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).

The Beauty of Etymolgies

            On the recommendation of a friend, I have been reading Tudor Parfitt’s The Lost Ark of the Covenant. There aren’t any perfectly round boulders that chase our intrepid narrator out of caves (at least not yet), but there is plenty of intrigue and exotic locals and shifty characters who may or may not be what they seem. And snakes — Mr. Parfitt, like Indiana Jones, encounters snakes with a notable lack of enthusiasm.

            Fairly early in the book, Mr. Parfitt and a colleague mull over clues that might be found in word roots, clues that might lead Mr. Parfitt to a clearer understanding of just exactly for what it is he is looking. Later, Mr. Parfitt muses on what might be discovered through a study of etymology:

…I thought to myself that the history of words could be a key to the past. In the layered meanings and etymologies of the simplest word were arcane codes that could reveal long-lost secrets.1

As the narrative unfolds, these etymological avenues do indeed provide essential insights that help Mr. Parfitt pursue his quest. (If you want to know whether our friend Tudor succeeds in finding the Ark, you’ll have to read the book. I’m not telling.)

            Familiarity with etymologies can also assist those of us who do not embark on arduous journeys in search of dangerous artefacts shrouded in mystery and lost in the shifting sands of time. Word roots may not give up secrets of the ancients or reveal the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything (which, thanks to Douglas Adams2, we know is 42), but they can be useful to help us remember the purpose of a sentence (to express a complete thought; from the Latin sententia, which means “thought, meaning”) or the difference between a robot and an android. Even small words can carry a train of valences behind them — as does The Goose with the Golden Feathers that latched onto people who tried to pluck a plume from her tail or Iron Man saving people fallen out of an airplane — that can bring new resonance to our writing or help us navigate the shoals of new vocabulary. The Oxford English Dictionary’s entries that trace the metamorphic chain of signification for the four-letter-words will and kind each take up multiple pages in the OED. Knowing a word’s etymology is to get to know its family: it gives one a personal connection to one’s vocabulary and can provide one with the building blocks to unlock the meanings of words of recent acquaintance — rather like meeting someone for the first time and discovering that the person’s sibling was your college roommate.

            For those who are intrigued, here’s the etymology of etymology to start:

1350–1400; Middle English  < Latin etymologia < Greek etymología,  equivalent to etymológ(os) studying the true meanings and values of words (étymo(s) true (see etymon) + lógos word, reason) + -ia -y.



If you don’t have a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary handy, try these links to etymology sites and on-line dictionaries:


1.Tudor Parfitt, The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500 Year Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), p. 112. Parfitt also explains, on page 165, “that the word Arca in Latin, from which the English word Ark is derived, is also the origin of the English word arcane: esoteric, mysterious,” and asks, “Is there anything that is not mysterious about the Ark?”

2. See Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 120.

What Comes Back to Haunt Us

           I was just reading a report from on how the New York Times was caught in a couple errors it made one hundred sixty-one years ago. According to the article, 

            More than 160 years after misspelling a now famous subject’s name, a reader’s tweet has led The New York Times [sic] to set the record straight.
            An article first published on Jan. 20, 1853, about Solomon Northup — the free black man whose memoir is immortalized in the Oscar-winning film, “12 Years a Slave” — incorrectly referred to him as “Northrop.” The headline also identified him as “Northrup.”
          Author Rebecca Skloot tweeted a link to the story Monday, which caught attention online. A correction was then published in Tuesday’s Times.

While none of us is immune from error, even our small corruptions can come back to haunt us — even when we are no longer around to correct our mistakes. We might draw from this tale the lesson that a competent editor and a sharp-eyed proofreader are both invaluable, but perhaps doing so would seem crass and self-serving, so we shall let that observation pass. 

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(Despite the misspellings, the original article is still worth reading. And for the other editors out there, note that the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel is encased in quotation marks rather than rendered in italics. How drastically editing practice has changed!)