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The Magical Donkey


In describing the bedroom where a lecherous housemaid planned to welcome the novel’s hero before his transformation, Apuleius characterizes the scene as gladiatoriae Veneris antecenia, which Ruden brilliantly renders as “a picnic lunch before Venus’s gladiatorial games.” Later the same lady offers less strenuous sexual activity by providing a puerile corollarium, which appears amusingly in Ruden as “offered me that extra you usually get only from boys.” When Apuleius uses a Virgilian word with a highly unusual adjective to create a startlingly audacious phrase, pratentibus virectis, Ruden solves the problem by creating an equally audacious phrase of her own, “virid meadows.” Her use of “gentle” as a transitive verb (“perhaps you’ll gentle her savage onslaughts”) is thoroughly Apuleian without being a direct borrowing from Apuleius’ diction (saevientes impetus eius mitigas). Particularly admirable is Ruden’s translation of a long and syntactically dense sentence in which the ass compares himself to Odysseus and alludes explicitly to the opening lines of Homer’s Odyssey:

nec inmerito priscae poeticae divinus auctor apud Graios summae prudentiae virum monstrare cupiens multarum civitatium obitu et variorum populorum cognitu summas adeptum virtutes cecinit…
It was not for nothing that early on among the Greeks, when the godlike originator of poetry wished to illustrate a really superior intelligence, he sang about a man’s visiting many cities and getting to know various races, through which experiences he attained the highest excellence.

This translation mirrors the slightly archaic tone of the Latin vocabulary and the interlocked order of the last four words. Without notes or commentary Ruden effectively delivers Apuleius to a modern reader.

In her translation of one of the stories that Boccaccio adapted for his Decameron, the tale of the adultery of a baker’s wife in Book 9 of The Golden Ass, Ruden turns Apuleius’ over-the-top characterization of the lecherous lady into a brilliantly matched English version:

There wasn’t a single fault missing from that dame, who had nothing whatsoever to recommend her; on the contrary, every wicked passion, bar none, had flooded into a heart that was like some slimy privy. A fiend in a fight but not very bright, hot for a crotch, wine-botched, rather die than let a whim pass by—that was her.

Here is the Latin, with Ruden’s language inserted for comparison at the appropriate places. The final rhymes and jingles will only be apparent if the Latin is read out loud: Nec enim vel unum vitium nequissimae illi feminae [that dame] deerat, sed omnia prorsus ut in quandam caenosam latrinam [some slimy privy] in eius animum flagitia confluxerant: saeva scaeva [a fiend in a fight, but not very bright], virosa ebriosa [hot for a crotch, wine-botched], pervicax pertinax [rather die than let a whim pass by]. In 1566 William Adlington had come up with:

There was not one single fault that was lacking to her, but all the mischiefs that could be devised had flowed into her heart as into some filthy privy; she was crabbed, cruel, cursed, drunk, obstinate, niggish.

At his death in 1985, J. Arthur Hanson had written for the new Loeb:

That vile woman lacked not a single fault. Her soul was like some muddy latrine into which absolutely every vice had flowed. She was cruel and perverse, crazy for men and wine, headstrong and obstinate.

Ruden’s achievement goes well beyond both of these.

But what Sarah Ruden has chosen, quite correctly, not to deliver to the modern reader is a translation of the notorious and much-discussed lines that were added, in a fourteenth-century hand, to the margin of a thirteenth-century copy of the Monte Cassino manuscript that appears to lie behind all subsequent copies of Apuleius’ novel. Although that fundamental manuscript had been mutilated at some stage and lost part of Book 9, at least one integral copy had been made before that happened. This allowed Boccaccio to copy a complete text, into which he could insert the lines from the margin of the thirteenth-century manuscript, which he had seen in Naples. They are the work of an unknown scribe who let his sexual fantasies run wild, perhaps at Monte Cassino. They are traditionally and notoriously identified in Apuleian scholarship as the spurcum additamentum (“the dirty supplement”), and their author has even been genially dubbed Spurcus (“Dirty Man”).

The supplement was meant to be added in Book 10 where a wealthy matron engages the ass in steamy sexual intercourse. The writer, whose language clearly signals a far later date than Apuleius, describes the woman’s manipulation of the animal’s gigantic penis with her fingers, which are enumerated one at a time by words that are in fact the names of the strings of a lyre. It has long been recognized that the author of these lines had misunderstood a passage in an ancient treatise on music and thus accidentally exposed his faulty erudition along with his impure thoughts.

Because of its salacious character as well as its evident attraction for Boccaccio, this supplement has received much more attention than it deserves, though not without gains for scholarship. We now know from the handwriting that the man who added the text in the margin of the thirteenth-century manuscript was Zanobi da Strada, a distinguished scholar, poet, and friend of Boccaccio, but unfortunately this revelation does nothing to illuminate the identity of the man who composed it. Ruden, as everywhere, shows her good judgment by omitting it altogether even while brilliantly rendering many authentic episodes that are almost as obscene.

Although the hero and narrator of The Golden Ass was called Lucius, exactly as he was in the Greek model for the story, the first name (praenomen) of Apuleius is unknown. That even someone as sophisticated as Augustine could have imagined for a moment that the novel was in any sense autobiographical depends entirely upon one chapter in the eleventh and final book of the novel. This is the account of Lucius’ conversion to Isis. At a certain moment a priest of Osiris, whose cult was closely allied to that of Isis, says that he had been made aware of the imminent initiation of “someone from Madauros,” and that someone is clearly Lucius.

Apuleius himself came from Madauros, now Mdaourouch in Algeria, where it is generally believed that the city honored him with a statue. In fact, an inscribed base for a statue of a Platonic philosopher at Madauros has been traditionally assumed to refer to him because, from his other writings, he could easily be described as a Platonist. So what is to be done with the sudden and unexpected identification of the novel’s hero Lucius, who had declared at the start that he came from Corinth, with a man from Madauros?

This may well be yet another and final transformation, a kind of sacred mystification in which a religious experience that Apuleius had personally undergone is folded into the novel that he so creatively constructed on the basis of a Greek original. By the time he reached Book 11 he might perhaps have introduced an autobiographical record of conversion, but Apuleius is far too subtle to provide his readers with a simple key to the interpretation of the Isis episode, any more than he tells us why he lavished such care on the story of Cupid and Psyche, which is wholly irrelevant to the ass narrative and utterly unlike it. Yet readers can easily recognize in that sublime tale an elevated tone and calm serenity that has much in common with the religiosity of the initiation at the end.

Those two parts of The Golden Ass, widely separated, are precisely those where Flaubert detected the odor of incense, rising like a burnt offering from the acrid stench of urine, just as Lucius’ bestiality was linked through Lucius’ transformations with mysticism. Whatever Apuleius was trying to tell us, apart from a series of very good stories, we shall probably never find out, but no reader has ever finished his novel without sensing something profoundly moving. It is a response not at all unlike the way we respond to The Magic Flute. We owe Sarah Ruden a great debt of thanks for making this experience so directly accessible in an English translation that is no less inventive, varied, and surprising than the original.

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