ElAnt v4n1 - REVIEWS - Crisis and Conversion in Apuleius' Metamorphoses

Volume 4, Number 1
August 1997

Crisis and Conversion in Apuleius' Metamorphoses

Nancy Shumate
The University of Michigan Press,
Ann Arbor 1996, pp. 337.

Reviewed by:
A.C. Romano,
Department of Classical Studies,
Monash University,
Victoria 3168,
e-mail: Alba.Romano@arts.monash.edu.au

The novel in Antiquity has been open game since the genre was not included in the accepted canon and until recently we had important works on the matter - John P. Sullivan, The Satyricon of Petronius and P.G. Walsh, The Roman Novel come to mind in secondary literature in English- that have carefully skirted the generic issue. Nancy Shumate tackles the problem head-on and, suggesting a new interpretation of the Metamorphoses , she inserts this novel squarely within in the narrative of religious conversion.

We certainly welcome the author's theoretical narratological approach to the novel, based mostly on J.J. Winkler's Auctor and actor: A Narratological Reading of Apuleius's The Golden Ass (Berkeley 1985), although we would have liked to see a more comprehensive discussion of the matter. Some reference to major narratologists, such as Bakhtin, Todorov, Genette, Ricoeur would not only have made the study more ecumenical, but also would have clarified some points on which the author is uncertain. In addition The life of the novel by David Goldknopf (Chicago 1972) and, more specifically the second chapter, 'The confessional element', would have shed a lot of light on the discussion, as we shall see later, and cognate works such Picaresque Novel, Picaresque fiction by Ulrich Wicks (New York 1989) would have provided a useful framework for the elusive nature of this type of novel.

This novel indeed, as the author acknowledges quoting Winkler, presents 'an open ended problem text' whose 'revisionary interplay of shifting meaning' encourages the reader's participation and the reader's active intervention in order for any sense to be made out of it (p. 1). There are no problem with a multiplicity of readings nor with this sort of 'do-it-yourself' novel where the reader does not get a clear final authorisation of one unequivocal meaning.

Taking advantage of post-structuralist license and latitude, the author wants to combine contemporary literary theory with ideas of social psychology and religious psychology. Nancy Shumate does not discard the frivolous component in the novel and its satirical elements but she argues that the author subverts those factors by adding a vivid and many times sympathetically depicted religious resolution so that we end up simultaneously with a satire of credulity and an evocation of religious belief. Thus, Apuleius has forged a vehicle for both belief and ridicule of belief.

Nancy Shumate clearly distinguishes the auctor , Apuleius, from the actor , Lucius, and also takes into consideration the fact that the actor is also the narrator. So we assist in the presentation that Lucius narrator makes in the fictional present of the adventures and misadventures that Lucius actor experienced in the past. A conspicuous absentee in this narratological analysis is the addressee of the narration, frequently another fictional character whose status, ideology, profession conditions the narration. If this character is not present or cannot be inferred, the reader is the addressee and here we have another modifier -active or not- of the narration. This last aspect of the narratological study is totally ignored in the book under review and this absence jeopardises the analysis of the strategies of the narrator.

The central theme of Shumate's study is the compelling religious conversion of Lucius actor . She states from the very beginning that Lucius exemplifies a type of conversion that operates within the cognitive framework rather than the moral one. In other words, the perception of the collapse of the familiar epistemological constructs precedes the convert's reconstruction of a new world and a world view along religious lines. Religion is not an agent of moral redemption but rather a cognitive anchor.

The author claims that The Metamorphoses becomes in this way a narrative of conversion that is a forerunner of later works. There is a methodological difficulty in this assumption. Given that there are no works of this type in Antiquity i.e. a narration of a conversion in the first person and fictional, the comparanda should be looked for in the Christian world. There is a long distance between the henotheism of the pagan religion and the monotheism of Christianity, which demands a total rejection of other worships and a strict code of conduct. Moreover the author admits that those who have studied conversion in Antiquity agree that these conversions have little psychological depth or complexity and in fact in most cases are a conversion to a philosophical life.

In Part 1, 'Things fall apart', the author studies the actor 's reality which is a world in gradual disintegration. First, in the material world the categories devised to organise its parts into a tidy and meaningful whole prove inadequate. In book 1 to 4.27 'the text illustrates in countless ways the difficulties involved in correctly interpreting evidence and the traps lying in wait for anyone attempting to sort out true knowledge from false opinion" (p.43). In this part Winkler is quoted as saying that the auctor creates strategies that reveal his refusal to endorse any totalising interpretation of the whole. Apuleius offers an aporetic epistemology and Lucius experiences the trauma of spontaneous epistemic breakdown. Indeed, Lucius lacks dogmatism and, in the author's view, this is what makes him predisposed to conversion. Absence of dogmatism is a good ground for credulitas and credulitas leads to conversion. Furthermore, in this world deprived of certainties, even the line that separates the human and the animal is permeable and Lucius becomes an ass although he is anxious to defend himself from accusations of asinity and the imperative of the narrative demands that he retains his human intelligence.

In book 6.25 to 10 "The social word", the fluidity increases. For instance the episode in the pestilens regio and its sinister undercurrents are in sharp contrast to Lucius' initial naive anticipation of the joy of transgressing ontological boundaries. These boundaries in the earlier books belong to the physical worlds, in later books the concept are reworked to apply to social and psychological spheres. The Apuleian nexus of lies, counterlies, false inferences, etc, spins out of control.

Although the author concentrates mostly on the cognitive upheaval and ultimate destruction of epistemological structure, she admits that moral concerns are not absent (lascivious priests, an adulterous step-mother, violation of hospitality) but she claims that destructive passion would be less frequent if people's cognitive apparatus were more discriminating. Lucius the ass is presented as more and more human and, for Shumate, in the episode of the ass and the Corinthian woman, the reader, conditioned to a certain reaction based on a widely accepted system of prejudice, is confounded by the care and the humanity of the animal. This is interpreted as the final test of puritas before conversion. This moral concern, in my view, is not made clear to the reader by the Lucius narrator who remains non-interventionist and we miss here the 'confessional increment' that is an inherent part of a moral narrative in first person in which there is evidence of improvement.

The episode of Cupid and Psyche is kept apart, out of the main action because it is a fairy tale in a fairy tale atmosphere alien to Lucius actor .

In Part 2: 'The sick soul' the author reviews extensively (pp. 137- 199) classic and modern views of conversion, to the point of losing sight of Apuleius. She concludes that the theme of 'death and rebirth' takes in the entire sequence of cognitive strain and restructuring that occurs in response to the failure of customary beliefs and values. The process of cognitive death and rebirth experienced by the actor in Books 1 to 11 is symbolically reenacted during his initiation to the Isiac religion.

The author moves then into autobiographical representations and tries to establish the operative model of pre-conversion. Augustine is the paradigm and Shumate finds that the Saint and Lucius share an initial curiosity and a crisis of values that leads to anhedonia, loss of appetite for life. In the Confessions and the Metamorphoses there is whole range of inappropriate object of desire - such as magic for Lucius. The author acknowledges that Lucius the narrator, in spite of the benefit of hindsight, never labels the deadend desires as mendacious or fallacious. In my opinion this is the basic difference between Augustine and Apuleius from the narrative point of view: Lucius does not disapprove of his former persona, Augustine does and, again, in narratological terms this "confessional increment" has an enormous importance: the extradiagetic narrator can manipulate the narration as he pleases and the ex-sinner narrator redeems the sinful actor . There is another obvious difference, namely that one work is autobiography and the other fiction. Finally if neither Lucius actor nor Lucius narrator identify a desiderium dei , the conditions for pre-conversion are not given.

The detailed analysis of Dante's Divine Comedy does not add substance of the claim of conversion in Lucius and more far fetched is the analysis of Sastre's Nausea . It is true that Roquentin discovers the falseness of the established system but the novel is unrepentantly secular and references to conversion or pre- conversion are misguided.

We reach finally Part 3: 'The New World 'where book 11 and conversion as integration is discussed. This new world provides epistemological stability in which the subject is aware of death, moves in the realm of truth and is freed from lifelessness, and the restless finds rest in the mystical experience. The epiphany of Isis has parallels with Christian epiphanies and her providentia is guarantee of security. Isis is Fortuna ridens , opposed to the other arbitrary Roman Fortunae , who restores Lucius' human appearance and his voice. The initiation rites integrate the pariah Lucius into an organised community.

If book 11 would merely tell this, the conversion hypothesis would have worked. Lamentably there is a fifth columnist in the figure of the narrator who tells us that the initiation into the Isiac cult has to be repeated more than twice at a considerable cost for Lucius. The compelling interpretation is that Lucius has fallen into the hands of venal religious charlatans. The dissonance of voices uttered by the narrator severely undermines the religious bliss towards which Lucius had laboured so strenously according to Shumate.

To sum up. We are dealing with a book very well written in spite of some repetitions and great industry has gone into its completion, sometimes to an excess. The author has postulated a novel approach that she can frequently substantiate. It is unfortunate that many times the text resists entering into the taxonomy proposed. The author herself is aware of the areas open to contention and honestly acknowledges them.

A.C. Romano,
e-mail: Alba.Romano@arts.monash.edu.au COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 4 Issue 1 - August 1997
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606