BMCR 2001.12.11

Apuleius Madaurensis Metamorphoses Book X: Text, Introduction and Commentary

, , Metamorphoses, book X. Groningen commentaries on Apuleius. Groningen: E. Forsten, 2000. 487 pages ; 26 cm.. ISBN 9069801280

The Groningen Commentaries on Apuleius (more specifically, commentaries on individual books and sections of the Metamorphoses) have become a distinguished series, conservative and thorough almost to a fault. Maaike Zimmerman (hereafter Z.), a leader for many years at the Groningen Apuleius “factory,” has with this volume produced a 487 page commentary on the 35 chapters of Book 10 of the Met. She justifies the length in part by her view that the tragic and dark Book 10 is the “‘threshold’ between books I-IX and the ‘Isis book.'” Although there are passages where I could wish that the commentary had been trimmed, on the whole the book is a major reference tool on the Metamorphoses for which scholars will be grateful.

A 35 page Introduction attempts to show the relationship between Book 10 and the wider context of the Metamorphoses. Effectively this means that the tenth book often picks up on, mirroring or transforming, themes from the earlier part of the novel. Examples: “At the Risus festival [3.2-12] Lucius undergoes a humiliating experience…in [the theatre in] Corinth the ass…refuses to become the centre of attention in this way.” (25) Again, “Ch. 33…reverently mentions Socrates and recalls his conviction. The Socrates in the story of 1.5-19, however, is a kind of anti-Socrates…” (27). Here I would disagree with such a contrast: the “reverence” of ch. 33 is hardly meant sincerely, it is more like an anti-reverence put in the mouth of an ass who at once acknowledges the possibility that the reader will interrupt the outburst with a roar of laughter (as further discussed by Z. at 400-401).

The question of narrative identity in the Met. is an unusually complex one, discussed but never thoroughly explored in Winkler’s highly influential 1985 Auctor and Actor. Z. for her part (27-30) has the courage to try to distinguish a triple level of identity to match this complexity: (1) concrete author and concrete reader (2) abstract author and abstract reader (3) fictive narrator and fictive narratee. One wonders whether even this elaborate system is adequate to match the various twists and turns of Apuleius’ narrative voice, where one elusive “fictive narrator,” who may or may not be the ass-man Lucius, seems to introduce the novel in 1.1, followed by Lucius “himself” in his several incarnations, and various other storytellers who take over narration from time to time (acknowledged by Z. 31-32).

I want to illustrate both the thoroughness and occasional pleonasm of Z.’s commentary by pointing to her notes on ch. 10, a paragraph which begins with the description of a guilty slave in court: (in Z’s translation) “Thereupon an immense panic seized the scoundrel, a pallor like that of a shade of the underworld replaced his normal, human color…” (and much more). Z’s notes begin with a paragraph in which the guilty slave’s symptoms are compared with those of lovesickness in Sappho and Lucretius (166). But in the notes below, various other comparisons are explored: “…the slave is ‘scared to death.’ The psychosomatic symptom of turning pale with fear is here joined with the topical paleness of shades in the underworld…” with copious references to pale ghosts in Vergil, Lucretius, and Apuleius himself (167). This is only the beginning: next we have passages which illustrate pallor as sign of a guilty conscience, passages which illustrate people sweating (or trembling, or stammering) with fear, and so on, for a total of four very full pages of notes just on the slave’s symptoms (166-169). The passage is variously compared to love poetry, epic, comedy, even mime. As readers, we are left to wander at will through the mass of evidence. The danger is that signposts which point in so many directions may end up bewildering rather than instructing us.

Again, although Z.’s style is admirably lucid as a whole, there are moments when a stricter editorial hand would have helped. Thus on p. 9, “After the disappearance of the décor of the pantomime” does not convey a clear meaning; on p. 17 we find this oddity: “…with entire passages fragments of Latin matching the corresponding passages of the Onos…” And on p.136 is found a gem of superfluous grammatical information: ” Placuit salubre consilium : the verb comes first in the sentence; but since this sentence has only two constituents, predicate and subject, one can say either that the predicate comes first, or that the subject comes last.”

To be honest, such moments are rare. A leisurely, full discussion of course is the point and the very spirit of the Groningen commentaries on Apuleius: to explore every aspect of a passage and provide full and accurate information on every aspect of it from the critical examination of a text, a search for the most accurate translation (“not artistic…but a working translation,” 33), and the search for a full list of literary parallels. Z. fulfills all of these tasks admirably. She is an editor’s editor. The text adopted is the final Teubner edition of Helm 1955, but “all disputed passages have been scrutinized anew” (33). Her note on 236. 16-21 (p.55) where she prefers Helm’s reading galeam ( gerebam) and justifies the retention of cetera after scutum, is a good example of her thoughtfulness. On the other hand, the commentary (146) on the phrase Haec eximia enim ad ueritatis imaginem where she retains the transmitted text of F, translating “This—an excellent story, surely, to create an impression of truth—” admirably illustrates her independent thinking at a point where most scholars have sought to emend. No detail is too small to escape her attention: I especially enjoy her explanation (238) of how Lucius “makes a kind of funnel with his lower lip” as he would with his tongue ( in modum linguae) “if he did not have a thick ass’s tongue.” Thus she perfectly visualizes the scene, insists on an anatomically correct concept of the ass’s mouth, and is able to justify the received manuscript reading.

The need to juggle many concerns at once can, at one extreme, cause the commentary to get lost in a flood of data, but Z. is never rushed, and often stops to notice small but important details. I like her comment (on chapter 12), that the phrase discusso mortifero sopore, used of the boy wakening from his death-like sleep, is an almost exact repetition, with chiasmus, of the phrase used by the doctor in ch. 11 when he predicted that the boy would be found alive, thus mirroring our surprised and happy reaction at the discovery (189). She is also alert to the larger concern of the extent to which Apuleius makes changes from his Greek original: note her careful comparison of chapter 16 with the parallel in Lucian’s Onos 47.6 (229).

The text is followed by three appendices. Appendix I traces the use of the Phaedra story in Apuleius to his possible source(s) for that story, including not only Euripides’ play but lesser-known variations on the theme in the Greek novel, the mime, and declamations. Appendix II on the spurcum addimentum, the appendage in some manuscripts to 10.21 obscenely describing the foreplay of the ass and the rich matron, rightly ascribes to it a medieval origin. Appendix III further explicates the relationship of the two Phaedra tales.

There is a very full bibliography at the back (which, however, misses E.J. Kenney’s 1998 Penguin translation of the novel); a minor irritation is that one has to flip back and forth between the two major sections, which list Apuleian studies before and after 1995.