BMCR 1999.05.02

Liebesbeziehungen in Ovids Metamorphosen und ihr Einfluß auf den Roman des Apuleius. Göttinger Schriftenzur Klassischen Philologie, Band 1

, Liebesbeziehungen in Ovids Metamorphosen und ihr Einfluß auf den Roman des Apuleius. Göttinger Schriftenzur Klassischen Philologie, Band 1. Göttingen/Braunschweig: Hainholz Verlag, 1998. 292.

In the ever growing surge of books and articles on Apuleius, only little attention is paid to the relationship between Ovid and Apuleius. This is curious, given the circumstance that both authors have composed a work bearing the same title: Metamorphoses. This fact is, of course, often mentioned by scholars, but few indeed venture to proceed any further in their analysis.

This scholarly silence may be explained by the rather different nature and genre of both works: Ovid’s is a mythological epic poem, whereas Apuleius has written a fictional novel in prose. How can such different texts be compared with each other in a meaningful and fruitful way? Collecting verbal echoes and parallels is always possible, and this has properly been done, but such an approach does not readily lead to a comprehensive analysis. On the other hand, a thematic and ideological comparison easily incurs the dangers of narrowness and subjectivity, given the differences between and the literary complexity of the texts and the loss of much that made up the larger literary context.

Where scholars have left a theme largely undiscussed, there is room for others to fill the lacuna. This is what Hendrik Müller has proposed to do in his study on Ovid and Apuleius, which was defended as a thesis at Göttingen University in 1997-1998. (The published version of the book [1998] seems to be identical with the dissertation, although it is said to have been reworked.) His attempt to deal with both Ovid and Apuleius in one book, with the purpose of bringing out the essential elements in both, is courageous but it must be read with some caution and scepsis.

M. has chosen to concentrate on ‘Liebesbeziehungen’ (love relationships, erotic relationships) as the main point of comparison. An introductory chapter describes the ‘Forschunglage’ on Ovid’s poem as a poem of love and the theme of love in Apuleius’ novel, with additional remarks on the new enquiry. This chapter shows some characteristics that seem typical of dissertations, particularly German ones: it proves that the scholar has faithfully consulted a mass of studies, but it hardly makes good reading. The first few notes actually pour out such a vast stream of titles that many readers will be simply baffled.

Those who continue reading are presented with three large chapters focusing on Ovid’s poem. First the love motif is analyzed in a rather general way (Ch. II, 41 p.). A distinction is made between divine and human love, with some subdivisions within each group. A second large chapter (Ch. III, 47 p.) describes Ovid’s portrayal of the effects of love: the factors that provoke it (sight obviously being the dominant factor), the physiological reactions (feeling hot, blushing, effects on the eyes and body movement), psychical reactions (hope, lust, pity, rage, joy), and the metaphors used in erotic contexts, such as imagery of fire or disease. A third Ovidian chapter (Ch. IV, 53 p.) zooms in upon the representation of instances of ‘growing love’. After some introductory paragraphs on the various narrative perspectives, seven scenes from the Met. are analyzed in detail: the ‘heroes’ are represented by Narcissus (3,339 f.) and Tereus (6,423 f.) while for raging heroines we have Medea (7,7 f.), Scylla (8,6 f), Byblis (9,450 f), Iphis (9,666 f.) and Myrrha (10,298 f.). A summary concludes the chapter.

From p.171 onward the perspective changes to Ovid’s influence on Apuleius’ novel (Ch. V, 58 p.). First, two paragraphs discuss the title of Apuleius’ novel and its proem. Then some individual love scenes are analyzed: some related to sex and magic (Meroe, Pamphile and the Thessalian witches; and Photis), some that are said to illustrate conjugal fidelity (Charite, Amor and Psyche, Plotina, Charite and Trasyllus), and some involving adultery (the scenes in Met. 9 and 10). Finally, an attempt is made to give examples of ‘growing love’ in the novel (mainly Lucius and Photis). A short ‘Ergebnis’ and the customary bibliography, lists, and indices conclude the study.

Having arrived at the end of the study the reader is left rather disappointed. Certainly, he has been stimulated to reread Ovid’s love stories and recapitulate some ideas about them. However, new insights on what is essential to the poet are actually few in number. To be fair, it is very difficult to come up with surprising discoveries on poets that have been studied as much as Ovid. Some more modest requirements, however, should be met by any study: ideas should be relevant and add to a specific purpose. I am afraid M.’s long-winded discourse often does not stand this test. For instance, what sense does it make to distinguish between gods and men (Ch.II) when the distinction is said to be only marginally relevant at the next stage (Ch.III, p.71)? (Moreover, at a later stage (p.187-8), Apuleius’ evil witches are far too easily compared to Ovid’s loving gods: here the distinction divine-human becomes blurred.) Or why include a long, comparative table of love metaphors in Ovid (p.110-1) without a purposeful conclusion? Why add numerous, lengthy paraphrases of well-known stories that any reader can easily read for himself, rather than open up new and essential points of analysis?

The Ovidian chapters are not merely characterized by a certain lack of purpose, but they also include a number of missed opportunities. For instance, the paragraphs on ‘narrative perspective’ (p.118-124), that precede the sections on individual passages in Ovid, are far too short and superficial. It is not necessary to develop extensive narrative theories, but four short paragraphs that merely point to a difference between ‘neutral’ and ‘personal’ narrative situations (and to soliloquy as a special form) are decidedly unsatisfactory and hardly surpass the standards of school book knowledge. Surely it would have been appropriate to refer to concepts such as ‘focalization’ and ‘free indirect speech’, and use these in analyzing Ovid’s treatment of love. Ovid’s techniques of description and development of pathos might also have been accounted for, to mention just one or two other important points.

Another example. In the section on the story of Iphis (p.158-62), I searched in vain for any reference to contemporary secondary literature on ‘lesbian’ relationships in antiquity. Meanwhile, of the impressive number of studies on ancient sexuality produced in the last few decades not a trace can be found here. In particular, in view of Ovid’s relatively strong aversion to homo-eroticism in general, more could and should have been said here. On a more general note, a study that takes ‘love relationships’ as its central motif ought to discuss at some stage the difference between sexual attraction, erotic activity (one-sided or two-sided; rape or seduction, flirting), and love relationships (whether stable and lasting or short and changing), rather than put them all more or less together. The absence of a serious theoretical discussion of such matters of love and sex (amply discussed in contemporary literature on antiquity) is a grave deficiency in M.’s book.

In reading these Ovidian chapters I felt increasingly uneasy: gradually I came to think that M.’s point of departure was fundamentally wrong. A general and ill-defined concept like ‘Liebesbeziehungen’, that covers large parts of Ovid’s poem (but is absent in many others!) actually proves to be a bad starting point. It is, to put it simply, not typical enough for Ovid. Yes, there is much love and sex in his poem, but that is equally true of Senecan tragedy, Vergilian epic, or elegiac poetry, three types of text almost completely neglected in this study.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the final chapter on Apuleius is far from convincing. The initial paragraphs make a hesitant start (the section on the title of Apuleius’ novel characteristically ends on the note that the question concerning the alternative title ‘asinus aureus’ is irrelevant for the rest of the chapter), after which we are offered what amounts to paraphrases of well known stories, such as the tale of Cupid and Psyche. The parallels with Ovid remain unclear for many pages. Worse, whenever a comparison is made, it tends to be rather strained. For instance: in the scheme on p.201, the structure of two Ovidian and Apuleian stories of threatened marital love is compared but without any mention of the standard pattern of love, cruel separation and reunion, as it is present in every ancient novel; this generic feature is bound to have influenced Apuleius a good deal more than a story in Ovid. Furthermore, the Apuleian stories of adultery are far too easily connected to Ovid through a motif of ‘female furor’. Finally, the specific (Ovidian) motif of growing love is said to return only in two Apuleian stories and to have led to a contrasting treatment by the novelist. So we have Apuleius describing ‘growing love’ unlike Ovid! In the end, M.’s claim that both texts show meaningful structural parallels is not substantiated.

M. has diligently studied Ovid and makes a praiseworthy effort to bridge the gap between Ovid and Apuleius, but he clearly fails to achieve his aim. His choice of ‘Liebesbeziehungen’ as a central motif seems infelicitous: the concept is ill-defined and proves to be an inadequate tool to grasp Ovid’s poetical genius. Consequently, it does not serve as a means of comparison between Ovid and Apuleius. One simply cannot isolate a concept like ‘love’ to establish intertextual relationships between two texts, to the exclusion of other texts in which love is no less central. How can we understand erotic stories in Apuleius if we do not also study Petronius or Roman elegy?

For a comparison of Ovid and Apuleius, would it not have been more fruitful to attempt to focus on ‘change’, a concept that is manifestly central to both ‘Metamorphoses’? Admittedly, the term is still too general to work with, but some form might have been found to make it operative.

As it is, M.’s study now largely describes two sets of texts, without adding important new insights on either, and fails to convince that these texts have common ground. In view of the explicit aims of the study, the sad conclusion must be that the book lacks significance and should not have been published in this form.