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Metamorphoses d'Arachne: l'artiste en araignee dans la litterature occidentale.

Metamorphoses d'Arachne: l'artiste en araignee dans la litterature occidentale. By SYLVIE BALLESTRA-PUECH. Geneva: Droz. 2006. 460 pp. 77.60 [euro]. ISBN 9782-600-01061-0.

Sylvie Ballestra-Puech's book truly mimics its subject-matter in so far as it is an intricately woven web of knowledge. Her purpose is to outline the fortune, interpretations, and rewritings of the myth of Arachne as it appears mainly in Ovid's Metamorphoses throughout the history of Western literature. She succeeds in her task in a most convincing way, providing the reader with a wealth of erudition typical of the grand tradition of French comparative and intertextual studies. Without omitting the early appearances of the spider in classical literature, in Heraclitus, Hesiod, Pliny, and Plutarch, for instance, the author begins by demonstrating how the unfortunate weaver's fate not only exemplifies theological and political issues but is also endowed with a metatextual meaning: Arachne is a symbol for the poet challenging the gods and the authority they represent through the weaving of his text. In this early cultural context, the arachnid is still admired for its technical skill and the perfection of its instinct. However, the Judaeo-Christian tradition based upon the biblical perception of the spider is the foundation of a long-lasting negative vision in medieval literature. Arachne thus becomes a symbol of vanity and evil seduction. This is how she appears in Dante' Inferno, although according to Ballestra-Puech, the Italian poet recognizes an Ovidian persona behind the weaver.

In the Renaissance a new inversion of value takes place with a reappraisal of the myth, which becomes an ideal allegorical tool in literary and epistemological debates from then on, from the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (opposed to the bee in Swift) to the appearance of new materialistic conceptions (with Diderot), Romantic and political conceptions (with Michelet), and finally a shift from a transcendental to an immanent conception of artistic creation in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With great skill Ballestra-Puech is able to adopt both a chronological and a thematic approach in spite of the great variety of motifs--the spider as the weaver of words, as a dancer, as metaphor for the imagination, its web as ephemeral work, a network of universal meaning, a trap for the reader, and so on--stressing the ambivalent and often contradictory readings of the myth in different cultures, Anglo-Saxon (Whitman, Dickinson), German, Italian, and even different arts--her analysis of Rubens and Velazquez's paintings are extremely subtle but would probably benefit from the presence of more illustrations. Upon reaching the twentieth century the overall picture becomes somewhat more complex, but she shows the different articulations and reverberations at play around the Arachnean figure, moving from Mallarme to Valery, to Char, Breton, Bataille, Ponge, Perec, Le Clezio, and many others. Thus, in France, 'La riataphore arachneenne est aussi desormais celle de l'intertextualite' (p. 404).The feminist viewpoint is not forgotten and is given a well-balanced treatment, with analysis of Christine de Pisan, Helen Cixous, Nancy Miller, and A. S. Byatt, among others.

There are a good number of very pertinent and far-reaching studies in this summative work, which goes well beyond a simple inventory of Arachnean symbols or motifs. The author provides us with a superbly didactic and fairly exhaustive panorama of the various theories of poetic and artistic creation throughout the ages and cultures. I would certainly recommend its reading to students willing to gain some knowledge of the history of writers' self-reflexive perceptions. The reader comes out of this book convinced of Ovid's contribution to the understanding of the phenomenon of artistic creation, and equally convinced by Ballestra-Puech's celebration of Arachne's network of possibilities.


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Author:Sibona, Bruno
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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