BMCR 2009.04.20

The Pygmalion Effect: From Ovid to Hitchcock. (Translated by Alison Anderson). The Louise Smith Bross Lectures

, The Pygmalion Effect: From Ovid to Hitchcock. (Translated by Alison Anderson). The Louise Smith Bross Lectures. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. viii, 252; 12 p. of plates. ISBN 9780226775210. $45.00.

If Narcissus was fated ever to be disappointed by the act of representation, Pygmalion was more fortunate, being immediately granted his desire by Aphrodite to transform the exquisite figure he had created into real flesh, the veins pulsing beneath his testing finger, as Ovid put it, pressing with his lips real lips at last. It is the complex history of this myth and what he also calls the Pygmalion effect that Stoichita transcribes in this richly synthetic account of Ovid’s great narrative, based on a series of lectures given in 2001 at the Department of History of Art in Chicago, and fluently translated from the French by Alison Anderson. The names here are both familiar and less familiar; Jean de Meun and the Romance of the Rose, Pontormo, Cavalier Gian Battista Marino, Diderot and Rousseau, the many French painters of the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries like Jean Raoux and Jean-Léon Gêrome who so luxuriated in this story and then, at the end, Alfred Hitchcock and Vertigo (1957-8), a film, or metafilm as it is described here, that has become the classic text on that foundational obsession of cinema, the dream of life in motion. Much has been said about the myth of this sculptor, moved as he was to true love by the semblance of the form of a woman. And the range of materials in Stoichita’s account here is deeply impressive, making this text not only a useful accounting of its subject but an appropriate way to approach the pages of commentary and scholarship that have been devoted to the theme of Pygmalion, the sculptor of Cyprus, and his love, in images and in all the many other retellings in verse and prose.

Yet the text, as Stoichita announces in the opening pages, ventures to descend also into what he calls the meanderings of an inherent illusion. The statue Pygmalion fell in love with—and if several sources like Ovid claim this was a figure he had himself made, others like Clement of Alexandria quoting the older writer Philostephanus describe him as worshiping an already existing figure—was made of ivory, a material long associated in Greece with mirages and illusions, even deceit. And it is this more magical association that allows Stoichita, with all that French post-modernist criticism has mustered, to describe the statue in this story not as an imitation of anything or anybody but as the product of imagination—and here he invokes the modern readings of the idea of the simulacrum—whose narrative, as he puts it, stands as a parable within the very transgression of representation, “within the bracketing of mimesis and the detours of desire”(p. 3). Such a reading of Ovid lends the story of Pygmalion what can be called an emblematic value, one that can disrupt all the aesthetics of the philosopher and that innocence that allowed Kant with the naiveté of a country vicar, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, to contemplate even statues of naked women without interest. Perhaps, as Stoichita suggests, the story might also be set within a catalog of sexual perversions, born from a disgust for the four Propetides, the blaspheming prostitutes, punished and turned into stone, Pygmalion’s figure of the virgo being symmetrical, as Stoichita puts it, to these petrified women, but, as he says, “appropriated and reversed” (p. 9). And indeed Pygmalionism was listed by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his manual of sexual pathologies (at least in the second edition of 1923), this term referring to a sexual desire for one’s own creation; agalmatophilia, by contrast, being the term to describe the desire for an already made object. But in Ovid’s account the gods, seeing the depth of his love, treated Pygmalion with unprecedented indulgence. For if they punished Narcissus for falling in love with his own reflection, they gave him his wish, thus marking, as Giorgio Agamben put it, the two ways in which an erotic charge can be given to imagery, in one instance evanescent and impalpable like painting, in the other being endowed with a body, or as Stoichita completes this parallel, “like all sculpture, one might add” (p. 5).

For readers of this journal there are two aspects to this study that will perhaps be of particular interest. The first is the record of the varied attention granted Ovid by writers and artists and philosophers of later years, reinvigorating and drawing out all the possibilities set in the brief, rich lines of the Metamorphoses. At one moment, in the 13th century, in Jean de Meun, Pygmalion is a musician, playing a portable organ and skipping and dancing. At another, as in the recounting in Vasari, two centuries later, the story is taken to be, as Stoichita puts it, transgressive. For if in the story of Apelles and Alexander and Campaspe the erotic desires of the artist are diffused and yet exemplified by his representation of her beauty, here in this statue, so made and so embraced, the division between real and created is collapsed, inviting the sculptor to confuse the model and what can be called the phantasm-representation. And then in the Galleria of Cavalier Marino, published in 1619, we have a eulogy of the statue of Helen, the talking statue being seen to be alive like the real Helen, the product of Nature’s painter, the eternal, yet lifeless image of Helen being the one given to Paris, the true Helen being returned to Menelaus, her legitimate husband. In time, in the next chapters, there is an account of the Enlightenment Pygmalion where the re-emergence of this myth served to instill doubt, into those who wished to be so doubtful, about the very idea of the divine nature of the creation of the human being. And then finally we have Hitchcock and Vertigo, where it was not so much the possession of the other woman that outraged the hero, John Fergusson or Scottie, so much as the creation of this second Madeleine. Thus, as Stoichita puts it, the film is both “a narration on the theme of the double and, at the same time, a film about the production of simulacra” (p. 182).

Hence the second point of interest here. In his opening pages Stoichita makes reference to a now famous passage in Plato’s Sophist (236c) where a distinction was suggested between the art of the copy, that is to say of likeness ( eikastike), and what, in the most recent edition of the text by David Ambuel, is called appearance ( phantasma).1 The Sophist, it must be acknowledged, is not one of Plato’s easier texts, moving as it does between logic and ontology, between a metaphysics of being and an interest in what has been called the linguistic constitution of the world of experience. In the Republic (595c) Plato had made what was for him a fundamental distinction between representation and imitation, the artisan of the bed making a likeness of reality, the imitator copying not the physical object but only its appearance. But here, Stoichita, drawing on the accounting of Jean Baudrillard, sees this second possibility, here called the simulacrum, not as representation, whether or not purposefully distorted, but as a figure that bears no reaction to reality whatever. Here Stoichita returns to Ovid to note that Pygmalion did not intentionally create the perfect form of a virtual woman but that it was, so to speak, art that created her “for him” and, as he adds, “in spite of him” (p. 14). The first response Pygmalion felt at what was there before him was wonder, followed by touch and then by the gifts he bestowed upon the figure which seem to take their meaning from the patterns of love laid out in the Ars amatoria, most obviously in his need to dress her and then undress her again to reach what Stoichita calls a second degree of nudity, “now an unclothed woman, an apparently sensitive spouse (tanquam sensura) whom Pygmalion now places—nuda—upon the purple blankets” (p 15). At the end, in guise of a conclusion Stoichita leaves us with a list of twenty theses on the question of the simulacrum, speaking of it first, if loosely, as a defining component of Western imagination and then in the last sentence as involving, at what he calls the threshold of the Pygmalion effect, the idea of virtual reality. The only answer to such situation of the diversion in the simulacrum, as Eric Alliez and Michel Feher have put it, is to unmask it and bring it back, if we can, to being a true copy, resubmitting it to representation and the mastery of the model.2

How far it is necessary, or appropriate to move the myth of Pygmalion into the language of the simulacrum, as defined by Baudrillard and then by such a writer as Gilles Deleuze, is a judgment we are free to make, based perhaps as much on our temperament as on the ties of reasoning.3 As Stoichita shows, as much in his footnotes as in the main text itself, the commentaries on the myth of Pygmalion over the years are signs enough of the many possibilities embodied within the story of this image, the semblance of a form as Ovid put it. There is ontology; there is the erotic; there is the optic; there is the haptic. In the face of all these choices Stoichita chose to be, as he says, consciously selective without being incomplete, “to bring the career of the simulacrum out from the very recesses of the history of Western mimesis” (p. 5). There could be more discussed, as he acknowledges, digital beauty, genetic and trans-genetic art, body art and so on. But what is here is a story not of the society of simulacra and its development—here Stoichita alludes to the work of Mario Perniola, Slavoj Zizek and Katherine Hayles—but with what he calls “its (and their) prehistory” (p. 5). That, we can say, is certainly enough.


1. David Ambuel, Image and Paradigm in Plato’s Sophist, Las Vegas, Zurich, Athens, 2007.

2. E. Alliez, M. Feher, “Notes on the Sophisicated City”, Zone, I/2, 1986, p. 40-55.

3. G. Deleuze, “Plato and the Simulacrum”, October, 27, 1983, p. 45-56.