Monday 1 August 2016

Written in Water 17: Lector Intende, Laetaberis.

By Jean de Bosschère, from an early 20th century edition of The Golden Ass.
This is the first page of one of the most contradictory and bizarre novels ever written. It seems a rambling sort of preamble; in fact, it's heavy with occult significance.
I'm going to weave together  all sorts of stories in that bawdy comic style. I'm going to soothe your kindly ears with a sweet whisper – so long as you don't mind running your eye over Egyptian papyrus inscribed with a sharpened reed from the Nile. You're going to marvel at the transformations of people's shapes and fates into strange forms and back again through tangled plotlines.

Here I go!

Wait, who am I? I'll be brief: my ancient bloodline is Attic Hymettus, and the Isthmus of Ephyrea, and Spartan Taenarus, ideal places famous for ever in yet more ideal stories. It was there, in the first adventures of my boyhood, that I learned the Attic language.

Later, as a young student in the city of the Latins, I handled the local language without the aid of a teacher, with painful difficulty. So right from the beginning, please excuse the mistakes I'll make as an untrained speaker in a foreign language.

To be honest, this change of language works with the way I'm writing, which is like a circus performer jumping from horse to horse. I'll begin the story in a sort of Greek style now.

Reader, pay attention! You will delight.
Apuleius, Metamorphoses, I. 1
 It's a little before my time, this, halfway through the second century CE. But it's also one of the books I wrote my thesis on, so I'm invested

The Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass, which is the name given to it by Augustine nearly three hundred years later, is a story about stories.

The protagonist, also called Lucius (or did people assume the author Apuleius's first name was Lucius because of the protagonist of his best-known book? No one actually knows) travels across Greece and hears stories of magic, and transformation, and some of them are funny, and some are scary, and some are sexy, and some are beautiful, and on his travels he himself becomes a story: he discovers that his hostess is a shape-changing witch. Seducing the woman's housemaid, he gains access to her room and steals some shape-changing ointment in the hopes of becoming a bird. But he picks up the wrong jar and becomes a donkey.

He gets stolen, and sold and moves from home to home, overhearing all these stories about princesses and spirits, sexy witches and clownish travellers, love affairs, ghosts and murders, and all the while he himself, knowing that all he has to do is eat a bunch of roses, desperately tries to escape. On of these stories, the tale of Cupid and Psyche, fills nearly two entire books of the novel, sprawling across its centre, as if holding up a sign saying, "look, I am meaningful! I matter!"

Lucius falls into the hands of some flamboyantly gay priests, a brutal miller, a fugitive young woman, and a woman whose desires extend outside the usual realm of what was considered acceptable even then. It's sad and scary and filthy and mostly pretty funny, and its ending comes from nowhere, because, discovering that he is going to die, he escapes and runs straight into... a revelation of Isis.

Restored to human form, he enters the mysteries of the Goddess, and is transformed once more from itinerant bon vivant to shaven-headed, white-robed priest. The whole thing turns from a collection of  funny/sexy/filthy stories into a journey through life, from foolishness to wisdom. 

But it was always so. Apuleius lies about where he's going, repeatedly. He lies about what sort of stories he's going to tell (he says, "this is a sad story" and it's got a happy ending; he says "this story is delightful" and it ends in blood and tragedy) and he lies about the book from the get-go. He begins and then he doesn't begin. No one's fooled when he says his Latin isn't up to much – it sparkles, it is crystalline and perfect. And there is that line about an Egyptian pen. Because all along he's the priest of an Egyptian goddess. He's lying to you. Hiding himself.

Perversely, the Golden Ass is unique among surviving Latin texts in being written in eleven books. Classical texts are pretty much always divided into books numbering a multiple of two, three or (rarely) five. You never, ever get a text in eleven books.That Lucius's filthy, funny adventures proper end with book ten and book eleven supplies enlightenment; separate from themain narrative, above and beyond. New. 

There are occult meanings coded here. It comes as no surprise that Apuleius was tried for witchcraft. He refused representation and defended himself. His speech, which still survives, the Apologia, is one of the most sparkling court defences ever recorded.

The ass who is telling you his story is important, you see. He's made of gold. The ass may be golden (I appreciate that American friends find that funny, to which I append one of my old lecturers' first experiences on the Internet, c. 1997, where he typed the words "Golden Ass" into Webcrawler and got slightly more than he expected) but the other title is true, too. The book is a series of metamorphoses, of transformations, and not just within the story. The book transforms itself, constantly, showing every aspect of human life, high and low, divine and profane. And maybe it transforms you. Your reward is enlightenment.

Lector intende: laetaberis. Reader, pay attention! You will delight.