Metamorphoses, Reason and Another of Life’s Paradoxes

“My intention is to tell of bodies changed to different forms; the gods, who made the changes, will help me–or I hope so–with a poem that runs from the world’s beginning to our own days.” Ovid, Metamorphoses

While my stories are generally realistic (at least they are about the kinds of things which occur in my reality), I have also written many tales of wondrous changes – young men turning into dogs, old ladies into songbirds, middle-aged women into foxes. I have been inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and impelled by the need for profound metaphors when words themselves don’t seem comprehensive enough. Most of what is below was written as a tentative introduction to a never-completed collection of those stories, and yet it seems to have a lot to do with old age and so here it is.

We know that life is change; we see it all around us. Yet, we value permanency, dream about the forever after. Marriage promises that we will always love each other. Children mean that there will always be someone there for us, someone to remember us. We go to the doctor to preserve our bodies and to the dentist so that we can keep our teeth. We celebrate great birthdays, long tenures at jobs, endurance in marriages. Individually, we want to remain the same and we want the people in our life to be unchanged. Our fairy tales end with life happily ever after and our doxologies with world without end. But, of course, life is not like that, and our beliefs and desires for constancy set up a basic paradox which is the cause of much anxiety.

Intellectually, of course, we know that things change. After Darwin and Lyell, we know that transformations happen on such large and slow scales that we can’t even notice them. (Global warming may be speeding such transformations up to the point of getting our attention.) But we also know from our own observations that people grow up, have children, age, suffer tragedies, cope or fail to cope, suffer good fortune or bad, age, and die. Yet, we choose to worship the illusive stability rather than the pervasive change. In our culture we have very few metaphors for the benefits of change; it is good to be as solid and stable as a rock, but it is not usually a compliment to be a chameleon or a shape-changer. And woe to the politician who admits to changing his mind – flip-flopper comes to mind. Would we really want to live a life where we never change our mind? (Think of your first spouse.) Perhaps the wise have always known that sometimes only change can save us.

Ovid, of course, knew. He was at the end of an era which internalized myths wherein physical metamorphoses were used to demonstrate the power – for good and bad – of change. His tales are full of transformation, starting from the changes that formed the earth and ending with the alterations in his own world and contemplations of the changes that death will make in his own body. He puts the most direct sermon on the subject of change, however, in the mouth of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher of music, vegetarianism, and reincarnation, who admonishes us:

                                                    Remember this:
The heavens and all below them, earth and her creatures,
All change, and we, part of creation, also
Must suffer change.

Ovid relates tales of change, and while they may begin as stories of psychological or spiritual change, they end as stories of physical change. The intangible becomes manifest. He believed that to truly understand the change that happens to another person, we readers need a material phenomenon. Why? Again, perhaps we need such a transformation because we are programmed to look for, to hope for, to believe in permanence. It takes powerful evidence to remind us that stability is an illusion. Perhaps the fantastic is necessary for us to comprehend that reality is a constantly metamorphosing world around us. And sometimes it takes a fantastic view of the world to make us take a fresh assessment of normality.  (Think of Gulliver’s Travels.) It is a paradox.

While comprehension of such extraordinary changes requires use of the fantastic, the fantastic requires metaphors.  By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the “enlightened” western world lost one set of metaphors, but soon replaced them with new ones. The void must be filled. Metaphors of progress replaced those of redemption. (Think the Wall Street bull vs. the sacrificial lamb.) We tend to think we are in the Age of Reason; reason would figure everything out and solve our problems. But maybe that hasn’t worked out so well. We might remember that even Milton calls the imagination (fancy in 17th century language) the most important faculty serving reason:

But know that in the soul
Are many lesser faculties that serve
Reason as chief, among these fancy next
Her office holds.

This is something that even the ancient Greeks knew, but we seem to have forgotten.

This week’s story is “What Crime Is There in Error?” Other stories in my Metamorphoses series available on this site include “Every Winged Bird According to Its Kind,” “Gift to the Widows,” and “Fable About a Soccer Mom.” Let your fancy roam and then see if it can bring anything back for your reason.

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