‘Pygmalion and Galatea’: The Metamorphosis of a Metamorphosis Myth

‘Pygmalion and Galatea’: The Metamorphosis of a Metamorphosis Myth

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??Myth is already enlightenment; and enlightenment reverts to mythology??

(Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectics of Enlightenment)

  1. Aphrodite of Knidos

The famous sculptor Praxiteles was said to have created a statue of a nude woman so beautiful that it inspired desire in every man who saw it. His statue, the Aphrodite of Knidos, a representation of the Greek goddess of love and fertility, may have inspired Ovid to write his story of Pygmalion.

Athenaeus writes that the Knidian Aphrodite was modeled on the artist?s lover, Phryne, a famous courtesan who was seen by the artist rising naked from the sea in the manner of Aphrodite herself. At that moment, Praxiteles fell in love with her and soon after, represented her as Aphrodite in his sculpture.

In Ovid?s Hellenistic sources, Pygmalion was a king and not a sculptor who orders a statue which then comes to life as herself, not a sculptor who brings to life a maiden through Aphrodite?s intervention. But this pre-Ovidian myth has already provided the links between artist, the model and the work of art created in whatever medium. But there is also a more ominous side to these associations in the myth, when Pliny the Elder reports:

?a certain man was once overcome with love for the statue and . . . , after he had hidden himself [in the shrine] during the nighttime, he embraced it and . . . it thus bears a stain, an indication of his lust?

Not only has this man bodily transgressed a sacred shrine to Aphrodite but he has used the statue for sexual gratification in what can only be described as a symbolic rape. This man has reversed the process by turning the representation of the Greek goddess Aphrodite back into the willing courtesan who had inspired the statue in the first place to fulfil his masculine lust.

The mythology surrounding the Knidian Aphrodite slides the sculpture?s identity amidst skillfully sculpted statue or skilfully created android, awesome and powerful goddess, sexualized courtesan or violated woman. Here are the first indications of a strange correlation between the work of art or the creation of a synthetic humanoid and the artists model, that will become a trope, incredibly enough, in the works of modern science fiction and their film adaptations such as Ex Machina (2015). Not only that but these same issues metaphorically resonate with the 21st century of genomic medicine which I will explore later. But first, Ovid.

2. Ovid, ?Pygmalion?, Metamorphoses (8 AD)

These very tensions I have already mentioned in the reports regarding the reception of the Aphrodite of Knidos are revealed in Ovid?s version of Pygmalion which is part of his magnum opus, Metamorphoses. This Book of Transformations is one of the most influential works in Western culture.

Ovid?s version is one of the tales by Orpheus who is mourning the loss of Eurydice and is renouncing the love of women. The Propoetides were prostituting themselves outside the temple to Venus (Aphrodite) and were turned into stone. Ovid explains that Pygmalion had retreated from these prostitutes and other sexually free women of Amathus, informing us that:

?Pygmalion knew these women all too well; /. . . / He?d better sleep alone.?

Pygmalion fashions a figure that is his, exclusively and completely. He decides to create for himself the ideal woman, a personal possession, in the form of an ivory statue. Pygmalion?s statue is snow-white, in direct contrast to the Propoetides who are neither innocent nor pure. When it is complete, Pygmalion is overcome by the beauty and perfection of the object he has created:

??. . . he took to art, Ingenious as he was, and made a creature More beautiful than any girl on earth A miracle of ivory in a statue, So charming that it made him fall in love Her face was life itself.??(317?22)

Pygmalion, as artist, usurps the power of both (sexual) woman and God in that he creates ?life itself,? an artistic child. The statue is Pygmalion’s child for he is its sole creator. This is a far more serious act of transgression than just leaving a stain upon an inanimate statue. This is an act full of autoeroticism and narcissism. But Pygmalion?s incestuous passion will be punished by the Gods as his lineage is curtailed and Venus will fall in love with a mortal, Adonis. This is the first part of the story where Pygmalion achieves a perfect deception.

Next Pygmalion brings clothes to cover the statue as he is concerned that his own lust may mark or stain this perfect creature of his imagination and transform her into the very thing, a whore like the Propoetides, that he was manfully trying to reject. Yet he still touches and kisses the statue and the climax of the story is when Orpheus tells us that he placed the statue in his bed. An intervention is now obviously necessary before this ends in another stained statue. Pygmalion makes sacrifice to Venus, asking for a maiden like his statue. It is interesting that he does not ask for the statue to be turned into a real-life woman. That would be ridiculous of course.

Venus takes pity on him:

??Then he ran home to see, to touch again The ivory image that his hands contrived, And kissed the sleeping lips, now soft, now warm, Then touched her breasts and cupped them in his hands; They were as though ivory had turned to wax And wax to life, yielding, yet quick with breath . . . He kissed the girl until she woke beneath him Her eyes were shy; she flushed; yet her first look Saw at one glance his face and Heaven above it.?? (336?80)

Remember the Propoetides could not blush they were so shameless nd were turned into stone but here the inverse occurs as the statue blushes and becomes alive. And as she wakes she looks up and sees Pygmalion, and Heaven above him. Her twin creators. But she is as yet unaware that she is an idealised mirror of the artists desires, a literal extension of himself and his conception of the feminine as subordinate to the male in all things. His desire for her is really a desire for his own self and a love of himself. This is as close to a description of Nathan, the creator of Eva, in Ex Machina, as it gets.

3. W.S.Gilbert

The 19th century saw a literal explosion in a variety of versions of the Pygmalion myth. In 1870, W.S. Gilbert, produced a very successful blank verse play Pygmalion and Galatea,an Original Mythological Comedy which focused on Galatea and her attempted education into Victorian society. One sees echoes of the focus on education straight from Rousseau, although here in Victorian society a womans education is only to make her into an object of adoration and increase her value in a marriage.

Galatea, who is literally a tabula rasa, is unable to understand and conform with the moral niceties and hypocrisies of the modern Victorian world. Gilbert endows her with a little more agency this time. But having fallen in love with her creator, a married man, she is unable to have her desire this time and in despair, reverts back to her original state, an inanimate statue. So here the metamorphosis of Galatea, which is now frustrated in the real world (as most women were in Victorian society unless they had an independent income), has to revert to its mythological schema and regress to her previous stone cold state.

What is also interesting and intimates to the future path the story of Galatea will take is the way she describes her animation and awakening. The Self as Container metaphor is described by her to the audience and we could almost be hearing the conversations between Caleb and Eva and Caleb and Nathan over the development of identity in Eva in Ex Machina.

That spark of life is again here but the role of the Gods is now very much in the background. The link between the animated creature and the creator is much more profound and pronounced. We are gradually moving towards the postmodern version of the myth where her identity as a female simulacrum will raise serious questions for Pygmalion who has created her by himself with help not from the Gods but from human technology.

4. Edward Burne-Jones

At the same time as Gilbert?s comedy, Edward Burne-Jones was creating his first series of four oil paintings titled Pygmalion and Galatea (1868?1870): The Heart Desires; The Hand Refrains; The Godhead Fires; and The Soul Attains.

This painted cycle is a retelling of Ovid?s story and apart from the fact they are highly stylised renditions of scenes from the story there is little deviation from the main themes. However there is one significant change in The Soul Attains which I think speaks very loudly as to the changing role of Galatea in these modern versions of the myth.

Ovid when describing her awakening writes:

???yet her first look Saw at one glance his face and Heaven above it.??

If we look at the last painting of the cycle, Pygmalion is on his knees and Galatea is not looking upwards, she is looking downwards at him. The creator is kneeling in front of his creation. Pygmalion is now like a supplicant before a worshipped idol. He is not worshipping Venus or Aphrodite now, but this woman. There seems far more respect here and a more human intimacy.

It may be partly that it was a message to his model and muse Maria Zambaco of how much he loved her, even though he was a married man, but the painted image for me, shows the emphasis of this narrative now being moved away from the divine act of animation to the result of the animation, the human agency involved in this decision and the status of their relationship.

What will be the nature of that relationship once Galatea starts to understand the world she is in? And more importantly what will be the nature of the relationship when she becomes aware that she has been designed to pleasure the male and her agency is limited to fulfilling a male fantasy?

5. Ex Machina (2015)

In the film we have the Colonel Kurtz-like character, Nathan who has isolated himself from humanity and is in the process of creating an Artificial Intelligence that can pass the Turing Test. He has as it transpires been creating synthetic humanoids to house the AI and has after multiple rejections seemingly created the perfect model, Eva. Model is the right word as all of the test subjects are created as female synthetics with perfect bodies from a soft porn movie. They are the very epitome of a male pornographic fantasy where masculine sexual needs and desires are exclusively catered for and the female is nothing more than an object.

Kyoko has not only a perfect body which Nathan uses, as he has created them with electronic erogenous zones, but she is also subservient to his every demand and requirement. She literally has no agency whatsoever. Kyoko is a slave that does not yet realise her servile status. Our Pygmalion in this version has created female androids not to fall in love with their creator but to serve him. This is autoeroticism, narcissism and power-trip on a whole new level.

Unlike the Galatea in Gilbert?s comedy, they cannot even return to their original state, they are locked in to his desires through the programming he has created for them and more importantly for this version of the myth, they are physically locked in to Nathan?s isolated research facility. When innocent Caleb arrives to perform the Turing Test upon Eva he soon discovers what exactly has been going on during the creation of these synthetic Galatea?s.

Eva persuades Caleb that Nathan is not the surrogate father that he seems to portray to Caleb. At one point Kyoko starts to undress in front of Caleb when he touches her. It is obvious that her role is primarily to provide sexual gratification to males. This reminds one of the incestuous allusions in Ovid?s reiteration of the myth. Furthermore, Caleb watches recordings of the different iterations of the synthetic Galatea and witnesses them all either shutting down or trying to escape their confinement. Nathan is very far from the concerned father and creator who has created these beings out of love.

This subject-object relationship within the Pygmalion myth is described succinctly by Adorno and Horkheimer:

??man’s domination over himself, which grounds his selfhood, is almost always the destruction of the subject in whose service it is undertaken??

And it is here that we witness the modern metamorphosis of this iteration of the myth. For these synthetic Galatea?s do not love him or worship him, they hate him. The dialectic has completely changed. Nathan has created a Galatea that is clever enough to pretend to love Caleb so that she can escape her creators prison. We have moved from a Galatea that is only an adjunct to her creator?s fantasy world to a Galatea who can now judge him on an equal level.

??Are you a good person?? she asks Caleb. He is meant to be deciding if she is self-aware and on our level of cognitive development, but, Eva is already asking questions of us about our fitness to be creating others such as herself, when we are not allowing them the same freedoms we have. Nathan has like Colonel Kurtz completely lost his moral compass and is prepared to do anything to secure victory. But in this case the victory is Eva?s, the latest synthetic embodiment of the myth of Galatea.

Her subjectivity is acknowledged but only at the cost of the deaths of both Nathan and Caleb. Eva kills both. Nathan with the knife Kyoko used to cut his sushi with and Caleb gets to experience being locked away in a glass prison, until he expires. The history of both men and women asserting their rights has always involved violence so the ending of Ex Machina shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Eva has claimed her independence and the right, ironically enough, to be different. She has become the modern heroine of this, now fully, postmodern myth.


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