Mark Danner

From Centaurs to Superheroes Metamorphosis, Monsters & The Supernatural Everyday

From Centaurs to Superheroes

Metamorphosis, Monsters


The Supernatural Everyday

 English 190, Spring 2015, Monday 3- 6 PM, Wheeler 106

Mark Danner

We dream of becoming something other than what we are. To be human is to be in love with transformation. That love of becoming something other, of transforming ourselves from one thing into another, infuses our literature since the first artists took up ochre and charcoal to sketch out a half-man, half-beast on a cave wall. In this seminar we will try to grasp and analyze this urge to transform, metamorphose and transcend, from prehistory to the gaudy metamorphoses of Ovid and Virgil to the elaborate composite creatures of the medieval mind and up through the monsters and superheroes that populate the Victorian mind (Mary Shelley’s New Prometheus, Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde and Stoker’s Count Dracula, among others) — and finally to the supermen and batmen, vampires, werewolves and X-men that populate to bursting our teeming contemporary imagination.

I would suggest that we, as we reflect on the European tradition of metamorphosis, are like Ovid’s…Narcissus. For even if we gaze at our own reflection when we bow low over the pool of our literary past, that gazing is a mark of who we are, and who we are is, in part, what we have been… [Stories] are a significant component of what we think with. Hence our self-reflexivity, our tendency to study ourselves, is a mark of the self we carry with us as we bend over the pool. Our concern with how we can change yet be the same thing – our fascination with the question of identify in all its varieties – is inherited from our traditions. The identity we carry with us questions – and by questioning confirms – itself. In this sense, we are all Narcissus, as we are also the werewolf, a constantly new thing that is nonetheless the same.”

–Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (Zone, 2005).



Class Requirements This is a seminar – a discussion class — which means the success of the class depends on student participation. The most important requirements are that students

*Attend all class sessions

*Participate in discussions

*Do all reading and writing assignments

A student’s record of attendance and participation in class discussion, together with the thoroughness of his or her preparation, will determine the success of our class and contribute the better part of the grade. Excessive unexcused absences will significantly affect a student’s final grade. Students should arrive in class having not only done the assigned reading but having in mind several questions and discussion points regarding it.

Schedule Note that all classes will take place on Monday afternoons, 3-6 PM. We will customarily have a break of twenty minutes at the halfway point. Presentations will generally begin the second half of the seminar. Note also that we will meet on May 4, to make up for the first missed Monday.

Class Presentations Each student will deliver one class presentation taking up the theme of metamorphosis and drawing on a story, film or art piece which might or might not be treated in the class. For example, a history of depictions of Alice in Wonderland or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or The Werewolf might be starting points for presentations. We will discuss this in more detail in our first session.

Writing Students will be assigned one final research paper of fifteen pages, which will treat the theme of metamorphosis making use of one or more of the required texts for the class. There may be the occasional in-class quiz. To bolster the clarity and vigor of your English prose, I strongly suggest reading two works: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language” and Strunk and White’s little manual, The Elements of Style. The text of the Orwell essay can be found easily on the web.

Films From time to time during the term we will screen films intended to complement our studies.




Apuleius. The Golden Ass. [aka The Transformations] New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013 [c.170].

Bulgakov, Mikhail, The Heart of a Dog. New York: Melville House, 2013 [1925]

Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013 [1865].

Kafka, Franz. The Sons. Schocken, 1989 [1915].

Miller, Frank. Batman: Year One. De Luxe ed. New York: DC Comics, 2007.

Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. New York: Hackett, 2010.

*Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Norton Critical Edition, New York: Norton, 2012 [1818].

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Norton ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013 [1886].

Tatar, Maria. The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999 [1757].

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Norton ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006 [1891].

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. Annotated ed. Orlando, FL: Mariner, 2006 [1928].



*Not on class book order. Please order this book on your own.




January 26: Introduction :

February 2: Apuleius. The Golden Ass. [aka The Transformations] New Haven: Yale UP, 2013 [c.170].

–      Lucius did not change himself. He’s from a well known family, handsome, educated, lustful, and selfish

–     In the original story, he steals roses in the arena, changes himself back, and the tales humorously by two lustful women.

–      The last chapter is commonly criticized but final theme changes curiosity kills cat narrative into a story about redemption.

–      What are the transformations? man ? donkey, lustful, sinful ? redeemed, pious character, low bawdy story ? redemption story.

–      We understand that under the fantasy genre, gods or figures of power are not not omnipotent, they are critically flawed in order to move along the story.

February 9: Miller, Frank. Batman: Year One. De Luxe ed. New York: Comics, 2007 [1985].

–     1932 author’s life references: his father dies in an attempted robbery

–      We discuss Superman because that’s where Batman comes from: think Samson or Hercules, Kent could come from Cohen

–      Batman is a vigilante, fighting the raxing of the neighborhood. We understand the idealization of FDR’s The New Deal. Think about social security and the FCC.

–      Superman comes from elsewhere, he is an immigrant. America needed more superheroes.

–      The ornithoctor by DaVinci was the inspiration behind the original Batman costume.

–      The work draws from archetypal rich heroes of the gentry: Scarlett Cimpernal, Zorro

–      We should think of Batman as the modern version of Odysseus in modern imagination.

–     Think about narrative tension: What is good? Where is right/ What about when the law is corrupt? How do we build a foundation for just action?

–      The moral story is ultimately an arc that brings Batman and Gordon together.

–      A young Bruce Wayne would not be a victim in the world that Batman builds for Gotham. He’s a force for anarchy that imposes an individual order.

–      Gordon recognizes Batman’s basic morality. Gordon undergoes a moral epiphany.

–      We perceive a projection of fear as a trauma. The bat frightened him as a child, and he understands fear as a motivating force or a tool.

–      Think of Batman’s ownership of fear as a commodity.

February 16: Academic Holiday: No Class Session

March 2/9: Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Hackett, 2010. [c.1]

–      Ovid’s work is not a single plot, but a multitude of plots and a paradise of narratology. It’s a story upon story upon story, about 250 total.

–      The book goes from creation to death of Julius Caesar, approximately 44BC to 8CE.

–    The poem, starting at the beginning of creation recognizes and honors Augustus. It’s ambivalent to power. There is a theme of ambivalence between artists, particularly to power.

–     Story of Arachne: Athena creates a propaganda piece. Recall that the gods are doing the brutalizing. It’s a work of art that honors power and the inevitability of power.

–      She does this because she can’t help it. She’s challenged to make her best art, and she’s obligated to do it. True artists depict the world in a realistic fashion. What is the world as it is? She puts forth that the gods are unfair, she defies the subjectivity to power and her own subordination.

–      The metamorphoses are a result of violence. Sadism is contained to the first third of poems, and does not result in us feeling depressed because we understand these stories as fantasy.

–      Ovid consigned his copy to the flames, he was not in Rome to see the reaction from the work, recall that he was aware that there are copies still remaining.

–      Carmen perpetua: an endless song, told all in terms of metamorphoses, by visions of art and the artist and the relation to the artist’s power.

–      Gods powers makes them symbols of abusive power. The gods are not the heroes of origin. They did not create life.

–      Hierarchal structure allows for Acteon’s act to NOT be random. There’s a political tone to the book. Diana’s actions can’t be described as random. Diana’s sanctities can’t be violated in a definitive, intrinsic way.

–      Gods act on a rule, or on certain principles.

–      “The earth is under Augustus…” The end of the poem is deeply ambiguous, can be read as a tribute to Augustus and the power of Rome, or read as an acknowledgement of Rome as only powerful in passing, no more immortal than Troy was. The only thing that’s truly timeless is Ovid’s poem.

–      The stories underline their status as entertainment; no matter what, we are not left with a feeling of horror. Nothing in Ovid fails to underline its own artificiality.

March 16: “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella,” pp. 25-73 and 101-137 in Tatar, Maria. The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999 [1757].

–      Background: Recall Cupid & Psyche, some argue that this fairy tale is a return to the same kind of fantasy. Madame Du Beaumont wrote it in the sense that she wrote it down, but more likely it came from an oral tradition.

–      Fairy tales are moralistic and magical with elements of suspended realism over an indeterminate time.

–      Separation is the key element in the text: separation from family, separation from love, separation from friend.

–     Devotion is questioned here: is there an obligation of familial love over romantic love or vice versa?

–      His transformation into a human being was required for the lustful love, but without the transformation, the marriage would still have functioned well enough.

–      Beaumont, in her period, has likely writing to an audience of potentially arranged brides, consoling their fears with a positive moral of adaptation or social flexibility.

March 23: Spring Break, No Class

March 30: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Norton Critical Edition, New York: Norton, 2012 [1818].

Background: Inspiration came from a dream. Circumstances trace back to the eruption of Tambora, a large volcano in Indonesia that spread ash 38 cubic miles. It was “the year without a summer.” Mary Shelley and company, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Dr. Polidori, were sharing ghost stories because the summer was rainy and ashy.

–     Mary Shelley’s life is filled with the blending of family, love, birth, and death.

–     Wellspring of biggest problem of the book: Why does he reject the creature he has made?

–      There’s a transformation seems to be in the outside world. It’s a novel about families, including Frankenstein and the creature. Frankenstein and the creature are mother and son.

–      It’s a tale about birth: the horror of birth, the responsibilities of birth, and the terror of unnatural birth.

–      The creature isn’t evil; he’s lonely and ugly and infantile, but not evil.

–      Why is the text layered? It creates distance and irony. The framework encourages metamorphosis. Giving the creature a voice allows for metamorphosis. The creature becomes an author. The spaces allow for our judgments to intervene.

April 6: Stevenson, Robert. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. [1886].

–      Textual Metamorphoses: transformations between Jekyll and Hyde repeat, but there is a second overarching transformation from neutrality to inherent evil.

–      Origin of book was a drive: the driving anxiety that concerns man’s double nature.

–      Author’s wife complained that the novel had too much allegory and not enough story, so Stevenson burned the first copy.

–      Despite the rewrite, the book was popularized in part by the church as a subject of religious articles and woven into pulpits.

–      The framework of the novel adds to suspense by distance; suspense is a burden of the writer in narrative prose,

–      Hyde always exerts a force on Jekyll, just as Jekyll has some control over Hyde. There are three personalities: Jekyll, Hyde, and a Hyde that is being influenced by Jekyll.

–      There has to be a reward for the dynamic to make sense: there is enough Jekyll in Hyde to acquire satisfaction from Hyde’s actions.

April 8: Wales, James. The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935

April 13: Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Norton ed. New York:

W.W. Norton, 2006 [1891].

–      Triptych of Doppelgangers:

–      Frankenstein (1818): Victor à Creature

–      Jekyll & Hyde (1886): Jekyll (Hyde) à Hyde (Jekyll)

–      Dorian Gray (1890): Dorian Gray à Picture

–      Dorian’s character is an exponent of the certain philosophy of the age: he aesthetic philosophical movement of Hedonism or New Hedonism, perhaps elements of Decadence, Libertine, or Fin de siècle. They’re not absolutely coterminous and do not completely overlap.

–      There are definite homosexual undertones in the conversations between Basil and Dorian.

–      The book came out at turn of century contemporary to the Prince of Wales, and the associates of Prince of Wales. It was perfectly timed because they was talk of moral degradation, one of the dysphemism (opposite of euphemism). It would have been clear to most readers that the book had homosexual undertones.

–      Wilde in court: “love that dare not speak its name,” or homosexuality.

–       Contrary to Catholicism, Dorian Gray embodies the idea that the really real was what was possible, what was tangible, physical, experiential, more new Hedonism.

–     There is a sense of aesthetic contemplation of life where one’s self is a work of art, suggesting narrowness, selfishness.

–      Aestheticism is a testament, or a tribute, to beauty, form, experience, and visual stimulation: Art pour l’art, art for art’s sake.

April 20: Kafka, Franz. The Sons. Schocken, 1989 [1915].

–      Kafka’s works are treated as puzzles that we can solve.

–      He understands the family as an organism. “They do not conform, …but are accursed or consumed, or both.”

–      The answers to “How many ____?” is largely three. Three family members, three doors to his room, three houseguests.

–      All the foreign people are kicked out: the maid is let go, the cook asks to leave, the boarders are ejected, the clerk is ejected.

–      Parasitism, the family gets better as Gregor gets worse.

–      “And so he broke out. He four times changed his direction…”

–      The portrait symbolized his ability to leave the family. It’s a comically sexual image and it points to his sexuality and his independence.

–      The Judgment: The story seems clear, but it’s not. When the father and the son talk to each other, they seem to be talking past one another.

–      There are many images of the father’s intimacy: sexuality through his underwear and through his open nightgown.

–      The son is in a dominant position, then the father and the son kind of switch back to childhood roles.

–      Kafka suggests ideas about power within the family and the state as based on male and the male power.

–      The text has a logic of dreams, true of the three texts and of the Letter to My Father.

–      The expression “Kafka-esque” means the taking of specifics, and making it into something universal. In The Sons, the father is a political authority/law/relentlessness pitilessness of the family.

April 27: Bulgakov, Mikhail, The Heart of a Dog. New York: Melville House, 2013 [1925].

Historical context:

WWI: 1914-1919

Russian Revolution: 1917 Revolution

–      We’re seeing a birth of the Soviet man; it’s a satire recall. We’re seeing the birth of the homo-sovieticus, as a result of science.

–      To this point, his books haven’t had trouble being published. He read this book to 50 or so people, and police informer listened to the story, made extensive notes, and reported to Bulgokov’s superiors. Two months later, a prospective publisher wrote that he could not publish it.

–      From the dog’s perspective, this is not “the new world.” There is difference between what the revolution accomplished, and what the real conditions on the ground were.

–      What was Bulgokov saying about Revolution? You’re taking something good or natural, and turning it into a worse thing of something else. The movement of class or intelligent is a failed prospect. Recall that the man-dog is turned back into a dog, it takes a moment to undo revolution. In one evening, you can take what happened and change it back into how to began.

–      It was shut down because of the prediction or prophesy that would have been threatening to the regime, the idea that there was a stalling or a implausibility in the Revolution.

May 4: Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. Annotated Orlando, FL: Mariner, 2006 [1928]

Background: Vita Sackville-West is the beloved one. Was reputed to live in a house with 365 bedrooms. 19 Oct 1927: Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West and proposes novel to her about her as a friend and lover. Less than two weeks later, “half in a mock-style,” Orlando is finished. Knoll is the great country house. 1.5 years Vita and Woolf were lovers, but their “friendship is never unhinged with amorosity.” Vita enjoyed dressing as a man.

–      Androgyny:  not just the ambiguous gender, but the man in the woman and the woman in the man.

–      The image of two people getting in a taxi cab is representative of two genders in the body.

–      Woolf called this book a writer’s holiday, a lark. She regarded it as a game, a fun demonstration, and a love letter. Only with the resolution of two genders in the skill can someone be happy. The emphasis is about creativity.

–      There is a notion in Orlando that a relationship with another person can last a lifetime and be changing its meaning constantly, from sex to friendship or something else, without disrupting other relationships

–      Is this a piece of realistic writing? It’s not, but it’s beautiful.