Academic journal article Ancient Narrative

Constructing Apuleius: The Emergence of a Literary Artist

Academic journal article Ancient Narrative

Constructing Apuleius: The Emergence of a Literary Artist

Article excerpt

This paper aims to be both a contribution to the history of scholarship and a stimulus to further research. In it I seek to follow some key themes in the scholarly reception of Apuleius' Metamorphoses before and after the work of Ben Edwin Perry, and to show how the critical constructions of literary works are necessarily affected by contemporary ideological prejudices, which change over time as scholarship develops. In particular, I try to trace the emergence after much negative judgement of the modern construction of Apuleius as a careful literary artist, and of the Metamorphoses as a novel worthy of detailed study and a carefully composed, complex and highly allusive literary text, a view which has come into being almost entirely during the twentieth century, and to suggest consequent paths for further scholarly investigation. (1)

1: The Problems of Prejudice--from Antiquity to Perry Anxiety about how ancient prose fiction relates to the conventional canon of literary genres, about its overall quality, and about whether it can be accounted 'proper' literature, goes back to the Roman world. (2) Prose fiction is notably omitted from the most extensive survey of literary genres to be found in ancient literary criticism, the syllabus for the aspiring orator in the tenth book of Quintilian's Institutio, and novels are largely unmentioned in the other literature of the ancient world until the fourth to fifth centuries. Then we find two revealing comments. In his Neoplatonising commentary on the Somnium Scipionis of Cicero, Macrobius condemns prose fiction as merely titillating and more suitable for the nursery than for serious consideration (Somn.1.2.8):

   Auditum mulcent ... argumenta fictis
   casibus amatorum referta, quibus
   vel multum se Arbiter exercuit vel
   Apuleium non nunquam lusisse miramur.
   Hoc totum fabularum genus, quod
   solas aurium delicias profitetur,
   e sacrario suo in nutricum cunas
   sapientiae tractatus eliminat.

   'Our hearing is charmed by plots
   stuffed with the imagined vicissitudes
   of lovers, on which Petronius spent
   much labour, and in which we are
   surprised that even Apuleius often
   sported. This whole kind of story,
   since it aims only at the pleasuring
   of the ears, is expelled by the discussion
   of wisdom from its shrine to take
   refuge in the cradles of nurses'.

Here prose fiction and its trivial concerns are seen as mere empty and false story-telling, insignificant compared to the truth of philosophy which is central for Macrobius himself; Apuleius' combination of Platonic philosophy and novel-writing is seen as surprising and inconsistent. A similar attitude is shown in the supposed attack by Septimius Severus in a letter to the Senate on the character of Clodius Albinus, his rival for the purple in 195--7, in the Historia Augusta (SHA Clod. Alb.12.12):

   Maior fuit dolor, quod illum pro
   litterato laudandum plerique duxistis,
   cum ille neniis quibusdam anilibus
   occupatus inter Milesias Punicas
   Apulei sui et ludicra litteraria consenesceret.

'It is a greater pain to me that many of you have deemed him to deserve praise as a man of literature, when he was busied with some nonsense or other fit for old women and was growing senile amongst the Punic Milesian tales of his friend Apuleius (3) and such literary trivialities'.

This association of novels with old women, suggesting the credulity of their readers and the triviality of their content, is likely to be of earlier origin, since it is seems to be playfully alluded to in Apuleius' Metamorphoses, when the inserted tale of Cupid and Psyche, which is clearly designed to parallel the plot of a Greek romantic novel, is presented as being told by a real old woman, the anonymous housekeeper of a robber-band, who herself introduces her narrative as an old woman's tale in a phrase which seems to pick up the kind of criticisms made by Macrobius and Severus' supposed letter (4. …

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