Constant J. Mews

title.none: Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (Constant J. Mews)

identifier.other: baj9928.0112.012 01.12.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Constant J. Mews, Monash University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Bynum, Caroline Walker. Metamorphosis and Identity. NY,NY: Zone Books, 2001. Pp. v, 280. 28.00. ISBN: 1-890-95122-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.12.12

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Metamorphosis and Identity. NY,NY: Zone Books, 2001. Pp. v, 280. 28.00. ISBN: 1-890-95122-6.

Reviewed by:

Constant J. Mews
Monash University

A new book by Caroline Walker Bynum is always a major event. For over two decades, her ever-fertile imagination has opened up new ways of thinking about images and ideas in medieval culture. She has a taste for pithy titles that pique curiosity, while embracing universal themes. There was Jesus as Mother, published as a collection of essays in 1982, Holy Fast, Holy Feast in 1987, Fragmentation and Redemption in 1991, and The Resurrection of the Body in 1995, as well as a number of other edited volumes. In Metamorphosis and Identity, a collection of four major essays, Bynum shifts her attention from a religious to a philosophical theme, that of how medieval thinkers grappled with the issue of change, without losing a sense of enduring personal identity. Bynum has moved a long way in her historical interests since she assisted in editing the monastic observances of Monte Cassino for vol. 6 of the Corpus Consuetudinum Monasticarum (1975). Her interest in images of alterity in medieval religious culture, both in relation to gender and the body, has been of great influence in opening up awareness of a vast range of religious texts that had either not been noticed or considered too bizarre for serious investigation. While Bynum is often associated with writing about the strange permutations of the body, she has never been interested in alterity purely for its own sake. She is first of all an intellectual historian interested in understanding the deeper logic of texts normally dismissed from the purview of intellectual history as too irrational to permit logical analysis. Her attention is always drawn to the broader philosophical questions raised by the most seemingly outrageous discussions, debates that she always seeks to take seriously as important in their own right. Her respect for the intellectual seriousness of medieval writers is always underpinned by a profound scholarship that makes her footnotes rich and rewarding in themselves.

In Metamorphosis and Identity Bynum moves more into medieval literature than in earlier writing, in which her major focus has been on religious literature. The volume contains revised versions of two papers that have already been published, her discussion of "Wonder" that first appeared in the American Historical Review 102.1 (1997; misprinted as 1977 in her Acknowledgements, p. 11), pp. 1-26, and "Metamorphosis, or Gerald and the Werewolf" in Speculum 73.4 (1998), pp. 987-1013, as well as two previously unpublished essays, "Monsters, Medians, and Marvelous Mixtures: Hybrids in the Spirituality of Bernard of Clairvaux" and "Shape and Story", a more general reflection on the theme of metamorphosis in Ovid, Marie de France, Angela Carter and Dante. Bynum makes clear in her introduction, as in a number of these essays, that her driving concern is not with the body per se, but with the deeper philosophical issue of personal identity as expressed through literature that is not philosophical in the strict sense of the term.

Bynum admits in her introduction, "Change in the Middle Ages", that these essays were not originally intended to form a whole. They are directed to different types of audience, some more specialist, others more general. The result of reading them through in a single sitting is somewhat disconcerting. Perhaps the best way to appreciate these essays is to see them as more suggestive than final in their analysis. In avoiding social and political analysis of why metamorphosis and change was seen as such a troubling possibility by so many ecclesiastics, we are left with the impression that religious literature was generated more by thoughtful individuals than by the demands of addressing a particular audience.

Bynum's essay on "wonder" does not really deal with change as such. It is as much a reflection on historical method as an analysis of the different ways in which "wonder" has operated as a concept in stories about the marvelous and wonderful in the medieval period. While her fascination with the exotic might be accused of being escapist, her deeper argument is fundamentally consistent with that of Aristotle, that it is only through wonder that all serious reflection is generated. She argues that whereas Descartes analyzed wonder in physiological terms, as the first of the passions, medieval writers always interpreted wonder as a cognitive recognition of the singularity and significance of the thing encountered. The issue of the moral significance is certainly important in the hands of any preacher, using a marvelous event to make some deeper moralizing point. Where I have some concerns about her analysis is a tendency to generalize about "medieval" attitudes to wonder. Even if medieval skepticism was not expressed in the mode of nineteenth-century rationalism, the diversity of medieval attitudes to the miraculous suggests that we cannot generalize about medieval attitudes to what someone considered wonderful. To argue that modern historians need to consider emulating medieval wonder at the unusual and particular could be seen as potentially confusing critical enquiry and entertainment.

Bynum's second essay, "Metamorphosis, or Gerald and the Werewolf" is closer to the chosen theme of the volume as a whole. Having argued in The Resurrection of the Body (1995) that a driving concern with medieval discussion about resurrection was an ontological anxiety about human need for the continuity of individual existence, in the face of death and decay, she switches her attention to the process of change. She opens herself up much more than she has done before to secular literature, in particular to the Metamorphoses of Ovid. She argues that Ovid's reception in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries subtly changed Ovid's own (potentially anarchic) fascination with continuous mutation into horrified anxiety about the possibility of one species changing into another; stories about mutations served to give instruction about enduring identity. If there is change, it is about replacement of one species with another. Stories about werewolves, whether told by Gerald of Wales or Marie de France, in the end convey a type of moral truth not present in any Ovidian tale. Bynum acknowledges that there was wide fascination in the twelfth century with metamorphosis, but questions whether medievals "really" did believe in change. While she tends to group all the texts she studies to "around 1200", closer scrutiny might betray a greater range of attitude towards capacity for change than her conclusions appear to suggest. It might also be profitable to relate moralists' fear of metamorphosis with fear of "haeresis", itself a form of offshoot or dangerous change.

The third essay, on hybrids in the spirituality of Bernard of Clairvaux, pursues a similar theme in relation to an author who expressed horror of hybridity. Bynum's analysis is exemplary in pursuing how a single metaphor, in this case that of the mixture, can unlock a central paradox in Bernard's writing. While he claims to abhor hybridity, she sees the essence of his thought as lying in not in process, but in paradox. Bynum is at her best in these observations about an individual writer: "His prose deploys contradiction, not linear development." (161) She sees this not as a comment on the contradictory elements in Bernard's own situation as a monk who both loved and rejected (or claimed to reject) the world, but a comment on the character of all existence, in which contradictions can never be avoided.

The fourth chapter, "Shape and Story", picks up the themes of identity and change articulated in the second essay, but is addressed to a more general audience. Bynum compares a story of Marie de France about a noble werewolf (a bisclavret) with one of Angela Carter, concluding with commentary on how Dante's ideas of metamorphosis transform those of Ovid. She argues that medieval stories about personal transformation echo an enduring philosophical question, how we reconcile ever- changing forms with enduring identity.

Bynum's essays challenge us to take seriously the deeper issues that she claims underpin stories we too easily marginalize with labels like "the monstrous", "the exotic". She sees alterity not as exoticism but as inherent to the human condition. In seizing so much on stories of the exotic, she may run the risk of gliding over those more traditional forces that have always shaped the way people think: political loyalty, social obligation, and education. She does not touch in this volume on the profound impact of Aristotelian categories in making true metamorphosis impossible, or on the doctrine of transubstantiation, first clearly articulated in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 in response to a fear of heretics who rejected the efficacy of the sacrament. In seeking out the relevance of medieval stories of metamorphosis for thinking about issues of personal identity, Bynum may not comment explicitly on their implications for preserving the social and political order, but she leaves us think about these questions.