11/29/2012 08:17 am ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

Metamorphoses, Transformations and Other Terrors of Impermanence

Stories involving metamorphoses of people into new states of existence are ancient and widely represented in literature -- at least since the Latin writer Ovid (43 B.C.E.-17 C.E.) gathered up his collection of tales about "bodies ... transformed into shapes of a different kind" -- and they remain surprisingly commonplace in popular culture. Ugly ducklings become beautiful swans all the time, and with a little help from Charles Atlas, skinny teenagers get the bulk needed to confront the bullies kicking sand in their faces. Comic books and films constantly reinvent the superhero formula, with mild-mannered every(wo)man-types suddenly emerging as a bigger than life villains or caped do-gooders. Some of these transformations are unambiguously negative. The living become undead (vampires) or walking dead (zombies), and others transform through possession, as with Regan MacNeil in the 1973 film "The Exorcist." A few more examples illustrate the diversity of transformation tales and their remarkable flexibility as carriers of social and cultural meaning.

At the opening of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" (1915), Gregor Samsa awakes from a troubled sleep to discover himself "transformed into a monstrous vermin," thus awaking not from a nightmare but into one. His loss of humanity and dignity appears to resemble similar shortcomings he experiences in his career. Rather humorously, his thoughts shift almost immediately to this subject after becoming aware of his newfound state, as though that subject were as troubling as his new, insect-like form:

"'Oh God,' he thought, 'what a grueling [sic] profession I picked! Traveling day in, day out. It is much more aggravating work than the actual business done at the home office, and then with the strain of constant travel as well: the worry over train connections, the bad and irregular meals, the steady stream of faces who never become anything closer than acquaintances. The Devil take it all!'"

What is disturbing here is the suggestion that the everyday, monotonous responsibilities of modern life distort and destroy the individual. Gregor provides for his family's needs, doing what his parents and sister, and his society expect of him. Unexpectedly, the force that robs Gregor of his humanity and transforms him into "a monstrous vermin" is not some remote and fantastic witch's spell or sorcerer's charm but instead something common to all modern urbanites. It is the daily grind with all its mind-numbing routines and demands.

Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" (1886) presents a familiar example of a dramatic transformation, this time one involving loss of human decency and propriety:

"Even as good shone upon the countenance of the one, evil was written broadly and plainly on the face of the other. Evil ... left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay. ... Edward Hyde, alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil."

Stevenson's focus is individual morality (suggested by such terms as "evil" and "pleasure"), with perhaps a sideways glance at a careless indulgence in scientific inquiry, characteristic of the late 19th century. It is a story about the monster within each human soul, frightening because of the possibility that readers might become victims of the same types of destructive temptations. Mr. Hyde is both bestial and human, and by aligning immorality and evil, pleasure and clandestine behaviour with this villain, Stevenson reminds readers of a lurking potential within themselves, that they too can become monstrous. The close relationship of human and animal, good and evil, dignity and shame in such metamorphosis stories brings to mind the closing words of George Orwell's "Animal Farm" (1945): "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Transformations and metamorphoses can be positive or negative, literal or figurative. The scarecrow, tin man and lion gain wisdom, emotion, and courage quite apart from the incompetence of the Wizard of Oz. Here the changes are not literal. The heroes in Oz did not actually become something different (unless you compare them with their doppelgangers working as farm-hands on Auntie Em's farm in the 1939 film) because in fact they possessed those prized noble qualities all along and needed only the right circumstances to realize their potential. Literal metamorphoses are common in contemporary storytelling too, following along in Ovid's wake, as in Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" (1988) and Joe Hill's "Horns" (2010) where we find characters physically morphing into devil-like entities.

Many writers also use animal similes and descriptive metaphors to capture certain qualities in their characters. This is most evident in descriptions of literary villains, as in Charles Dickens' presentation of Uriah Heep, to choose an example almost at random. When describing him, David Copperfield uses such terms as "writhing" (five times, by my count) to depict Heep's movements, refers to "the snaky twistings of his throat and body," and more than once finds his fishy or frog-like handshakes repulsive (three times by my count). This character lacks humanity; he is a "monster in the garb of man" but still literally a human being. Elsewhere he is "a red-headed animal," a dog, and a serpent. One thing authors communicate through such use of bestial imagery is a backward evolution, a regression to a less-than-human or less-than-civilized state, a moral regression. There is something troubling about movement from one state of being to another, whether literal or figurative, particularly when it is movement toward destructive behaviours.

At the risk of over-generalizing, metamorphoses, transformations and animal-like characters startle us because they defy notions of permanence (we can change) and question assumptions about the superiority of humans over other species (we can change for the worse). Too easily and quickly, the writers of these stories seem to say, people succumb to degradations. They also reveal the root cause of our anxieties, aspirations and discontents. To recall examples just cited, the routines and demands of modern society that limit fulfillment and contentment (Kafka) are as soul destroying as the lust for pleasure (Stevenson). Regardless of the particular cause, they indicate that humans change, often reverting to some less-than-ideal condition. The noblest qualities of our species are impermanent. Progress is a chimera because humans eventually regress, either choosing to become bestial through their behaviour, or having a nonhuman status thrust on them by others (i.e., victims of violence treated as subhuman by their oppressors).

Another thread running through the long tradition of metamorphosis stories involves a sense of inevitability. Frequently, transformations are fated, beyond our ability to control and not necessarily deserved. Many stories in Ovid's writings describe punishments that do not fit the crimes committed, suggesting an absence of a human causal explanation for transformation. For instance, Apollo turns the partly human Ocyroe into a horse for no other reason than her skill in prophecy:

"Would that I did not know the future! Now I seem to see my human form stolen away; now meadow grass is my food, to gallop over the broad plains is my delight. I am changed into a mare, a creature to which I am already akin'" (i.e., she was the daughter of a centaur).

The whims of the gods are at play in such stories: "My purpose," writes Ovid in the invocation that opens his Metamorphoses, "is to tell of bodies which have transformed into shapes of a different kind. You heavenly powers, since you were responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts." Other writers also emphasise the inevitability of metamorphosis as a phenomenon beyond the human victim's control. The lycanthrope character in J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (1999) explains that even though he can control his behaviour following metamorphosis into a werewolf with the help of medication, that change itself is inevitable: "As long as I take [the Potion] in the week preceding the full moon, I keep my mind when I transform ... I am able to curl up in my office, a harmless wolf, and wait for the moon to wane again."

Like Ocyroe, John Remus Lupin's fate seems cruel. His condition is merely the consequence of a bite received as a child rather than any evil on his part.

There is much, much more to say about the cultural significance of the long, diverse traditions involving metamorphoses. However, for the purposes of this short reflection, I conclude with a few thoughts about ways these stories resonate with biblical literature. A key term I highlight is impermanence. All aspects of earthly human existence are transitory. Our experiences in this world are never static, and storytellers continuously narrate various forms of our individual and collective progressions. We never step in the same river twice, and day-to-day, year-to-year, generation-to-generation the world and everything in it is constantly in a state of becoming, for better or worse. We have transformation stories depicting personal growth and maturation (as in novels like "Great Expectations" or those in the "Harry Potter" series, sometimes referred to as Bildungsroman), and others fixated on the transformation of the human body, which is always and inexorably stumbling toward decay. Some of the latter involve (hopefully!) sensational elements, as in zombie stories.

There are countless movies -- often in the sci-fi and horror categories -- that reflect our anxieties about the impermanence of the physical world as well, sometimes manifesting as alien invasions, nuclear proliferation, environmental disaster, and unforeseen consequences of scientific/biological experiments or technological advancements. Consider, for instance, where the monsters come from in the various incarnations of the "War of the Worlds," "Godzilla" or "Terminator" stories.

Impermanence is an important thread running through biblical literature as well, where we find many metamorphoses and transformations. Consider these recurring images that play constantly in the writings of the prophets and apostles, indicating forms of movement/transformation and progress/regress, often (at least potentially) in both directions: garden to wilderness; slavery to freedom; homeland to exile; darkness to light; below to above. The list could go on. We could attach a wide number of passages and stories to these and many other categories that are emblematic of change within the spiritual life, whether for Israel, the community of Jesus' followers, or the individual.

Though some biblical metamorphoses involve changes for the worse (e.g., Nebuchadnezzar's debasement [Daniel 4:28-33]; church members leaving "the straight road" [2 Peter 2:15]), many others celebrate divinely assisted transformations that lift the human condition from despair to comfort, degradation to dignity: "He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog" (Psalm 40:2). The fixation with impermanence in storytelling reminds us to be wary of grasping the things of this world too firmly. All things must pass, as the Hindu George Harrison sings, and according to Jesus, we do well not to store up for ourselves "treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal" (Matthew 5:19).