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Transforming psyche.


Barbara Weir Huber

Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1999, 244 pp.

Based upon her stated need for symbols which might "act as a model of affirmation for all aspects of female life -- biological, emotional, intellectual and spiritual," Barbara Weir Huber has turned to the myth of Eros and Psyche as a source with the appropriate depth of resonance to apply to the lives of contemporary women. Not only does Huber seek to re-interpret the tale as a means of deflating masculist ideologies about women's patterns of development, but she also sees in the story of Psyche's transformation a holistic and gender-neutral "approach to theorizing knowledge" (p. 6). Although the myths of Echo and Narcissus, and Demeter and Persephone are also discussed, Huber's central focus is on Psyche, for she believes that analysis of the details of Psyche's transformation yields the pattern most relevant to women's experiences. In particular, Huber notes that the tasks which Aphrodite assigns to her initiate Psyche into "a different perception of female being" (p. 58) and most importantly, the tale ends with a pregnancy, which suggests a movement beyond her mentor into "the process of life's continuing possibility" (p. 115).

Ironically, the strengths and the weaknesses of this book are one and the same. Huber's approach is multi-disciplinary, drawing on the fields of educational theory, archetypal (Jungian) literary criticism, philosophy, cultural anthropology, psychology, and religion. She cites studies which range from feminist re-visionings of various mythologies in psychological terms to contemporary theories of education which genderize our "ways of knowing." Women's studies, of course, grew out of such multi-disciplinarity, as it requires the flexibility to locate women's experiences beyond the artificial and rigid barriers of our masculist intellectual structures. In this case, because of the complexity of her sources, Huber presents the reader with multiple interpretations and reinterpretations in every paragraph. In the end, provided that one has the patience to follow this journey, the reward is a multi-dimensional insight into the many-textured realm of female psychic development. However, whether the insights make the quest worthwhile depends upon one's patience with all the various angles of vision that are brought to bear on each detail of the myths she invokes. Far too often, the reader yearns for a clear and single perspective; Huber's own voice simply does not appear often enough.

Another problem is that although Huber's analysis is often brilliant, at other times, her conclusions are based upon an argument that is simply carried too far. For example, she develops an extended symbolic interpretation of the second task which Aphrodite set to Psyche, the quest for the golden fleece, based upon the fact that the fleece is made of wool. The fabric is connected to spinning which has, as she points out, been seen as a central symbol of women's relationship to the creation of culture. She also brings in women's central role in mysteries of life and death on the basis that the three Fates are depicted as spinners. These symbolic associations of Psyche with spinning are supported by an art historian's assertion that the "musculature" of the armless statue of Aphrodite in the Louvre suggests that she was weaving. The applicability of this argument to women's particular experiences is easily deflated by recalling that Jason, too, set out in quest of the golden fleece. Another example of this associative logic is an extended discussion of rather superficial symbolism associated with the fingers of the hand, growing out of the fact that Psyche pricks her thumb rather than another digit on Eros's arrow. Huber finds it significant that she did not prick "the index finger of spells and pointing," nor the "middle finger of phallic derision," nor the "ring finger of unions and love" (p. 87). Far too often, Huber's arguments are stretched to this extreme on the basis of evidence as weak: as that which imagines that an armless statue is spinning, or that pricking her thumb rather than her third finger symbolizes Psyche's lack of desire to castrate Eros.

The most valuable section of the book is the section called "Lifeprints" in which Huber discusses a number of women's autobiographies in the light of the myth of Psyche. She argues that the myth represents a young woman's "soul journey" in which she is led to transformation by the wisdom of Aphrodite's teaching. Through Aphrodite, Psyche learns "not a single life prescription, but rather a pattern of possibility, one that emphasizes a conscious awareness of intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth" (p. 139). It is this pattern, Huber argues, that makes the Psyche story particularly relevant to contemporary autobiography. Had Huber remained closer to Psyche's experiences, the connections she makes between writers as diverse as Gertrude Stein, Mary Daly and Zora Neale Hurston, to name but three, would have been more convincing. However, Huber has developed a "skeleton framework of the tendencies in a Psychean text" (p. 142) to which she relates the autobiographies under consideration, enumerating nine features which she argues indicate the presence of the configurations of Psyche's story. In brief, these include: (1) an indeterminate beginning and open ending; (2) an awareness of a threshold, crossed on the basis of a "call"; (3) a severing of connections and a re-connection; (4) the use of digressions and various other devices which destroy ordinary sequencing; (5) the awareness of the "gaps in life" caused by the irony and paradox of living within a masculist culture; (6) the centralizing of human relationships; (7) an awareness of the changing nature of relationships; (8) the accumulation of sensory detail in telling the story; and (9) the expression of the spiritual aspects of the journey outside of cultural context (pp. 142-144). While this template is a valuable summary of aspects of women's development, it: is too general and too inclusive for the claim that its source is the Psyche text. The nine categories are not dependent upon a particular myth at all, but are a lengthier variant of the unique patterns already recognized by many feminist critics as typical of the female bildungsroman. In spite of the problems with the generality of this conceptual framework, the exploration of the individual autobiographies is always interesting, often intriguing and thought-provoking, but always too brief, for Huber allows only a page, or less, to each of the life journeys she explores.

In conclusion, the primary value of this book lies with the author's own imaginative contributions that are to be found between the lengthy research summaries and extensive commentaries on the various aspects of Psyche's transformation. Although Huber compares other discussions of the myth unfavorably with her own, for my own research purposes, I will return to other analyses, like those of Erich Neumann and Maria von Franz, for the brevity and clarity of a single approach to the myth. Nonetheless, Huber's book is also useful as a tertiary source, like an encyclopedia, for the assessment of virtually every commentary on each minute aspect of the myth. On the whole, reading this book is too much like reading research notes; it is to be hoped that Huber will write another, one which will apply her own insights more extensively to analysis of the writings of contemporary women.
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Publication:Resources for Feminist Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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