Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 26.
Stavros Frangoulidis, Roles and Performance in Apuleius' Metamorphoses. Stuttgart: Verlag J.B. Metzler, 2001. Pp. viii + 197. ISBN 3-476-45284-0. DM56.00.
Classics, University of Auckland
The title just about tells it all. This book is about role-playing and other theatrical ingredients in a selection of episodes in Apuleius' novel, a fruitful subject, competently handled by the author, who is alert to both the subtleties of Apuleius as a writer and the varieties of modern interpretation. Each of the five main chapters takes examples of a particular category of episode: 'unwittingly successful performances' in Chapter 1 (Aristomenes' and Thelyphron's tales, the Laughter festival); 'fatally successful performances' in Chapter 2 (the stories of Plotina and of Charite's tragic end); 'unsuccessful performances' in Chapter 3 (the stories of the miller's wife and the exposure of the widow's crime in the Thelyphron narrative); 'humans acting as animals and vice versa' in Chapter 4 (the adventures of the bandit Thrasyleon and of the ass Lucius when in the ownership of Thiasos); and the 'successful performance' of Lucius' spiritual conversion in Chapter 5. Much of the content of the first four chapters has been previously published in scholarly journals. There are in addition, an introduction, a bibliography and an index.
In order to give his analyses a more systematic framework, Frangoulidis adapts Greimasian narrative theory, which he outlines in his introduction and then applies repeatedly throughout the rest of the book. This theory provides a generic structure, referred to as an 'actantial model' applicable to any narrative, and involves up to six 'actants': 'the actant-sender designates the giver of orders; the receiver signifies the character who benefits from these orders; the subject implies the character who is carrying out the deeds; the object designates the goal/value of the subject-actant to possess the object; the helper defines the actant working in the direction of the subject; and finally, the actant- opponent and/or anti-subject specifies an actant working against the direction of the subject. The desire of the actant-subject to gain possession of the actant-object constitutes the function of the 'narrative program' and, therefore, advances the plot' (pp. 3f.).
It is important to keep in mind that any character in a story can represent one or more than one of these roles. While the Greimasian theory provides a technical vocabulary and consistent paradigm for the story analyses, there are also disadvantages. It is obvious that, like any such model, the theory is reductive in tendency in that it is designed to condense any complex narration into a skeleton form and likely to impose compliance with a stereotypical pattern assumed a priori to be universal. There are also drawbacks in the technical terminology, for it distances literary critical discourse from the usual meanings of words and produces a kind of prose that is off-putting to readers who have not fully internalised the specialised mode of expression. In other words, it limits the potential readership of the book to those who both understand the theory and, having understood it, do not reject it as simplistic or misguided. This is unfortunate because, while Frangoulidis' observations are often illuminating, this is not usually because of the Greimasian theory so much as in spite of it.
In the best parts of the book Frangoulidis argues against some current or recent interpretation or scholarly consensus, such as where he denies any parodic element in the costliness of Lucius' Isiac initiations (pp. 172-75); similarly where he denies anything comic in Lucius' final display of his shaven head (p. 174); where he counters the claim that Demochares' elaborate preparations for his spectacle are largely irrelevant to the unfolding of the rest of the tale (pp. 137f.); or where he dismisses the idea that the Laughter festival is a scapegoat ritual, reading it differently as a ritual of integration (pp. 51-68). Like many books on the ancient novels, he assumes he needs to summarise the story for the reader, with the result that there is, at times, a little too much paraphrase of the text. He not infrequently makes statements that seem to require some fuller explanation or justification. For instance, he assigns gender to various ways of dying, describing both hanging and self-starvation as 'feminine' (pp. 103, 117); and his conclusion, that there is a 'lack of conflicting actantial structures' in the last book describing Lucius' journey to religious enlightenment via Isiac initiation (p. 176) seems to beg the question whether this does not challenge Greimasian theory itself in its claim to provide a universal descriptive model for narrative.
While use of the Greimasian approach gives a continuity and predictability to the story analyses, it does not eliminate subjectivity of interpretation. The critic, in the first instance, must determine what is the narrative unit to which the method is to be applied. In a work like the Metamorphoses, with its multiple voices and interlocking stories within stories, it is often far from obvious where a particular narration may be said to begin and end. In a sense, Frangoulidis is free to create his own 'narrations' from a text that is, designedly, both continuous and discontinuous. A complicated sequence can usually be broken down into smaller 'narrations'. Is that whole section of narrative in which Charite appears as a character a single 'narration' or many? Then again, the assigning of 'actantial' roles to different characters is preconditioned by what the critic sees as the 'goal' or 'object' of the story which in turn determines which character is the subject-actant. There is already interpretation going on before the Greimasian schema can be applied. Frangoulidis defines the judgement of Paris as a betrothal story rather than an adultery story (p. 148); the three goddesses are allotted the role of 'helpers' rather than 'receivers' (p. 155), though Juno and Minerva are said later to shift to occupy the position of 'opponent' (pp. 158f.). Is the goal of the story to relieve Jupiter of a problem, to reward the most beautiful goddess, to elevate Paris as judge of divine beauty, or to precipitate Helen's infidelity? The actantial roles of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Venus and Paris will depend on that predetermined 'goal' or 'object'.
Some of the parallels Frangoulidis identifies seem superficial or strained: that Lucius becomes a 'literary merchant' among other merchants because he tells them a tale (p. 21); that the emperor's pardoning of an exile is analogous to Tlepolemus regaining his bride (p. 70); that Thrasyllus' wearing of a cloak at night necessarily evokes the veiling of a bride (p. 93); that, in the Thelyphron tale, the doctor parallels the dead husband for no other reason than that they both reveal information (p. 125); that Charite is able to be viewed as equivalent to the boar because they both wound another character (pp. 98f.). I also felt some clarification was needed of the relation of role-change to metamorphosis. Where does the one end and the other begin? Or is there no distinction to be made? Some further explanation is especially necessary given the author's occasional employment of problematic terms like 'role- metamorphosis' (e.g. p. 48).
Despite these reservations, most of Frangoulidis' perceptions, however, are interesting and persuasive. His deep knowledge of and affection for the work is everywhere apparent. Apuleian scholars who persist with the book, even (or perhaps especially) if they bypass the Greimasian jargon, will find their time has not been wasted.