Metamorphosis and Identity

Caroline Walker Bynum

Zone Books 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
The four essays brought together in Metamorphosis and Identity are about concepts of change and identity in 12th century Europe, but they "were not originally intended to form a whole" and are only loosely tied together by a general introduction. The resulting volume is not that substantial: the actual text takes up under 180 pages — and those with a lot of whitespace on them. It should, however, have a reasonably general appeal to students of literary criticism and the history of ideas. Bynum's writing is historiographically reflective and clearly aimed at her fellow historians, but it is not so narrow that it will only interest medievalists.

The first piece is a general study of medieval wonder (admiratio) in which Bynum surveys philosophical and theological discourse (where admiratio tended to be contrasted with scientia or knowledge), religious discourse (where it was contrasted with imitatio), and entertainment literature. Contrasting it to early modern wonder, she argues that wonder in medieval texts was "cognitive, perspectival, and non-appropriative". Some of Bynum's analysis here seems more reflective of modern ideas than medieval ones, even if there are, as she suggests, "analogies between medieval discussions and those of late twentieth-century historians". This essay is illustrated with a nice selection of halftones.

In "Metamorphosis, or Gerald and the Werewolf", Bynum looks back over her earlier work on change and metamorphosis in the 12th century, examining some works that seem to challenge her intuition that possibilities of metempsychosis or hybridization were feared and quarantined: Ovidian poetry, theological discussions of miraculous changes, and marvel collections, especially werewolf stories such as those of Gerald of Wales. She thinks relatively minor revisions are called for: "the sense of mutability and multiplicity in the years around 1200 was less dark than I thought before, but I have also learned that the obsession with accounting for change was even greater than I suspected".

The third piece is a study of mixture and change in the work of Bernard of Clairvaux, with some rather dense analysis of language and abstract ideas, both theological and philosophical. Bynum finds Bernard's ontology dominated by hybridity or "two-in-one-ness" rather than by metamorphosis. "Two things do not to Bernard really come together to make a third thing. One thing does not become another. There is no real change; beings are only more or less themselves." And his world is built on paradox, "not only a simultaneity of opposites but also a conversation between them".

"Shape and Story", the final piece in Metamorphosis and Identity, is the broadest, tackling the big questions of personal identity. Bynum considers werewolf stories by Ovid, Marie de France, and Angela Carter, along with an episode from Dante's Inferno. Her conclusions are not particularly illuminating: we need to do better than dichotomies such as nature/nurture or mind/body and "we are, as these odd old tales suggest, shapes with stories, always changing but also always carrying traces of what we were before". But if this is unlikely to revolutionise philosophy, Bynum nevertheless offers an insightful perspective on some fascinating texts.

January 2002

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%T Metamorphosis and Identity
%A Bynum, Caroline Walker
%I Zone Books
%D 2001
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 1890951226
%P 280pp