This is a reading task centred on Marina Warner’s 2001 book, Fantastic Metamorphosis, other worlds: ways of telling the self.
I don’t really understand the title – what does ‘telling the self’ mean? – but the book uses Bosch’s Garden of Delights as its focus for discussion of fantasy, self, and the kinds of metamorphoses found in fairy tales. Perhaps the telling is related to psychological self-talk.
I struggled with this, having never read Ovid or Plato, or in fact, any of the other texts to which Warner refers. There are tracts of Latin which I doubt my 1960s school exposure to the language would be up to translating.
One of the early statements Warner makes is that this is based on a series of lectures which leant on slides and imagery, none of which she says she was able to bring to the book. Presumably this explains the dense but still rather flowery prose. Warner is a novelist and short story writer yet somehow she seems to have been unable to make this readable for people who are not experts. Instead, as one review puts it, ‘some readers may find her canvas too busy for sustained contemplation of her vision of metamorphosis’. David Larmour, Texas Tech university. 2004.
A cop out maybe, but because I found myself unable to stay focused on this due to my lack of interest in the topic, the contextual references of which I had no experience, and Warner’s writing which I found gave me no hint of a lure that might have brought me in, I searched for reviews. At least then I would have some idea what this book might be about, and a review written for people like me might even draw me back to it.
Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ is mentioned by Larmour but with no page reference, and as the copy of the book I have is not searchable, I would need to read it more closely. Still, this is a hook, and a relatable one.
An article by Stevie Davis in the Independent (2002) starts by taking the mick, describing Warner as a ‘beautiful sylph’ who ‘wore her vast learning lightly, retrieving uncanny tales that mutated, pupated, hatched and doubled with astounding energy. Some held that Marina inhabited a “a zone of dreams” and wondered when a prince would come to awaken her to the common daylight.‘ Davis goes on then to dissect the book in a way that provides an admirably concise summary of each chapter https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/fantastic-metamorphoses-other-worlds-by-marina-warner-murderers-i-have-known-by-marina-warner-126720.html
The publisher’s blurb actually looks quite inviting; mentioning shape-shifting, witchcraft, magic, and the uncanny, but then describes how Warner hangs all of it on Ovid’s poem with, it seems, Bosch’s work as an illustrative prop. https://www.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/stock/fantastic-metamorphoses-other-worlds-ways-of-telling-the-self-marina-warner
So ultimately there was not much mileage for me in this book but it did set me off looking for other sources of shifting realities. Anne McCaffrey’s dragon rider books popped up first – in this series, dragons (and fire lizards) are able to go ‘between’, which is a term that describes disappearance from one reality and immediate reappearance in another. This is a kind of magical fantastical science fiction realism with a strong but relatable female lead character. This is from wikipedia: “The Pernese use intelligent firebreathing dragons to fight Thread. A human rider has a telepathic bond with their dragon, formed by Impression at the dragon’s hatching. The bonding instantly creates a very close, lifelong relationship – the dragon almost invariably commits suicide at the rider’s death and a rider whose dragon died bears a deep emotional wound which can never be fully healed. Later books deal with the initial colonization of Pern and the genetic modification of small native animals into creatures capable of carrying humans in flight.”. I’ve read all of these books and have a strong suspicion that the ‘between’ concept is based on cats’ ability to be suddenly and very specifically absent.
Then there’s Inception; a complex, multi-layered epic about the criminal penetration of target victims’ subconscious to steal information. The CGI used to create the illusion of shifting planes of reality is astonishing and disorienting in itself. I’ve watched this at least twice and I’m still processing both the plot and the award-winning cinematography that brought the story to life.
Another go-to is wormholes which are not a million parsecs away from McCaffrey’s ‘between’. My first exposure to these came via Star Trek’s warp drive and then the illustration of wormholes per se as the fact began to develop capacity to theorise and then illustrate them. Star Gate was probably one of my favourite illustrations of the use of a network of artificial wormholes but I had completely forgotten about Farscape. Dr Who, of course, has been going ‘between’ since the early 1960s with its avuncular first Doctor, William Hartnell. This wikipedia page lists all of these plus the Marvel universe. I never personally bought into superheroes with the exception of the utterly stunning Black Panther.
Real wormholes are the terrifying reality because, as far as anyone knows, there is no practical ‘other side’, just a gradual stringing out until you disintegrate, possibly over millions of years, should you cross the event horizon. Theory suggests they bend space (and time) thereby connecting two points in space via a route that is shorter than what might be called ordinary time and space. In other words, instead of taking millennia to get from A to B, a handy wormhole might get you there in seconds, or at least get some of your atoms there. Which explains why Scotty was so reluctant to use the Enterprise’s transporters.
Coming back to Bosch (1450-1516), I recall someone – Tim Marlow, maybe, or Will Gompertz – observing that Bosch led a ‘completely normal life’ outside his bizarre paintings. That seems a stretch, and there are indications of trauma in his early life when much of his town was destroyed by fire which may have fed later imagery via his membership of the religious group, Brotherhood of Our Lady. He can’t have escaped notions of hell fire and damnation and had memories to go with that. The rest is something of a mystery except that he married into money and died at the age of 66.