Modern Life and the Golden Ass
(translation by E.J. Kenney*)
Penguin Classics Edition
Though I tend to eschew the once noble and now tragically democratized art of “professional” book reviewing, the occasional exception is made for some vaunted pillar of the past that gleams with particular resonance or charms my pants off, quite literally.
To wit, I am pleased to report that few literary experiences have proved more satisfactory than reading Apuleius’s The Golden Ass whilst naked in bed.
Allow me to explain.
The Golden Ass is the ancient story of a sophisticated, witty, and curious Mediterranean gentleman named Lucius, who travels to Thessaly in search of an intimate encounter with the powers of witchcraft. He finds what he is looking for, but, by a stroke of near-slapstick misfortune, Lucius is accidentally transformed from a man into a jackass. Thereafter he is flung headlong into a series of tragicomic adventures that scale the heights and depths of human behavior, all while the blind goddess of Fate spins her wheel with reckless indifference.
One of the best parts about The Golden Ass? It truly is as ancient as it is timeless.
Depending upon which bickering clique of scholastic rivals one chooses to favor, this raunchy, rip-roaring, and achingly brilliant picaresque was probably composed around 140 CE. As such, it is the only complete novel from classical antiquity that has survived centuries of the very cyclical tumults, indulgences, and cultural perils it actually documents in order to enchant the modern psyche and, peradventure, to forewarn.
The author, Apuleius (AP-yoo-‘LEE-us or a-‘PYOO-lee-us, take your pick) was born to a fairly wealthy family in the ancient Numidian colony of Madauros, not far from the North African coastline in what is present-day Algeria. Receiving a hefty inheritance upon the death of his magisterial father, Apuleius traipsed at leisure around the Mediterranean Basin, studying Platonic philosophy and rhetoric in Athens and Rome. He eventually garnered a significant measure of renown as a lecturer and prolific writer of everything from poetry to Socratic exegesis.
These and other biographical tidbits about Apuleius’s adventurous existence can be gleaned from even the most cursory glance at encyclopedic entries devoted to the subject. I shall therefore dispense with an assessment of these details, for the most part, focusing rather upon the direct impact of his work upon this contemporary reader. Make no mistake: I have discovered both timeless and timely qualities to The Golden Ass—prima facie evidence that underscores the astonishing constancy of human nature at its most vulgar and its most spiritually sublime.
Therein is found also the paradoxical aspect of Apuleius’s masterpiece, which is a seamless and almost surreal fusion of dazzling human reprehensibility with the quest for immortal “otherness” via some form of divine consecration. Apuleius demonstrates in The Golden Assthat, no matter the era or century, just as all societies are capable of wallowing, so too are they inclined to yearn—through selfish impulses both calculated and haphazard—for ultimate freedom from the mire of their undoing. Our bawdy author reveals this with such indelible wit and wisdom that we are tempted to forget his reminder that the journey is ever-manipulated and observed on the outskirts by gods, demons, and other entities as misguided, capricious, and infuriating as human beings themselves.
It is not my intention to render a complete summation of the plot of The Golden Ass within the limitations of this blog review. There shall be no forensic exploration of the myriad revels and tribulations that unfold as our anti-hero, Lucius, careens toward his unexpected destiny.
Instead, I encourage you to read the book for yourself, perchance aided by a few impressions and a reminder about the basic narrative.
The Golden Ass introduces us to a wealthy young man named Lucius, who travels with his horse and a manservant to the city of Hypata, in Thessaly, ostensibly to conduct a bit of business. On the way, the all-too-curious fellow encounters a pair of squabbling fellow travelers, one of whom is persuaded to entertain his companions with a tantalizing personal story about witches, whose powers were known to be rife throughout the region. Intrigued to the point of obsession by the tale, Lucius determines to arrange his own close-encounter with the magical arts and, upon reaching Hypata, opportunity wastes little time in presenting itself. Indeed, Lucius’s not-so-gracious host in the city is married to a man-hungry sorceress of the highest caliber—the most potent wonderworker in all of witch-rich Thessaly!
Not inclined to engage directly with his host’s mighty and unpredictable wife, Lucius instead turns to scheming and pursues the attentions of the witch’s maidservant, a buxom lass who knows a thing or two about her mistress’s powers, being a helpful apprentice-witch in her own right. A rather lusty and clandestine affair blossoms between the two—Lucius is not about to forego the bumping, grinding pleasures of the flesh while conniving—and his goal of observing genuine witchcraft in action is swiftly realized. Photis, the eager maidservant, arranges for Lucius to peek from behind a door one evening while the sorceress of the manor, Pamphile, transforms herself into an owl using an enchanted ointment. Our unlikely hero is duly mesmerized by the mechanics of this metamorphosis and, once Pamphile flies from her bower in owl-form, he insists that Photis procure the same ointment that he, too, might experience the thrill of these miraculous airborne delights.
Photis aims to please her poetic, priapic, and persuasive lover but, unnerved by the possibility of her mistress’s sudden return, she fumbles in the dark among the charmed paraphernalia and procures the wrong unguent. Stripped naked and nearly mad with the hunger to undergo his own transformation, Lucius smears himself from head to toe with the stuff. Alas, the desired feathers and talons are not forthcoming. Instead, he changes promptly into a jackass.
The magnitude of this catastrophic mistake is not lost upon Apuleius’s two horrified characters in the scene, nor upon his readers, ancient or modern. Themes of a prurient obsession with “seeing beyond the veil,” as it were, and peering from illicit vantage points into supernatural mysteries unfit for profane human curiosity rise hilariously to the fore.
The comedic irony of the botched metamorphosis aside, Lucius is of course terrified to find himself trapped in the graceless body of an ass while still fully possessed of his human intellectual faculties. The first-person narration is, as they say, a scream. Instead of piercing the sky on velvet wings, Lucius’s already restless sense of entrapment as a man burdened by imperfection, frustration, and existential clumsiness is now magnified a hundred-fold in the form of an ass. Photis, the nerve-shredded bedmate and erstwhile “apprentice” witch, assures him that a cure for the backfire is easily obtained; the woeful creature needs only to munch upon common rose petals to regain his true form. In fact, she dashes off to fetch some. This sounds easy enough and an immediate sense of impending resolution enters the narrative as Lucius hee-haws a sigh of relief.
All shall be well.
The error shall be corrected.
He’s learned his lesson.
Magic is nothing to trifle with.
Fortunately for the reader, it is at this very moment that the entire house is raided by a horde of bloodthirsty bandits and poor Lucius the ass is whisked away as part of the contraband.
From the beginning of Lucius’s adventures, then, we are presented with a crystalline illustration of Apuleius’s primary idea—one that will manifest itself in numerous ways throughout the rest of the novel. Namely, in Lucius’s desire to take literal flight by supernatural means, the desperation of the human quest to escape the fetters of earthly existence and commune with the supernatural is framed succinctly, as is the damning disillusionment that results when such a quest is thwarted at every turn. Not only does Lucius fail to even get off the ground in his spiritual/sensual pursuit, he is rendered more confused and deformed in his human misery than ever before.
The book struck a number of chords with me. In fact, it played me like a lyre.
How often in the past fifty years of this present era have we witnessed the near-frenetic tendency of human beings (from all walks of life) to seek intimate connections with the “Great Beyond” through all manner of obscure and non-traditional avenues?
I’ve seen it. We’ve all seen it. In one way or another, I believe we have all attempted it, or wanted to do so. To some extent, people laboring under the typical stresses of existence (while nevertheless possessed of the time and luxury to “shop” for enlightenment) tend to flit from one metaphysical storefront to the next, as if sampling from a vast candy-box of assorted spiritual cremes.
It is an almost paradoxical bourgeois phenomenon in our day, requiring a certain level of material comfort, wanderlust, and technological convenience. Those who toil (or who used to toil) through ten or twelve hour days on farms, in factories, or behind desks have not nearly the time to pursue such divine dainties, even if the inclination is there. It is therefore unsurprising that the lives of such individuals tend often to be structured and uncomplicated due to circumstance, whatever their level of spiritual probation. By contrast, the “seeking” demographic can prove to be jittery and perpetually famished amid their otherworldly endeavors, despite a comparative wealth of resources, time, and brain cells to burn in search of any and every heavenly glimpse.
In the past half-century, especially, the West has witnessed an explosion of obsessive interest in the occult, in New Age fads, in non-denominational Protestantism, in storefront sects that seem to emerge out of thin air, in Eastern mysticism, in outright brainwashing cults, and in pseudo-religious movements built around the ostensible worship of everything from comic book characters to television programs. The common thread in all seems to be spun from an abhorrence towards (or fascination with) the apocalyptically decadent. The extra-curious have even mined ancient Gnostic, kabbalistic, and pagan systems to satisfy a disturbing and proliferating desire to depart the mortal coil—while still enfleshed!—and pierce the proverbial veil, any veil. Even atheism has been transmogrified into a trendy start-up cosmology, replete with credal formulae, dogmatic tropes, and actual churches.
Such phenomena cannot be attributed entirely to some polymerization of happenstance multicultural “discovery” occasioned by the rise of globalism and the information highway. Rather, there has been an outward hunt for the esoteric, a kind of rag-and-bone-picking over those cultures that can be perceived as mysterious and seductive compared to the stolid structuralisms and post-structuralisms of the West.
And it is unmistakably the dominion of the bourgeois, of the bored and the bratty—just as Lucius was bourgeois, bored, and bratty in his time. Just as Apuleius, for all of his wondrous education and talent, was bourgeois in his origins and thus able to speak so authentically for Lucius while whisked away on a cavalcade of misadventure.
The Golden Ass is, at its most fundamental, a farce about the human search for esoteric salvation beyond the tried and traditional parameters. There can be no doubt that this “secretive” impulse has led to all-out expeditions for supernatural revelation at the societal level throughout many periods of history. After the Industrial Revolution, for example, we may witness some of the first modern stirrings in the cogitations of Madame Blavatsky and the Spiritualist movement, but there can be no question that the most furious acceleration of such a widespread hunger belongs to our own era, comprising the final forty years of the 20th Century and continuing to the present day with no sign of abatement.
This parcel of time has afforded the Western world with unique new stresses and fears, alongside unparalleled technological conveniences and relative comforts. This, again, is the Great Contradiction. These are the times in which entire civilizations begin to flirt with decadence and moral collapse at the very moment when they have more weapons to combat decadence and moral collapse than at any other juncture in history! In many cases today, religious fervor becomes intertwined with the aforementioned decay, if only to serve as a cloak intended to both conceal and comfort amid the pervasive rot.
Oh, indeed, there are a number of striking parallels between our times and those of Apuleius, who flourished under the economically prosperous reigns of Marcus Aurelius and the Antonine emperors. As mentioned, Lucius (like Apuleius himself) was a member of an affluent and increasingly mobile gentry in the sprawling empire. Apuleius’s initial inheritance and subsequent wealth were not excessive compared to some others, but he always possessed sufficient funds to navigate the seas, highways, and byways of the empire with a certain level of safety from the various banes of his day—bandits, rogue thieves, highwaymen, etc.
All of these people show up in bold relief throughout the novel, and they aren’t lovable miscreants of the Pirates of the Caribbean milieu. Oh, no. Furthermore, those ancients who were comfortably ensconced in the cities and suburbs of the Mediterranean Basin enjoyed privileges that allowed them to indulge lavishly and at leisure in the largely imported intellectual, spiritual, culinary, and sexual luxuries of the day.
Lucius’s asinine descent into the vortex of hapless catastrophe is dizzying in its acceleration. In ass-form, he is captured, recaptured, traded, and abused by one den of thieves after another, forced to serve the orgiastic needs of a band of roving eunuch-priests, enslaved by adulterers, adulteresses, murderers, and cutthroats of every stripe. Even so, the novel never fails to amuse with its tragicomic asides—remember that Lucius retains human sentience throughout his trials—and observations about the human condition. It rarely fails to repulse the reader even amid page-turning bursts of laughter.
As many scholars have noted, Apuleius was rendering an accurate historical depiction of the depravity, criminality, danger and moral decay of his financially flourishing but spiritually turbulent age. In this sense, one can see how and why Cervantes drew such plentiful inspiration from The Golden Ass in his portrayal of Don Quixote, and why Shakespeare paid homage to Apuleius within the verses of A MidSummer Night’s Dream, his own paean to magical contretemps. One even wonders if hints of Apuleius’s gift for plotting a masterful picaresque fugue can be detected in a tour-de-force like John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and the braying of his Ignatius J. Reilly.
I think so.
More than anything, I recognized unquestionable parallels with our own particular time, along with more delightful (and depressing) proof to undergird the notion of plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. As perhaps the most glimmering jewel of all, I also believe that I encountered a fellow curmudgeon in the fulsome bloom of his own artistic misanthropy.
Yes, Apuleius relished the chance to expose the inanities of Assholes and Stupid People, and he did so in a way that allows certain perceptive readers to practically hear him cackling gleefully across the centuries, even as he wrote the story down on papyrus for the first time. Little wonder I loved the book. It’s a tome after my own cold-blooded heart.
Then there is the issue of magic.
The ancient obsession with magic as exhibited in The Golden Ass does not resonate quite as much for me as a key parallel, at least from a modern perspective, because even though our society is still very much captivated by the idea of magic, thaumaturgy, and other fantastical possibilities, the ancient perception of magic was far more intricately bound-up with daily life and religion than it is today. Magic was a given, a very practical part of life at all levels of society. Witches and enchanters of great power were not only believed to have existed, but were sought-out and feared, as were the ramifications of more mundane, street-level curses and do-it-one’s-self spells that could, as Apuleius indicates on more than one occasion, “bind the very gods” to the will of the enchanter.
Doubt not that, in ancient Roman times, any individual could be brought to trial before judge and tribunal on the accusation of subterfuge by witchcraft—even a person of such high-standing and repute as Apuleius. In fact, he himself was thus accused upon marrying a wealthy widow named Pudentilla, whose relatives and in-laws were not well-disposed towards Apuleius’s apprehension of the family fortune. Suffice it to say that, no matter when Apuleius got around to writing The Golden Ass, he was already a master of both rhetoric and of the flummoxing of fools, especially where magic was concerned. He demolished his accusers brilliantly—and again, hilariously—with his legendary but lesser-known Apologia (A Discourse on Magic).
This was a man with a wit that must’ve made the gods themselves shudder with envy …and anxiety.
Yes, Apuleius made mincemeat of The Stupid and loathed any hint of stupidity in himself, if he acknowledged any whatsoever, which is debatable. He so thoroughly savored running rings around willful numbskulls that a rich ability to lampoon his own peccadilloes must remain uncertain. Then again, if the character of Lucius was truly intended to represented Apuleius himself under such hypothetical (and perhaps more youthful) circumstances, then we must admit with enthusiasm that the man possessed the insight and capacity to laugh at his own foibles with all the satirical heft he was able to heap upon others. Let us face it: he is having as much fun as the reader, while brandishing the courage to laugh at the entire blazing charade and irrevocability of it all. Apuleius had the nerve not only to laugh, but to dissect and flambé the occasional disgrace that is the human species, the abject chaotic mess and utter filth that is this babbling collective of apes, at whiles—all daring to propagate the doctrine that they, in the midst of their inherent squalor, were originally made in the image of God.
In the fetid and pompous feasts, in the revels of thieves and townspeople, in the hubris of wealthy denizens throughout The Golden Ass, I see undeniable images of the West’s current gluttony, debauchery, and widespread self-indulgence at almost every level. I witness staring back at me our “new” tendency to transform every once-sacred, solemn holiday into a veritable Mardi Gras of ongoing excess, especially among people who should be old and wise enough to avoid the expected extremes of wanton youth. The ramshackle state of human civility amid such obvious prosperity affords yet another striking parallel. Everyone in Apuleius’s world, from god to grifter, has plenty of information … but little desire to share it with dignity or without compromising conditions.
Perhaps most intriguing of all, Apuleius follows many people of his era in believing with cardiac-level sincerity in the possibility of gods becoming human and humans becoming gods. His spectacular telling of the Passion of Cupid and Psyche, which anchors the novel in a damnable, divine, fevered, and sexually jolting oasis, underscores the pulsing ache beneath Apuleius’s humor, i.e. the putridness of human and animal and animal and human, indistinguishable for obvious reasons, and the dreadful yearning for even the most unworthy and idiotic bits of human muck to connect with the divine.
Then, suddenly, at the end of all this mayhem, ribaldry, and knee-slapping hilarity, we meet Isis. She was the merciful Mother Goddess whose worship, by the time of Apuleius, had begun to eclipse those of all the state gods throughout the Roman Empire, promising compassion, purity, moral cohesion, and magical protection in this life, as well as eternal bliss in the next.
When Lucius, at the end of his tether (literally) comes before Isis while in the lowly state of his hirsute enchantment, it is she who provides revelation and magical resolution in a manner so poignant, devout, and elegant that the juxtaposition against all that came before in the novel is almost jarring. Apuleius introduces us to many goddesses in the madcap tale of Lucius, but most are viewed with a detached reverence at best, and one (Atargatis) with outright disdain. Isis, however, is presented as the ultimate answer and refuge—the long-sought agent of enlightenment who solves the riddles of man, god, and magic under the aegis of her omniscience.
It seems impossible that Apuleius was satirizing Isis in any way whatsoever, so tender and transcendent is his treatment of her and of her priesthood at the culmination of this classic work.
Our great rhetorician was known to be an initiate of several of the popular “mystery cults” of the day—Eleusis, Mithras, etc.—which were capturing the imaginations of millions and banishing the old gods into the shadows. But the sobriety of Apuleius’s final dedication to Isis seems to bear the mark of a radiant and irreversible discovery after the relentless horror, of a headlong “leap of faith” (perhaps near the end of his life?) of the sort that would mark the rise of the Christian cult of salvation across the empire some two hundred years later. Let us not forget that Isis was the greatest competitor of Christ for the hearts and spiritual inclinations of the imperial people, even into Late Antiquity.
Whatever the case may be, The Golden Ass is treasure of multi-layered majesty. Little wonder that it not only survived the ages, but that its influence upon later works of great literature remains undeniable. The geniuses of the world have always had the ability to hone-in upon those with the distinctive gift for lampooning humanity at its most abhorrent, and the humanity to recognize inspiration at its most ultimate and transformative.
Apuleius gives us both, and his novel is more relevant now than it has been in many long, swift-vanishing centuries of time and tribulation.
* E.J. Kenny (translator) is Emeritus Kennedy Professor of Latin in the University of Cambridge. His publications include a critical edition of Ovid’s amatory works. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.
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