Metamorphosis is Marina Warner's natural subject. In her work, stories and artefacts from the past are collected and transmuted by recipients who pass them on to others, with changed effects. As a maker and a consumer in overlapping spheres, her relationship to this process is distinct. Warner is at once a novelist and a literary critic, a historian and a devourer of histories, a curator and a cultural tourist. In The Leto Bundle , she transformed a story touched on by Ovid, about the wandering goddess Latona, into a modern fable about an eternal refugee. The ways in which artefacts and their stories change meanings in transmission is a theme in the novel itself.
Warner was co-curator of an exhibition at the Science Museum in London on "metamorphing". The exhibition juxtaposed contemporary art such as the "mutant insect" paintings by Cornelia Hesse-Honegger with technical material including time-lapse photography of the life cycle of organisms, documents from a 16th-century manuscript of Pierre Bouaystuau's Histoires Prodigieuses and, yes. some mummified remains.
In her new study in cultural history, Warner puts together, in four rooms, an extraordinary exhibition of texts, artefacts and iconotexts around the theme of Fantastic Metamorphoses . The silken thread that barely holds the four chapters of exotic material together is the relationship between metamorphic cultural encounter and stories of shape and soul-shifting.
Beneath the usual tales of imperial conquest and exploitation in the Americas, Warner finds moments of strange interfusion. Mutatings, hatchings, splittings and doublings generate new imagines, morphs, husks and spirits that carry and transform unorthodox understandings of humans' changing and doubling states.
In the first and best of the four chapters, "Mutating", Warner makes a stunning exhibit of three artefacts assembled for the reader as a kind of virtual triptych. The centrepiece is itself a folding triptych, Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1504). Standing in front of Bosch's work in the Prado as tourists filed by, Warner overheard tour guides from all over the world insisting their charges see a series of Dantesque moral warnings in the painting's scenes of weird acts with fruit. She writes her own installation to help us see it differently, to find deeper transformations in the imagery. In one side panel she puts the Renaissance Ovid, Ovidian stories of metempsychosis and metamorphosis as received by Judaeo-Christian imaginations from the 14th to the 17th centuries. In the other panel she puts the uncannily similar metamorphic mythography of the Taino (the people of what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) as collected by the first anthropologist in the New World, Fray Ram"n Pane.
Viewed with these side panels, the reader can now see nostalgia for a godless, asexual paradise in the central painting's innocent orgy of mutating humans, birds, berries and eggs - nostalgia, also, for the New World before the kindness of strangers was abused by the race for gold and territory.
Having drawn us in with this medieval triptych, Warner disorientes us with a modernist composition of fragments from disparate periods. Here, in the study of "Hatching", there is no central image. There is, however, an equivalent, more fleeting moment of counter-imperial, counter-missionary ecology in the shape of one of Natalie Zemon Davis's marginal 17th-century women. Maria Merian worked on the Dutch Caribbean colony of Suriname, observing and drawing the metamorphoses of caterpillars, and wishing her fellow Europeans would participate in an equivalent natural cycle with local people. It was some cricket's leap - for this reviewer - from caterpillars to Lucius's transformation into a donkey in Apuleius, and thence to Leda, the swan and the hatching twins in Francesco Colonna and W. B. Yeats. But the idea that holds the chapter together, the uplifting idea of a metamorphic narrative in which successive alterations of state generate the true self of a protagonist, meets a satisfyingly grubby end in Franz Kafka's Gregor.
With "Splitting" we move to the Gothic room, where the living dead are installed. The theme is the changing meanings of the zombie or spellbound personality from Coleridge to Jean Rhys. In Warner's scheme, a zombie is a spiritless husk left behind after soul is split from body. This new way of thinking about a person robbed of will emerges, again, from the spirit beliefs of enslaved subjects in the Americas. The final room, "Doubling", brings in electronic and photographic media of reproduction. The idea of the spirit doppelgänger develops in symbiosis with new technologies - photography, cinema - that produce monstrous simulacra of real people, simulacra previously confined to the internal screen of fantasy.
Fantastic Metamorphoses is an erudite work of cultural history that generously acknowledges debts to a vast community of scholars. But it is better read as curatorial story-telling of a kind that tenured, academic historians are not equipped to offer. Perhaps because the book originated as the 2001 Clarendon lectures, and is published by Oxford University Press, the author felt obliged to tie it together in the introduction as though it were a monograph of a "subject". But the subject morphs as Warner describes it and we enter the first chapter none the wiser. So I would begin there, if I were you.
Warren Boutcher is lecturer in Renaissance studies, Queen Mary, University of London.
Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self
Author - Marina Warner
ISBN - 0 19 818726 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 264