- Bodies: Sex, Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend
Gillian Bennett begins her remarkable book with the following identification: “I am a folklorist by profession and inclination” (ix), and throughout her work she conveys her extraordinary commitment to the scholarly place and humanist import of contemporary legends. In both the introduction and the conclusion, she emphatically declares that folklore and contemporary legends are not “trivial stories.” In the six chapters that comprise Bodies, Bennett’s careful readings of contemporary legends reveal the prominence, astonishing adaptability, and staying power that legends—particularly those that feature sex and death, whether violent or through disease—have had across both time and cultures, These chapters address such varied topics as “bosom serpents,” poisoned garments, AIDS transmission, the murder of the prodigal son, organ theft, and anti-Semitic and blood libel legends to name just a few.
Beginning with a focus on legends that concern animals breaching the bodily boundaries of the human, those that get inside us, and on the many tales and rumors about clothing or food that kills the user/consumer is a smart choice, for it highlights the strength of Bennett’s scholarship, and she frequently refers back to these particular legends in subsequent chapters. Without positing a singular origin for them, she traces and reviews various manifestations in different cultures throughout history. By linking contemporary legends back to earlier ones with similar characteristics and structures, Bennett impressively demonstrates the frequency with which certain stories (re)appear, albeit with specific modifications.
The range of materials in each chapter includes rumors, recorded legends, literary retellings, and journalistic accounts. In her notable work on “Poison and Honey,” for example, Bennett connects legends about poisoned dresses in circulation in the United States in the 1930s and ‘40s with Greek myths, tales from the Mughal Empire, and the poetry of John Keats and Algernon Charles Swinburne among others. What links them, Bennett argues, is not unbroken transmission but their concern with “skin to skin contact” and the different ways that they connect sex, gifts, and death. Her examination of these and other texts nicely draws out the gendered implications such equations often involve, but she pulls back from other kinds of analysis. What does it mean, we might ask, [End Page 190] in the United States when racial or class differences explicitly become a feature of the poisoned dress legend? What additional cultural work does such telling engage?
The materials that Bennett brings together in individual chapters and the juxtaposition among them will invariably provoke new associations. While reading her work on legends of AIDS aggressors, those who use their infected bodies or needles to transmit the disease to others, I wondered how early stories of AIDS originating from monkey bites to humans relate to the bosom serpent stories insofar as both involve the invasion of the human by something animal. In a sense those stories link to recent fears about mad cow disease and bird flu. But Bennett is particularly concerned not to use contemporary legends to diagnose societal anxieties. She concludes this chapter by arguing that legends about random attacks on the healthy by those with infected needles are not precautionary in the ways that earlier stories featuring sexual transmission were. Rather, the needle legends tell us, “There is no such thing as ‘risky behavior’ because it’s life itself that’s risky” (136), which nonetheless sounds like an anxiety.
At times, the review of similar tales at other historical moments supersedes an analysis of those from the contemporary period. The killing of prodigal son legends, manifestations of which she describes from seventeenth-century texts to mid-twentieth-century ones, do not seem to have survived to the present day. Given their links to times of war and unrest, Bennett rightly challenges us to consider that such tales may indeed circulate in war-torn Iraq, the West Bank, or Bosnia, areas where the need to survive outweighs the impulse to record. Similarly, the juxtaposition of the long tradition of blood libel legends with accounts of...