We learn of a Festival of laughter at Hypata where townsfolk would play a trick on some hapless citizen have the entire town laugh at him, we learn of the ancient Greek's obsession with magic and adultery and along the way, Lucius interposes some gripping stories. Finally after undergoing transformations, the hero, like Lucius himself, is initiated into the mysteries of the goddess Isis. The way Isis is praised in the book is a direct parallel to hagiographical literature today, for the lives of the Saints. Ultimately, when one dispels the bawdy jests, the Golden Ass is a religious book. Yet the main religious principles that Lucius was inculcating where wholly opposed to those of the Christianity of his day. For him, men are far from equal in the sight of Heaven, its favour being reserved for the well-born and well-educated - only they can be admitted to the divine mysteries. Slaves and freedmen could never acquire the virtue or intelligence to be so initiated and Lucius' slaves are always cowardly and treacherous. To be abjectly poor, though free, he regarded as a sign not necessarily of baseness but of ill-luck and his second main religious principle was that ill-luck is contagious and people should keep away from the unlucky. Thus when Aristomenes in Lucius' opening story found his old friend Socrates in a shocking plight at Hypata, he should have tossed him a coin or too and leave him to his fate, instead of officiously dragging the wretch to the baths and scrubbing his filthy body. Socrates bad luck fastened on Aristomenes who was forced to change his name and abandon his wife and family, going into hiding. The fault which involved Lucius in all his miseries was that, though a nobleman, he had a love-affair with a slave girl. A slave girl is necessarily base; baseness is unlucky; ill-luck is contagious. He also transgressed the third main religious principle, he meddled with the supernatural, trying to persuade the girl to betray the magical secrets of her mistress who was a witch. A nobleman should not play with black magic: he should satisfy his spiritual needs by being initiated into a respectable cult along with men of his own station. The Ass, a symbol for the Greeks of ill-luck, lust, cruelty and wickedness bears many burdens as a result of his transgression yet Lucius emerges clean, pure and decidedly boring. The end of the novel is disappointing in that the new-look born again Lucius is neither funny or interesting but possibly in hindsight, maybe that was Lucius' final joke.
At any rate, the Golden Ass is a golden story and definitely well worth reading. It also has a diverse and extremely important legacy.The style of autobiographical confession of suffering in The Golden Ass influenced Saint Augustine of Hippo in the tone and style-partly in Polemic-of his Confessions. Scholars note that both Apuleius came from the M'Daourouch in Algeria, where Augustine would later study. Augustine refers to Apuleius and The Golden Ass particularly derisively in his materpiece, the City of God. A transformation of a human into an ass also appears in the character of Nick Bottom Shakespeare's, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare of course drawing liberally upon Greek history and mythology as an inspiration for his works. In 1517, Niccolo Macchiavelli attempted to write his own version of the story, in the form of a poem. It was uncompleted at the time of his death. Further, in 1883, Carlo Collodi published The Adventure of Pinocchio, which includes an episode in which the puppet protagonist is transformed into an ass.
In 1915 Franz Kafka published the novella The Metamorphosis, a quite similar name, about a young man's unexpected transformation into a cockroach. Within The Golden Ass, there are a number of interpolations of other stories, notably, that of the myth of Eros and Psyche. In 1956, the great storyteller C. S. Lewis published the allegorical novel, Till We Have faces, retelling the Cupid-Psyche myth of books four through six from the point of view of Orual, Psyche's jealous ugly sister. The novel revolves upon the threat/hope of meeting the divine face to face. Lewis's novel is widely regarded as one of his most compelling works of fiction.
Crude, bestial and boisterous, The Golden Ass is as compelling today, as when it was first written, thousands of years ago. Perhaps our Cultural organisations can institute a Golden Ass award for the production of particularly racy pieces of literature. Until next week then, a paraphrasis of the eternal question niggling at the minds of the Black Eyed Peas: "Watcha gonna do with all that Golden Ass inside them jeans?" Lucius Apuleius at least, has a few ideas.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 November 2010