Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds : Ways of Telling the Self by Marina Warner
[Warner, M. (2004) Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self. (s.l.): Oxford University Press.]
Metamorphosis is a natural biological process of development involving seemingly sudden change, such as a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. While encased in a chrysalis and outwardly in stasis it has actually been undergoing a slow but life altering transformation.
Metamorphosis has been used in literature as a metaphor for the destruction of self since man wrote stories. And is now worked into such science fiction storylines as the cyborg, with its half human and half machine split… in a popular storyline in Star Trek the hero, Captain Kirk, was trying to hold on to his identity as he slowly turned into a machine, became part of the collective, and lost his ‘identity’.
We partly create our identity by writing a narrative of our lives, but our identity is also culturally and socially formed by our context in time and space. For example an Ancient Egyptian slave, modern city dweller, white privileged male, black woman all have very different identities quite apart from their self written narratives/understanding.
However, our sense of identity is extremely fragile and ever shifting. It is threatened by changes in circumstances, such as ageing, injury or success… or contacts with new information. On a societal level identity can be swept away by contact with another culture such as the Spaniards destroying (both physically and culturally) the Incas’ culture and society, and the destruction (or transformation) of medieval man by the Enlightenment into ‘modern’ man.
I think art is one way of exploring and reinforcing our identity. It can do this consciously by a knowing examination of ourselves and our world, such as medieval paintings of hell, or in an unknowing way as in an expression of our identity in abstract expressionism.
The psychology of identity is a huge subject… as is its exploration in the written and visual media. We are all frightened at a very deep level of losing our ‘self’ and the arts allow us to examine our fears so it is not surprising that so many stories weave around identity.
Any chapter in this book could be enlightening as they all examine different facets of identity in metamorphosis. However, I have chosen ‘Doubling’ because it’s common in contemporary science fiction and horror. A zombie is a kind of emptied out double, and therefore doubling is probably relating to something very deep in the modern psyche.
Short reflective account of ‘Doubling’
This 44 page chapter is mainly concerned with the history of doubling in literature and uses numerous examples from Shakespeare up to the late 18th century, with just a couple of more recent examples.
The chapter says that the root of doubling is the fear of the loss of self, of one’s ownership of personhood, and of autonomy. I think this fear is psychologically very deep because our sense of identity is very fragile and ever threatened. There are medical conditions which create unpredictable behaviours, commonly called… madness. But our ‘identity’ can also be threatened, or temporarily overturned by drugs, lack of sleep, life events, physical and mental damage, and hypnosis.
Therefore it is not surprising that doubling and loss of self features so heavily in myth, ancient (and modern) storytelling and religions of all kinds as, after all, the devil is the double of god… a bit like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
In ancient times, and some contemporary societies, doubling was considered real but as science has progressed and societies have modernised, people generally don’t believe that ghosts can become flesh and blood or corpses metamorphosed back into life… even in Shakespeare’s plays there is a healthy scepticism of ghosts and magic. As Prospero in the Tempest says, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
The chapter identifies three forms of doubling:
Real doubling… which doesn’t exist.
Representative doubling – photographs, films, ‘magic’, and audio all create ‘ghosts’ or doubles of the living. Today, we are so familiar with the special effects of TV and film that somebody seeing an early photograph as a ‘ghost’ didn’t even occur to me.
Doubling in fiction experienced as ‘real’ because of our suspension of disbelief. I think our fears of the loss of identity are as deep as they ever were but we can’t explore it through religion or magic anymore as no one (or not many) people believe that we can time travel under hypnosis or that ghosts can take flesh and blood form, so we have to explore it in fiction.
This chapter sets out some of the rules associated with different story worlds. For example in medieval Christian stories one of the rules was that only God can perform metamorphosis (bringing the dead back to life), is ubiquitous (can be in several places at once), and can tell the future. The Devil is a trickster and uses doubles so that he appears to do all those things. The Devil, like the madman, has multiple personalities, a trope of horror fiction to this day.
A rare contemporary example of doubling is the alien who enters a human body and destroys the ego, a bit like a cuckoo tipping out an egg, and then lives our lives in our stead. The horror version of this is where a tiny piece of human ego is left intact, aware but powerless to take action, pictured as locked in a box and buried deep inside the brain.
It is interesting how some elements of doubling have persisted from the Dark Ages and earliest myths right up to the present day. However, the chapter has very few examples of doubling in TV/film/literature from the 20th and 21st centuries so it is left up to the reader to fill in the gaps and make the connections with contemporary culture.
The only painter mentioned (in one sentence) is Goya but I’m sure there must be many examples of doubling in art. And there was a huge surge of identity painting in conceptual and figurative art from the nineteen eighties, it would have been fascinating to read how these used doubling.
In conclusion, this is probably a good chapter if you want to get some ideas of where to research doubling in 18th and early 19th century literature.