January 27, 2005

Pygmalian

After reading the 17th Century and the 20th Century translations of the Ancient Greek tale Pygmalion, I was appalled at how chauvinistic a character Pygmalion seemed. After being disgusted by all women, he decides to create in a statue his ideal woman. He then proceeds to fall in love with this statue, eventually imploring the goddess Venus to bring his statue to life. What I found appalling about this tale is the fact that Pygmalion’s idea of the perfect woman consisted completely of his idea of the perfect female physique. He created a statue without the failings of the human heart, yet how does physical beauty reflect the beauty of the heart? Her outward beauty was perfection there was no thought given to her inner beauty, her personality, nor her intelligence. I also found it interesting that most of what Pygmalion hated about women was their promiscuity, yet once he had created his statue he did not find it inappropriate to fondle her.

One element of the story that really surprised me was how willing the gods were to grant Pygmalion his wish when he so blatantly claimed that his creation was so much more superior than anything the gods could ever create: “As Nature could not with his art compare/Were she to work; but in her own defense/Must take her pattern here, and copy hence” (ln 8-10). I kept remembering the story of Athena and Arachne, and how Arachne was punished for claiming superiority to the gods. Why was Pygmalion’s boasting any different than Arachne’s, and why was he blessed when she was punished?

When I saw that there was also a feminist retelling of Pygmalion that we were to read, I got excited because I expected the author to bring the original tale's shortcomings to life. After reading the author’s interpretation, however, I was very disappointed. Instead of revamping the original tale to make the feminine presence more important, she merely criticized not only the story, but the culture in general through snide remarks. By making comments about the unintelligence of artists, and by changing the sex of the only strong female character in the original story (Venus) to suit her own needs, she weakened her argument and made her retelling seem unintelligent and uninformed.

After discussing this tale in class, I began to see the beauty in it. I looked passed the plot and saw the metaphor behind it. Pygmalion wasn’t merely a perverted sculptor; he was an artist who managed to create something Real through the feelings he attached to it. Because of his love for his creation, it became Real to him and others. This revelation made me think back to one of my favorite childhood stories, The Velveteen Rabbit. Like Pygmalion’s statue, the Rabbit is made Real through love.

Posted by JohannaDreyfuss at 05:36 PM | Comments (3)