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The Mirror, Narrative, and Erotic Desire in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses

Jeffrey Ulrich

The gaze and the role of viewing in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses have been useful theoretical models for understanding how Lucius progresses (or fails to progress) through his bewildering journey (Slater (1998); Slater (2003)). In Metamorphoses 2.4, for instance, the ‘curious gaze’ (curiosus optutus) of Apuleius’ Actaeon has been seen as a didactic exemplum for Lucius, who should recognize himself in the voyeuristic statue but fails to interpret the spectacle accurately (Heath (1992)). In recent years, scholars have interpreted the conclusion of the novel, where Lucius stands fixed as a simulacrum under the gaze of the eyeing masses (Met. 11.26), as a haunting warning against becoming the object of other people’s viewing (Too (1996)). In this paper, I will offer a new interpretation of Lucius’ ekphrasis of the Diana-Actaeon statuary scene in Metamorphoses 2.4 by focusing on the role of the mirror. The mirroring water creates for Lucius an erotic encounter precisely because of its ability to register change over time and tell a narrative. In what I argue is an anti-Platonic gesture, Apuleius emphasizes the mirror’s ability to tell a narrative, and therefore inspire curiosity and erotic desire in the reader. Whereas Platonic modes of viewing understand seeing as a teleological process of stripping away the veils from the feminine truth (veritas, veritatis, f.) and gazing upon the pure, naked Forms, Lucius’ visual encounters with the mirror are not about development toward a goal or a telos but about narrative pleasure, as in Roland Barthes ‘narrative striptease’ (Barthes (1973), Brooks (1993)).

I begin the paper with a theoretical analysis of Apuleius’ laus speculi in the Apologia (Apol. 14), where Apuleius eulogizes the representational benefits of the mirror. In this passage, he explains how the mirror surpasses other forms of representation, such as painting and statuary, in its fidelity to reality because it registers motion. For this reason, the mirror gives the viewer control over the representational image, which is ‘subservient to every nod of its man’ (ad omnem nutum hominis sui morigera). The sexual metaphor implied in the word morigerus, with the mirror’s image described in terms of sexual slavery, strengthens the power dynamics of viewing. Ultimately, I argue that Apuleius praises the mirror because it is a means to control narrative, with the holder of the mirror being able to manipulate the image and viewing experience to his or her satisfaction.

Using this framework developed from Apuleius’ Apologia, I turn to the famous ekphrasis scene in Byrrhena’s atrium in the Metamorphoses. I demonstrate how static, motionless statues are given a narrative form in the rippling, mirroring water beneath Diana’s feet. What begins as a traditional ekphrasis transforms into a dynamic narrative retelling of the myth of Diana and Actaeon at the moment when Lucius gazes into the mirror. In fact, the simulacrum Actaeon does not even appear in the scene until Lucius sees his reflection, and at that point, the statue has already come to life and embodied the character traits of Lucius himself. In the same way, it is only in the reflection of the mirror that Lucius sees the goddess about to bathe, thus implying a transformation from the Striding Diana to the Bathing Diana (Schlam (1984)). A scene that should provide a warning to Lucius about the dangers of viewing - and especially of viewing a goddess undressing - actually only provides the fodder for Lucius’ imagination as he tells a story to fulfill his desire. The speculum, which seems to have the power to bring fixed statues to life, provides a metaphor for the erotic delight of visual delusions.

I conclude by looking forward to Lucius’  conversion in book 11, where he also gazes into a mirror. If the speculum is primarily a device for creating deception and inspiring erotic desire, then what can we say about the relationship Lucius has with the goddess and about his visual encounters with her through the mirror?

Session/Panel Title:

Sexuality in Ancient Art

Session/Paper Number

55.3

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