BMCR 1997.06.14

1997.6.14, Hijmans et al., Apuleius Metamorphoses IX

, , Metamorphoses. book IX. Groningen commentaries on Apuleius. Groningen: E. Forsten, 1995. xxii, 436 pages ; 26 cm.. ISBN 9789069800851 $82.00.

Book IX of Apuleius’Metamorphoses falls in the least read and discussed portion of the work, amid the tales that no longer seem to have much to do with Lucius personally and are presented mainly with the excuse that the ass’s long ears allowed him to hear all of what was said around him. These are the tales presented when the narrative is in its most shapeless state: after the stories of witchcraft in Books 1-3, after the long narrative of Cupid and Psyche in Books 4-6, after the somewhat less memorable but still distinguishable romance/tragedy of Charite and Tlepolemus in two parts in Books 7 and 8, and before Lucius’ re-transformation and Isiac conversion in Book 11. Books 9 and 10 are composed of the stories of adultery, evil women, and disastrous families that all seem to blend together. It is doubtless partly due to their obscurity that these later books have not until now had an adequate commentary.

The Groningen group has, for the past twenty years, been systematically creating commentaries on the neglected parts of the Metamorphoses. While commentaries on Books 1-3, on the Cupid and Psyche episode, and on Book 11 were in existence, the rest was virtually uncharted territory. To find any help on Books 7-10 one had to resort to the crumbling pages of Hildebrand (1843) or Oudendorp (vol I ed. Ruhnken 1786; vol II and III ed. Bosscha, 1823). The Groningen commentary on Book 4.1-27 (i.e. before Cupid and Psyche) appeared in 1977; that on Book 6.25-32 and 7 (i.e. after Cupid and Psyche) appeared in 1981; Book 8 appeared in 1985 and, after a longer gap, Book 9 appeared in 1995. Book 10 is being covered individually by Maaike Zimmerman-de Graaf, one of the group, as her doctoral dissertation, and is due out in 1998 as one of the GCA series. A joint commentary on the Cupid and Psyche episode is also in process. In other words, at the most basic level, those of us who work on Apuleius owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Groningen commentators who have provided us with commentaries on the neglected books.

In addition to being the source of Apuleius commentaries, Groningen has also become a major center for the study of the ancient novel more generally. The yearly (formerly twice-yearly) Groningen Colloquia on the Ancient Novel, now held each spring, are a virtual paradise for scholars of the novel, with two days of talks only on the Novel, followed by excursions into the Dutch countryside. The lectures presented at these colloquia are culled, revised, and published in Groningen Colloquia on the Novel, the eighth volume of which has just been released. This year’s colloquium was the last for several years, since many members of the group will be planning the next International Conference on the Ancient Novel (ICAN 3) to be held at Groningen in July of the year 2000.

This commentary on Book 9, like the previous three volumes, is large, expensive, detailed, and the product of long-standing collaboration among the authors. (The majority are Dutch scholars affiliated with Groningen University.) It is a definitive commentary, designed for serious students of Apuleius, noting and carefully weighing all previous scholarship on each point. It is a mark of the nature of the commentary that the ratio of pages of commentary to pages of Latin text is 20:1. Each volume begins with a complete bibliography of works on Apuleius which have appeared since the last, as well as a general introduction to the particular book. This volume also contains six appendices on themes, characters, or passages needing further investigation (on which more below). The complete text of Book 9 appears in the front, followed by the commentary.

The commentary does what commentaries do; much space is devoted to establishing the text, discussing the oddities of Apuleius’ style (often with reference to Callebat’s monumental Sermo Cotidianus), or noting tropes, sound, prose rhythm, or poetic borrowings. The commentators have particular interests that stand out: the significance of names (on which Hijmans wrote in another Groningen volume, Aspects of Apuleius’ Golden Ass), narrative (to which much space is devoted in the introduction), and the effect of narrative perspectives on the analysis of character. The commentators do not restrict themselves, by any means, to issues of language or problematic passages, but often devote considerable attention to issues not always covered in commentaries, perhaps most prominently that of narrative and the reader. Social history, for which Apuleius is a good source, is covered unevenly. For example, there is fairly good coverage of laws on marriage, divorce, and heredity, (pp. 239-42, 248, and passim), but less on the architecture of a home in which a donkey may pass through the room where a woman is entertaining her lover (“Apuleius may have known homes in which animals were housed in a room off the living area. There is no point in asking for further details,” p. 234).

The virtue of these commentaries is their completeness. One can feel confident that everything that has been written on any given passage in Apuleius is listed in footnotes or directly discussed by the Groningen commentators. One can find, too, arcane and fascinating references such as where to read more about the type of lock used at 9.20 (p. 183). On the other hand, this very thoroughness makes the commentaries cumbersome to use. Speaking as someone who uses, but has never written, a commentary, I like to see notes that address problems, but leave alone passages that are readily comprehensible on their own. These notes are often longer than they need to be. First of all, each Latin sentence is individually printed along with an English translation. This practice is distracting if one is already reading Apuleius’ text, and perhaps the translation could be reserved only for those passages that are disputed or need particular attention. Secondly, much textual discussion occurs in the notes which could have been done more economically in an apparatus beneath the text in the front (of which there is none). The editors have adopted Helm’s Teubner text and note their deviations in the front, and so seem to regard it as unnecessary to repeat the apparatus. Nonetheless, commentary is too often devoted to citing variant readings. Finally, and perhaps as a result of collaboration, there is just too much leisure in the notes. One finds, for example, at 9.20, a comment on the phrase nudi milites : “Nuditas is, of course, a standard element in descriptions of sexual intercourse; cf. e.g. Prop. 2,15,5 nam modo nudatis mecum est luctata papillis; id. 2,15,15 nudus et Endymion Phoebi cepisse sororem/dicitur et nudae concubuisse deae; see Lyne 1980, 126f.” Surely, this note is at least unnecessary, if not misleading, implying as it does that there is something particularly literary about this nudity, and distracting from the oddity of the milites fighting in the nude. In general, a greater attempt at honing would have been beneficial.

Throughout the commentary, one of the major emphases is narrative technique. Of course, the investigation of narrative in Apuleius has become fashionable since the publication of Winkler’s Auctor and Actor (1985), yet the Groningen group, while perhaps initially influenced by Winkler’s study, has long pursued its own path with regard to narrative. In this volume, the commentators announce that they have now adopted the terminology and methods of Genette and Lintvelt, rather than Booth and Iser, as in previous volumes. In the introduction, they lay out distinctions (complete with interesting diagrams, p. 10) between concrete and abstract author, concrete and abstract reader, fictive narrator and listener, and characters in the narrated world. They also distinguish heterodiegetic narrative (in which the narrator is not an actor in the narrated world) and homodiegetic narrative (in which the narrator becomes both narrator and actor). These terms are employed and these distinctions drawn scrupulously throughout the commentary. For those interested in Apuleian narrative, this practice will be a positive feature.

There are six appendices which exhibit the same thoroughness as the main body of the commentary. Appendix I discusses rabies and a comparison with its treatment in the Pseudo-Lucianic Onos. Appendix II discusses possible future infinitive passives in the form -uiri. Appendix III: Curiosity; Appendix IV: the possibly Christian woman in 9.14; Appendix V: Garlands; Appendix VI: the pistor as a complicated character. Of these, numbers III and IV aim not merely to collect, but to advance discussion of the question.

The appendix on the woman who worships a god, “quem praedicaret unicum” (9.14), the same woman whose description is one of the most remarkable examples of Apuleian language: “saeua scaeua uiriosa ebriosa peruicax pertinax,” collects information on whether she may be Christian, Jewish, or neither. Quite reasonably, the discussion does not come to any definite conclusion.

The appendix on curiositas is the longest, most ambitious, and most successful of the appendices. Here, the characteristic care and thoroughness of the GCA group works well. The theme of curiosity has, of course, been the object of much attention in Apuleius, and scholarly opinion has tended to emphasize its negative side, whether from a religious/moral point of view (Schlam) or from a Platonist one (DeFilippo). Signed individually by Ben Hijmans, this discussion lays out all the uses of curiositas, curiosus, curiose, curiosulus, and incuriosus in the entire Metamorphoses, including attention to the narrator who makes judgments on the trait. Hijmans also includes a table citing passages including “curiosity expressed by other means,” which is useful inasmuch as it broadens the investigation, but a bit dangerous as it somewhat begs the question of what curiositas means. His conclusions are that “with respect to curiositas only display uncontrolled by prudentia is condemned by the auctorial narrator” (378). He also implicates the reader in the overall picture of curiosity in the Metamorphoses, suggesting that our scrupulous investigation of its contents is something actively recommended by the text.

The appendix on the pistor, on the other hand, seems to me rather odd. In this tale, the miller’s wife sits down to dinner with a young lover, but, when interrupted by the return of her husband, hides the lover under a wooden trough (9.23). The husband then tells the story of his dinner with the fuller, at which it was discovered that the fuller’s wife had hidden her lover under a wicker basket used to bleach garments with sulfur. This young man soon began to sneeze and was found out, at which point the miller convinced the furious fuller not to kill him as he would soon die of the sulfur fumes on his own. After this story, Lucius exposes the miller’s wife’s lover by stepping on his toes (or fingers, a disputed point). The miller, in contrast to the fuller, takes the affront calmly and leads the young man to bed himself. In the morning, the young man is soundly beaten and the wife sent from the house. Later, the wife enlists the help of a witch, and the miller eventually commits suicide, it appears.

To me, the story of the miller is, until its sinister turn, above all comic. The first tale sets up the expected reaction, which the miller defeats. Just as he had advised non-violent revenge to the fuller, so he achieves it himself. In addition, this part of the book is very much concerned with the ups and downs of Fortune, with the interweavings of the comic and the sinister, as well as with the literary notions of theme and variation. Books 9 and 10 are both filled with tales which repeat themselves with minor variations, a practice referred to in the commentary as “seriation.” The complexity of this part of the narrative, I think, lies in the question of why so many very similar tales are grouped together; the tales themselves seem uncomplicated.

In this appendix (again signed by Hijmans alone), the miller’s character undergoes minute examination. Hijmans points out that he was characterized by the old procuress as “insuauis et odiosus,” though Lucius as narrator had called him “bonus alioquin uir et adprime modestus.” Hijmans stresses what he sees as the miller’s nasty behavior when he discovers the youth: “the man is anything but suauis from the point of view of his wife.” The man takes revenge on the youth and drives his wife from the house and resists a magical attempt at reconciliation. He goes on to say that the miller wears the mask of a good man, but from a philosophical point of view he is a far cry from being bonus et modestus. Finally, he suggests that the miller, who is probably older than his wife because he has a married daughter from a previous marriage, could be seen as “a nasty character, unable to satisfy his wife, and one who has simply driven her to drink and adultery” (388).

This reading springs in part from the group’s interest in narrative and in their generally admirable distrust of any narrator. Nonetheless, it seems to me overworked. The tale takes a comic and unexpected turn; the miller, in punishing his wife, is simply acting as an injured husband would, and quite a bit less severely than his counterpart in the embedded tale. To introduce philosophy here seems misplaced, akin to the reading of the Metamorphoses which sees Platonism and/or Isiac meaning everywhere in the narrative (as some have).

These commentaries are not intended for undergraduates reading Apuleius, and would be very difficult to use even in a very advanced class. The GCA series has set out to be as comprehensive as possible, in view of the void that they have to fill. Yet those of us who wish to bring Apuleius a bit more into the undergraduate curriculum have a very difficult time finding any suitable materials for the purpose whatsoever. Scobie’s commentary on Book 1 with its interest in alternative ass-tales will work; deJonge (Book 2) is in Latin and unavailable; van der Paardt’s Book 3 is expensive and much like the Groningen commentaries in scope; even Kenney’s recent commentary on Cupid and Psyche (Cambridge 1990) is marred by a facing translation. The commentaries on Book 11 are in French (Fredouille) or prohibitively expensive (Griffiths). I look forward to the day when someone creates a useable two-volume Metamorphoses for undergraduates or even for those who read Apuleius a bit less intensely than the “abstract reader” that this commentary presupposes. Now that the GCA have done the hard work, we are a step closer to such a commentary.

For anyone working closely on Apuleius, these commentaries are a gift. With their thoroughness, dedication, and completeness, they do much of our work for us. The Groningen group has been instrumental on many fronts in furthering studies of the ancient novel.