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From the News column in the May 1999 Perspectives

"Without Change, There's No Story": Bynum Considers Complexities of Identity

Pillarisetti Sudhir, May 1999

The 1999 Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, was delivered on March 22 in Washington, D.C., by Caroline Walker Bynum, distinguished historian of the medieval world and a former president of the AHA. Weaving a richly textured and complex tapestry of erudite narrative and provocative ideas inflected with a humanist sensibility and humor, Professor Bynum told the large crowd gathered in the concert hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts tales medieval and modern, of werewolves and shapeshifters, to unravel the intricacies of identity.

Bynum's lecture, entitled "Shape and Story: Metamorphosis in the Western Tradition," dealt with the complexities of identity. Current discussions of identity seem to offer no solutions, Bynum said, because they too often rest on simplistic binary oppositions—self and other, mind and body, memory and brain, and so on. What is needed, she said, is a more subtle and labile understanding of what identity means. To underline this malleable, protean, and complex nature of identity, and also perhaps to suggest that humanity had always tried to grapple with the nuanced shades of identity, Bynum narrated stories of metamorphoses that reveal, in the transmutations of the bodies of the protagonists, the essential truth that without change there is no story, body, and, therefore, identity.

The stories she related, from Ovid, Marie de France, Dante, and Angela Carter, reflected the multiple facets of identity as encapsulated in the myths of transmuted selves. In Ovid's story (from his Metamorphoses) the evil king, Lycaon, is "transformed" into a werewolf yet retained the essential beastliness that he already possessed. In Marie de France's story, the metamorphosed knight still carried in his lupine body the mind of a man. In the classic tales retold by Angela Carter, Little Red Riding Hood expresses a feminist power even as she accepts the tender embraces of the wolf, and Beauty is transfigured by the Beast's licking her human form away to reveal the erotic "beast" beneath the skin.

These stories from the past are worth studying, Bynum asserted, because they illuminate each other, and also because behind their fantastic narratives lay the attempt to grasp the multiple meanings of identity that were embedded in the body (and thus in the story) as it unfolded in space and in time, "changing," and yet not changing. As Bynum pointed out, the knight in Marie de France's story is and was the wolf just as Daphne in the myth is and was the Laurel tree, or Lycaon is and was the wolf in Ovid's story. Such a nuanced understanding of identity is what we need, Bynum said, because the dichotomies of mind and body, biology and society, do not help us to deal adequately and compassionately with our selves.

Earlier, introducing Bynum, Martha Howell, chair of the history department at Columbia University and a member of the National Humanities Council, said that Bynum was a distinguished historian who exploded the long-held notions of duality of body and soul and argued that contemporary notions of the self are derived from medieval notions of the body.

William Ferris, chair of the NEH, while welcoming the audience, thanked the Sara Lee Corporation for supporting the Jefferson Lecture series through 2003. The Jefferson Lecture, established in 1972, is the government's highest honor for humanities scholars and is awarded to recognize intellectual and civic accomplishment as exemplified by Thomas Jefferson. Bynum, the 28th recipient of the award, is University Professor at Columbia University. Her most recent book, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336, won Phi Beta Kappa's Emerson Prize and the American Philosophical Society's Jacques Barzun Prize. Bynum was the president of the AHA in 1996.

—PS