BMCR 1998.12.10

Metamorphosis of Language in Apuleius: A Study of Allusion in the Novel


This book, rightly acclaimed by its author as the first monograph on the study of allusion in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, offers a well-argued, acute, and inspiring discussion of Apuleius’ treatment of earlier authors, especially the giants of the Augustan Age, Vergil and Ovid. In this revision of a 1990 Harvard dissertation inspired by the phenomenal success of J.J. Winkler’s, Actor and Auctor (1985), Finkelpearl persuasively argues that Apuleius’ extensive use of allusion constitutes not merely an essential aspect of the novel’s structure, but rather the spine of the novelist’s continuous process of experimentation with earlier literature “in an attempt to find the novel’s place” (p. 35), that is its classification under a specific genre category. This struggle with the texts of famous literary predecessors reaches a critical point by book 10 when Apuleius realizes that his continuous, intentional use of literary models has become a burden, and that he has not managed to define his novel in terms of traditional literary genres. According to F., the outcome of this realization is book 11, which contains the conclusion of Lucius’/Apuleius’ journey of exploration and experimentation, and reaches “the tentative point of self-definition” (p. 31), namely the proclamation that Novel is a genre of its own, one that defies a particular literary formula in favor of a complex multiformity.

F.’s description of Apuleius’ mind at work invites us to see in the Metamorphose s a product the development of which records the several stages of the author’s struggle to accommodate previous literary tradition in his text, to prove that he himself also “belongs.” It will take Apuleius 10 books to realize that his work develops as a result of the existence of a literary tradition and not inside it. Anticipating the reader’s positive reception of her approach, F. repeatedly acknowledges, both in her introduction and throughout the monograph, the subjectivity of any intertextual interpretation. Her introductory chapter provides a clear and well-articulated exposition of her aims and methods, as well as a concise and well-informed statement of the significance of allusion in Latin literature, a discussion of the different terms (i.e. reference, intertextuality, imitation) that are used to elaborate the term “allusion,” a comprehensive summary of the most important scholarly studies on allusion in Apuleius, and finally the special significance and complexity that an allusion acquires merely by the fact that it functions inside the plot of a novel, a genre itself that defies limits and definitions that apply to other literary genres.

The motif of “parody” that may be detected throughout the Metamorphoses, and which, according to F., is most frequently evoked by scholars (Van der Paardt, Frangoulidis, Dowden) who wish to characterize Apuleius’ relationship to his literary models in one word, becomes the theme of the second chapter. F. initially asserts that the term parody “is open to many definitions and fundamentally paradoxical” (p. 40), and thus only the beginning of a series of arguments defining the relationship between the Apuleian text and its ‘parodied’ model. As a result, F. proceeds to explain, first, the reason for the frequency of parodies in a novel (“parody through its very recognizability, … forces us to see in a flash the disparity between the original high genre and the new, purposely and obviously low application” [p. 42]), and, then, Apuleius’ adroitness in incorporating a literary model by parodying it. The parodied literary prototypes that F. examines in chapters 2 and 3 are drawn mainly from Vergil and Ovid, and they are easy to identify. The most celebrated of these examples, Sinon’s speech of deception in Aeneid 2, comes last and occupies a whole separate chapter. F. is right to do so, since Apuleius makes extensive use of the Sinon’s performance as liar and self-proclaimed victim, while the Fall of Troy, the outcome of Sinon’s speech, is vividly recalled in four different sections of the Metamorphoses (Risus Festival, Thrasyleon and Demochares, the plot of Psyche’s sisters, and the disguise of Tlepolemus/Haemus). F. discusses the Sinonian resonances in each of these four sections of the Metamorphoses and demonstrates how the lying narrator Sinon may be also seen as a partial reflection of Apuleius himself, according to the popular narrative strategy ancient writers of fiction used, expressing their anxiety over the deceptiveness (disguise techniques, lying and deception, ruin and sudden change of fortune) that their work naturally involved by borrowing from earlier literature, especially well-known works. At the same time the many different and complex ways in which Apuleius explores and weaves Vergil’s performance of Sinon and the overall staging of the Fall of Troy into his narrative demonstrates, according to F.’s argument, Apuleius’ constant concern to make two opposite poles meet: by creating a genre identity for his work, and at the same time maintaining its position within a strong literary tradition. Among a number of additional intelligent points raised in F.’s discussion of the narrative structure of the Metamorphoses as this is allusively summarized in the Sinon episode, one in particular bears mention— F.’s highlighting of magic (p. 90ff.). Magic was the main narrative reason that brought the novel’s hero, Lucius, to Thessaly. In addition to standing for the novel’s starting point, magic is powerful enough, according to F.’s argument, to overturn predictability—of the plot, and as a result of the novel’s genre classification. A cause of surprise and change beyond expectation, magic also generates circumstances that defy a single or reasonable interpretation, and it can naturally be detected in the novel’s literary definition as a genre that strongly relies on the unexpected and frequent twists in the progression of its plot.

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 involve “groupings of [Apuleius’] allusions to a particular source or group of sources” (p. 110) rather than individual references to a particular source. Chapter five, which in essence summarizes part of F.’s earlier work, discusses Apuleius’ version of the ‘katabasis’ theme and converses with Vergil’s Aeneid 6. This claim of kinship with the Aeneid and the epic tradition, however, is only partial here; starting with the narrative of Psyche’s descent to the underworld, Apuleius introduces another major issue that directly affects the nature of his work as a genre: the theme of orality and literacy. Both Psyche’s adventures and Charite’s tale which envelops them are repeatedly presented as oral narratives ( fabulae or fabellae), in other words, not a “formal written composition of the work” (p. 113). The celebration of Isis in book 11 as a goddess of writing reveals the importance of writing and the power of recording as a central theme that guarantees the unity of the entire novel. In this proclamation of the oral, and therefore still evolving, nature of his work, moreover, Apuleius appears still in a state of deliberation regarding the definition of the genre he wishes to assume for his narrative, ad eager to experiment further.

As F. firmly establishes, we witness this experimentation in ample detail in the portrayal of Charite in Met. 8 in the light of a number of heroines that feature in works of various genres. The most prominent allusions apply to Vergil’s Dido: in F.’s words “[Apuleius] has designed his story as an alternative Dido story” so that his readers may see in his Charite a “second and more faithful Dido” (p. 115). A detailed examination comparing Charite’s fate in Metamorphoses 8 and that of Vergil’s Dido in Aeneid 1 and 4, well argued by F., demonstrates a narrative connection between the two heroines. At the same time, evocations from other sources, not necessarily epic ones, are strong and easily detected, such as Herodotus’ narrative of the death of Atys ( His t. 1.34-35), the story of Kamma in Plutarch’s ‘Gynaikon Aretai’ ( Moralia 257.22), Protesilaus’ epiphany to Laodamia derived from a Euripidean tragedy, Livy’s raped Lucretia (1.57.7), and Petronius’ Widow of Ephesus. The concentration in Charite of a number of traits that also characterize a variety of heroines in both Greek and Latin literature and in a variety of genres, in F.’s view sheds broader and brighter light upon Apuleius’ indeterminacy regarding the genre defenition of his work. Yet at the same time, F. asserts, Apulieus’ attempt to ameliorate the portrait of Dido with his Charite corresponds with another, broader literary tradition of a different nature and objective. F. demonstrates that in the early Christian centuries a correction of the image of Vergil’s Dido was a theme that recurs frequently among African authors, dictated mainly by Christian morality and national pride. A good deal of F.’s discussion in the later section of this chapter centers on the Romanization of Africa. This discussion could have been shorter, without being less persuasive. As it is, it causes occasional distraction from the main line of F.’s argument, that is Apuleius’ anxiety over the genre of his work and his constant experimentation with tradition.

This contest with literary tradition reaches an end in Metamorphoses 10, and it is best portrayed into two interchanging pairs of tales treated in the seventh chapter in F.’s monograph. F. observes repetitions of the same plots and themes in book 10, and directs our attention to the fact that Apuleius intentionally avoids using names for his characters in these tales, but refers to them in a more intimate way, according to family or community relationship (“mother”, “step mother”, “step-son”, “father”, “son”, “doctor”; cf. F.’s table of character arrangement on p. 159). This widespread use of generic terms intends, F. explains, to highlight family relationships, especially their confusion and perverted nature as reflected both in the tales of the evil step mother (“Tale A”) and the condemned murderess (“Tale A1”), and in the Pasiphae stories (“B”and “B1”) that interchange with the former. The prominence of this theme of “generational confusion” (p. 182) in Metamorphoses 10 is then transferred from the intratextual level of these four incest tales to the complex ways in which Apuleius treats his literary sources on this ‘Noverca’ topic: Euripides’ Hippolytus and Phaedra, Ovid and Seneca, and even Vergil’s Dido, are all well-rooted in Apuleius’ literary background. Yet, as F. clearly states and demonstrates, “there is an unusually knotted web of indebtedness in this episode” (p. 161). As they make their way into book 10, Apuleius and his readers eventually realize that this cyclical repetition of themes and structural motifs “creates a stifling atmosphere, a prison from which the storyteller cannot escape, whether composing with others’ words, in a supposedly elevated genre, or in his own voice”(p. 176). Eventually, the only way to ease the tension and break loose from this feeling of stagnation is to disregard literary tradition. Apuleius’ escape from literary tradition and the author’s early enthusiasm upon discovering that his creates something new becomes appropriately the main theme of the last chapter of the Metamorphoses as well as F.’s monograph.

Titled appropriately “Escape and a New Voice,” F.’s eighth chapter describes Apuleius’ arrival at the realization that his work is able to stand independently as a genre of its own. This realization simultaneously with Lucius’ initiation into the mysteries of Isis following his cure by the goddess. F.’s exposition of earlier scholarship on the “Isis book” outlines how this has often appeared a misfit and rather awkward conclusion to the novel. F.’s discussion persuades us for the function of book 11 as conclusion to the entire novel: Apuleius’ maturation as writer who has acquired the self-confidence to acknowledge the independent voice of his own work. This acknowledgement is filtered through the adventures of Lucius, which happily end with the hero’s entrance under the protection of Isis: the evil step-mother and the interminable circles of disastrous family relationships are now substituted by the image of Isis as the benevolent, protective mother. Just like African Apuleius and the unusual literary nature of his work, Isis as deity is foreign to the Greco-Roman culture. Yet her eventual popularity in the Greco-Roman world anticipates a similar success for Apuleius and the newly born genre of the novel.

This element of inclusion and acceptance is also articulated in the treatment of the issue of oral and written speech. One of the constant causes of frustration for Lucius during his experience as an ass was his inability both to speak in human voice and to record in written speech the tales he witnessed. This frustration, an allusive cover-up for Apuleius’ own anxiety to compose in a language other than his native tongue, is eventually resolved, legitimized by Isis, who in addition to her acceptance in Rome despite her foreign status, is also presented as goddess-patron of writing.

An exhaustive discussion of allusion in the Metamorphoses certainly needs more space than F’s 216 pages-long monograph. The author, throughout her work, raises issues that are not discussed in detail, but which aim at challenging the reader’s critical imagination beyond the limits of the particular book. One of these issues worth thinking about involves the importance of the snake in the tale of Cupid and Psyche. As Frangoulidis has suggested ( Vergilius 37 [1992] 26-38, n. 12), Cupid’s likening to a snake, both in the Oracle of Milesian Apollo and by Psyche’s evil sisters is supported by Sappho’s well-known presentation of Eros as orpeton (frgm. 130 LP). This suggestion of sexual attraction as snake reappears in the later part of the Metamorphoses, when the love-lust of the evil step-mother for her step-son is called “vipereus”(p. 164). Then, the motif of repeating and thus strengthening the structural significance of certain allusions or narrative motifs throughout the novel is very much worth considering: what is, for example, the greater significance of identifying the similar structural background in the tales of Plotina’s disguise and escape riding a donkey, the presumed flight of Tlepolemus/Haemus caused by Plotina’s successful revenge, and eventually the flight of Charite whom both tales of Plotina and Pseudo-Haemus implicitly address (p. 104)? The examination of the multiple and always changing audiences that witness the narrative of Apuleius’ heroes deserve perhaps to become the object of separate study: the audiences that enjoy Tlepolemus’/Haemus’ performance (p. 106) are not two, but three; the robbers’ gang, Charite, and Lucius; each of them derives different messages from the same tale, and their subsequent behavior — and, thus, the course of our novel’s plot — is directed to a some degree from these messages. Also the omission of names that particularly characterizes the repetition of narrative plots and structural motifs in the tales of the book 10, according to a different approach, suggests the repetition of themes and character roles of Roman Comedy. Although the grim atmosphere of these tales seemd quite the opposite compared to the ludi of Plautus and Terence, the theatricality of the entire setting is quite prominent and, in my view, deserves further exploration.

The above thoughts, in their majority resulted from my own reading of F.’s excellent study, purport only to highlight further the value of the monograph. F.’s acute, well-articulated, and flexible arguments contribute much to a better, deeper appreciation of Apuleius’ novel. The readers of the Metamorphoses will definitely find F.’s study a reference work, a rich source of new ideas, challenging and thought-provoking.

I regret that I have to conclude my review with a note of negative criticism. F.’s well-informed bibliography is rather undeservedly marked by a rather large number of typographical errors with reference to foreign titles. There are a significant number of accents misplaced or entirely omitted from French terms [e.g. “etudes” almost everywhere without its accent, misplacement of the accent on “Apulee”in Lancel’s article (p. 227), “Griechishes” instead of “Griechisches” in the title of Erbse’s article (p. 224)]. These errors will no doubt be amended in the second edition of the monograph.