The Metamorphic Journey
Do something, you change. Do nothing, you change. Fight change, you change. Embrace change—well, you get the picture. And while we change, “things” change too. So it seems in the field of relative life, the one unchanging constant is constant change. This being the case, the best we can do is influence the directions of change.
One of my favorite parts of mythology (and of story in general) is witnessing the transformations of the characters as a result of their journeys—and all myths are journeys. In fact, what’s not a journey? A journey to the post office, to sleep, through thoughts or even thoughtlessness. The journey is a kind of current that moves us through life. It provides the impetus that keeps one’s narrative in perpetual motion, making change inescapable. Sure, it’s the journey that changes us. But it’s in how we engage the journey—our decisions, actions and reactions—that we are able to exert an influence on it. The good news is that we don’t need to find the “power” to influence change, the journey provides that free of charge. What we need are the skills and tools to steer as best we can in keeping with the general directions that the journey sends us in.
This month’s theme attends not to morphosis or objective change, but rather to self-reflective metamorphosis—the kind of change that transpires within. So let’s journey into mythology as a means of tracking psychic transformation through terrains of metaphorical and imaginal narrative. Sure, that’s a lot of abstract, impersonal content, but it holds two key terms that offer us passage out of the impersonal and into something we can call mine: “metaphorical” and “imaginal.”
Metaphor is our first big tool because it transcribes mythological narratives (i.e., stories about someone else) into stories about “me.” Or, more specifically, through metaphor, the relationships between mythic characters and the stories they find themselves in are precise correlations to the relationships between me and the stories I find myself in.
In Creative Mythology, we are introduced to Immanuel Kant’s formula: a is to b as c is to x. Joseph Campbell then applies this formula to mythic metaphors as a complete resemblance of two relationships. Meaning that it’s “not ‘a somewhat resembles b,’ but rather ‘the relationship of a to b perfectly resembles that of c to x’” (339).
The point here is simply to recognize the mechanics of this formula so that we can have it up and running while we read the myths, making their stories metaphorically concurrent to ours. There’s plenty more to say on Kant’s formula—and especially on the mysterious “x” which represents, in Campbell’s words, “a quantity that is not only unknown but absolutely unknowable” (339). And granted, metaphors can correlate all sorts of relationships, but as I’m using it here, x represents “my” story (and my myth) as an unknown value, which is precisely why it requires metaphor and not expository explanation to render a sense of what it is.
Now let’s look at our other big tool for influencing metamorphosis: Imagination. Being irrational, or non-rational, imagination is a complementary counterbalance to our rational understanding of the mechanics of metaphor. When we are mid-stride in a particular segment of our journey (or, correspondingly, when mythic figures are in mid-stride in a segment of theirs), there is always a level of uncertainty (x) as to which way to go or to what will happen. I suppose that in rational contexts, being in a position of not knowing is bad. In terms of imagination, however, it is highly desirable.
The condition of not-knowing is a powerful summons for imagination—it forces its involvement by necessity. We “imagine” into the possibilities of our story to find our way.
Furthermore, just as there is a correlation between not knowing and imagination, so there is between not knowing and the journey. After all, the root of the word “question” is quest. We see this relationship in Plato’s Myth of Er, where before entering into life the soul is first dipped in the river of Lethe [forgetfulness] to forget where it’s been and why it’s now here. I can think of a few good reasons for a dip in the Lethe. For one, it provides the mystery that necessitates the quest. And, for two, it provides a metaphor for the origin of a need for imagination.
As mentioned earlier, it’s in how we engage the journey that we can influence it. But it’s the experience of the journey that reciprocally changes us. And so we are, to a degree, the authors of our metamorphoses. We become “experienced” in this or that and it shows in our character. Likewise, imagination is entwined with experience. We may argue that it’s only subjectively real and has no influence on outer events. But consider guided meditation, for example. Our guide begins: “Imagine [and it always begins with ‘imagine’] you’re on a quiet beach, a light breeze, the sand cool. . .” and suddenly, your mood is calmed, your body-chemistry changed—perhaps a little more serotonin or dopamine in the bloodstream. And so, where the imagination goes, the experience follows.
In describing “aesthetic arrest” Campbell provides the following from Dante’s La Vita Nuova which speaks to the first time Dante perceives his beloved Beatrice:
I say that from that time forward Love lorded it over my soul, which had been so speedily wedded to him [‘him’ being a personification of Love and not Beatrice!] and he began to exercise over me such control and such lordship, through the power which my imagination gave to him, that it behooved me to do completely all his pleasure.
The key phrase here is “through the power which my imagination gave him.” Likewise, when we imagine into the myths and the metaphors of myths that we read, our involvement is made deep. And a place is opened for the metamorphosis to put in its roots and grow.
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