The subject of metamorphosis has been creeping about in the background lately. It seems to be infiltrating my work by stealth so I’ve taken a few moments to pin the thought down using words… just so it doesn’t try to pull any funny tricks.
I read Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the first time when I was in my teens, and have returned to re-read it many times since. There is something very alluring about the prospect of waking up to find oneself transformed into a giant beetle. Perhaps enjoyment comes from being made aware of my own insignificance- a simultaneously horrifying and enlightening thought.
It seems that throughout history, the concept of metamorphosis has often been used in a way that mirrors current paradigms, telling us how we have understood our place in the world at any given moment.
I recently came across some interesting writing by Lance Olsen, who explores the contrast between pre-modern and postmodern ideas of metamorphoses using examples drawn from the Divine Comedy and Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
A scene early on in the Divine Comedy introduces us to an unfortunate soul who has undergone metamorphosis by saying that ‘when Dante plucks a twig from a bush, the trunk cries out in pain and relates that he took his own life and that this is his punishment… ie. he is given ‘subhuman form that will forever feel the pain and misery generated by this sacreligeous act.’
This particular case of metamorphosis is interesting in that it lays out a very clear context in which the transformation takes place. The transformation itself is a form of penance paid by an individual whose actions imply a disrespect of the accepted order. The act of suicide is seen as sacrilegious in that the victim has used his free will, which is a god given gift, to end his own life which is also a gift granted by god. For this reason the metamorphosis is charged with reason, certainty and importance.
By contrast, the metamorphosis that happens to Greggor Samsa lacks both redemptive flavour and the distinction between body and soul that we see in the previous example. There is no moral lesson to be learned in particular- in fact, some people might ‘just so happen to turn into insects’ while others remain unchanged irrespective of their bad behaviour. Metamorphosis in this case is unreasonable.
Looking at cases of metamorphosis that happen closer to home, it does seem a little too simple to suggest that the act of transformation could be held at bay through correct moral conduct. However, complete absolution of individual responsibility may also be ruled out.
Looking back to last weeks story of the Two Hunchbacks who were metamorphosed by the fairies, we are given a string of possible causes but no definite clues to tell us why the transformation occurred. Perhaps it is left up to the listener to ‘read’ their own meaning into the tale.
There are many Scottish stories of people being ‘taken’ by the fairies yet definite reasons for the fairies choice of human is never provided, though it is often guessed at. (I understand being ‘taken’ as simmilar to being metamorphosed as often the ‘husk’ or body of the person is left behind while their life essence is removed from them by the fairies.)
It would be interesting to follow this subject further, looking at particular examples of metamorphosis within Scottish context, however I am conscious that there is still much art left unmade in my studio.
For the final thought on metamorphosis we should return to Lance Olsen, who says that:
“Almost always there is some element of horror present since metamorphosis indicates that matters of life and death are beyond ones control. Often the change that comes about is irresistable, underscoring a lack of individual will and selfhood.’
Perhaps there is a general human desire to be reminded of our own instability in this uncertain world.