We are informed in the Publisher’s Note to Falling in love with statues: artificial humans from Pygmalion to the present that George Hersey passed away (in 2007, at the age of 80) before he could complete the final editing of his book. It is entirely a good thing, however, that University of Chicago Press went ahead with publishing it. (And doing a nice job of it; this is a good-looking, carefully proofed book, with 98 well-produced halftones.) There can be no doubt that Falling in love with statues would have been a more fully developed work if Hersey had lived to oversee its completion. It poses some big questions—about the ontological ambiguities of artificial and biotic life, about how the role of statuary in ancient society foreshadows modern obsessions with robotics, cybernetics, and genetic engineering—which ultimately it gestures towards rather than seriously engages. There are some odd lacunae as well; Daedalus, for instance, receives only two brief mentions. Yet the book is, as it stands, an inventive, charmingly quirky, and at times genuinely thought-provoking work of art and cultural history. It makes a fine capstone to the eclectic career of this discipline-defying scholar and well-liked teacher. And while it is not a book written expressly for them, classicists and ancient art historians with an interest in its topics will certainly want to peruse it.
Hersey’s basic theme is the “livingness” of statues in ancient Mediterranean art, lore, and literature, the many ways in which human thought, belief, and above all desire could project life upon the human simulacra that were so central to the religious and social life of antiquity. This ground has already been covered fairly well by scholars of ancient Greece and Rome, in particular by Deborah Steiner, whose Images in Mind: Statues in Archaic Greek Literature and Thought (Princeton 2001) Hersey acknowledges as a primary inspiration. But Hersey’s work is distinct on at least two fronts. First, it is, as the title indicates, “statue love” that is his particular area of inquiry. For Hersey, the relationship between humans (specifically human men, since female statue-lovers are in the minority here, though not entirely absent) and their crafted representations finds its most complex and enduring expression as love, “moral, theological, poetic, and physical” (5). The “chief hero” of statue love is of course Pygmalion, and his story, in its various versions and refractions, serves as leitmotif.
The second point of distinction for Falling in love is the author’s consistently entertaining and almost always enlightening attempts to trace the long-term post-classical inheritance of classical statue love, “one of humanity’s most potent yet least explored myths” (21). Hersey was not a trained specialist in ancient art and literature. While he generally handles the ancient material with deferential care and even with occasional flashes of interpretive originality, his real contribution to his chosen theme comes mainly by way of ingenious observations on the aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual legacy of statue love in medieval, early modern, and contemporary art and life. Long after Ovid’s Pygmalion, humans continued and continue today to impute artificial life to human simulacra, and to represent themselves doing so. Hersey is not afraid to hopscotch over the diachronic expanse of those representations, moving across widely disparate cultural and artistic epochs and genres in order to elucidate the “neural links,” as he puts it, between diverse acts of making, perceiving, and desiring that constitute the psycho-aesthetic history of Western statue love. Within the space of a few pages, Hersey is able to go from an analysis of the Hittite iconography of Astarte to Roman “Venus dolls” to sixties-mod Barbie Dolls, illuminating the latent continuities between the emotive and aesthetic contexts in which these figures and objects were placed. He draws unexpected parallels between temporally and culturally removed images that yet make intriguing sense: the erotically sculpted front grill of a ’57 “Dagmar” Cadillac evokes the breasts of a twelfth-century BCE copper goddess from Cyprus; an Italian Futurist marionette evokes the “half humanoid, half techno” appearance of a Bronze Age Cypriote idol (145).
Cyprus, home of Pygmalion and Aphrodite, plays a major role in the book, as it is “the center of ancient statue love” (18). Hersey devotes his first three chapters to the landscape, archaeology, and myth history of the island in order to argue this point. In the wide-ranging fourth chapter, “Cypris the Sculptor,” he reads Empedocles’ cosmological vision of Cypris as primal maker of life-infused figurines against the background of Paphiote cult, statuary, and statue lore. The arguments are not always compelling, but, as so often in this book, it is the discrete, cross-cultural observations that stand out. Hersey links the Empedoclean scenario in which Cypris crafts monstrously hybrid organic assemblages to “our long-lived human love of vegetal crowns and headpieces,” which leads to a discussion of the interrelated symbolism of Homeric helmet plumes, a feather- and sun-topped Louis XIV impersonating Apollo in a court ballet, and Carmen Miranda’s “Hollywood-scale corymbus” (67). In Chapter Five, “Beautiful Bodies,” Hersey looks at Hellenistic representations of Aphrodite and considers the role of statues and automata in rituals of sacred marriage in Ptolemaic Alexandria. The automata of Hero make a brief appearance here, but I wish Hersey had lingered longer over the cultural context and implications of these beguiling contraptions, which at once look back to the Hephaestean automata in Homer and forward to more modern technologies.
Chapter Six, “Ovid and Tactility,” is the highlight of the book. Hersey reads Ovid’s account of Pygmalion as a meditation on the psychosomatic powers of the physiological sense of tactility in artistic representation, a “work’s ability to make the viewer feel in his or her own body what the portrayed figure would be feeling if it were real” (19). This Pygmalionic tactility is thus a “subset of artificial life,” an animating charge carried between desiring spectator and desired object. In this and the following chapter Hersey explores the medieval and early modern reception of the Pygmalion story and shows how statue love was both rejected by and assimilated into Christian art and spirituality. The final two chapters of the book, which look to more recent constructions of and theories about marionettes, automata, robots, and artificial intelligence, are unfortunately the least successful. They are too discursive, their links to Pygmalion and ancient statue love too notional. (And some will find that key pop cultural touchstones of statue love are sorely missing. Hersey mentions Big Blue and Gary Kasparov and Asimov’s fictions, but where is Blade Runner or, what is surely the most sublime postmodern vision of statue love, Chris Cunningham’s transcendent video for Björk’s “All Is Full of Love,” in which two identical Björk-cyborgs seduce one another, falling into an uncannily graceful erotic embrace while disembodied machines whir about them, putting the finishing touches on their pristine manufacture.) One suspects that Hersey was unable to organize these last pages as he would have wanted. Nevertheless, they contain some engaging, characteristically idiosyncratic discussions, on Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hoffman’s “automatic” femme fatale, Olympia, and Edward Gordon Craig’s theory of the Übermarionett, a creepy riff on Kleist’s more-human-than-human puppet dancers in On the Marionette Theater. The book closes with some enjoyably far-out musings on the potential modes of artificial life suggested by fractal mathematics and self-replicating systems called cellular automata.