Nancy Shumate, Crisis and conversion in Apuleius' Metamorphoses. Pp 357. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan press, 1996.
$42.50. ISBN: 0 472 10599 X
published in: Classical
47, 1997, 316-7
is now almost generally agreed upon that Apuleius' Metamorphoses is a
`seriocomic' novel, although the extent of its `seriousness' remains a matter of
dispute. Recently, it is the novel's religious nature which gains special
attention. In her new study on the Met., Nancy Shumate focuses upon the
novel's protagonist Lucius, arguing that he undergoes a religious crisis which
results in his conversion to the cult of Isis. According to S., the novel
reflects the basic pattern of a `conversion tale', as it is known from famous
examples like Augustine's Confessiones and Tolstoy's Confession,
with which she compares Apuleius' novel in detail. The Met., she argues,
can be considered the prototype of the genre.
first chapters elaborate the `disintegration' of Lucius' understanding of life,
as he moves around in a disturbingly unreliable world. Both the certainties
concerning the order of the material world (ch.1) and the rules governing the
social world (ch.2) become unsettled. Truth and falsehood, man and animal, life
and death, reality and fiction: Lucius can no longer clearly discern between
them. When all old values turn out to be false, this results in great confusion.
In books 1 to 10, S. argues, Lucius increasingly looses his grip on the world
and finds himself `epistemologically adrift'.
long third chapter (p.137-199) compares this sorry state of the human ass to the
existential crisis which usually precedes a `conversion', as it is studied in
20th century religious psychology, notably the studies of William James (1902),
Peter Berger (1967) and Baton and Ventis (1982). S. follows James in his
analysis of the account of Tolstoy. Chapters 4 and 5 further describe the basic
pattern of crisis and conversion in autobiographic, poetic and fictional
narratives. Augustine's Confessiones form the leading example, but
Dante's Divina Commedia and Sartre's La nausée also figure here. ─
an unexpected combination indeed.
(p.285-328), S. concentrates upon Lucius' conversion to Isis, again comparing
this to the accounts given in the exemplary texts. According to S., the Met.
are not exactly like the later conversion narratives, but the path of its
protagonist, leading to religious belief, has much in common with them. As she
rightly adds, this does not mean that the text is autobiographical. In fact,
S.'s final lines suggest that Apuleius understood `the pull exercised by the
divine', but could not make the leap himself.
book is a welcome contribution to Apuleian studies, particularly as a sequel to
Jack Winkler's famous Auctor & Actor (1985). Winkler had presented
the Met. as an `aporetic' novel, with Apuleius authorizing no single
approach or interpretation but leaving this to the reader. While not contesting
Winkler's postmodern considerations, S. consciously shifts attention from the
dubious intentions of the auctor to what happens within the tale
to its main actor. By starting where Winkler had ended, S. makes a happy
step forward. She rightly calls attention to the religious significance of the
tale and to the cognitive rather than `moral' confusion of Lucius, and
convincingly asserts the functional equivalence of a pagan conversion to a
Christian one: belief in Isis can count as genuine religion.
S.'s approach involves some serious problems. For instance, by what right can
the Met. be compared to texts and studies which are so different in time
and genre? Ultimately, S. has to rely on something like a `universal' pattern of
conversion, valid for all ages and circumstances. Of course, she hastens to
distance herself from this un-modern and, dare I say, dangerous concept, but
there is really no way to get around it.
one cannot help wondering whether what Lucius experiences in the course of books
1 to 10 is a process of crisis in the first place. There does not seem to be any
progress in it: Lucius' confusion is great already on the very first
pages of the novel, as S. herself explains, and this sense hardly deepens or
gradually intensifies. The external events and motifs continuously change, more
than their psychological impact.
is also doubtful whether we may ascribe to Lucius anything like an `unconscious
longing for the divine'. Surely, he is characterized as curiosus and
constantly looks for `novelty', but that does not imply he is a god-seeker.
Let us suppose that book 11 were lost: would anyone in that case regard the Met.
as a religious tale of conversion? Or does any reader of Petronius' Satyrica,
with all its wanderings and confusion, assume a similar model there? It seems as
if S. tacitly starts from Lucius' sudden conversion in book 11, and
proceeds to detect a specific pattern leading up to it, because this is
how things are with Tolstoy and Augustine.
With such fundamental questions remaining, the study cannot be said to be fully convincing. Nonetheless, it provides some stimulating reading, if only by claiming yet another layer of meaning to the already many-sided masterpiece of Apuleius. It also contains many fresh ideas. Particularly sympathetic, for instance, is S.'s approach of the sexual scenes, which do not seem to imply strong moral condemnation. The copulation scene of the ass with a Corinthian lady at 10,21 is even seen as a climax of humanity rather than an all-time-low. Such ideas will surely keep discussions on Apuleius' novel alive.
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