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).

A Word Dropped Careless: Emily Dickinson and Internal Editing

I was reading through some of Emily Dickinson’s poetry the other day and rediscovered her brief treatise on the necessity of editing:

A Word Dropped careless on a Page
May stimulate an eye
When folded in perpetual seam
The Wrinkled Maker lie

Infection in the sentence breeds
We may inhale Despair
At distances of Centuries
From the Malaria —

(Poem 1261, c. 1873, pub. 1947)[i]

Emily Dickinson had a complex relationship — much of it posthumous — with her editors. Let us acknowledge so much and move on.

But let us also acknowledge that Dickinson understood the importance of editing (several of her poems exist in more than one version: see “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers”), of carrying within our selves an editor whose work begins even before the ink hits the page. Dickinson reminds us of the power of language — and of the dangers of a word dropped careless on a page. The overall message of the poem above is clear:[ii] we must write with care and intent, always aware that what we commit to the page may outlast us and affect — or infect — those who read our words long after (as John Donne would have it) our scattered leaves are bound-up in “that library where every book shall lie open to one another” (Meditation XVII). Dickinson’s poem is more about self-editing than it is about hiring a proofreader, but since most of us read in our own words what we mean to convey, it often takes an unfamiliar reader to notice the nuances and connotations, the physic and the affliction in our writing.

[i] Review of The Complete Poems of Emily DickinsonEmily Dickinson (Author), Thomas H. Johnson (Editor). Back Bay Books (January 30, 1976)

“Emily Dickinson proved that brevity can be beautiful. Only now is her complete oeuvre–all 1,775 poems–available in its original form, uncorrupted by editorial revision, in one volume.”

[ii] Truth to say, though, the bit of the poem that I find the most interesting comprises the relatively obscure contortions of lines three and four. The picture of the dropped word lying on a page in a bound book or fascicle comes through well enough, but why is the word in the seam? Books are usually fashioned to avoid just that. But “seam” also means an indentation or scar and so refers back to the sense of careless marring we get in the opening line while looking forward to the “Wrinkled” in line four. The word may lie not in the seam of the volume, but in the folding mentioned three words earlier  — another possible carelessness, like dog-earing a page. And who is “The Wrinkled Maker”? The author of the poem? The printer/publisher? If we remember the New Testament verse that asserts that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God, how much more does that increase our responsibility to avoid careless words? Or is God the careless Wrinkled Maker who dropped the word into perpetuity? Why is the seam perpetual? Does it run on forever or will it always exist? And “lie” isn’t a word we should treat like a sleeping dog. What or who is lying? The word lies passively on the page, but particularly because we know the speaker is concerned for the deleterious effects this word might have, the word may be untrue, false, misleading. The Wrinkled Maker may be a liar, or “Wrinkled Maker” may modify “lie,” in which case the lines hint at the uncertain nature of the Maker.