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Petrified Skin


Photo taken at Ravello in 2012

Photo taken at Ravello in 2012

Igor Mitoraj makes sculptures of bodies and faces, bronze coloured as if they were skin, hardened, petrified. They connote a whole head, a complete body, a closed vessel that contains an interiority. But the ragged edges that abruptly end as you directly face the statue disturb the sense of completeness. As you walk around them, you do not get to see what is inside the body, but rather come upon the other side of its surface. What appears to be the classical visage, say, of a Greek hero is a broken vessel, containing nothing other than the skein of allusions to myth, to presence, to man that make up its surface. The sculpture’s shock value lies in the fact that the face holds nothing behind it, that it alludes to a whole that can never be seen or grasped, only imagined with varying degrees of desire, fear, aversion, or restlessness. The aestheticized face and body is not, then, a sacred vessel, but rather a mask, a surface that contains nothing more than the projections that are imposed on it through history, expectations, desire. And that surface, hardened skin, is broken, jagged, and holds nothing.

As Mitoraj says about his work, “The idea of beauty is ambiguous, a double-edged sword that can easily hurt you, causing pain and torture.” Beauty, it seems, can cause fracturing, a petrification that hollows out interiority and renders malleability and softness impossible. This is epitomized in the ancient myth of Daphne, the nymph who is chased by Apollo and, in her panic at the thought of being captured, begs her father to turn her into a tree instead.To choose a hard bark, an invulnerable skin and inhuman attributes, is better than to be vulnerable to capture because of her beauty. In Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan discusses Daphne in terms similar to the ones that I’ve been using here:

“…we should perhaps conceive of pain as a field which, in the realm of existence, opens precisely onto that limit where a living being has no possibility of escape. Isn’t something of this suggested to us by the insight of the poets in that myth of Daphne transformed into a tree under the pressure of a pain from which she cannot flee? Isn’t it true that the living being who has no possibility of escape suggests in its very form the presence of what one might call petrified pain? (Ethics of Psychoanalysis)

The pain that Daphne feels is the petrifying fear that she will be caught, that she will be captured without possibility of escape. To split her exterior and interior, to contain herself in an unchangeable and inescapable shell, seems to her to be the only way to continue living, even though that living is also a death unto itself. She is damned by her external beauty, trapped in a body that is to her a curse since it makes her the object of pursuit by those who she eschews. At the moment that Apollo is about to catch her, she cries out, “Help me father! If your streams have divine powers change me, destroy this beauty that pleases too well!” What happens next is described in detail by Bullfinch:

“Her prayer was scarcely done when a heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breast, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy. Only her shining beauty was left.”

Ironically, not even in this desubjectification that she chooses as an escape, can she be free of her beauty. Nor of Apollo, who swears his undying love to the tree, and makes it immortal and evergreen. She can never escape the pressures of his desire for her.

Bernini Daphne and Apollo

Why does her father do this to her? He’s a river god, one whose habitat is flow, movement, expanding and contracting within the containment of the river banks. Why hasn’t he taught her his secrets, his ability to be held within bounds but to never be caught because you can’t catch flowing water? Or why doesn’t he catch her up in the current and take her away from her pursuer? But he’s been a father that has caused her skin to change before, when he would insist that she live a normative life of marriage and motherhood: “but hating the wedding torch as if it smacked of crime she would blush red with shame all over her beautiful face.” (there’s a lot of erotic blushing in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, usually when a young woman is about to be raped or made love to, but this is the only moment when it is caused by a man wanting her to have sex with another). The crime that makes her blush is that of traffic in women, of a father forcing his daughter to enter into an unwillling sexual relationship. He does, in the end, cede to her pleas to remain a virgin, but predicts that her surface will be her downfall: “your beauty itself, Daphne, prevents your wish, and your loveliness opposes your prayer.” He knows that men’s desire will outweigh whatever paternal exemption he gives her. So he fails to provide a holding environment and instead resorts to holding her trapped in a skin which is not her own, to a stasis which is the opposite of his relentless flow. And despite the morphogenesis, he maintains the one attribute she had begged him to change: her beauty. The laurel leaf, forever entwined with Apollo and the symbol of victory and power, carries the unspoken imagery of a daughter and woman entrapped in petrified pain.

1 Comment

  1. Hi, Eva-Lynn.

    I just read these posts and enjoyed them.

    In particular, I liked your discussion of Daphne.

    Here is a historiated initial depicting the transformation of Daphne into her tree form is from The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) by Reginald Scot: https://flic.kr/p/omTgCL

    Scot’s book is one of the earliest ever published on magic as a performing art. It revealed, for the English public, many illusions that were being received as acts of actual witchcraft at the time. Conjurors, or those posing as witches with supernatural powers, were putting on a front for their audiences. They gave their spectators the superficial impression that they possessed supernatural powers. Sometimes their spectators burned them for witchcraft as a result. Scotts’ text demystified this superficial illusion. He revealed, at least to some extent, the real selves of these conjurors: the fact that they were simply clever humans using intelligent, real world deceptions. Scott exposes the secret life of the conjuror that is used to project the illusion of immortality — of otherworldly power.

    The letter superimposed on this image depicting Daphne’s escape is the letter “I.” What could please Lacanians more than this? Daphne’s core, human and sexually possessable self is transformed by the magic of her father. It is enmasked, concealed and protected by a new, “I,” by a tree self that is a superficial armour — a defensive illusion made real. This is a false, but convincingly secure “I.” It is a trick of witchcraft. Myths, like that of Daphne and Apollo, do the opposite of Scott’s Discoverie of Witchcraft. Myths convince us that magic is real; Scott’s book, reveals that magic can be explained. In both cases, there is a split self — a doubled “I.”

    Daphne’s enchantment epitomizes the paradox of our doubled selves: the convincing illusion of our petrified, exterior skins and the safe, yet entrapped, interior of our secret lives.

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