Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.02.04


Kenneth Gross, The Dream of the Moving Statue. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. Pp. xiv + 251; 16 figures. $26.00. ISBN 0-8014-2702-9.


Reviewed by A. A. Donohue, University of Pennsylvania.

The subject of Gross's monograph is the fantasy of animated statues in Western literature and visual arts from antiquity to the present. The theme of the animated statue (the category is not restricted here to moving statues or statues showing other signs of life, but includes even those that, or who, are only presumptively quick) is widespread and important. It invites consideration of obviously weighty conceptions such as mimesis, creation, life, and death. It also raises a number of significant methodological concerns for the study of art and literature that range from squabbles over disciplinary territory to the more interesting question of the ways in which scholarship is tied to culture. Historians of art and literature alike would welcome a synthetic treatment of the material and its rival interpretations. Gross's book, however, is disappointing in conception, expression, and content.

Ten chapters in four Parts are framed by a Preface and a Coda. The Preface (xi-xiv) establishes an ambitious agenda: to examine the idea of the animated statue and its treatment from antiquity through the present, as well as to attempt (xi) "to describe the often ambiguous sources of such fantasies"; and further, to consider "fictive statues" in a wide range of poetry, prose, drama, and film, in addition to psychoanalytic thought and the philosophy of Wittgenstein. The book (xii) "takes the form of a series of linked critical meditations.... [O]verall the argument unfolds in a rather disjunctive fashion, often circling back on itself.... It is an approach that I hope will reveal, more effectively than any straightforward survey, the sources of the fantasy's complexity and power." Some "heterogeneous examples" are cited (xiii) as "parts of a rough order of ideas and questions which it is the aim of this book to clarify as much as possible." The faux-naïf stance cannot excuse the fact that as the chapters "shift," "revolve," and "dwell," there is neither clarification nor clarity.

The major failure is one of method. In an effort to drive home the obvious points that the theme of the animated image is complex, and that no single explanation is really satisfactory, Gross simply jettisons analytic categories in favor of an undifferentiated mass of phenomena. To the extent that some of the customary approaches, such as "taxonomies" (84) that categorize signs of animation in statues (speech, motion, and so forth), simply miss the point that the problem is first and foremost a literary one, Gross is right to reject them. He chooses, however, not to replace them: everything having to do with statues seems to dissolve into everything else. It apparently makes no difference whether a statue moves on its own, or is brought to life or caused to move, or never shows any sign of animation at all; whether it speaks spontaneously, or is made to speak as a sentient being, or given words "as if" it lived; whether it was made to represent a god or a mortal, or came to be through some event of petrifaction. Everything reflects a concept that seems central to the book: "statueness." (On p. 169 is a discussion of "what one might call the 'statueness of statues'," but the word is used earlier without qualification or quotation marks.) This construct is made to transcend space, time, and culture. It is applied equally in present-day contexts informed by a long critical tradition of investigating the nature of images and in situations like that of classical Greece, for which we have yet to understand even the basic system of terminology for images. This approach also mistakes for universal possibilities and alternatives a range of attitudes that are in fact strongly determined by culture and ideology. For example, an early Christian iconoclast sees the Greek statues of the gods as objects packed with real demons poised to spring, while a contemporary follower of traditional religious practices finds such a belief to be a hopelessly unsophisticated misunderstanding of images. The discourse of the late classical iconoclastic controversy is thus caught perpetually in an endless mutual fallacy of irrelevant conclusion: "The statues are not gods!" "We never thought they were." To apply to every context the theoretical constant of "statueness" is to beg the fundamental question.

It is unclear what, if any, system of interpretation governs Gross's analyses. Some explanations seem to be offered merely as specimens illustrating the place of statues within specific analytical structures; others may be genuinely accepted. Sometimes Gross embraces a hybrid approach. For example (33), "While I do not assume that my own critical figures can entirely absorb the technical distinctions of psychoanalysis, or leave them undistorted, there are some aspects of the psychoanalytic picture of the mind that I would invoke here as a way of gaining a purchase on our phantasmic intimacy with the sculpted image."

In striving "to make a place for intuitions that seem to me somewhat alien to the ways others have spoken about sculpture" (169), Gross also brooks no interference from the established categories of literary analysis. For example, he deliberately uses "ekphrasis" to mean not simply "formal, literary descriptions of real or fictive works of art" (141), but also (234, n. 3) "those poems in which the work is fictively lent a voice, or 'speaks out,' the etymological sense of 'ekphrasis.'" This derivation may be accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary2 ("f. E)KFRA/ZEIN f. E)K out + FRA/ZEIN to speak"), but it is not quite accurate. The basic sense of the root is "to point out, show" (LSJ9 cites Aristarchus for the absence of the sense "say, tell" in Homer); there is much in favor of Eva C. Harlan's conclusion that the connotation of the prefix is "in detail" or "fully" (for E)/KFRASIS and E)KFRA/ZEIN see her dissertation "The Description of Paintings as a Literary Device and Its Application in Achilles Tatius," Columbia University, 1965, 45-51). Gross uses the false etymology to justify stretching the notion of ekphrasis beyond any sense or usefulness. When the net is flung over the entire sea, one can hardly claim a catch.

It may be, of course, that despite repeated re-readings I have misunderstood Gross's text. His writing is opaque, laden with jargon carelessly used, and clogged with rhetorical questions, qualifications, and restatements; often the sense collapses wearily under the burden of superficial erudition. His style is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot at his worst (31): "The statue's saving feature is perhaps that it shows the inevitable bondage of our abstractions to some fantasy of the body's life and may thus help us reknow or relocate that life, though it may also do violence to both the life of the body and the different life of those forms we may need or wish to conceive of as without a body, as hovering within or outside the body." Terms like "interiority," "thingness," "facticity," and the like will induce the kick-screams in readers in tolerant of critspeak.

In theory, bad writing can conceal good ideas. One place to test the value of Gross's contribution is in his "close readings of individual texts" (xii). I comment here on three examples that are relevant to the study of ancient statuary.

In presenting Shelley's "Ozymandias," (51-52), Gross prints the Norton, holograph, text, correct to the last dash and "desart". Nowhere, however, in the discussion of "the residue of power, the presence of a kind of deathly life, still clinging to this abandoned, hearsay statue" does he take any notice of Shelley's quite central emphasis on the sculptor. The statue did not just grow; the frown and sneer explicitly tell what the sculptor did, and that he did it successfully. The desolation continues, in a sense, the process of mockery begun by the sculptor's hand. I do not see how the sonnet can be read, even for the sake of emphasizing "statueness," as if the artist did not exist; a draft of the poem shows that "some sculptor's art" was a component from the first (Rogers II, p. 320).

The reading of another crucial text, Rilke's famous "Archaïscher Torso Apollos" (152-154), is also unsatisfactory. The first line of the sonnet, "Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt," is inexplicably rendered, in the translation Gross prints and follows, as "We cannot know his legendary head": "There is something lost, a head that we cannot know -- though this is converted into the lost truth of a legend, rather than merely a lost piece of stone." The "legend" is the translator's attempt to supply some fuller sense for "unheard", but "we cannot know" is simply a mistranslation of the past tense, "we did not know." Gross interprets the poem in terms of a "loss [that] must be made more than contingent, converted into a form of sufficiency or completeness.... [T]his demand itself forces us to certain strange, perhaps desperate, questions about what drives such compensatory fictions, what it is they restitute." The whole point of the poem, however, is precisely the opposite of any such inability to know and any such need for compensation: that is, we did not know, but we can know, and do come to know, the gaze and the smile of the lost head. They shine out from the torso, glowing and expanding. The theme is transfiguration. The full effect of the mistranslation becomes apparent in Gross's comments on another poem from the summer of 1908, "Leichen-Wäsche," which offers such significant parallels to the sonnet that it ought to have been paraphrased, if not printed. Two women are washing the corpse of an unknown man. At the point at which they have washed his neck, "they knew nothing of his fate, so they concocted another, washing without stopping. Then one woman had to cough, so laid the heavy vinegar sponge on his face." The face of the corpse is covered, but his hand succeeds in indicating that he no longer thirsts. The women hastily finish their task. "And the nameless one lay bare and clean there and legislated (und gab Gesetze)." Gross's reading compounds his misinterpretation of the sonnet: "Splendid and innate as it [sc. the archaic torso] seems, the statue's 'life' is no less uncanny, no less strangely lent and displaced, than that of the nameless corpse in 'Corpse-washing' ('Leichen-wasche' [sic]) ... where the care, attendant grooming, but also the residual fear, embarrassment, and ignorance of its attendants transform a dead body into a thing that lies in state and 'gives commands' (though exactly to whom, and to what larger end, we cannot know)." This psychoanalytic rationalization fails even to acknowledge what process it is that must be explicated. One must work hard not to understand the corpse who is not thirsty for a drink of vinegar as a figure of Christ; not to see that the living can give nothing to the corpse (even the story they make up about him is immediately succeeded by the symbol of his true individual destiny); not to grasp that in these poems we are presented with two transfigurations that leave the past behind and reshape the future by the power of the commands of the Christ-figure and the final pronouncement of the sonnet: "You must change your life." Gross's templates of "compensatory fictions" and "the statueness of statues" do as much violence to Rilke's spiritual conception of the process of artistic creation as do the kinds of positivistic analyses he rejects.

Gross's reading of The Winter's Tale (100-109) follows the lead of those who analyze the play in terms of the story of Pygmalion rather than Euripides' Alcestis (for the suggestion that Shakespeare may have known George Buchanan's translation of the Alcestis, see Martin Mueller, "Hermione's Wrinkles, or, Ovid Transformed: An Essay on The Winter's Tale," Comparative Drama 5 [1971-1972] 230 and n. 6). The Alcestis is the obvious and closer comparison, but it raises issues that Gross chooses to ignore. In this discussion and the several of Pygmalion, he treats the animation of the statues and the associated aspects of "statueness" without taking into account the central feature of these stories: women are the statues, and women are animated and re-animated. Although Gross notes elements such as "misogyny and idealization" (100), probes the psychology of Pygmalion's disaffection with women and his awakening love, and rehearses the many interpretations of Leontes' jealousy, suspicion, envy, and guilt, such analyses in fact simply continue the very conventions of gender that give rise to the narratives. Men's preference for images of women rather than women as they are and men's power to impose these images on women are taken to be so natural to the order of things that they are left unnoticed, beneath critical attention. It must be emphasized that to recognize that these stories touch the heart of a vast and invidious sexual inequality does not by any means require a feminist perspective. One need only look at Lawrence Durrell's novel Nunquam, not included in Gross's panorama, to find in the fabrication/revival of the dead Iolanthe an explicit exploration of the special relationship between women and statues that proceeds from quite different assumptions. Gross's decision not to acknowledge these stories as reflecting conceptions of gender leaves intact a prejudicial structure in the guise of a neutral critical stance. One cannot help noticing that almost no voices of women intrude on Gross's meditations. Among the writers and artists whose works receive attention I find only Mary McCarthy, "who describes beautifully the grave interanimations of Florentine sculpture and Florentine politics" (175). Beautiful thoughts, no doubt, but not likely to expose the spurious neutrality of "statueness." There is no place in Gross's study of the fantasy of the animated statue for Sylvia Plath, for example, much of whose work explores the theme, and who, in the eight pentastichs of "The Applicant," strips bare the immemorial myth of Pygmalion: "in twenty-five years she'll be silver, / In fifty, gold. / A living doll, everywhere you look. / It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk.... You have an eye, it's an image. / My boy, it's your last resort. / Will you marry it, marry it, marry it."

In general, Gross adds little but confusion to the work of the scholars he cites. The book is all the more disappointing because a good treatment of the subject -- especially one originating in the study of literature, which is Gross's field -- would be important for the current debate over the scope and methodology of the history of art. One form of resistance to the new interpretive approaches in art history is a refusal to admit any role for literature beyond a simplistic kind of documentation existing to the side of ostensibly empirical observations on objects. Why ignorance of one field should be thought to enhance competence in another is not altogether clear, but the attitude does exist. Animated statues are a topic that lies unquestionably with in the boundaries of art history and is at the same time an unquestionably literary problem. Spontaneously living statue or intricately crafted automaton, the animated figure takes its bearings from the expectations generated and developed by the ways people think and talk about images. The extensive secondary literature cited by Gross shows that the most productive work on the question of images has always resulted from the crossing of disciplinary lines. We may rejoice that it will not prove easy either to restore the old barriers or to raise new ones.

Cries of happiness are likely, however, to fade on the lips of progressive historians of ancient art, a field traditionally so inimical to interpretive theory that the reactionary backlash finds few targets within it. Interest in the kinds of central, indeed pressing, questions met in Gross's book is customarily dismissed as unsound and unworthy of the serious student. The conventions of archaeology and of the history of ancient art foster the illusion of direct apprehension of images and consequently of the possibility of an authentic and objective understanding of them, unmediated by theoretical or interpretive bias. Explicit discussion of what the ancients thought their images were, as images, or what we think today, is virtually nonexistent. One of the few examples is the eminent archaeologist Ernst Buschor's Vom Sinn der griechischen Standbilder of 1942, with its sincere but regrettable commitment to notions like the "Lebenssphäre der seienden Wirklichkeit" and the "griechisch-nordischer Urgeist." It is a pity that this work does not figure in Gross's study; a comparison of Buschor's description of the fiery gazes streaming dominantly and brilliantly from the faces of Geometric figures with Rilke's visions of animation and transfiguration would have gone far to illustrate how deeply classical scholarship is embedded in its cultural and intellectual matrix.

We are not yet entirely free from the influence of Buschor's style of mysticism, but its overt expression in that particular book appears to have discouraged two generations of scholars from asking basic questions about Greek statues. What has flourished instead is a structure of categories and taxonomies applied without distinction to archaeological artifacts and literary constructs. For example, maps plot the distribution of "xoana", even though these images are known only from literary texts -- texts in which the meaning of the word varies drastically according to context. A similar case is that of BAI/TULOS, long recognized as a late term restricted to a specific type of animated stone. Both the word and the testimonia about "baetyls" have, however, regularly been applied to a much broader range of material and have long been used to "reconstruct" primitive aniconic practice. Much nonsense about the origins of sculpture has been written as a result of this willful misuse of the texts; nonetheless, the inaccurate construct is consistently preferred in archaeological scholarship even now. If we wish to understand how the Greeks thought about statues, we must not do violence to their categories and terms.

At every level our understanding of ancient statuary rests on texts: vocabulary, information, interpretation. We need to keep in mind the kinds of issues raised in Gross's book, but we need to be much more careful in dealing with them.