Friday, March 8, 2013

On Being an Ass

George Washington University in DC is a downtown campus. In 1972 I was a young student there. One day I stood at the corner of 19th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue and waited at the light to cross the avenue to the Peoples Drug Store (now a CVS). Among the several other people at the corner was a young lady named Valerie. She was in the same Classics 72 (ancient literature) class as I.

“Hi,” she said. “Do you have The Golden Ass?”

She was referring to the Roman novel by Lucius Apuleius (c.150 AD): The Golden Ass, also known as The Transformations of Lucius. Insufficient copies of the Robert Graves translation (which was and still is the best) had arrived at the college bookstore. This was long before online books, so some students had to read it in the library.

“Yeah, I sure do,” I said. “Come to my dorm room and grab it any time you want it.”

It was only then that I noticed frowns from some of the other pedestrians.

Language and manners have changed a lot since then. The exchange likely would go unnoticed today, even if laced (as it might well be) with present participles beginning with “f.” 1972 was still the era of hippiedom, and in many ways it was freer and more laid-back in sexual behavior than today, at least in my age group. (Boomers got uptight again in the 80s.) Yet, in retrospect, I realize what a comparatively soft-spoken bunch we were about it. While there were exceptions (there always are), most young people then rarely used sexually-laden descriptors or cusses in everyday casual speech – not because we consciously avoided them, but simply because they weren’t ingrained in our general habit of speech. A good example of this is the animated film Fritz the Cat (1972) which I recently re-watched (and reviewed in an earlier post). The film received an X-rating then and today still rates an NC-17 (as “X’ was redesignated in 1990) for graphic sex, violence, and general offensiveness. Yet, this is almost entirely because of the imagery and action, not the vocabulary; if, for some reason, a radio station chose to air just the sound from the movie, very little would need to be bleeped to meet FCC guidelines for free broadcasts. Lots of PG-13 movies aimed at kids in the 21st century have far raunchier dialogue, and arguably the animated TV show The Family Guy is fundamentally cruder. Any of Quentin Tarantino’s R-rated flicks has the whole of Fritz out-cussed in the first five minutes. (I like Quentin, by the way, if only because we look enough alike that people have asked for my autograph. Pace, Quentin: I don’t pretend to be you and act rude.)

Many folks are not comfortable with contemporary trends in speech and entertainment. A blogger on Psychology Today recently complained about not being able to find something on television to watch with her 9-year-old daughter. She tried the Oscars only to encounter the We Saw Your Boobs song. No one likes to admit to being a prude anymore, so she phrased her objection to this in PC terms about the politics and evils of sexualization. Yet, sexualization is precisely the thing to which prudes object. Sexualization is not a bad thing per se (do we really still have to argue this?), but neither is prudery. Embrace it. There are times for either. No excuses are necessary. There really are things that one fairly might not want a 9-year-old to see or hear. So, I do sympathize with her plight, if not the specific reasons for the objection.

Strangely enough, while our speech is more blatant today than four decades ago, behavior (for all the angst in the popular press about youth hook-up culture) is not. The average age in the US for initiating sex has been rising for more than a decade, the teen pregnancy rate is lower than at any time since 1940, and the average reported lifetime number of sexual partners is dropping.

That brings us back to the Romans and to what Valerie was free to grab. Ancient Romans were a pretty randy bunch, and weren’t as concerned about labeling or limiting themselves as are folks today. As a scandalized Edward Gibbon politely phrases it in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), “of the first fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct.” Such flexibility was not merely an imperial prerogative. Walls and vases in ancient Rome often were painted with what by modern standards is pornography. The small town of Pompeii had at least ten purpose-built brothels – some researchers propose 35 on less certain evidence – while the number of freelance professionals (male and female) in taverns and the like is anyone’s guess. Phallus artifacts were everywhere, used for everything from shop door chimes to drinking straws. Yet, the surviving literature is surprisingly mild. Classical authors don’t hesitate to mention the dalliances of real or fictional characters, but they rarely bother with clinical detail in the modern fashion of, say, Fifty Shades of Grey. Apuleius is almost an exception. In The Golden Ass we do get intimate details of Lucius’ encounter with the slave girl Fotis, but even Apuleius presents the events humorously with metaphors of military maneuvers and combat. Alas, Lucius’ and Fotis’ date doesn’t end well. Fotis picks the wrong rubbing ointment from the collection belonging to her witch mistress, and accidently turns Lucius into an ass. Well, many of us have been made an ass in similar circumstances, and without magic potions.

Just as a tangential note, Lucius Apuleius in real life was a priest of Isis – also of Aesculapius. This fact, along with the apparent knowledge of magic evidenced in The Golden Ass, prompted the relatives of his heiress wife after her demise to charge him with black magic. They claimed he used it to win his wife’s affection and then to do away with her in order to cheat her relatives (themselves) out of their rightful inheritances. Apuleius’ testimony, if we can believe his record of it, was funny and sarcastic. This being classical Rome rather than the Middle Ages, Apuleius was acquitted by a skeptical judge.

All of this suggests we may have something to learn from the Romans (and from hippiedom). Maybe if we went back to doing more, we’d feel the need to talk about it less, especially in inappropriate venues. PT bloggers then could find something to watch with their young daughters.

The Academy Awards 2013


  1. I love your story about the"Golden Ass". I'll need to check that book out. I actually picked up a copy of "The Satyricon" a few months ago, but haven't started it yet.

    You make a good point about language and how it has changed. I also noticed that my years of swearing like a sailor were limited to high school and the first couple years of university. And yet, my wife and I still use quite a bit of profanity at home - and not just when yelling at the cat. :)

  2. Satyricon is a bit confusing, which is not surprising considering that large pieces of it are missing, and that it is really several tales tied together by the central one. Petronius has a harsher tone than Apuleius, too, but he does offer some perspective on everyday Roman life that you don't get anywhere else. If you reach for The Golden Ass, I urge making it the one translated by Robert Graves, unless your Latin is up to the original. (I'm way too rusty.)

    I think the change in common speech is evidenced in two flicks. The relentlessly coital element inherent in Tony Montana's speech in Scarface (1983) was startling at the time and is evidence of his crudity (and the crudity of his associates) which never vanishes despite his acquisition of wealth. 15 years later in The Big Lebowski (1998), nearly all of the characters speak this way (though not the pornographer), and it conveys nothing about their social station. Admittedly, the dialogue in both is stylistically exaggerated, but not by a whole lot.