In Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, Lucius’ transformation into an ass precipitates a change not only in shape but also in status, as he falls from his rank as aristocrat to beast of burden. His metamorphosis robs him of both his human body and his human voice: “deprived of both human gesture and speech” (humano gestu simul et voce privatus), he can express himself only with a donkey’s pout and sidelong glance (3.25). Yet despite his lack of speech, he repeatedly - albeit unsuccessfully - attempts to communicate with those around him. I argue that Lucius’ strategies of discourse as an ass (both verbal and non-verbal) differ according to the social statuses of his masters. With lower-class masters, he tries to assert his superior status through human speech, but with upper-class masters, he ingratiates himself by acting like an ideal slave and model ass, braying and mimicking human gestures for their entertainment.
Many scholars have seen Lucius’ inability to speak as demarcating the boundary between human and animal (Schlam, Sorabji, Finkelpearl). Others have discussed his experiences as a metaphor for human enslavement, and his silence as a manifestation of the powerlessness of his slave-like state (Bradley, Lateiner). Moving beyond a static dichotomy of speech and silence, I argue that Apuleius’ portrayal of the malleability of discourse as a medium of the self-presentation of status and identity is central to the novel’s theme of transformation. Drawing on Bourdieu’s theories of language and symbolic power along with Gleason and Laird’s applications of these theories to ancient literature, I read Lucius’ adaptive communication strategies as endeavors to negotiate social and power relations in light of his altered status.
I begin with Lucius the ass’s attempts at human speech. Among the robbers, Lucius tries to appeal to the civil authorities to save him from slavery, but all that emerges of “O, Caesar!” is a brayed “O!” The robbers beat him (3.29). Later, Lucius attempts to defend himself against a false charge of robbery by declaring “Not guilty” (Non feci), but brays “No...” He curses Fortune for making him a slave (7.3). Finally, Lucius tries to defend a young man from rape by the perverted priests of the Syrian Goddess by shouting, “Help, o citizens!” (Porro Quirites), but says only “O.” The priests whip him (8.29-30). Lucius intends these human utterances to exclude him from and assert his higher status over his lower-class masters. He claims Roman citizenship by calling on the emperor and defends his superior morality by speaking in defense of himself and the young man. Yet each time he tries to act as a responsible Roman citizen - through speech - he is physically and violently reminded of his new status.
Lucius’ strategies of communication and self-presentation are quite different with his upper-class masters, Charite and Thiasus. When Tlepolemus rescues Charite from the robbers, Lucius celebrates by braying loudly (rudivi fortiter), claiming that he does not want to appear an “outsider” (alienus) by failing to express the proper joy (7.13). He seeks to please the Corinthian magistrate Thiasus by performing “human” tricks: he “learns” to wrestle, dance, eat reclining, and, most impressively, to communicate by blinking and nodding or shaking his head (10.17). By performing as an intelligent ass, Lucius tries to include himself as an equal among these high-status masters. His attempts to please, however, only lower him to the enslaved status imposed by his animal body: he is treated not as an equal, but as a favored pet.
Paradoxically, Lucius’ non-verbal braying and gestures are interpreted as human-like, while his attempts at human speech emphasize his animal, enslaved status. A self-presentation that aligns with the status imposed by his new body is thus perceived as "human" and acceptable, while that which is incongruent is animal and transgressive. Through Lucius’ asinine strategies of communication, Apuleius reveals the flexibility of discourse for negotiating a spectrum of hierarchical relations of power and status.
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