Nov 192010

Notes on Marina Warner Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds.
Review: James Lasdun, “Hatching, Splitting, Doubling.” LRB 2003.08.21.

The main idea in Warner’s work is “that myth evolves in the context of actual human history, and can only be properly understood in relation to that history.”

“An archetype is a hollow thing, but a dangerous one, a figure or image which through usage has been uncoupled from the circumstances which brought it into being, and goes on spreading false consciousness.” [from From the Beast to the Blonde]

“Bettleheim’s uncoupling of the tales from history causes them to diffuse false consciousness – it plays into received ideas about female behaviour, makes hating a parent seem a healthy idea, and encourages the continued absence of good mothers from popular narrative.”

[Lasdun] “Far from being reductive or merely debunking, this recovery of ‘circumstance’ has an invigorating effect on the myths Warner examines. It may be that historical time is richer in the contradiction and instability that keep myths vital than the unchanging Dreamtime or Time of Origins (‘illo tempore’) designated as the true locus of myth by Mircea Eliade.”

“I set out to find out about the types and processes of metamorphosis that were described in the tradition and to read them in order to throw light on changing ideas about persons and personhood.”

Each chapter takes a different aspect of metamorphosis – mutating, hatching, splitting, doubling – and uses it to guide an inquiry into the relationship between a particular set of what Warner calls ‘congeners’ – ‘materials through which one culture interacts with and responds to another’ – and a particular set of imaginative enterprises.

NOTE to self: Jesuit Relations are congeners and it would be interesting to apply Warners method to these texts. Look for the Taino Indian beliefs report mentioned in Warner by Ramon Pare for Christopher Columbus. It was translated into English by Richard Eden.

Warner situates the response to the Taino beliefs in relation to Ovid and Dante who form a polarity, with Ovid representing metamorphosis free of any fixed moral status, and Dante its Christianized form, where it is assigned firmly to the diabolic processes.

Warner’s agenda is to challenge “notions of unique, individual integrity of identity in the Judaeo-Christian tradition” with a more dynamic scheme of identity based on Ovidian metamorphoses.

[Lasdun] “Ovid’s chain reactions of transformation emit a liberating energy like nothing else in literature. Occurring always at some limit of human capacity or tolerance, they have something of death in them, something of birth, something of sex, but something else, too: a mysterious reverse flow, whereby the things people turn into – tree, rock, flower, fountain, bird, beast – miraculously release their own potentialities back into the human universe of the poem. It was Pound who suggested the Old Testament be replaced by Ovid (“Say that I consider the writings of Confucious and Ovid’s Metamorphoses the only safe guides in religion.”)

[Warner] “To the Etruscan all was alive; the whole universe lived; and the business of man was to live amid it all. He had to draw life into himself, out of the wandering huge vitalities of the world.”

Warner makes abundantly clear “the attraction of this heterodoxy, with its guiltless, fecund embrace of the principle of discontinuity.”