BMCR 1998.07.20

Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings. Studies on the Human Body in Antiquity

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This wide-ranging and provocative collection of essays constitutes a literary end-point for a conference on Anthropometamorphosis — “humanity-changing,” as Montserrat explains — held at Warwick University in April 1994. The papers themselves range in subject and scope from representations of the body in archaic and classical Greek contexts, through the literary metamorphoses of the body in Latin texts, Early Christian care (and neglect) of the body, and finally to the later theoretical consequences, and manipulations, of the ‘ancient’ body. Each essay focuses on some element of the dynamics of somatic representation: the body as object/subject and/or metaphor of various changes or transitions. Montserrat explains in the introduction, “Speakers were asked to think about how the different ways in which the body altered could be a means of conveying ideologies — of status and control, of gender and ethnicity, of nature and culture.” This is a tall order, and the collection that results occasionally tests the bounds of reasonable cohesion; the whole is nevertheless an interesting and worthwhile consideration of how the ancient body continues to be made and remade with each encounter.

The collection is helpfully divided into four “Parts,” exclusive of the introduction. The partitioning of essays is variously artificial (though helpful nonetheless: Parts I and IV) or compelling (Parts II and III); I will at any rate follow this order in my discussion.

Part I, “Perfect bodies, imperfect bodies.”

Nicholas Vlahogiannis’ discussion of “Disabling Bodies” is an ambitious attempt to address the exceedingly difficult problem of disability/disabling in the “classical world.” Early on, Vlahogiannis notes rightly that any investigation of “disability” in antiquity is problematized by the “fallibility and deficiencies of historical records.” Vlahogiannis is certainly correct in his understanding of disability as a “shifting” category, always predicated upon the various and changing social and political substrate. However, I find his approach to this preliminary conclusion at times confusingly synchronic; I was also somewhat disappointed by what appears to be an underlying assumption of Greek and Roman parallelism in aesthetic/social valuation. The final two sections of this essay I find more focused and successful than those earlier, and more compelling in their conclusions. The penultimate section, “Causes of Disability: Forms of Modification” considers ancient interpretations of disability’s various “sources,” and especially the rather special situation of self-violation. The cultural marginalization of disability and the disabled is dealt with at length in this section and the next (“Divine Causes of Disability”). In sum, this first essay is a less than ideally cohesive introduction to the collection, but makes many important — and interesting — points concerning the cultural composition of the “imperfect” body of antiquity.

The second essay in this section is Richard Hawley’s discussion of “The Dynamics of Beauty in Classical Greece.” This is a clearly written and logically presented discussion of the various depictions of physical beauty in archaic and classical Greek literature. Right from the outset the author makes clear the parameters of his investigation, and sticks to them. Hawley’s first two sections concern (1) the Kallisteia and (2) the conception of beauty in Archaic literature and Comedy (a momentarily surprising but reasonably argued collocation of genres). Apart from the somewhat unconvincing suggestion that in the Lysistrata it is the young wives’ beauty that is their weapon (!), these two short sections are clearly written and provide a cogent introduction to the meat of the author’s essay: beauty in tragedy. Hawley is sensitive to the “ideality and unreality” of male literary sources on beauty and makes his points with force and brevity. The author’s discussion of tragedy focuses on Euripides’ Medea and Electra. The first of these discussions is a refreshing and well-argued analysis of the death and destruction of Creon’s daughter (and her beauty). The second, briefer discussion concerns Electra’s deliberate self-destruction of her own beauty and Clytemnestra’s deliberately-wrought splendor. In a well-articulated conclusion, Hawley argues for a strong “feminization” of beauty in the fifth- and fourth-centuries BCE, a turning away from the male “beauty contest” and toward a beauty that is more strictly female, more strictly controllable.

Part II, “Bodies and Signs in Latin literature.”

In “Exuvias Effigiemque: Dido, Aeneas and the body as sign,” Angus Bowie applies a Lacanian approach to his discussion of the human body in the Aeneid. Bowie argues that the human body is used to advance the epic narrative as a whole; the reader’s desire to explore Virgil’s “literary bodies” thus parallels the desire to unravel the complex textual metaphor of which these bodies are a part, the signs “constituting the constantly deferred meaning of the text.” Bowie identifies the body as a particularly dynamic force in the Aeneid in general; the exquisitely “physiological” experiences of Dido (and the body of Aeneas) are used as the kernel of this approach. Dido’s inability ever to “possess” fully the protagonist’s body is made manifest in her pitiful creation (and destruction) of the wax effigies at iv. 504-8. Bowie’s provocative and “bodily” reading of the text is well argued, clearly articulated, and worth further consideration. The author’s brief introduction to Lacanian theory assumes at least moderate familiarity with this approach.

Penelope Murray’s essay, “Bodies in Flux. Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” investigates the poetic transformation of the human body within the broader context of “what it means to be human.” Murray’s discussion takes as a starting point the various transformations of Io and Actaeon; the author is concerned not so much with the physical process of transformation as with the “psychological problems” of personhood caused by the material conversion of the body. I find Murray’s reading of Ovid to be thorough, insightful, and compelling, and her use of Plato and Homer, as well as secondary scholarship, judicious and well-planned. Ovid’s transformations are simultaneously humorous and terrifying, we are told, but center inevitably around the human body (and subsequently, voice) as the sine qua non of human existence. This is an important point, and by no means an expected or self-evident one; Murray’s insights will add to our understanding of the various and complicated perceptions of the body and identity in the Augustan era and after. The author’s discussion could have benefitted, however, from both a more thorough discussion of the language of transformation and consideration of physical transformations elsewhere in Latin literature.

Part III, “Modifying the early Christian body.”

Gillian Clark’s essay, “Bodies and Blood: Late Antique debate on martyrdom, virginity and resurrection,” provides an interesting discussion of the Christian writers’ (and readers’) peculiarly gendered “use” of torture and physical destruction in the production and promotion of martyr-cults. Clark notes that although the particular means of the public destruction of the physical body is seldom gendered, the fact of that destruction is. While the female martyr is never made to undergo sexual attack (though such is often threatened), the public torture of the female body is inevitably sexualized — the destruction of the virgo is figured as a sexual act, a sexless ‘rape’ that destroys the maiden even as it fixes her chastity for all time. Clark discusses the reasons for this apparent anomaly — and the problematized destruction of the martyred body as a whole — in the broader context of the Christian view of the body, blood, and the resurrection.

In “Reading the Disjointed Body in Coptic: From physical modification to textual fragmentation,” Terry Wilfong discusses the various Coptic “treatments” of the male and female body and the ways in which these treatments are developed, manipulated and finally — in Coptic martyrdoms — reversed. Wilfong first notes physical modifications of the Coptic body, both temporary (cosmetics) and permanent (earrings, circumcision, castration, scarring, and tattoos), and moves then to Coptic literary modifications, bringing to bear interesting evidence from various medical and magical texts. I found most interesting the author’s discussion of established perceptions of the Coptic body (in which the male body is considered as a “whole,” the female body by its ‘parts’) and, subsequently, the ways in which these perceptions are inverted in the Coptic martyrdoms. Wilfong’s well-documented and compelling essay is itself somewhat disjointed in places (as the author himself admits, with good humor, at the essay’s close) but does a valuable service in bringing to light a wealth of evidence usually ignored by those in classical studies.

Part IV, “The Ancient Body’s Trajectory Through Time,” includes three well-written and enjoyable — if thematically disparate — essays: Lynn Meskell’s remarkably astute “The Irresistible Body and the Seduction of Archaeology,” Dominic Montserrat’s “Unidentified Human Remains: Mummies and the erotics of biography,” and Jane Stevenson’s “Nacktleben.” Meskell quickly identifies, and then ruthlessly dismantles, many of the problems and assumptions that continue to underlie, and so inform, the majority of recent discussions on the body and “gender.” In accord with Laqueur and Butler, Meskell challenges the notion of a clear distinction between sex and gender, and argues compelling for the inapplicability of this distinction to discussion of antiquity. The author then discusses the problems that have accompanied the overwhelming popularity and influence of Foucauldian archaeology (and more broadly, Cartesian binary opposition) and offers suggestions for a feminist remedy for the “seductive” (and reductive?) and androcentric paradigms that have thus far held sway in the field. Montserrat’s essay moves deftly from a discussion of director Ed Wood’s hilarious and cultish 1968 film The Love of the Dead through Classical and Renaissance infatuation with/sexualization of the practice of mummification, and finally to various more modern instantiations of what seems to be the irresistible erotic attraction of mummifed human remains. Montserrat’s essay is marvelously argued and a delight to read; the author handles an impressive quantity of information with ease, clarity and humor, and argues compelling for a very real sort of physical “immortality” for the subject/object “token” the mummy comes to represent. Stevenson’s brief but thoughtful and clearly expressed essay examines the artistic encoding of “Greekness” in Victorian and Edwardian England.