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Back on Circe’s Island: Becoming-Animal with Deleuze and Guattari

Michiel van Veldhuizen

Brown University

From Aristophanes’ avian protagonists in Birds to the werewolves of the Zeus Lykaios cult in Arcadia, the Greek imagination teems with animal transformations. While scholarship on animals in the ancient world has recently blossomed in what has been called ‘the animal turn,’ modern approaches to human-animal metamorphosis do not typically make it beyond the interpretive framework of analogy, metaphor, or mimesis. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari explicitly reject this framework, and offer instead a perspective on human-animal rapprochement that centers on the process of becoming, rather than fixed states. Drawing on anthropological studies (Leach, Joset), they take becoming-animal seriously as a human practice, not as something that needs to be explained away: “The becoming-animal of the human being is real, even if the animal the human being becomes is not” (Deleuze-Guattari: 238). This paper shows how our understanding of ancient Greek beliefs and practices involving liminality, particularly of human-animal transitions, is enhanced by the philosophical framework that Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming offers. To do so, I draw on philological and visual analysis to offer an interpretation of the oft-discussed (e.g. Page, Dyke) folktale of Circe’s encounter with Odysseus and his companions as a case study of becoming, one that is exemplary of the interplay between alliance and contagion.

I start by interpreting the concept of becoming-animal (Chapter 10 of A Thousand Plateaus), which has been labeled “among the most recondite of their concepts” (Bruns: 703). I demonstrate its connection to Greek culture and mythology, most obviously through Deleuze and Guattari’s conscious inclusion of Greek vase paintings of “wolf-men” at the beginning of the chapter (Deleuze-Guattari: 232, 611). (In fact, the first “wolf-man,” depicted on an Etruscan amphora currently in the Louvre, is identified by Beazley as a lion-man possibly from the Circe story in the Odyssey.) Significantly, Deleuze and Guattari engage with and reject the structuralism of Lévy-Strauss and Vernant that has been so influential in our understanding of Greek myth, because of the way in which structuralism relies on processes of analogy. The animals of myth are defined by their characteristics or attributes and thus operate by analogy, whereas the animal of becoming is, for Deleuze and Guattari, of the demonic type: typically featured in folk tales (bees, wolves, vampires), they populate the pack through contagion. Indeed, as Adkins has argued, the entire philosophical premise of A Thousand Plateaus rests on replacing the doctrine of analogy with that of proximity and contagion. This contagion happens along the borders, the cutting edge of deterritorialization, a place occupied by the anomalous individual. Deleuze and Guattari explicitly invoke the figure of the sorcerer: “Sorcerers have always held the anomalous position, at the edge of the field or woods” (Deleuze-Guattari: 246).

Adopting the perspective of such a sorcerer, namely the witch and goddess Circe, I analyze her encounter with Odysseus and his companions along the interpretive lines offered by the concept of becoming. I argue that the encounter can be understood as the embodiment of the apparent contradiction that Deleuze and Guattari observe between the contagion of the pack (Odysseus’ men) and the preferential alliance of the exceptional individual (Odysseus), whose own cutting edge of the drawn sword deterritorializes Circe. The interpretive advantages of this approach are manifold. For example, the concept of contagion on the molecular level of food explains the role of consumption in the tale (e.g. Circe’s drug and Hermes’ moly). In addition, treating the animal transformation as demonic removes the obligation often felt by scholars (as early as Plutarch’s Gryllus) to explain why the men are transformed into swine—something which is in fact incongruous with visual representations of the scene (Hill, le Glay). I conclude the paper by offering additional applications of becoming to the analysis of Greek society, as, for example, a way to understand the animal chorus.

Session/Panel Title:

Deterritorializing Classics

Session/Paper Number

22.5

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