How to be an ass by knowing too little of context, or how nuance can make the difference.
via Harvard Review
I’ve been looking at asses. More specifically, I have been weighing Sarah Ruden’s 2011 translation of The Golden Ass of Apuleius against the one I grew up with and have been sitting on all my life, Robert Graves’s 1951 version.
Strictly speaking, “The Golden Ass” isn’t the book’s proper name. More sedately known as Metamorphoses, written by the North African writer Lucius Apuleius in the second century CE, this work, often regarded as a proto-novel, follows the adventures of a young man perhaps not coincidentally named Lucius who trespasses trivially on occult secrets and—you’ll have to read for yourself how this is done—becomes the first, but not the last, to make an ass of himself.
Trapped inside his peau de chagrin, Lucius undergoes a number of outrages, overhears far more than he should, and ends up being redeemed after a year by the goddess Isis and inducted into mysteries we are not permitted to share. The Golden Ass is, in Lewis Carrollingian terms, what the name of the book has come to be called, presumably to keep it from being confused with Ovid’s. St. Augustine, of all people, is credited with assuring the world of Apuleius’s authority for the title The Golden Ass. There’s nothing at all golden about Lucius either as man or beast, and the name is likely a word play, a pun asinorum.
After two millennia of picaresque storytelling, after Don Quixote and The Manuscript Found in Saragossa and Henderson the Rain King, the one-damned-thing-after-another of The Golden Ass may not hold much interest for a contemporary reader by itself. We look for something else, perhaps Robert Graves’s own “one story and one story only . . . nothing promised that is not fulfilled,” played out among the witches and goddesses, crones and maidens of Lucius’s acquaintance.
We can mine the book (based on a Greek original, with all the action taking place in Greece) for incidental information about material and spiritual life in the early Roman Empire. Neither Graves nor Ruden sixty years later has provided us with any notes or scholarly apparatus that might help us through these leafy thickets. Graves gives us good and clever authority, an edition he claims under his own name, before giving it back to Apuleius. What Ruden offers is more immediate: a stylistic exuberance that catches the essence of an original idiosyncratic Latin prose, a well-written good read.