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Essay

Ovid Rewritten: Objectification, Fragmentation, and Transformation in the Writing of Toni Morrison and Robin Coste Lewis

by Grace McGowan

Part of the series New Directions for Thing Theory in Literary Studies: A Forum.

In an essay published earlier in this colloquium, Kinohi Nishikawa explores how Toni Morrison’s editing of The Black Book (1974) can provide a different method for reading by examining the juxtaposition and decontextualization of “things” as they appear in the book. Nishikawa writes that:

Morrison supposed that people could access collective memory only through fragments, traces, the detritus and hauntings of history. This stuff, for Morrison, possessed its own historical weight and was not assimilable to confident determinations of the past. In making The Black Book, her intention was not to integrate readers into a discourse of “their history” but to confront them with buried memories—things in which they might not even recognize themselves. [1]

Taking this as an important starting point for my own work, and for explorations of Morrison’s legacy within the field of Black classicism, two questions emerge. How can a particularly Black feminist classicism combine with thing theory to provide a new lens with which to approach “things” as they appear in literary works? And how does this approach map onto explorations of ancient history or antiquity? Morrison was a Classics minor during her time at Howard University and has documented how when reading and working on the classical tradition she had felt “intellectually at home there.” [2] Her novels are subsequently filled with “things” from the classical tradition including statues, fashion magazines that centre the figure of Venus, architectural details, grave-markers, etc., alongside her literary allusions. This article will suggest that both Toni Morrison and Robin Coste Lewis, a poet who is part of a new generation of post-Morrison writers, reclaim and subvert the classical tradition. It will explore this through the lens of Ovidian transformations from the Metamorphoses, of things becoming people and people becoming things, and how these are repurposed in their writing to resist the history of objectification experienced by Black women.

In Morrison’s final novel before her death, God Help the Child (2014), she reimagines the Pygmalion myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The protagonist, Bride, is a supermodel and manager of the cosmetics line “YOU, GIRL,” a name inspired by her “‘total’ person designer’s” description of her. [3] Morrison explores the link to the classical Pygmalion myth and the idea that Bride has been molded, shaped, and objectified by the cosmetics and fashion industries that she works within. Crucially, her personal designer identifies her as a “midnight Galatea,” the name usually associated with the statue that Venus brings to life in the Pygmalion myth from the Metamorphoses. It is worth noting that the name Galatea does not appear in the Ovidian recounting of the myth, which is a typical Morrisonian nod to a disconnect in the tradition. The name “Galatea” itself literally means “white” or “white as milk,” and so Morrison playfully suggests a paradox by modifying the name with “midnight.” Bride, whose name is linked with the color white in contemporary Western Christian traditions, furthers this connection with the white statue Galatea.

Bride’s collaboration with her designer recalls the narrative of Pygmalion as the designer operates as a modern-day sculptor of Bride’s image, advising her to wear only white, like the snow-white ivory statue from the myth. In the myth, Pygmalion is said to have “dressed [the statue] / in clothes, put rings on the fingers and necklaces round the through, / hung jewels from the ears and girdled the breasts with elegant bands.” [4] The designer catering to Bride plays the role of the sculptor Pygmalion. Throughout the rest of the novel, Bride undergoes a transformation akin to the Ovidian metamorphosis of Galatea, but in reverse; her pubic hair falls out, she finds her chest flattening, and her body changes and shrinks. Other scholars have argued (and the protagonist also gives voice to this hypothesis) that Bride undergoes a literalized childhood regression as a response to a return of the repressed; Kara Walker has called the book a “modern day fairytale” as a result of this “ghostly” transformation. However, I believe that in keeping with the novel’s allusion to Ovid, Bride is in fact turned into a statue. [5] She undergoes a reverse, almost photographic negative transformation to the statue in the myth and becomes objectified, reified, and petrified as a statue. Her abstract objectification in the beauty, fashion, and cosmetics industry is concretized by Morrison’s classical allusion.

The Ovidian preoccupation with people turning into things—statues, animals, and plants—is utilized by Morrison to point to a larger reverberation of the afterlife of slavery as experienced by Black women in America. [6] Saidiya Hartman in “Venus in Two Acts” has outlined how the Transatlantic slave trade enacted these objectifying violences on Black women and how the white supremacist system “transformed them into commodities and corpses, and identified them with names tossed off as insults and crass jokes,” like the classical nomenclature of Venus. [7] Hartman sees Venus tied to the objectification of Black women, specifically to how they are sexualized and placed at an increased risk of sexual violence, while also simultaneously performing a satirical function that attempts to debar Black women from the realm of the classical tradition. These commoditizations of Black women’s bodies and the attempts to force a person to occupy the role of “thing” under slavery reverberates throughout history; Morrison seeks to diagnose this in her novel through Bride’s transformation.

Igor Kopytoff has explored how the spectre of slavery haunts the study and application of thing theory; Morrison emphasizes how pivotal this history of commodification is to the reading of her protagonists and novels. Kopytoff writes that “[i]n contemporary Western thought, we take it more or less for granted that things — physical objects and rights to them — represent the natural universe of commodities. At the opposite pole we place people who represent the natural universe of individuation and singularization.” [8] But this “separation of people and things into two neat camps is problematized and rendered impossible by the history of human commoditization ‘by way of those widespread institutions known under the blanket term ‘slavery’.” [9] Morrison has shown in her writing that in the afterlife of slavery and the commodity culture her protagonist inhabits, the distinction between person and thing continues to be blurred. We can best understand this phenomenon in the novel through the Black classicist lens of Ovidian transformation: how exactly these boundaries blur and how her Black women characters experience this.

Rather than valorize the classical past or the contemporary present, Morrison offers a new way of reading that joins the two together through an examination of objectification. She examines both the liberating and weaponized functions of the classical tradition for Black women. I would argue that Morrisonian Black classicism, particularly its attention to the transformation of humans to things and vice versa is engaged in a rethinking of wider histories of objectification. This has served to influence the way a new generation of writers engage with objects in their writing, such as Robin Coste Lewis in her National Book Award winning poetry collection Voyage of the Sable Venus and other poems (2015). Lewis’s poetry provides fertile ground for enquiring into how thing theory can be fruitfully applied in literary studies.

Lewis’s work examines the portrayal of Black women’s bodies in “a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” [10] Lewis’s handling and “reading,” her “re-membering” and “re-collecting” of these “things” are largely influenced by the deconstructive endeavors of Morrison’s fiction, particularly her attention to the fragmenting effect of Western thought on Black women’s bodies. Lewis reflects on how, because “black female figures were also used in ways [she]  could never have anticipated, [she] was forced to expand that definition [of art] to include other material and visual objects such as combs, spoons, buckles, pans, knives, table legs.” [11] This expansion beyond “traditional” art objects and her emphasis on the broken or fragmented nature of the objects announces their “thingness.” The title of Lewis’s collection reframes each figure as an iteration of the “Sable Venus.” These quotidian and fragmented objects are directly in conversation with other famous Venus fine art objects such as the Venus de Milo or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1480), as well as violent and satirical objects such as Thomas Stothard’s infamous etching Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies (1794) from which the poetry collection takes its name. Stothard illustrates an African woman traveling on a shell being pulled by dolphins, a notorious rewriting and romanticization of the horrors of the Middle Passage, through a classical allusion. The title also gestures towards Sara Baartman, often referred to as the “Hottentot Venus,” a South African woman whose body was exploited and displayed both during her life and after her death. [12] These allusions haunt the poem and the things whose descriptions make up the vocabulary of the text. The tension between objects that represent Black women, the way the dominant white culture objectifies (figuratively, legally, and otherwise) Black women, and their resistance to such transformations are foregrounded in Lewis’s collection. Lewis is intervening in a wider institutionalized history invested in white supremacist views of Black women’s bodies. The titles, catalog entries, and wall texts of the works of art from which she assembles her poem are all objects that feature Black women’s bodies. But Lewis’s poetry can also be read through Morrison’s particular Black classicist or Ovidian lens. The boundary between object and body becomes increasingly blurred by the syntax, grammar, and arrangement of the poems on the page.

Lewis’s work decontextualizes things by assembling and recombining them to make her epic poem. [13] The things themselves (such as statuettes and vases) are often fragments that have been imaginatively reconstituted. She combines the kind of decontextualization and deconstructive work of Morrison’s The Black Book with her theory of re-membering from Beloved (1987). In many ways, Lewis’s approach highlights how decontextualization, as outlined in Nishikawa’s essay, is always a crucial part of re-membering/remembering. In Beloved, Morrison introduces the historical context of bodies that have been fragmented, controlled, and owned under slavery. One character’s sermon enacts the reclaiming, resubjectifying, and re-membering process Lewis’s poem builds upon. As Baby Suggs calls out a litany of body parts and advocates love for them, she metaphorically reclaims and rebuilds broken bodies into cohesive wholes of identity and community. The link between re-membering, the piecing together particularly of the fragmented body, and remembering histories and legacies, suggests that only in a reclamation of the past can a reclamation of the body take place. This linkage underpins both writers' approach to the classical tradition.

Any of Robin Coste Lewis’s “Catalogs” would make a good study for the application of thing theory in literary studies, but “Catalog I: Ancient Greece & Ancient Rome” helps to foreground the Black classicist approach to reading that centers ideas of Ovidian transformation. As each object named in the poem is imagined as one iteration of Venus and the collection begins in classical antiquity, Lewis’s repeated naming of the Blackness of the figures is itself a subversion of a classical tradition that has been repeatedly white-washed. In many ways the poem resembles a walk through a museum that revises the narrative told by the museum’s catalog entries, wall text, and layout. Arjun Appadurai has highlighted how “things,” especially quotidian objects, are given value from such settings and displays. Museums display quotidian objects that would have been commodities in the contexts of plunder, “primitive” objects of utility, and “found” objects, and so enhance their value from its original commodity status. [14] Lewis’s poem translates this “framing of ‘found’ objects” into “found poetry” and forms a different kind of collection with a slant that references the objectification of Black women as it resists it. By using Morrison’s theory of “re-membering” to read the fragments and assemble them into a narrative, Lewis’s poem is engaged in a reconstruction of the past through objects. The whole poem itself can be read as a kind of assemblage of fragments to make something new and provoke new ways of seeing and understanding:

Statuette of a Woman Reduced
to the Shape of a Flat Paddle 

Statuette of a Black Slave Girl
Right Half of Body and Head Missing

Head of a Young Black Woman Fragment
from a Statuette of a Black Dancing Girl. [15]

The museum vocabulary of taxonomy and categorization is intertwined with a catalog of body parts which speaks to the anatomization of women in the art objects. Lewis emphasizes the objectification of the body in these “statuettes,” a word that operates as a diminutive alongside the verb “reduced,” and in tandem with the feminine forms being depicted. As the objects being described are from antiquity, many of them have not survived whole. Lewis’s poem highlights how the practices of enslavement and of museal cataloging intersect: bodies are fragmented and marred by missing pieces. Some of the later examples of statuettes are missing the objects they were once attached to, such as:

Statuette Once Supported an Unguent Vase
Vase with Neck in the Form of a Head. [16]

In this couplet, the objects in the bodies and other artifacts are conflated. The “neck” of a vase is “in the Form of a Head” and the line between object and body becomes increasingly blurred. The transformation of bodies to things and back again makes boundaries and agency uncertain. The statuette that “once supported” a vase gives the impression of having put down its load and refusing to carry it any further. Even in trying to express in writing where the line is between body-shaped objects, objects with bodies, and bodies viewed as objects is a difficult endeavor. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has argued that as people have long been displayed, both living and dead, in museum exhibitions, they too can become objectified and fragmented by the act of display. [17] Her analysis that the exhibition of humans situates them “between the animate and the inanimate, the living and the dead” is reminiscent of how the violence of slavery operates as well as how Ovidian metamorphosis is animating and objectifying (rendering inanimate) by turns. [18]

It becomes clear that while Lewis builds on Morrison’s explorations of the resistance to objectification, she is also acutely aware, when surrounded by fragments in the shape of body parts, that, as Bill Brown puts it, one is “caught up in things” and that “the body is a thing among things.” [19] But Lewis’s poem, in fact, resists this state of being just one thing among others; transforming museum captions and catalog text into poetry—by not transforming them at all—Lewis manages to critique this flattening of the human body, calling attention to the violence of equivalence. Neither objects nor bodies do fully blur into one another; instead, they stand stubbornly, uncomfortably apart in each line of poetry, demanding that readers confront the force of the enjambment of taxonomizing humans as things. The best instance of Lewis’s contemplation of the body as a thing among things can be seen in another poem, “The Wilde Woman of Aiken” which, although not part of the larger poem of Voyage, nevertheless elicits the same reading practices and methods.

Lewis’s “The Wilde Woman of Aiken,” like the larger centerpiece poem of Voyage, is an ekphrastic poem. It is based on a photograph which takes its context from Oscar Wilde’s American tour in the late-nineteenth century. During his tour, Wilde expounded his view of aesthetics, and among his most controversial points was the idea that anything could be beautiful. His view of beauty was challenged by others, particularly by visual artists. One photographer, J. A. Palmer, staged a photoshoot that produced the photograph to which Lewis responds. The photograph, from 1882, is composed of things Palmer “believed to be inherently repugnant: highly patterned fabrics, an ornately upholstered chair, a sunflower, a face jug, and a Negro woman.” [20] Her body is literally positioned as a “thing among things.” Lewis gives a voice to the woman posed in what was intended as a humiliating, satirical photo and, in doing so, allows the Black woman to resubjectify and un-objectify herself, as well as provide her own definition of beauty. Lewis re-members this photograph from the late-nineteenth century, and in doing so criticizes the objectifying constructs of American slavery. The poem is in first person, the voice speaking that of the female subject of the photograph.

I am not supposed to be
Beautiful. I am not
Supposed to sit

Before the observant eye
Of a sunflower. I am incapable
Of having a voice

Like a robin's singing. [21]

Within the poem there is an intertextual battle over the definition of beauty and subjecthood, particularly as it pertains to Black women’s bodies. From the first words and the repeated use of the phrase “I am not supposed,” the subject is resisting her transformation into an object in a photograph that would render her body “a thing among things,” and also subverting ideas of aesthetics; the very phrase “I am not supposed to be / beautiful” suggests that is exactly what the subject is doing. The speaker voices her defiant beauty from under the specific gaze, the “observant eye,” of the sunflower rather than of the photographer, the camera, or the person looking at the photo. The sunflower becomes agential through this personification, another transformation from object to subject that Lewis is layering into the poem. Although the poem is in first person, the reminder that the speaker is “incapable / Of having a voice” underlines the silencing and objectification she undergoes in the image. The subject cannot speak to defend herself against racist beauty ideals, so the poem itself becomes a “voice” for the “incapable” subject. It undoes the attempted transformation of person to thing. The simile that compares the “voice” for which the subject longs to a “robin’s singing” creates an explicit link between the silent subject of the visual photograph and the poet Robin Coste Lewis, who has given imaginative voice to the woman from the photograph.

If I had a name 
It would be Wall 
paper. My hair is made of
A million breathing paisleys. [22]

The transformations of the unnamed woman are multiple and Ovidian: she becomes the wallpaper, her hair becoming a paisley pattern. She transforms into the things that surround her in the photograph, as in the following stanza, when she becomes the sunflower: “[m]y florets stand together / at golden angles. My head / is packed with eager seeds.” [23] The sitter, and Lewis’s speaker, undergoes these transformations from woman to wallpaper, to sunflower, to photograph, and finally, crucially, back to herself. At the close of this poem, full of transformations, the speaker gives a final cry of disobedience and resistance:

You
cannot
prevent me. [24]

Lewis again emphasizes the tension between the agency of people and objects, the woman’s resistance to objectification, and the rewriting of Ovidian allusions to tease out these straining relationships. The final cry of “you cannot prevent me” links this poem to the epigraph and rallying cry of the entire collection, which is dedicated and inscribed “for Beauty” and gestures towards a relationship to beauty and aestheticism that circumvents or undoes the objectification experienced by the sitter/speaker.

In conclusion, as Bill Brown has argued, “[t]he story of objects asserting themselves as things […] is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.” [25] The history of human commodification that Hartman draws our attention to, from antiquity to American slavery and particularly the objectification of Black women, is one that deeply informs the life of things and people in texts from writers like Morrison and Lewis. Charged with such a history, what kind of political work can thing theory in literary studies, particularly in studies of Black classicism, do? How can these conversations feed into larger ones around agency, tradition, and racism in the canon? And how do these reworkings of Ovidian transformation from person to thing and back again inform our understanding of how things operate in literature? This article has suggested that these authors have found reclamatory and subversive value in revisiting and portraying things in their writing, and that approaching things with this sensitivity can alter the grammar of how we view subjects and objects, and allow a constant questioning of the transformation from one to another. It is particularly pertinent to use an Ovidian lens to do so, given the historical white-washing and exclusion of Black women writers from the classical tradition. Rethinking these retellings of Ovidian transformation in Black women’s writing opens new avenues of exploration for thing theory in the specific context of Black feminist classicism. These retellings, or repurposings, of Ovidian myth offer the opportunity to examine and cross boundaries between people and things in a way that simultaneously highlights, examines, and resists histories and legacies of objectification.


Notes

[1] Kinohi Nishikawa, “Morrison’s Things: Between History and Memory,” Arcade, 2021, https://arcade.stanford.edu/content/morrison%E2%80%99s-things-between-history-and-memory.

[2] Toni Morrison, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), 163.

[3] Toni Morrison, God Help the Child, 1st ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 33-4.

[4] Publius Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation, trans. D.A. Raeburn (London: Penguin, 2004), 395.

[5] Kara Walker, “Toni Morrison’s ‘God Help the Child,’” The New York Times, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/books/review/toni-morrisons-god-help-the-child.html.

[6] For more on the afterlife of slavery see Christina Elizabeth Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

[7] Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no. 2 (2008): 2.

[8] Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 64.

[9] Kopytoff, 64.

[10] Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, 1st ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 35.

[11] Lewis, 35.

[12] For a sensitive and more detailed exploration of the life of Sara Baartman and its place in Voyage I encourage everyone to read Sarah Derbew’s article “(Re)membering Sara Baartman, Venus, and Aphrodite,” Classical Receptions Journal 1, no. 3 (2019). Also see the play by Suzan-Lori Parks referenced in Derber’s article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_(play)#:~:text=Venus%20(1996)%20is%20a%20play,Sarah%20Baartman%2F%20The%20Venus%20Hottentot.

[13] I first began my analysis and thinking on Lewis’s work in my undergraduate dissertation and I am building here on my earlier analyses which can be found here: Grace McGowan, “‘I Know I Can’t Change the Future, But I Can Change the Past’: Toni Morrison, Robin Coste Lewis, and the Classical Tradition,” Contemporary Women's Writing 13, no. 3 (2019): 339–56, https://doi.org/10.1093/cww/vpaa001.

[14] Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 28.

[15] Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus, 43.

[16] Lewis, 43.

[17]  Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Objects of Ethnography,” in Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (University of California Press, 1998), 30.

[18] Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 35.

[19] Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 4.

[20] Robin Coste Lewis, “Poems from Sanctuary,” Transition, no. 109 (2012): 36. Available at muse.jhu.edu/article/490135.

[21] Lewis, 17.

[22] Lewis, 17.

[23] Lewis, 17.

[24] Lewis, 17.

[25] Brown, “Thing Theory,” 4.

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