BMCR 2020.09.24

Apuleius’ invisible ass: encounters with the unseen in the Metamorphoses

, Apuleius' invisible ass: encounters with the unseen in the Metamorphoses. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xi, 299 p.. ISBN 9781108475556 $99.99.


Scholars have long struggled to categorize and interpret Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, as the heightened sublimity a reader may feel at certain episodes in this masterpiece of fiction is matched only by an equally intense encounter with the grotesque and carnivalesque realism of others. Gustave Flaubert captured it best in a line which is quoted on the first page of the monograph under review: Apuleius’ novel “reeks of incense and piss” (p. 1), suggesting both the immersive power of a high church liturgy on Sunday morning, and the snap back to reality one then feels walking next to the dumpster outside the church after the service ends. Geoffrey Benson, in this revision of his 2013 dissertation, intervenes in the debate over the serious and/or comic tone of the Metamorphoses by suggesting that scholars have hitherto overlooked a significant motif that pervades some of the most important and interpretatively difficult scenes in the novel, namely, the ethics and metaphysics of invisibility.

In the Met., we witness the travels and travails of a narrator who remains hidden in the guise of an ass for 7 out of 11 books of the tale. Moreover, within the ass-books, Lucius hears and relates a tale of love between a young woman, Psyche, and her invisible (or unseen?) lover. Finally, the novel concludes, Benson argues, with an increasing exclusion of the reader from the divine epiphanies Lucius experiences. What Lucius-actor visualizes—with Benson borrowing Winkler’s narratological framework—slowly becomes less and less visible to the reader over the course of Book 11 through the narrative manipulations and evasions of Lucius-auctor.

In the introduction, Benson explains the need for a comprehensive study of invisibility in the Met. and the primary reason it seems to have gone overlooked. Although the term invisibilis occurs nowhere in the Apuleian corpus, and does not seem to have been in regular usage until Tertullian, Apuleius nonetheless discusses the invisible in his philosophical works by deploying Greek terminology (e.g., ἀόρατος). Moreover, the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), of which Apuleius may have been aware, possess a robust vocabulary for discussing the invisible. After demonstrating Apuleius’ familiarity with the phenomenon of invisibility, Benson then tries to pin down what constitutes “invisibility” by defining a typology of 4 forms of invisibility—“narratological,” “magical,” “social,” and “metaphysical”—and explaining how the monograph highlights in each chapter a particular instantiation of the invisibility motif.

Chapter 1 (“Apuleius’ Daemonic Voice”; pp. 28–61) then turns to the Prologue, over which Apuleianists continue to debate vehemently. Taking head-on a number of difficult controversies—the deliberate fingierte Mündlichkeit, the intentionally unnamed quis ille? of the Prologue, and ultimately, the relationship of an authorial fictive narrator to the real, historical ApuleiusBenson develops a reading of the Prologue speaker as a disembodied, “acousmatic voice” (deploying a theoretical term he borrows from Mladen Dolar), and connects this voice to the opening episode of book 5, in which Psyche is greeted in Cupid’s palace by “a certain voice stripped of its body” (Met. 5.2: vox quaedam corporis sui nuda). Indeed, further linking this vox to the “certain voice” Socrates is said to have heard from his daimonion in the Phaedrus, Benson suggests that the Prologue of the Met. speaks to its reader with a daemonic voice: it is invisible, disembodied, and something of an intermediary for the reader between this text and the higher and more sublime fictional world it aims to describe.

In Chapter 2 (“Invisible Man: Lucius, Gyges, and the Ethics of the Metamorphoses,”pp. 62–97), Benson embarks on the most ambitious part of his argument, attempting (1) to suggest that Plato’s myth of the ring of Gyges may provide the ethical backdrop of Lucius’ voyeurism in the ass-books, and (2) to elucidate the impact that invisibility spells from the PGM may have had on Apuleius’ sketch of the narrative contours of Lucius’ transformation. To address obvious differences between optical invisibility, such as we encounter with the ring of Gyges, and forms of invisibility attained through disguise, Benson creates a category which he labels “social invisibility,” wherein a fictional character or a practitioner of magic can transform into a creature that, though optically visible, is nonetheless overlooked or ignored. This transformation, moreover, is enacted through “magical invisibility,” such as we encounter in the PGM, which Benson connects speculatively to the metamorphoses of Pamphile and Lucius in book 3. While the Met. is written by a sophist performer, who touts his own public visibility, the novel nonetheless invites a more meditative reading by highlighting a question that underlies both the ring of Gyges and the spells from the PGM: namely, what are the ethics of invisibility?

In “Invisibility and the Structure of Reality in Cupid and Psyche” (pp. 98–148), Benson turns to Apuleius’ own metaphysics in order to understand how invisible voices and divinities function in C&P. Psyche uses different techniques, Benson argues, to see her “invisible” husband, from imagination—such as we see in Psyche’s creative lies to her sisters, which are flagged as such (e.g., with the verb confingere)—to visualization or epiphany. Within the inset tale, he traces the vocabulary of vision —the forms of the verb videre—to highlight Psyche’s desire (and by extension, perhaps the reader’s?) to see what cannot be seen, and this argument culminates with Cupid’s “paradoxical conditional” (105)—“you will not see my face if you see it” (Met. 5.11: quos…non videbis si videris). In carefully tracing what is seen and unseen across C&P, Benson handles well the larger interpretative questions in C&P about allegory and Platonic theōria.

 After elucidating the metaphysics of invisibility in C&P, Benson explores a major counter-argument to his monograph, namely, the excessive and heightened corporeality of the Met. He explores in “Scattered Limbs and Gleaming Bones” (pp. 149–183) whether a novel so obsessively concerned with the visible could be as focused as he suggests on invisibility, and he connects this analysis to a Platonic—and specifically Middle- and Neoplatonic—metaphysics. In the end, however, he views the amplified horrors of corporeality through a metaliterary lens of textual fragmentation and metamorphosis. The potential disunity of the text as highlighted through fragmentation can be unified, in Benson’s assessment, for the curious reader who possesses some knowledge of Platonic and Middle-/Neoplatonic metaphysics. It was surprising to see no reference in this chapter to John Heath’s seminal work on sparagmos in the early books of the Met.[1]

In chapter 5 (“Apprehending the Egyptian Gods,” pp. 184–238), Benson attempts a comprehensive, linear reading of the Isisbuch, in which he redeploys his category of “narratological invisibility” to argue that Lucius-auctor progressively excludes the reader from seeing what Lucius-actor sees, though the ass continues to experience the presence of (invisible?) divinities. By carefully scrutinizing dreams, visions, and ekphrases—from Lucius’ initial dream and epiphany of Isis to the closing dreams and katabatic visions of the gods—Benson argues that, while Lucius continues to have religious experiences over the course of Book 11, the reader’s attitude towards the authenticity of those experiences must be aporetic. Indeed, re-inscribing Winkler’s deconstructionist refusal of a definitive interpretation, Benson suggests that he, too, will not weigh in on Lucius’ conversion, but believes the text uses “narratological invisibility” to heighten the reader’s confusion, and to invite from the reader a possible attempt to visualize the face of the divine.

 In the final chapter, “The Power of the Metamorphoses (pp. 239–64),” Benson returns to the notorious “unity” question about the Met., suggesting a new way to understand the disjunct between the pleasurable books (1–10) and the divine epiphany in Book 11. Importing the theoretical discourse of “immersion” and “presence” and combining it with Rene Girard’s theory of “mimetic desire,”[2] he proposes that the escapist power of Books 1–10 is pushed to its limits in Book 11, where the cracks that appear earlier in the fictional world are fully exposed, and it becomes clear that narrative is insufficient to provide an immersive experience with divinity. However, in keeping with his daemonic reading of the Met., Benson wants to see the potential for a protreptic towards the philosophical pursuit of the divine precisely in this disjunct: the immersive power and pleasure of the ass-books makes some readers feel a desire to experience the spiritual pleasures of Isis.

Benson’s explication of the invisibility motif, in this reader’s assessment, provides a number of novel and valuable avenues for Apuleius scholars to follow up on, and in that sense, he has done criticism a great service by realigning the goal-posts, so to speak, of analysis. Particularly attractive to my mind is his suggestion that the Met. may be a “daemonic text” insofar as this novel, though covered in incense and piss, can serve as an intermediary between readers and the divine. Though Benson at some points falls victim to his own criticism of “simplistically superimpos[ing]” (p. 20, et passim) Platonism from other texts in the Apuleian corpus onto the Metamorphoses, Apuleius’ clear interest in Middle Platonic demonology authorizes this practice to some extent, and provides extraordinarily useful points of reference for re-evaluating, e.g., the quis ille? question, or the Madaurensem conundrum. Moreover, bringing the ring of Gyges myth from Plato’s Republic to bear in a more fruitful way to analysis of Lucius’ asinine transformation,[3] and linking that transformation to a number of invisibility spells from the PGM both strike me as creative and striking points of comparison for Apuleius’ approach to fiction.

Yet, while I was inclined to accept many of Benson’s propositions almost out of hand, I felt, as I read and reread his book, that a less inclined reader might not be so easily persuaded, in part because, though providing many new avenues of interpretation, he does not fully flesh out many of his proposals. The ring of Gyges and the PGM texts, for instance, seem undermotivated in the argumentation, and Benson acknowledges this subtly through his consistent rhetoric of anxiety, e.g., in his continual insistence that his premises are “speculative,” or that “some” readers “may” or “could” read more into the novel. Why not try to find clearer philological evidence to support Apuleius’ likely knowledge of spells from the PGM, for instance, by looking at Apuleius’ treatment of other charges in the Apologia and matching those to texts in the PGM? As the argument stands, Benson merely places them side by side and shows interesting potential points of comparison.

Moreover, at many points in the monograph, the invisibility motif becomes itself somewhat invisible, disguised or covered by layers of interpretation and argumentation that only tangentially relate to the unseen. For instance, in the chapter on C&P, Benson digresses into a 19-page discussion of inset tales, attempting to elucidate the relationship of this beautiful fabula to its frame-narrative, though that question has little obvious bearing on the invisibility motif. A similar critique could be leveled at much of chapter 4. In other words, it seemed at points throughout the monograph that Benson was torn between elucidating the meaning of and subtle play with invisibility in the Met. and alternatively, providing answers to long-entrenched debates in Apuleius studies.

My final issue with Apuleius’ Invisible Ass concerns an insufficiently interrogated premise of the book: I was not fully convinced that all of Benson’s categories of invisibility—“narratological,” “social,” “metaphysical,” and “magical” invisibility —are, in fact, all forms of invisibility, or even if they are that they are conceptually identical or isomorphic. Is Lucius’ refusal to let the reader see what he can see (i.e., what is seen) in Book 11 really the same phenomenon or even akin to Lucius sitting outside Pamphile’s door and looking through the key-hole? Or more simply, how does invisibility differ from disguise, a category well-known to antiquity as early as the Odyssey? Benson does strive to situate invisibility in the discourse of camouflage or concealment through his category of “social invisibility,” but to this reader, Odysseus’ machinations as a disguised, but clearly visible beggar who manipulates situations through dream interpretation and verbal cunning, seem vastly different from Gyges taking his pleasures while cloaked by optical invisibility. Moreover, I found it frustrating that, in the concluding chapters, Benson re-inscribes Winkler’s deconstructionist aporetic reading of the final books, thus nullifying some of the important work done by Luca Graverini and Stefan Tilg to recapture an interpretation closer to what we might imagine an ancient reader’s to be.[4] While I am sympathetic to his impulse to redirect the aporetic approach to a more serious and philosophical reading, and have attempted elsewhere to sketch out my own methodology to accomplish this by reading Apuleian aporia in light of ancient choice narratives,[5] I was not convinced that using “narratological invisibility” to re-assert Winkler’s approach actually brings criticism closer to seeing how ancient readers experienced Apuleius’ masterpiece.

In the final assessment, Apuleius’ Invisible Ass is a rich treasure-trove of analysis, which not only represents a comprehensive state-of-the-field for where Apuleius scholarship stands at the moment, but also paves the way for some genuinely new and rich paths of exploration for future Apuleianists to travel. Though not everyone will be persuaded by some of the connections Benson weaves together, the focus on the previously underappreciated topos of invisibility and the ethical questions which that introduces for the reader does add an important new dimension to the aporetic reading, transforming Winkler’s philosophical black comedy into something much more serious. The text itself is well-produced with almost no typographical errors (save a typo in a translation on p. 220: “assit” should be “assist”), and the chapters are nicely laid-out in easily manageable thematic sections.


[1] See J. Heath. 1992. Actaeon, the Unmannerly Intruder: The Myth and its Meaning in Classical Literature. Peter Lang, ch. 4.

[2] For “immersion” theory, Benson relies solely on H. Gumbrecht. 2004. Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey. Stanford, though it would have been helpful to use the work of Marie-Laure Ryan (e.g., M.-L. Ryan. 2001. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media) as well as more recent work on cognitive approaches to literature.

[3] Benson covers some territory already traversed by V. L. Kenaan. 2010. “The Ancient Road to the Unconscious: On Dream Narratives and Repressed Desires in Ancient Fiction,” in E. Scioli and C. Walde, eds. Sub Imagine Somni: Nighttime Phenomena in Greco-Roman Culture. Pisa, 165–83, though he provides a more detailed analysis.

[4] Cf. L. Graverini. 2012. Literature and Identity in the Golden Ass of Apuleius, B. T. Lee (trans.), Columbus and S. Tilg. 2014. Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. A Study in Roman Fiction. Oxford.

[5] See J. Ulrich. 2017. “Choose Your Own Adventure: an Eikōn of Socrates in the Prologue of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses,” AJPh 138.4: 707–38; J. Ulrich. Forthcoming (2020). “Hermeneutic Recollections: Apuleius’ Use of Platonic Myth in the Metamorphoses,” CPh 115.4.