Metamorphosis

Lavoisier tells us that: « nothing is created, neither in the operations of art, nor in those of nature, and one can posit in principle that, in any operation, there is an equal quantity of matter before and after the operation; that the quality and quantity of the principles is the same, and that there are only changes, modifications ». This law of conservation is generally simplified by « Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed ». Somehow I could stop my explanation at this simple quote, but some of you might be a little disappointed.

The word metamorphosis comes from the Greek meta, which means after, and from morphe, which means form. Together they give metamorphoun, transform, and metamorphosis, transformation. The Romans would later adopt this term in Latin. In antiquity, metamorphosis is one of the most common events in Greek-Roman mythology. Ovid, a famous Latin poet, wrote in his famous Metamorphoses, the stories of humans transformed into birds or terrifying beasts. But sometimes they were also changed into mountains or trees, or even constellations of stars. In this book, metamorphosis is alternately a punishment from the gods or a reward from them.

In the Middle Ages, alchemists desperately sought the secret of the transmutation of lead into gold, of vile matter into precious matter. During this time, humans were accused of transforming themselves into crows or frogs and were condemned to death for this. Metamorphosis is therefore always a mysterious, almost mystical event. However, it will soon become apparent that many animals are subject to changes of this nature. Insects for example, like the butterfly in its chrysalis, see their shape change radically. To do so, however, they must go through a stage of dormancy, of rest.

© Suzanne D. Williams

But humans also seek change for themselves, a way to metamorphose. In « primitive » societies, for example, there is always a will to change, to transform oneself. We wear feathers in our hair or ritual paintings on our faces. In some tribes (the Jivano) it’s even considered that body paintings are more representative of a person’s being than the shape of his features. His identity is therefore the way he has chosen to metamorphose. Elsewhere, among the tribes who go hunting in disguise (=metamorphosed into an animal), it’s feared that the metamorphosis is stronger than reality. This tactic does not go then without fear: after all, what will be stronger, what will prevail, the difference of the bodies or the similarity between the soul of the human and the soul of the animal?

Descola tells us: « The metamorphosis is therefore not an unveiling or a disguise, but the culminating stage of a relationship where each person, by modifying the position of observation that his original physicality imposes on him, strives to coincide with the perspective under which he thinks the other sees himself. »
The human being who metamorphoses, disguises himself or tries to transform himself (including one could say it by surgical operations nowadays, or modifications such as tattoos or piercings, etc.) not for himself, but in relation to others. He metamorphoses in order to get closer to others, or to distinguish himself from them. He’s in any case always in a relationship. A metamorphosis is meaningless if it’s not faced with a reaction. The ultimate expression of oneself cannot occur if it does not have a spectator (be it an animal, a deceased person, etc.).

© Joe Green

Metamorphosis is a complex subject. We get up in the morning wanting to change the world, or change ourselves, or sometimes (although it’s probably riskier) change others. This may explain why metamorphosis is addressed in so many works of art: Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Apuleius (The Metamorphoses), or Kafka (The Metamorphosis) and even the Harry Potter saga (the Polyjuice potion), etc. References are not lacking.

Cornelius Castoriadis asserts that « man can create nothing », because « true forms are immutable, incorruptible, unbreakable ». But perhaps this is because one does not seek to metamorphose what can be. For Giordano Bruno, human nature has a « power of transformation » of its own. It’s then enough to master this power, which links humans to a kind of « cosmic infinity », so that through philosophy, Man becomes a master of metamorphosis, and can thus « permanently transform his power to act and think ». These encouraging words suggest that metamorphosis can very well leave the world of mythology and fairy tales to become part of the world of the possible. And therefore, that nothing stands in the way of a radical metamorphosis of the world for the good.

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Thank you & see you soon.

Little bibliography : 
- Giordano Bruno, A Philosophy of Metamorphosis.
- Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society.
- Philippe Descola, Par dela nature et culture.
- Kafka, The metamorphosis.
- Antoine Lavoisier, Elementary Treatise on Chemistry.
- Alexander Roob, Alchemy and mysticism.
- Ovide, Metamorphoses.

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