BMCR 2004.08.18

Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds. Ways of Telling the Self. The Clarendon Lectures in English, 2001

, Fantastic metamorphoses, other worlds : ways of telling the self. Clarendon lectures in English ; 2001. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xv, 264 pages, [4] pages of color plates : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN0198187262 $29.95.

Marina Warner delivered the Clarendon Lectures in English at Oxford in 2001 and these have been written up and annotated in this book. There are four chapters, “Mutating,” “Hatching,” “Splitting,” and “Doubling,” bounded by a 28-page Introduction and an 8-page Epilogue. Information on the numerous plates and illustrations, notes, and an index complete the volume.

Warner’s approach to the complex literary, artistic, and psychological phenomenon of metamorphosis is, naturally, grounded in Ovid’s poem, with which she begins and ends. Along the way, however, a multitude of familiar and less familiar works are brought into consideration. These come from a wide variety of cultures, periods, and forms: Dante’s Inferno, Hieronymous Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” Maria Merian’s Of the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname, Nabokov’s Lolita, Schubert’s setting of Heine’s “Still ist die Nacht,” and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Warner incorporates accounts of the inhabitants of the New World, theories of evolution, beliefs about zombies, attitudes to slavery, anxieties about identity and the soul, notions of the Other World, and even the current cloning controversy. As lectures, these pieces must have been appreciated for their unexpected, but telling, juxtapositions of materials from diverse sources and for their capacity to inform on various levels (about authors, texts, popular beliefs). As written chapters, they proceed by a method that is best described as associative, as the continual shifts in focus recreate the experience of that constant change which Ovid saw in the universe. Warner says at the end of her Introduction that for this published version she had “to strip away many images, and repress some of the profusion” (28); nonetheless, some readers may find her canvas too “busy” for sustained contemplation of her vision of metamorphosis.

The Introduction gives us Warner’s main point of entry into the riddle of transformation tales: Ovid’s Metamorphoses elaborates a belief in metempsychosis — the poem culminates in Pythagoras’ appearance — according to which the individual soul never dies, but moves from one form into another, taking any and all shapes. She will go on to show how this vision of a cosmos that is “unceasingly progenitive, multiple, and fluid” (5) finds expression in the fantastic literature of later eras as well as in the sciences of biology and Darwinian theory. There is, however, a blot on the landscape, namely Christianity’s anxiety about the threat metamorphosis posed to its core beliefs in “species integrity, sexual decorum, and the divine resemblance of the human image” (108). A connection consequently develops between metamorphosis and the monstrous, the sinful, and the unnatural, and Warner sets out to chart this through time and the history of artistic representation, focussing on the tension between a secure individual “identity” and the “loss of selfhood” that seems inherent in the concept of metamorphosis.

In Chapter 1, “Mutating,” Warner examines the 15th-century Account of the Antiquities of the Indians written by the Jesuit Ramón Pané for its tales of metamorphosis among the recently colonized Taino people. These tales would have been read through the lenses of Ovid (moralized, of course) and Dante and the resulting cross-fertilization proved highly productive in artistic terms, as we can see from Hieronymous Bosch’s famous triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” It is not so much that Bosch is illustrating the Taino stories, rather that we can discern “congeners”: this term Warner adopts from Peter Hulme, who uses it to explain the indirect assimilation of the artefacts and beliefs of one culture by another.1 Much of what follows in the book relies upon this methodology. The encounter with the “New World” in general, Warner says, “offered extraordinary possibilities for thinking differently” (35), and this too becomes something of a leitmotif.

In Chapter 2, “Hatching,” the impact of the Americas is considered again, this time in connection with Maria Merian’s finely illustrated studies of insects, especially butterflies, in the Dutch colony of Suriname at the turn of the 17th century. Warner argues that Merian’s depiction of “continuity within formal change” is symptomatic of the dissolution of “the settled idea of development as an unfolding of personality” (83). This leads into discussion of Apuleius’ The Metamorphoses of Lucius, Francesco Colonna’s The Strife of Love in a Dream (1499), various versions of the myth of Leda, Kafka’s Die Verwandlung, and Nabokov’s Lolita and his 1924 short story fragment “Christmas,” as Warner traces the images of hatching and pupating she discovered in Bosch through to modern times. The argumentation in this chapter suffers most from the amount of material crammed into it; there is really no succinct statement of her thesis.

Chapter 3, “Splitting,” opens with the intriguing history of the zombie. The word first appears, we are told, in Robert Southey’s History of Brazil (1810-1819), and originally meant “deity” (119-120). The zombie, Warner suggests, heralds a new way of thinking about the person, one that expresses “a new, psychological state of personal alienation, moral incoherence, and emptiness” (120). We are dealing here with the notion of a living body without a soul. Warner links this development with the economic experience of empire and colonialism, tracing the zombie’s migration from African and West Indian beliefs to Gothic stage plays in London and to the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and to Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Warner sees here a much wilder form of metamorphosis, one in which all rules are broken and the individual personality is cut loose from its moorings.

Chapter 4, “Doubling,” tracks down the doppelgangers, doubles, and second selves that populate 19th- and 20th-century literature. The double, according to Warner, epitomizes the current state of metamorphosis “as a threat to personality on the one hand, of possession by another, and estrangement from self. But, tugging strongly and contradictorily against this at the same time, the double also solicits hopes and dreams for yourself, of a possible becoming different while remaining the same person, of escaping the bounds of self, of aspiring to the polymorphous perversity of infants, in Freud’s phrase, which in some ways mimics the protean energies of the metamorphic gods. (Advertisements promise: ‘Be whoever you want to be.’)” (164-65). The survey begins with a discussion of illusionists and early photography, and ends up with R. L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885), Lewis Carroll’s last fantasy novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), and some speculations about how the history of doubling permeates contemporary debates about cloning (202).

Where does all this leave us? Certainly more informed about a considerable number of poems, paintings, plays, novels and scientific tracts that exhibit what is, it seems, an enduring fascination with metamorphosis. The complex possibilities of the theme of transformation, and the multifarious ways in which these possibilities have been exploited by a whole host of artists since Ovid’s day, are laid out to view. The impact of the “discovery” of the Americas and the effects of the imperial enterprise (including colonization, slavery, and cultural appropriation) on the literature of metamorphosis are given the special attention they deserve. Warner is consistently learned and brimming with information, if not always lucid and organized in presenting it. The production values of the book are high: it is beautifully produced, with several plates in color and many other illustrations.


1. Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean 1492-1797. London 1992.