Review of Carol Walker Bynum’s Metamorphosis and Identity

IMG_7216          I’ve been reading Caroline Walker Bynum’s Metamorphosis and Identity* as part of my research for a paper I’m about to give on identity in the medieval poem Sir Orfeo, so I read it with double perspective: first, for its usefulness for my research (yes, I’m willing to use a book and then just set it aside), and second, for its enjoyability. M&I was a joy on both counts. Bynum’s discussions of identity and werewolves (Buffy the Vampire Slayer even gets a mention) provided me with new insights and approaches to take regarding my topic and even gave me the inspiration I needed for my title. Bynum manages a style that is both erudite and easy to read, and her scholarship is of course phenomenal.

           Over the course of the text, Bynum uses werewolf tales to show how Medieval culture perceived the issue of identity, that identity was considered to persist through changes (such as becoming a werewolf) from hybridity and metamorphosis. She calls on Dante, Ovid, Marie de France, and Gerald of Wales to illustrate her argument, and concludes that

Our concern with how we can change yet be the same thing — our fascination with the question of identity in all its varieties — is inherited from traditions. The identity we carry with us questions — and by questioning conforms — itself. In this sense, we are all Narcissus, as we are all also the werewolf, a constantly new thing that is nonetheless the same (p. 189).

         What surprized me about the book is that it comprises four lectures Bynum gave on various occasions and that those lectures are presented with no attempt to blend them into more cohesive book chapters. I’m not sure whether this omission matters, but it did recall for me an on-going discussion about expectations in the humanities about how books ought to be presented and whether the requirements for dissertations should be changed to allow collections of essays to make it more possible for students to complete their doctoral degrees.




* Carol Walker Bynum. Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2005).

Getting the Hang of Thank-You Notes

(Another post in honour of the Month of Letters)

Aunt Lillie

Aunt Lillie

      My Great-Aunt Lillie was a champion of the thank-you note. She expected us to have one in the mail the moment her letter or parcel was relinquished to her local post office. And once she had received our cards, she wrote us thank-you notes for the thank-you notes we had sent.

      There are still a number of Aunt Lillies in this world, but for many of us, the thought of writing a thank-you note causes anxiety and cold sweats. It needn’t. The thank-you note is an easy skill to acquire, and I am here to give you the secret formula.

     The basic thank-you note has six parts:

  • The date
  • The greeting
  • An initial expression of gratitude
  • A comment on the object or act for which one must express thanks
  • A final expression of gratitude
  • An appropriate closing

 That said, I should mention that my mother once received a one-word thank-you from a somewhat pretentious friend of the family that read merely, “Magnifiqué!” But generally, a thank-you message should go something like this:


Dear Aunt Lillie,

     I was so pleased to receive the letter you sent in response to my thank-you note. I am always amazed at how much family history you are able to pack into only five or six pages. The story about my grandfather was very amusing, and I am so happy that you shared it with me. I send this with



A slightly more formal example might read like this:


Dear Mr. Kenobi,

     Running into you in the desert the other day was a real delight. We should do it again soon. And I certainly was not expecting you to entrust my father’s old light saber to me. I can’t imagine a more meaningful gift. I’ve put it on the coffee table; it’s a real conversation starter.

     R2 and C3PO send their regards and ask whether you will come for tea next Tuesday? Allow me to add my voice to theirs, and to say, once again, how pleased I am to have the saber. I am

Deeply grateful,

Luke Skywalker


One to a good friend can be more casual:


Sometime in the Recent Past

Dear Bruce,

      I just had to dash this off to tell you how much I love the shorts. Where did you find something so trendy with that artful distressed look? With the right suspenders, I’ll be able to wear them with everything.

      I’m looking forward to seeing you at dinner this weekend. Tony says to ask if the Hulk will play on our team for the volleyball game.

      Thanks again for the shorts. They’re just smashing.




     Remember that even if your note is short and follows a form, it can still be sincere. The point is to let the person who gave you the lurid socks or wrote the glowing letter of recommendation for you know that you received the gift or are aware of the effort and appreciate the thought and time that was expended on your behalf. (It doesn’t matter whether you really appreciate the socks; while you are writing the note, you do.)

     A final admonition regarding thank-you notes: unless you have a true disability that precludes holding a pen (and some of us do), thank-you notes should be written by hand on paper and sent through the mail. All the e-mails in the world will not take the place of a holograph missive composed in the most legible manuscript the writer can muster. Handwriting still conveys a personal communication that nothing else can match.



*To be fair, I should say that Aunt Lillie was one of my favourite relatives and I treasure the several letters from her containing some very interesting perspectives on family history.

How to Say “Farewell”

31 December, 2014

Dear Readers,

        As 2014 slips away, I have been thinking about farewells and closings. There are final, momentous ones; others that may be less final but still of great moment; some that are a relief (admit it — we’ve all had guests we were happy to see depart); and the every-day ones of seeing a spouse off to work or saying “See you later” to a neighbour over the fence. And then there are the ways we finish our letters. Usually we write what we want to communicate, then slap on a “Best wishes” or “Yours truly” that we may or may not mean and set our name underneath the closing. And generally speaking, that approach gets the job done.

         But there’s another, more elegant way to end a letter. Closings used to be made part of the final sentence to leave the reader with a lasting, coherent thought. For example, if Cleopatra invited Antony over for a mid-day meal, he might write to her thus:

Dear Cleopatra

A more formal example might go like this:

Dear Mr. Shakespeare

        People no longer expect an integrated closing, and the surprise of finding one is a small gift of style that renders a letter memorable. And as an author, it is a satisfying thing to make an exit that is smooth and graceful, especially when one’s parting words are meant


Ruth Feiertag

A Better Pick-Up Line

      Just in time for all those New Year’s book store sales (our local book store has one), my brother has sent the perfect ice-breaker:

Buy you a book? 150125_10152426115028862_8301236306719344618_n

The gender, of course, should be irrelevant, and there really ought to be a period after “favor.” Also, I do rather wish there were a comma after “for me” and agreement in number between “some person” and “their.” But the idea is brilliant; let us hope the above heralds a new age of more literary one-night stands.