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 that is the cause of much anxiety for many of us.
Intellectually, of course, we know that things change. After Darwin and Lyell, we know that transformation happens on a large and slow scale to the world around us (although with global warming may be speeding things up). We know from our own observations that people grow up, have children, age, suffer tragedies, cope or fail to cope, suffer good fortune or bad, and age. 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. But, perhaps the wise in a world of motion have always known that it is sometimes only change that can save us.
Ovid, of course, knew. He was at the end of an era that internalized myths in which 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:
The heavens and all below them, earth and her creatures,
All change, and we, part of creation, also
Must suffer change.
Edith Hamilton points out that the beautiful stories of Metamorphoses – Adonis into a red anemone, for example – were probably based on stories of human sacrifice. If there was trouble with the crops, someone would be sacrificed, and their blood sprinkled over the fields. “Mankind had only a dim feeling that as their own life depended utterly on seedtime and harvest, there must be a deep connection between themselves and the earth and that their blood, which was nourished by the corn, would in turn nourish it at need.” As in many things, the sacrifice has been forgotten. The beautiful remains.
In any case, Ovid’s tales of metamorphoses, while they may begin as stories of psychological or spiritual change, end as stories of physical change. The intangible becomes manifest. For us to know the change, to begin to understand the change that happens to another person, we need a material phenomenon. Why? 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. It is a paradox.
Such extraordinary changes also remind us that we cannot live without metaphors. In the seventeenth century, the western world lost one set of metaphors, but soon replaced them with new ones. The void must be filled. There are things that we cannot understand by thinking about them in abstract terms. But, at the same time, we need to remember that metaphors are simply correspondences. The fantastic also does this for us. Think of Gulliver’s Travels. It is a delicate balance that we have sometimes forgotten how to negotiate. We might remember that even Milton calls the imagination as a chief 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.
Let your fancy roam and then see if it can bring anything back for your reason. I did, and these are my stories of change and metamorphosis. I hope you enjoy them. Or better yet, read the master, Ovid.