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Metamorphosis and identity.

By Caroline Walker Bynum. New York: Zone Books, 2001; distributed by the MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. Pp. 280. $28.

Neither the imposing title nor the quantity of text devoted to stories of werewolves and other monstrous admirabiles mixturae should frighten prospective readers away from this wonder-ful collection of essays. Bynum considers various constructions of "a world characterized by both flux and permanence" and--insofar as metamorphosis is intimately linked with personal identity--confrontations with "both the promise and horror of change." Her study can inform a broad array of readers in the study of religious culture.

The Introduction unites the four essays that follow. Taking werewolf tales as her primary example, B. examines change and identity in three primary paradigms: hybridity (a wolf added to a person); over-clothing (a wolf pelt covers a person); and metamorphosis (a person becomes a wolf). Hybridity and metamorphosis both raise anxieties about "the possibility we all face that a thing may be, or become, partly or totally something else" (29). A "quite stunning shift of intellectual paradigms" about the nature of change occurred toward the end of the twelfth century: newly-popular metamorphosis stories (vampires, fairies, and werewolves) as well as controversies in eucharistic theology suggest a shift from change as "evolution" to change as "replacement."

Socioeconomic conditions serve as a context: "Agricultural, economic and urban growth ... had led to transformations of familial and social structure that made it increasingly possible (if still not easy) for people--especially privileged people--to change their social roles" (25-26). Fluidity entailed anxieties: fears of "identities" and "boundary crossing" led to a need for limits, for knowing what is "outside, other, different."

"Wonder" (chap. 1) examines one response to the "other." By imitatio, Bernard of Clairvaux meant "appropriation," "taking into oneself," and "consuming." Its opposite was admiratio, for "We wonder at what we cannot in any sense incorporate, consume, or encompass in our mental categories; we wonder at mystery, at paradox, at admirabiles mixturae"--i.e., hybrids (52-53). Both fascinating and terrifying, this response included "dread"--stupor, timor, horror--in the face of what resisted appropriation (57). Finally, "wonder" responded to a singular's significance whereas too much generalization (inductio exemplorum) suppressed amazement (73). B. suggests a task for teachers of a calculating people in a consumer society: "We must rear a new generation of students who will gaze in wonder at texts and artifacts, quick to puzzle over a translation, slow to project or to appropriate, quick to assume there is a significance, slow to generalize about it" (74).

Chapters 2 and 3 amplify B.'s earlier work on the Resurrection of the Body (1995). Insisting that exactly the same bodily "particles that lay in the grave" would be raised from the dead, writers ca. 1200 held a "deep resistance to severing of body and soul, to metempsychosis" (98). In the present study, entertainment literature mirrors high culture's anxieties: in Gerald of Wales's paradigmatic tale (ca. 1182) profound change is illusory: the werewolf's skin overclothes both a perduring human body and the soul it encloses (108-9). Likewise, Aquinas discounted angelic assumptions of human bodies. This severance of "animals and angels from the human body suggests the importance of understanding person as psychosomatic unity" (110).

Returning to Bernard, chapter 3 delineates the fragile unitas of a person which is "ever in danger of fragmenting into parts, particles, varietas" (159). The post-colonialist term "hybridity" seems "an appropriate term for Bernard's rhetorical and ontological stance": he speaks "less of radical transformation than of dichotomy, contradiction, opposition" (161). Hybridized admirabiles mixturae invite a wonder-response.

Comparing werewolf stories from the first, twelfth, and twentieth centuries, chapter 4 explores our own epoch's concerns about "personal identity." When "outer behavior and inner intentionality seem fundamentally out of synchrony"--as in the case of depression, schizophrenia, Tourette's syndrome, and Alzheimer's--where does identity lie? (164) The same question applies to "identity position" (ethnic and political group membership) as well as to physical alteration (sex-change operations; complete cosmetic surgery). Werewolf stories suggest that dichotomies are not helpful paradigms: nature v. nurture, biology v. social construction, mind v. body (187). Rather, a hybrid imagination saves us from choosing between false alternatives: "We need ... metaphors and stories that will help us imagine a world in which we really change yet really remain the same" (188).

B.'s work amplifies that of John Boswell, Gavin Langmuir, and R. I. Moore: a new social fluidity ca. 1200 seems to be related to synchronous developments--werewolves, Waldensians, witches, Jews, lepers, sodomites, and the Eucharist all served as sites of contestation over change. I wonder how B. might causally relate these.

Both sacramental and moral theologians will benefit from this volume. Eucharistic connections are self-evident. Moreover, reading B. alongside Stephen Toulmin's Cosmopolis (1990) reminds the ethicist of singularity's value. One senses that "modernity" lost something of tremendous value in privileging the general law over the singular case--"a deep and burning sense that a particular event involves us in more than its specific details" (192).

Reading B. renews one's faith in the crucial value of stories. We stand once again in wonder at their capacity to shape--or shipwreck--our very selves.

Boston College

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Author:Schloesser, Stephen
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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