(11/20/00 1:53:36 am)
|Re: The Beast Inside|
Pliny recounts the following in his Natural History (if I'm remembering correctly):
Among the Antaei of Arcadia, a man is chosen by lottery each year and taken to the shores of a sacred lake where he removes his clothes, hangs them on an oak tree, and swims to the forest on the lake's other side. He then transforms and "runs with the wolves" for the next nine years -- but if he can keep a shred of his human consciousness and refrain from eating human flesh during that time, at the end of nine years he can cross the lake, regain his man-shape, put on his clothes, and go home.
I think the tale of a man's return would make a wonderful story....
There are also some great werewolf tales in the Lais of Marie de France, based on Breton legends. In one of them, an unfaithful wife becomes a werewolf under her lover's touch...which brings us back to tales of infidelity....
(11/21/00 4:19:50 pm)
I don't know if this will post- I'm having difficulties today- a cable between Australia and Singapore was accidentally cut, apparently...
I'm not sure how relevant (or intact!) this connection is, but I thought I'd throw in in anyway. Reading everyone's thoughts about the beast as a vehicle for what is carnal and socially disruptive, I thought of African-American animal tricksters who, according to most standard interpretations now, subvert through play and humour- often through mimicry. Ostensibly, they copy and comply, but there's always something slightly askew, slightly amiss. I'm wondering if a similar kind of "imperfect" mimicry might be operating in the transformation narratives we're discussing- does the beastial become a means of satire, of enlarging certain aspects of human society which aren't quite visible until you juxtapose them with the fantastical or until you leave them out of the picture altogether?
Also, with regards to what Greg writes, I thought it might be interesting to consider Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, especially in terms of the contrast between the literary text and the form in which most contemporary audiences know the tale. Now the man's name (Frankenstein) has become the beast's name- so has the man become the beast or the beast become the man or a combination of the two?
I was reading something about the story Terri mentions a couple of days ago, but I can't remember where now! I will search.
(11/22/00 9:47:49 am)
Your comments about the African tricksters' penchant for mimicry has me scribbling madly an idea combining this with the notion of the doppelganger. Crazy idea, but may bear fruit. Thanks.
Don't know that I think there is any transformative element in the confusion over _Frankenstein_. Calling the monster by that name is, to me, a verbal shorthand that has over time given way to ignorance of the story...although transformation is of course a running theme within the novel itself.
(11/23/00 2:23:32 pm)
|That is to say....|
What I meant by the Frankenstein comment:
I think it's interesting to consider a text in terms of the way it prefigures and comments upon its own reception and transmission (You only have to look at something like Tristram Shandy to see that this isn't a practice peculiar to the twentieth century). I think there is a kind of shape-shifting which goes on when images like Frankenstein's monster are subjected to the processes of cultural dissemination. Also, if you consider the interplay between the mimicry of the double/trickster/clown/fool and the rhetorical trope of mimesis, the trickster becomes the perfect figure for the self-reflexive text.
Doppelgangers and doubles- A double only exists if it is not exactly like the original. Once the double becomes a perfect duplicate of the original, the original ceases to exist and you end up with a simulacrum. So stories about doubles turn upon that little sceric of difference which prevents the double from completely oblitterating the self. Is this somewhere along the lines of what you were thinking?
(11/24/00 11:47:02 pm)
I don't want to yank this thread of conversation away from the interesting discussion Greg and Karen are having (so please, you two, continue!), but I don't know when I'll make it on-line again (I'm on my computer now in the middle of the night, the only quiet time I've had for weeks) so I want to throw out some additional "transformation" thoughts while I have them. I've been thinking of the transformations in selchie stories (and ballads, like the Grey Selchie of Sule Skerry) - seal brides, seal lovers male and female - and related tales of otter brides, cat brides, swan maidens, fox wives, etc. The emotional range of such stories seems fascinatingly wide to me. In some cases these are clearly cautionary tales, ending in death or abandonment, and the union of beast and mortal is a transgressive one. In other cases, the animal bride or bridegroom is the key to a transformed life, and the mortal is punished, in a sense, for not honoring the Otherness of the animal bride/bridegroom, for trying to pull the magical mate too fully into the human world by destroying their animal skin, or asking too many questions, or what have you.
Boria Sax compares animal bride tales to Cinderella in his book "The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal Bride in Folklore and Literature":
"[Cinderella] is, essentially, an animal bride tale viewed from a feminine perspective. The change of Cinderella from a drudge to a fine lady at the ball is so sudden and magical that it is truly a sort of metamorphosis. Like other animal brides, Cinderella resumes her original form and departs. But the skin left by her predecessors has become a glass slipper, and this enables the prince to regain his bride. Some scholars have suggested that the slipper was originally made of fur...If this is so, the 'fur' may have once been a pelt."
Okay, that's a stretch on Sax's part, but an interesting one, no?
(11/25/00 6:48:57 am)
I wonder if there isn't a difference in the use of disguise (especially in the trickster narratives) rather than the transformation that we've seen in hero narratives where dialectical change in the rite of passage gives the transformation an additional narrative level. The character essence of the trickster never changes--they are always what they are--ambiguous perhaps in that their activities can be aetioloigcal, or self destructive, or dupe-destructive--but the tricker's nature remains more or less the same. (though I will immediately allow as there are tricksters who become important culture heroes at the end of their cycle of stories).
So for the trickster, disguise and deception rather than transformation is the vehicle for the narrative tension--allowing in the mask several characters and plots to be collapsed into one scene--the audience aware of the multiple levels (while the dupe is only aware of the illusion). And as you suggest, the mask is there to heighten the audience awareness of one or two outrageous characteristics writ large...usually some venial appetite whether for food or sex. (Uncle Tompa from the Tibetians straps on a sheep's liver between his legs when he dresses up in drag and seduces a rich man into marrying him after a night of wild sex...Pantalone in the Commedia dell'arte has a huge phallic nose that is always sniffing around the skirts of much younger women...). And yes, yes I agree with you completely that the two identites are not quite the same ever--that's the pleasure in the tension, seeing the edge of the true face beneath the mask (something the dupe can't). I really think that disguise, deception and illusion are essential to the trickster narrative, to be able to hold a complicated trick/illusion altogether in one place for an audience...but that this is not really transformation because there is no real character movement or development or change in the trickster's character from one end of the narrative to the other. Sometime the trickster is successful, sometime he isn't (and may wind up temporarily dead...at least until the next tale is initiated), but as a force he is a constant presence. (and to contradict myself I am aware of those tricksters who attain the status of culture hero, like Radin's collection of the Winnebago trickster cycle, or Mantis from S.A.--but they usually do so after a long glorious life of wild and crazy tricksters....only in a few narratives is their larger meaning revealed.)
The disguise works with the trickster's illusion--but the disguise in say, Tattercoats, is a moment that allows for the transformation of the unititated girl beneath the skin to become the adult woman once the skin is no longer needed.
(11/26/00 3:12:12 pm)
|trickster on the carnival stage|
I think you're absolutely right and that there are significant limitations to what I was proposing above. Really, it amounts to a question of definition- who is a trickster and who isn't and just what constitutes a transformation. Since the designation of "trickster" is a theoretical category, it is largely a matter of how wide you want to cast the net (so there's a lot of potential for question begging). I cast my net very widely, but I was thinking of the trickster primarily as culture hero, albeit an accidental culture hero. In most trickster narratives, as you say, the more lasting transformation is effected upon the trickster's surroundings rather than the trickster himself/herself/itself. If tricksters bring the secret of fire to humanity, the windfall is rarely intentionally sought, usually entirely incidental to the course of more earthly and selfish designs.
Nevertheless, I'm wondering if a physical transformation must necessarily entail a psychological transformation and vice versa. Yes, I do think there tends to be an audience expectation/assumption that that will be the case, but does that expectation have to be confirmed every time? Also, is a transformation, by definition, permanent? I'm inclined to consider disguise a kind/species of transformation. Certainly, in terms of the way they operate within the narratives, transformation and disguise or deception are not, I think, entirely different types of hinges. I don't mean to elide the figures of the double, the trickster, the clown and the fool quite as much as I may have above, but I do associate all of them with the carnival- that liminial, nebulous interval whose transformations may not endure. The binaries can swing either way, backwards or forwards- that tension is a large part of the excitement. So the law/status quo may be reinforced by the process of transgression and transformation - does that render the transgression/transformation less "real"?
Sometimes the "inner" transformation may be greater for the viewer rather than the shape-shifter. With regards to Tattercoats, need the story always chart the transformation of the uninitated girl into the adult woman? Can't it also chart the transformation of her partner, the shift(s) in his perception of his lover? Or both at the same time? Or neither? It all comes down to how you configure the elemnts of character and plot, I think.
I like Sax's stretch very much. I think it's reasonably credible, especially if you consider "Alleuriah"/ "All Fur" a variant of the Cinderella narrative.
(11/27/00 3:08:38 am)
>>Nevertheless, I'm wondering if a physical transformation must necessarily entail a
>>psychological transformation and vice versa. Yes, I do think there tends to be an
>> audience expectation/assumption that that will be the case, but does that
>>expectation have to be confirmed every time? Also, is a transformation, by
These are exactly the questions Susan Mitchell addresses in her poem "From the Journals of the Frog Prince." The frog has turned into a prince, but he's bored, restless, dreaming of mud, silt, riverbottoms. At night he can't sleep, "listening for the dribble of mud." How many times, he asks himself, can he live over that moment of discovery, the excitement of passing the golden ball to the princess? He lies by her side, feels her breasts "soft and dry as flour," and longs for wet leaves and water.
A few samples lines for those who haven't read the poem (it's a long one, and I don't want to post it in full without permission):
Remember how she hurled you against the wall,
your body cracking open,
skin shrivelling to the bone,
the green pod of your heart splitting in two,
and her face imprinted with every moment of your transformation?
...."What are you thinking of?" she whispers.
How can I tell her
I am thinking of the green skin
shoved like wet pants behind the Directoire desk?
Or tell her I am mortgaged to the hilt
of my sword, to the leek-green tip of my soul?
...How can I tell her
I am thinking that transformations are not forever?
(The full text of the poem can be found in The New Yorker, May 15, 1978; The Water Inside the Water, Wesleyan U. Press; and Disenchantments: An Anthology of Modern Fairy Tale Poetry, Wolfgang Mieder, ed., University Press of New England.)
Mitchell goes beyond the happily-ever-after ending of the Frog Prince fairy tale to draw upon imagery and themes from older animal bride/bridegroom folk tales, which are usually, as Jenna points out, cautionary tales. If we look at Cinderella as an animal bride story, it allows us to envision a rather different ending to that story as well, doesn't it?
Edited by: Terri at: 11/27/00
(12/5/00 11:55:13 pm)
I just came across the following interesting passage in Carole G. Silver's "Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Conciousness," which I thought I'd throw out to y'all:
"As Barbara Levy has noticed in her recent book, In Search of the Swan Maiden, animal bride and animal groom tales often take different turns in folklore. While the male monster is revealed as a prince, the female beauty is often exposed as a monster. Even the delicately beautiful swan maiden who does not metamorphose can be seen as the embodiment of the animal side of human nature. Not purely human, not purely animal, she can be perceived as monstrous and frightening because she is able to call up forces civilized women have repressed and can no longer call upon. Her tie to nature gives her power, and it is necessary to confine and domesticate her to female space to subdue her force." (p. 100)
This reminds me of some of Carolyn's comments about Deer Women tales (Heidi, have we lost Carolyn?), as well as comments posted above about the differences in male and female transformation.
(12/6/00 5:57:02 am)
|Freaks and beauties|
This is a little bit of a left turn from here, but a few years back (this was for that "werewolf" show again) I interviewed a woman who was writing a book about freaks and freak shows--I was investigating Julia Pastrana, who was exhibited in the 19th century as a beast woman (and *there* is an awful, tragic story about what makes a monster). I can't recall the author's name without going through old notes, but I believe her book was published a couple of years back.
The point to all this lead-in was that she was making a point by point comparison between freak shows of previous centuries and 20th century beauty pageants. They are, in many aspects, indistinguishable from one another, leading to the obvious conclusion that beauty in our screwy society is treated as a kind of mirror-image to freakishness--both are put on display in similar fashion for the entertainment of the masses. "Not purely human, not purely animal", as Barbara Levy noted; yet even delineated in the texts into sort of "before and after" states of being, we consciously place beauty and monstrousness on adjoining pedestals for exhibition.
(12/6/00 7:04:08 am)
Are you thinking of the book "Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self" by Leslie Fiedler?
(12/6/00 11:08:14 am)
|Freaks and Beauties|
Carolyn knows where we are now, but I think she has been overwhelmed by her work and gotten out of the habit of visiting. Hopefully she will come back sometime soon.
I have always considered beauty to be a form of freakishness. I need to read that book since I haven't yet. And now living in Southern Cal where I hear radio commercials for "breast implants guaranteed not to leak," the thought is becoming even more firmly ingrained. My husband has remarked that his first thought when meeting many people is "What is real and what ain't?" (He works in the entertainment industry.) It certainly is a freak show.
(12/6/00 12:12:28 pm)
|Beauty and the Freaks|
"Freak" is a classificatory term meaning abnormal, aberrent or unnatural relative to the larger society - beauty as it has been constructed in American (and, more generally, Western) culture *is* freakish. The physical toll of extreme thinness, the energy expenditure and pain required to remove all hair except that on top of the head, the various things we do to our bodies to maintain youthful appearance . . . these make beauty freakish.
The tattooed man or lady used to be a staple of freak shows - body decoration (piercing/tattoos) is a beauty/status symbol in many cultures. What's beauty to one is freak to another.
It's all cultural, dammit
(12/6/00 1:04:00 pm)
|Transformation et al|
I'm here, I'm here...just reading on this wonderful thread and hope to catch up soon! Thanks Heidi for the directions!
(12/6/00 1:38:31 pm)
Ok, I have missed all of you and am amazed at how this discussion has shaped up! This is some heavy deconstruction of the popular tales, from all aroudn the world. I am especially interested in the animal brides aspect that Terri mentioned in the Barbara Levy book. This is what we touched on in the Through the Eye of the Deer book, that through the traditional tales American Indian women have the powersource connection to the land and the spirit world by the relationship with the animal spirits. That we can transform between the worlds because the stories teach us how to go between (the borderlands that Gloria Anzaldua talks about in La Frontera, and boundaries that Gates talks about in The Signifying Monkey) and the stories also give us an out on how to return. So in a sense, we go from the secular world (read human) to the sacred world (read animal) and retain an element of sacred knowledge and power. The stories teach us how to do this, in almost every "MR" story by Native women (Paula Gunn ALlen, Leslie Silko, Louise Erdrich---especially in Tracks and the Antelope Wife) there is a nod to the women's knowledge, ex. goiong out into the landscape and and receiving knowledge from the natural world and bringing itr back to society for the good of the community or of the tribe.
I've been working on a story element for sometime that coincides with this narrative. There is a traidtional Choctaw story about a boy who turned into a snake after eating "mystery" eggs (the listener of course knows that these are snake eggs and the boy is doomed but the story is fascinating anyway). In my version, there is a girl involved who falls in love with the boy as a human and marries him as a snake, yet she remains human. So this discussion has certainly been timely in the work I've been doing. Kinda a twist on the B&B narratives, which I am obsessed with anyway.
Good to see this great discussion! Greg, either Joy Harjo or Gayle Tremblay or Jancie Gould wrote a poem about Julia Pastorana (Did I spell that right) that broke my heart. I coudl find it if you're interested...
(12/7/00 5:50:44 am)
Yes, I'm almost certain that's the book and author. She was really fascinating to talk with.
Carolyn, I would love to see the poems on Julia Pastrana (the spelling varied slightly depending on who was the source, but I think this is the correct one). I can understand how they would break your heart. I wanted to travel back in time and strangle her husband with my bare hands. It is a story I mean to treat fictionally one of these days when I come up from air on the current novel. It begs treatment. One bad movie has been made of her story (I endured the thing as research), in which she miraculously loses her hirsuteness at the end and is of course incredibly beautiful beneath it and stays with her husband, happily ever after...just awful in light of the truth.
(12/8/00 1:33:08 am)
Carolyn, I'm so glad to see you here again! I'm on the run today, chased by a deadline, but I'll be back with more thoughts on this topic early next week. I'd love to see the poem you mentioned too.
(12/8/00 11:51:30 am)
|Re: Julia P....|
Well, now of course I cannot find the poem, but I'm still searching for it. Maybe it was Louise Erdrich...? Still searching...