Memoirs of an Ass: Part 2


Arts & Culture


A recap for those who missed part 1 (which is available here):

Second century A.D., a strange and gigantically influential Latin text was written and passed around: Apuleius’s The Golden Ass. It’s a kind of first-person picaresque romance, ’bout two hundred pages long, where a guy, “Lucius,” is just too darn curious about magic and winds up transformed into a hee-hawing, much-listening donkey for most of the book. He has various adventures, he overhears a couple dozen stories, and at the end he becomes a human being again.

The book is ramjam with sneaky-pete authorial maneuvers. Apuleius teases; he tips the wink; he lets you in on the joke; he locks you out. That, and the fact that there are dirty parts, has ensured the work’s continuing vitality for eighteen hundred years—’specially since the Renaissance. I, Anthony Madrid, am obsessed with this book.

What follows is a jumble of short entries, notebook-like, to help whip up interest in the thing. There are a lot of people out there in Paris Review land who would love it if they would only give it a try.



I just mentioned The Golden Ass has been ’specially popular since the Renaissance. That’s ’cuz of printing. Before the 1460s, it was hell to get your hands on a copy. Look at Boccaccio. He liked the book so much he personally copied the entire thing out so he could have it in his study. And that copy still exists. Go to Italy and have a look for yourself.

Let me clarify: we’re talking about a copy of the entire Golden Ass in Boccaccio’s handwriting. It’s like if we had The Canterbury Tales written out in Shakespeare’s handwriting. (Imagine if something like that were to turn up.)

Petrarch had a copy, too. And Saint Augustine talks about The Golden Ass in The City of God. And the stuff out of Midsummer Night’s Dream where Bottom turns into an ass? Straight out of Apuleius. Pinocchio—same thing.



In August 1500 (Boccaccio and Petrarch long dead), another Italian brought out a scholarly edition of The Golden Ass: Filippo Beroaldo. Here was a guy after my own heart. Look at the page layout. It’s like the Talmud or something:




You can’t see it in the pictures, but those notes are kooky. Mostly it’s language stuff, commenting on idioms, grammar. Then there’s the Penguin Classics–type notes, where he explains festivals and practices. But he also tells you what he thinks is really going on in the narrative. He luuuvs decoding the allegories. However, ninety-nine percent of modern readers will agree: every single thing he says about the secret meanings of the text is not at all convincing. He thinks Apuleius is teaching Christian morals.

(Warning: everyone who reads The Golden Ass more than once in a short span of time is bound to want to produce a Beroaldo edition, if only by filling in the margins of one’s personal paperback. I recommend: Get a sharp pen. Look for a .3 millimeter nib.)



Look at the famous story of Cupid and Psyche. This is by far the longest story the ass overhears. It starts at the end of chapter 4 and goes on til near the end of chapter 6. As Joel Relihan points out, the entire second quarter of the book is devoted to this complex fairy tale.

You remember this thing—?



That’s Cupid and Psyche—chapter 6 in Apuleius. You’ve heard of Keats’s “Ode to Psyche”? That’s Apuleius, too. For a lot of people, this section is the best part of the book.

The whole thing screams allegory. A girl named Soul (that’s what psyche means) marries Love (Cupid) but is not allowed to look at him. Eventually, she does look at him and he immediately tells her, Nice going, asshole, and deserts her. She then goes through many trials and tribulations and is eventually reunited with Cupid—who never really stopped loving her. They have a kid named Pleasure or Delight or whatever. The end. I am leaving out a ton of stuff.

It actually kills me to leave it out. The story is really fun to tell, if you do the whole thing. I remember when I had just gotten all the details straight, Nadya and I went for a four-mile walk, and it took the whole time (’bout an hour) to unwind the spool. I found myself thinking, We should always tell stories like this on these walks.

Anyway, surely(?) the narrative is an allegory (a) depicting the Soul’s search for union with the Cosmic Oneness and (b) paralleling the ass’s progress from “looking at what should not be looked at” to mature wisdom at the end of the novel. Many have thought this. Yet the details that I’ve left out do nothing but punch holes in that interpretation. Sad fact: Psyche doesn’t succumb to curiosity when she looks at Cupid. She’s been tricked into thinking he’s a monster and so must kill him. She only brings out the lamp in order to see where to stab. So her case is not like Lucius’s. (People always remember the story wrong on this point.)

Sad fact #2: Neither Psyche nor Lucius learns anything by their trials. Neither of them earns the grace they receive at the ends of their stories. Consequently, there’s nothing for the reader to learn either, unless it’s merely that everyone’s fate is sealed. “Some will win, some will lose; some are born to sing the blues.” But that’s meaningless.



Apuleius was a very slippery fellow. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but we actually still have a few of his non-Ass writings. The Loeb Classical Library just put this out 120 seconds ago:



Brand new, full of typos. But these works are radioactive with interest for the person who’s ready to get serious about The Golden Ass. Well … two out of three of the works have that value. Not one of ’em is great literature; they’re actually quite annoying. But one reads them for the light they shed on Apuleius’s mentality.

The Apology is a three-hour speech he supposedly gave when he was relatively young, defending himself against the charge of witchcraft—I know, right?— obviously speaks to our concerns. It’s from this speech, by the way, that most of our biographical knowledge of Apuleius comes. (It’s quite sickening in itself, though. The way he gets all chummy with the judge, et cetera.)

The God of Socrates, on the other hand, is a short lecture on Plato and the little voice that Socrates talks about in his defense speech. The interest here, for me, lies in my sense that Apuleius’s exposition of the gods versus the daemons versus the mortals sounded so much like Alexander Pope explaining the sylphs and the gnomes and the other “light militia of the sky” in “The Rape of the Lock.” There’s this tone of joyously making stuff up to suit one’s purposes. And this props my sense of Apuleius’s facetious purposes at the end of The Golden Ass (viz, in chapter 11), which so many people have taken “straight.”



A word on collecting editions of The Golden Ass. The twenties, thirties, and forties saw a burst of Apuleius reprints—almost all with illustrations. My hypothesis is that a kind of perfect storm had gathered. Somebody recognized there was a serviceable Golden Ass translation in the public domain—Adlington’s 1566 version. The fact that this translation was a supposedly choice piece of Elizabethan prose (personally I find it quite overrated) plus the fact it was a translation from Latin (ooh-la-la, the Classics) opened the door for publishers to commission what in my village is called “AAP”—Acceptable Art Porn. You could literally get away with a fancy woodcut of a donkey in bed with a naked woman. And just all kinds of good stuff.

I picture some old publisher sitting behind a desk like a movie mogul and snatching up the phone and saying, cigar in the corner of his mouth, Get me Gockinga! Get me Bosschère!—these latter being illustrators born to take on the task of imagining face-to-face sexual intercourse between an impassioned woman and a jackass. Image search “Golden Ass” and you’ll see plenty.

More recently, there appeared a piece of unacceptable art porn by a certain Milo Manara. Do you people know who this is? Apparently he’s famous in the comics microworld. And I have to admit, having looked at his version of The Golden Ass, I can see why he’s somebody. He’s not just filthy; he really vividly imagines scenes, situations, landscapes, positions. But it’s like with Burton’s Arabian Nights. Where Manara does not find his source text dirty enough, he rolls up his sleeves and supplies the want. And then some.



A couple people have asked me which translation they should look at. By this point it should be clear what I really want is for people to read three or four versions simultaneously. But for the benefit of the normal citizen who does feel like going shopping but who is at the same time acutely aware of the shortness of our lives here on Earth, I have devised the following annotated bibliography.

No one is expected to read this. If you’re not a total geek, get lost. This is not for you.

The Golden Asse of Apuleius, trans. William Adlington. The first Ass in English. Read and rifled by Shakespeare. There are a million reprints of it. The most usable is the old, old Loeb Classical version (1915). A curio, because it’s not at all in character for the Loeb people to use an Elizabethan translation; indeed, I can think of no other example of their doing this. I don’t see what’s so great about Adlington though. But there could be two opinions.

1709; second edition, revised, 1724
The New Metamorphosis; or, pleasant Transformation of the Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius of Medaura, by Charles Gildon. This isn’t really a translation; it’s a “version.” For example, the narrator turns into a lapdog rather than an ass. And so on. I’ve barely looked at it. Gildon is in the Dunciad, I think.

Apuleius’ Golden Ass; or, The Metamorphosis, and other philosophical writings, viz., On the God of Socrates and On the Philosophy of Plato, trans. Thomas Taylor. Taylor was obsessed with Platonic cosmology, and takes Apuleius completely seriously as a philosopher. Does that affect the translation? Not really. It’s mainly just a normal translation into the American English of Edgar Allan Poe’s childhood.

The Golden Ass, “englished” by Harold Berman; illustrated by René Gockinga. This one I haven’t read. I bought it for the pictures.

The Golden Ass, trans. Jack Lindsay; illustrated by Percival Goodman. I think of this as the used-bookstore version of the book. By which I mean you see tomato-red paperbacks of it in the classics section of every used bookstore that has a classics section. I have heard the translation described as “racy.”

The Transformations of Lucius Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass, trans. Robert Graves. This one has its flaws, but mainly it’s an admirable piece of work, a must for anybody interested in issues of translation. Graves is one of these old-school translators who are willing to touch up the text to make it make more sense. I used to be against doing that, but now I see it’s good to have at least one person on staff who can do it right. Graves rescues all kinds of scenes, ’specially in the later chapters.

Metamorphoses, trans. J. Arthur Hanson (Loeb Classical, two volumes). This is the main way a 2018 reader will be able to check the Latin, since it’s right there on your left. I have heard these volumes were rushed prematurely into print (the translator had died), but they seem fine to me. Chaste, plain. Just what you want when you’re checking things against the Latin.

The Golden Ass, translated with an introduction and explanatory notes by P. G. Walsh (Oxford). Now we’re getting into versions commonly met with at the university bookstore. This one, and the Kenney (below), are regarded as thoroughly reliable, no-fudging, decently footnoted versions of the book, intended for the person who is gonna read it exactly once, for a class. So partly one has to choose which one you’re gonna get based on the quality of the footnotes.

The Golden Ass: A New Translation, trans. E. J. Kenney (Penguin). In my opinion, the notes in the Kenney are the best you can get. Comparing the two translations, I would say the Kenney is slightly better, but nothing to make any long-distance phone calls about. I seem to remember Walsh containing more square-wheeled Britishisms where the original asks for some idiomatic flashy-flash. But all the translators do this to one extent or another.

Las metamorfosis o el asno de oro, introducción, texto Latino, traducción, y notas de Juan Martos. This is the Spanish version I happen to have. I gather it’s the standard scholarly one for Spanish speakers(?). Anyway, it’s the one that gets cited in the secondary literature in English. I got it for a song at a library sale in Chicago. I went through chapter 1; seemed fine.

The Golden Ass; Or, A Book of Changes, trans. Joel Relihan (Hackett). This just came in the mail the other day. I was scared it was gonna be a self-indulgent nightmare ’cuz the jacket copy boasts of Relihan’s use of “alliteration, and assonance, rhythm and rhyme, the occasional archaism, the rare neologism,” et cetera—this, to match Apuleius’s exotic, whack-ball Latin. But I shot through the first chapter and it wasn’t overdone. I felt no pain, or not much.

The Golden Ass, trans. Sarah Ruden (Yale). This is the one where it’s overdone. It would be mean to pull out examples, ’cuz that would make the translation seem worse than it is. But every other page has some piece of goofy English that’s supposed to stand in for the equivalently goofy original. In my judgment, it fails to come off, nineteen times out of twenty.

Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.