The truth about Pygmalion finally revealed

Suddenly the cold white marble warmed up and flushed a deep golden brown, and the cold white pupils were suddenly swept by a wash of black. They turned to stare at the sculptor who was still kneeling in supplication. When he felt a warm hand upon his shoulder, he jumped back with alarm, but when he looked up to see his beloved, he cried tears of joy. He grasped her hands and told her how much he loved her, how she was more beautiful that he could have ever imagined, and begged her to stay and be his wife. | The (former) statue stared at him for a second or two, absorbing his balding pate, his weak, petulant mouth, his soft second chin, his dirty hands, his greedy eyes… Jasleen Modi
The truth about Pygmalion finally revealed  (University of Minnesota Daily)

A politically correct version of the legend. I wanted to like it more than I do now, but it did help me expand upon my earlier post.

The life-giving role of the goddess Aphrodite is played by an unnamed male god; this, and the addition of the (unresolved) subplot with the sculptor’s friends creates a masculine conspiracy against the helpless statue, which is interesting, but undeveloped. The cutesy parenthetical insertions distract from the message, and by first describing the color changes in the statue from an omniscient viewpoint, the author diminishes the dramatic effect of having Pygmalion notice the warm hand. (The author has probably internally developed this scene as a movie and is describing the shots for us; I see that in a lot of student authors.) Similarly, we are told right away that the sculptor is “stupid,” which detracts from the author’s ability to show us actions which we ourselves can judge as stupid. (See “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell“). And to call Pygmalion “perverted” for “doodling naked women” is far too prudish, even for the sake of a joke; the sculptor in the story has international fame, and thus he seemed to do pretty well for himself by ignoring his other studies in favor of practicing his art.

I encourage my literature students not to judge the cultures of the past by the standards of the present. Critique them? Of course! Condemn them? Well…

Certain actions by certain people and certain widely-followed practices don’t hold up to modern scrutiny, but it is harsh to dismiss a whole society made up of individual members that that lived in a completely different moral world. I’d rather spend time exploring that moral world and seeing how the medium reflects, transgresses, or perpetuates it. When I teach Shakespeare, there are always a few students who are so excited by their first women’s studies courses that they cannot get past the way certain male characters treat certain female characters abominably, and write theses that boil down to “Both Hamlet and Othello mistreat women they profess to love; therefore, men oppress women.” Their later papers swap in new texts, but typically make the exact same argument. But when you compare Shakespeare’s strong heroines to the female characters depicted by his contemporaries, it’s pretty easy to see Shakespeare as a champion of the strength, character, and humanity of women.

“Pygmalion” exists in the context of a large mythology of transformations, some of them arbitrary, capricious, and downright cruel. In the original legend, we aren’t asked to examine the statue’s viewpoint, of course; and one of the great traditions of postmodern literature is to revisit well-known stories from the perspective of marginalized characters (often women, though consider Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). Modi’s essay fits into that tradition. Though she succeeds in distancing us from Pygmalion’s perspective, she puts nothing in its place.

The references to body image and (in the added subplot with Pygmalion’s friends) men’s social objectification of women are modern touches; but what if the sculptor were not old, ugly, and ill-kempt, but young, handsome, and well-groomed? Would his actions be any more justifiable, according to the modern, gender-blind ideology Modi asks us to apply to Pygmalion? In A Doll House, would Nora be as interesting a character if she left Torvald because she suddenly realized that all along he was a disgusting old letcher?

Far more interesting to me are the multiply-branching storylines of Emily Short’s “Galatea” a text-based computer game in which you play an art critic examining the statue. Short’s version of Galatea becomes sentient before she comes to life — that is, she was aware of her creator’s actions while she was still a statue; and, when asked, she will describe and reflect on her experiences in a very engaging way.