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On the Margins of Otherness: Metamorphosis and Identity in Homer, Ovid, Sidney, and Milton

From: New Literary History
Volume 27, Number 2, Spring 1996
pp. 167-184 | 10.1353/nlh.1996.0025

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On the Margins of Otherness:
Metamorphosis and Identity in Homer, Ovid, Sidney, and Milton*

In his broad-ranging book The Gods Made Flesh, Leonard Barkan celebrates metamorphosis as the product of an encounter with the unfamiliar or uncanny. 1 Europa, for example, raped by a “sea-traveling shape-changer who speaks to her in an unfamiliar language and then transports her away from home forever,” bodies forth the unfamiliar by representing the terror of passing from the known (Phoenicia) to the unknown (Crete) (GM 13–14). Barkan sees metamorphosis as “a figure for all the fears and necessities of exogamy, and so stories of metamorphosis are stories of pursuit, of travel, of unfamiliar and alien loves” (GM 14). Ovid’s Metamorphoses links travel and exogamy to other forms of liminality, such as birth (of human beings, of new species, and of new societies), and it traces the agency of transformation to the presence of hidden divinity: “in the image of magical transformation there is always the mystery of the divine embedded in the real, the natural, the quotidian” (GM 18). For Ovid, the divine mystery lies at the heart of wondrous change.

Barkan’s observations point to, without analyzing in detail, the relation between tropes of metamorphosis and representations of difference, difference not in Derrida’s sense of “difference as distinction, inequality, or discernibility,” or as expressing “the interposition of delay,” but in the sense that subjects in a society might be said to be in different conditions or states and to perceive other persons and natural beings as also existing in different states. Examples of such states include legal status, rank or degree, and stage of life. 2 The differences between these states are the product of social processes and instituting rites that discriminate between persons. They do so by legitimating arbitrary social boundaries between people, as in the case of the rite of circumcision [End Page 167] which discriminates the circumcised child from the uncircumcised child and men from women. 3

Tropes of metamorphosis represent the transformations through which persons within and among societies traverse such boundaries, changing their natures, their social roles, and their identities. Although tropes of metamorphosis can be understood to describe, interpret, or explain these changes, I am less concerned with these functions than with the way that epics and romances use these tropes to come to terms with—sometimes in order to facilitate and at other times to resist—transformations of identity as a product and agent of social change.

Social transformations and the natural images that express them metaphorically cannot be understood apart from some conception of social and natural organization. The metamorphoses expressed in such images as Daphne’s transformation into a tree, Lycaon’s transformation into a wolf, or Tiresias’s transformation into a woman, depend upon distinctions between the human and the natural (or Man and not-Man, culture and nature), between “we” and “them,” men and women, stranger and friend, one class and another. 4 Metamorphic tropes blur these categories, changing the god into a bull, the man into a beast, or the father into a lover. So in Ovid’s stories associated with Bacchus, “not only do the senses blend into each other, but so do single individuals, moral categories, the two sexes, social classes, and parts of the world” (GM 39). If such transformations are a change “of one form, appearance, structure, and type of character to another,” then they depend upon some conception of form or structure, a conception that depends in turn upon categories related according to difference and otherness. 5

At the same time, notions of difference are not themselves a constant; rather they are a function of how societies (and texts) distinguish the human or cultural from the natural (Man/not-Man) and how they differentiate their own societies from those of others (We/They). These two oppositions are often correlated so that “We” equals “Man,” and “They” equals “Not Man.” 6 Such discriminations between self and other operate in almost all kinship institutions, including endogamy, exogamy, the incest taboo, and the laws concerning the stranger (15). Yet the distinctions are not absolute; they are relational and susceptible of...