The Testimony of a Senseless Corpse
March 11, 2011
The dead man’s chest began to swell, his life-giving veins began to throb, and his body filled with breath. Then the corpse sat up, and the young man spoke. “Why, I implore you, now that I have drunk of the cups of Lethe and am swimming in the marshy water of the Styx, why do you haul me back to life’s duties for a brief moment? Leave me alone, I say, leave me alone! Let me sleep undisturbed.” These were the words heard from the corpse, but the necromancer addressed him rather sharply: “What? You refuse to address your fellow citizens here and clear up the mystery of your death? Don’t you realize that if you hold back a single detail, I am prepared to call up the dreadful Furies and have your weary limps tortured on the rack?” The dead man raised himself from the bier and groaned out to the crowd: “I was destroyed by the evil arts of my new bride. The bed in which I lay only yesterday is no longer empty; my rival sleeps in it. My newly married wife has bewitched and poisoned me.”
The widow showed remarkable courage in the circumstance. She denied everything with oaths and began contradicting and arguing with her late husband as though there were no such thing as respect for the dead. The citizens where fired up, but took opposite stances. Some claimed that this was the worst woman alive, and that she should be buried alive in the same grave as her victim, But others refused to admit the evidence of a senseless corpse–it was quite untrustworthy, they said.
Note: What you have here is a mixture of two different translations. One by P. G. Walsh and the other by Robert Graves.
This story comes from a much longer work by Lucius Apuleius called The Golden Ass. A picaresque tale of metamorphosis, exile, and adventure peppered with just the right amount of pornography, witchcraft, and magic. The Golden Ass is not quite like the Arabian Nights, but the main story is tangled up with a million other mini-stories, called in-set tales. The one I have above is actually a tiny piece from a longer story about a man called Thelyphron who lost his ears and nose while keeping watch over a dead body for a few bucks.
The tale of the speaking corpse is striking for all sorts of reasons. But I find myself drawn to the problem of testimony it poses. What does it mean for a corpse to give an account of its own ruin? We are not talking here about ghosts appearing in the theatrical fashion that they do, affecting vulnerability, flickering in the shades, and disappearing after imparting some ambiguous piece of information. Ghosts are cute. Dead bodies are not. You can have a chat with a ghost. But a dead body, swollen, possibly mutilated, and smelly, sitting up and complaining of being bothered, and finally groaning out accusations. What sort of testimony is that? But what if that is the only kind of testimony that the dead can give? I get the feeling that when we ask the dead to speak up from the violence that has been done to them, we may not fully grasp what that invocation means. If the dead truly rose up and spoke, would we even be able to listen?
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