A memorable image in Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities likens the impact of a certain character to that of a powdery avalanche. The effect of reading Marina Warner’s magisterial works of cultural history is somewhat similar: the cool temperature, the graceful touch, the sensation of resistance being gently annihilated under an accumulation of brilliant particularity.Resistance, if you have any, is likely to focus on the idea – central to her work – that myth evolves in the context of actual human history, and can only be properly understood in relation to that history. ‘When history falls away from a subject,’ she writes in From the Beast to the Blonde, ‘we are left with Otherness, and all its power to compact enmity, recharge it and recirculate it. 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 the Beast to the Blonde is an examination of the transformations fairytales undergo (as radical as any they narrate) as their different tellers put them to different uses at different moments in history. Against the traditional view that these stories tell changeless truths about the human psyche, Warner wields a mass of historical fact concerning shifts in religious belief, storytelling practices, property law, women’s rights and so forth, to reveal how mutable they are and how adaptable to social manipulation. Where Bruno Bettelheim believes that the motif of the lost mother and wicked stepmother is an example of fairytales’ timeless and therapeutic wisdom, providing children with images of their parents’ benign and menacing aspects, Warner suggests that this motif might have more to do with the circumstances of an era when the frequency of death in childbirth led to a female life expectancy of around twenty-five years: the resulting upheavals were a source of pervasive anxiety for the new wives and orphaned children. Her point is that Bettelheim’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.
Jung’s foraging through myth for eternal psychoanalytic verities comes in for similar reproof in Alone of All Her Sex, a study of the myth and cult of the Virgin Mary. Jung’s view of Mary as an archetype of the Great Mother, a guarantor of the equality of women, which ‘requires to be metaphysically anchored in the figure of a “Divine” woman’, is found wanting in the historical context the book illuminates – namely, the manipulation over many centuries of a figure with almost no clear Biblical authority for any of her attributes (not even her name) into an instrument of powerful social control.
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. Or perhaps it is simply that Warner is able to keep both perspectives in play. She is keenly alive to the novelistic quirks of her subjects and can always find room for non-load-bearing details of high ornamental value (my favourite: scientists unwrapping the mummy of Pharaoh Amenhotep could smell the delphiniums used in his preservation). More to the point, she retains an unabashed sense of the sacred, or at least an unabashedly fond memory of such a sense, alongside her scholarly scepticism. She can demonstrate, on the one hand, how a copyist’s error (‘stella maris’ for Jerome’s ‘stilla maris’) helped the Virgin’s apotheosis into an astral deity, the goddess of medieval mariners, while, on the other, she conveys through her evocations of the art and lore occasioned by this error, an appreciation of the peculiar watery, azure, nocturnal radiance of these representations.
From the process by which myths are transformed, she moves to the nature of transformation itself in her new book, Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds. ‘I set out,’ she writes in her introduction, ‘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.’ It is a vast subject (what work of art or literature doesn’t have something to say about metamorphosis?) but also an elusive one, as Warner is well aware, comparing herself to Peleus in Ovid, trying to grasp the frantically shape-shifting body of Thetis. Her solution, dictated in part by the book’s origins (its four chapters were given as the Clarendon Lectures in 2001), is to forgo her usual comprehensive, floodlighting approach, in favour of a few carefully angled shafts of illumination.
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. The former consist of little known ethnographic and scientific documents created in the aftermath of the European encounter with the Americas, while the latter range from Francesco Colonna’s The Dream of Poliphilo to Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno stories, taking in works by Michelangelo, Col-eridge, Hogg, Stevenson, Kafka, Jean Rhys and numerous others. It is a short book, but dense. Warner’s highly complex line of argument, winding around so much material, and so tightly, produces a compacted, even crabbed architecture. You feel like you’ve stepped inside a miniaturised cathedral.
The movement of the first chapter is typically intricate. Its congener is a report on Taino Indian beliefs, produced for Christopher Columbus by Ramón Pané, a Catalan friar on the island of Hispaniola. This short document, itself a case study in metamorphosis, survives only in an Italian translation incorporated into a biography of Columbus written by his son. It was drawn on by Peter Martyr for his bestselling De orbe novo, which in turn was translated into English by Richard Eden, whose version formed one of the many texts metabolised in that alembic of metamorphic and ethnographic literatures, The Tempest. In a surprise move (the book seems deliberately to cultivate the quick-change effects of its subjects), Warner then reveals her true quarry to be not Shakespeare, but Hieronymus Bosch: specifically his fantastical triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The chapter promises to decipher its riddling bird, fruit and flesh-filled imagery in the light of Pané’s Taino myths, which make much of birds, fruit and the creation of (female) flesh. Before doing so, however (and here follows another pirouette), it digresses in order to situate the Taino myths in relation to Ovid and Dante, whose own metamorphoses would have framed the responses of European readers to the Taino material. The two form a convenient polarity, with Ovid representing metamorphosis free of any fixed moral status, and Dante its Christianised form, where it is assigned firmly to the diabolic processes. The argument now doubles back to Bosch’s weird berry-on-human orgy, which is interpreted very ingeniously as an encryption of the equivocal yearnings and anxieties awakened by the discovery of the New World, all held together in a seething, volatile suspension, and informed equally by Ovid’s fruitarian Golden Age, Christianity’s horror of female flesh and sexual procreation, and Pané’s evocation of a prelapsarian Eden in the Taino stories of fruit-eating ghosts and asexual, fruit-like human propagation.
Whether Bosch had actually read Pané remains a matter of conjecture, and Warner is content to leave it as one. She does, however, point out in a playfully scholarly flourish that Pané was a Hieronymite monk and, more seriously, that his account might well have reached Bosch, either through the Spanish nobles who were his patrons in the Netherlands, or through his advocate at Philip II’s Court, José de Sigüenza, who was the historian of Pané’s monastic order.
Arcane information for its own sake isn’t Warner’s game, however, nor is art-historical sleuthing, though both contribute to the fine-grained pleasures of this book. While not overtly contentious (no obvious foils here: no Bettelheim or Jung), her book does have an agenda. Putting it crudely, this is to challenge what Warner calls ‘notions of unique, individual integrity of identity in the Judaeo-Christian tradition’, or elsewhere the ‘Judaeo-Christian integer’, with a more dynamic scheme of identity based on Ovidian metamorphosis. The appeal isn’t hard to see. 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 Confucius and Ovid’s Metamorphoses the only safe guides in religion’), and D.H. Lawrence seems to be on similar ground in his famous rejection of ‘the old stable ego of the character’ in favour of ‘another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable and passes through, as it were, allotropic states’. I like to think Lawrence would have seen Ovid as an honorary Etruscan: ‘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.’
Renaissance humanism drew on this pagan vision of things, as Warner observes in her inspired chapter on hatching. Tracing a shadowy lineage of art and poetry founded on mythic theogamies such as Leda and the Swan, and culminating in strikingly uninhibited celebrations of that story by Leonardo, Michelangelo and Correggio (with a late, anomalous flowering in Yeats), she makes abundantly clear the attraction of this heterodoxy, with its guiltless, fecund embrace of the principle of discontinuity. She also makes it clear why it was doomed, defying as it does every respectable idea about godly behaviour, sexual decorum, female carnality and nature itself. Leonardo’s image of Leda being tenderly smooched by the Swan while her babies hatch out of their eggs on the blossoming earth beneath her, as if nothing could be more natural, has something sweetly outrageous about it – ‘scandalous’ is Warner’s word – all the more so for its lack of any sense of the perverse. Little wonder that Leonardo’s and Michelangelo’s paintings have disappeared, surviving only in sketch and engraving, while Correggio’s was violently defaced.
Thereafter, the pagan vision diminishes into a gloomy, clammy inversion of itself. Warner connects this, in her chapter on splitting, to the onset of exploitation and slavery in the colonies: the éclat of wonder is displaced by guilt-racked greed and fear. Zombies – bodies split from their souls – enter the European imagination (Coleridge’s in particular) via Robert Southey’s History of Brazil, and link the fantasy of bodily change to imperialism’s ‘themes of consuming, using up, hollowing out’, recolouring it in Dantesque, nightmarish hues. Other demons swarm in their wake – vampires, genies, séance spirits, androids. And in the final chapter, on doubling, a growing technology of illusion and duplication (‘light getting under harness as a slave for man’, as De Quincey aptly put it) assists the metamorphic vision towards its final discovery: that the most terrifying, ghastly thing a body can generate is itself.
The gloom never quite lifts. ‘The desire to exploit the possibilities of self-transformation may burn bright in the cosmetic and surgical industries,’ Warner acknowledges towards the end of this demanding, immensely rewarding book, ‘but stories disclose a growing unease with the menace of different selves taking over the real self, beyond bidding or control.’ Pound and Lawrence notwithstanding, she finds no persuasive sign of the return of a positively accented paganism. The ‘Judaeo-Christian integer’ seems to have won out for the moment.