Friday, 1 November 2013

Animal Nature Disgust in Ovid's Pygmalion

The story of Pygmalion, as it has been related to us by Ovid in the tenth book of his Metamorphoses, is characterised by an astonishing ambivalence towards women and the idea of sexual love. Pygmalion is not just a sculptor who one day creates a statue that he then happens to fall in love with (which is how most people will remember the story), but rather somebody who deliberately sets out to create a being that is worthy of being loved by him. Ovid introduces him as a man who is disgusted by the whole female sex after seeing the daughters of Propoetus prostituting themselves in public (which is not entirely voluntary, but rather a punishment inflicted on them by the goddess Venus for having offended her). They are being described as having “lost all sense of shame” and “the power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks”

This loss of shame is clearly understood as a decisive step in a process of dehumanisation: a little more hardening, we are told, and they would be indistinguishable from flint. (Compare this to Lord Ewald’s claim in Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s The Future Eve that Alicia has no “soul” because she is too earthly.) Appalled by so much female depravity, Pygmalion decides (just as many centuries later Celia’s disillusioned lover in Swift’s “Lady’s Dressing Room”) that he no longer wants to have anything to do with women and is determined to stay a bachelor. Yet entirely happy with his wifeless (read: sexless) existence he is not, because soon enough he carves a statue that looks exactly like a woman and is so exceedingly lifelike that one has the impression that she might move any second now and that it is only modesty that keeps her from doing so. And Pygmalion falls in love with his own creation. Here is, finally, the woman that he has been waiting for, that all men (if we take Pygmalion to represent the male sex) have been waiting for: a woman who knows how to behave properly and who is pure and free of all unseemly desires and inclinations, and this purity and freedom makes her much superior to all real women. In Pygmalion’s mind, the statue is actually more human than any real woman could ever be. All real women are ultimately like the Propoetides: natural born sluts, and as such less than human (less than what humans, or at least human females, should be), more like stones, almost like living statues. The actual statue, on the other hand, is as a woman should be. The statue, in its immaculate ivory-whiteness is the true woman.

Curiously, however, Pygmalion has a very sexual relationship with this statue. He clearly desires her: “Often he runs his hand over the work, tempted as to whether it is flesh or ivory, not admitting it to be ivory. He kisses it and thinks his kisses are returned; and speaks to it, and holds it, and imagines that his fingers press into the limbs”. He dresses his new love, gives her presents, gets her jewellery, and most importantly, takes her to bed and sleeps with her. For a while that seems to work, but for obvious reasons (a statue is unlikely to make a good sex doll) it is not very satisfactory in the long run. So Pygmalion approaches the goddess Venus and begs her to bring his ivory maiden to life. She obliges, and ivory becomes human flesh. He kisses her, and she “felt warm: he pressed his lips to her again, and also touched her breast with his hand”. Gradually her body yields to his touch, loses its hardness and becomes malleable under his caressing hands. “The lover is stupefied, and joyful, but uncertain, and afraid he is wrong, reaffirms the fulfilment of his wishes, with his hand, again, and again. It was flesh!” Soon enough, the no-longer ivory maiden becomes aware of what Pygmalion is doing with her, and in the same moment that she becomes fully awake to the world, in the very moment of her birth, acknowledges him as her rightful lover: “The girl felt the kisses he gave, blushed, and raising her bashful eyes to the light, saw both her lover and the sky.” She cannot help loving him back, and since we are told that nine months later she gives birth to a son, she is obviously not reluctant to have sex with Pygmalion, nor he with her.

So why is Pygmalion not disgusted by her? What is it about her that makes her so different from all other women that he can accept her and even have sexual intercourse with her without being repelled by her? It must have something to do with the fact that she is not an ordinary woman, but a statue come alive, and that she carries the modesty, the bashfulness of the inanimate thing, over to her new existence. She doesn’t move on her own. She doesn’t follow her own will. She has no own will. She is a perfect mirror of her lover’s desires, without having any desires of her own that might threaten her purity. She lives only for her lover, who is her one and only. He is, quite literally, her world. She is a supposedly living woman, but without the flaws, a living paradox. She is perfect and pure, but also perfectly usable, obedient and ready to serve her one and only master. She does what she is told. She is the ideal woman, the Eve of the Future, a precursor of today’s or tomorrow’s sexbots, a tailor-made, always-willing, never-tiring sexual companion, a Stepford wife.

Isn’t it odd how little our desires have changed over the last two thousand years?

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