From Story Act 1, 2017

Change, as they say, is inevitable, constant. But our preparedness to wrangle with the outcomes, the new forms in which we find ourselves and our world is rarely as certain. Britain’s Professor Anthony Grayling, Philosopher and Master of New College of the Humanities, London traverses multiple disciplines – arts, science, philosophy – to explore the idea of change at this moment in our history...

What word best captures the implications of these synonyms: change, alteration, transfiguration, transformation? There are allusions in these words to other shifts and reinventions, for example in 'displacement', 'emergence' and 'catalysis?' The word that most neatly wraps these words together with all their meanings complete is: metamorphosis. Metamorphosis is the migration of anything from one form or pattern into another. As change or alteration, this shape-shifting and evolutionary movement of things inwardly into one another, or outwardly into other things, is a central thread in how the world works, and certainly the single most important aspect of life in general and human life in particular.

Think about it: the essence of biological existence is transformation – plants metamorphose light and air into energy, and energy into activity and cells; animals eat plants or other animals, changing them into energy and likewise thence into activity and their own bodies. If their work of transforming some things into other things stops, organisms die.

But death is not an end. When organisms die they disperse back into the elements they had previously taken from nature to construct themselves. Biology is the metamorphosis of parts of the world into other parts of the world, and back into the world again. Human individuals and societies similarly live by metamorphoses. History is rich in examples of what happens when change stops: societies that become stagnant are doomed to collapse either from decay or when an outside agency – an invader or coloniser – pushes them over. 

Think of the end of Qing dynasty China, toppled at last in 1911 after a century of being hollowed out by stasis, the sclerosis of its social life. For individuals the story is similar. Life is change and growth, most significantly mental growth. Giving up, withdrawing into habit, retiring from the stimulation of work and social engagement, is mental and soon enough physical demise.

But the kinds of changes so vitally at work in the biological realm are only analogously the same as those in the human realm. In the latter, change means adaptation – in the form of fresh responses to old challenges, and innovation to meet new challenges. It means learning lessons from one sphere of activity to apply to another. It means looking at things from new, different, unusual angles to see them afresh. Lunacy has been defined as the opposite: as the insistence on repeatedly applying failed strategies over and over again to the same problems; on this view, sanity must be defined as ever-readiness to experiment anew.

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century is a paradigm case of social transformation effected by adapting the methods and insights of one endeavour – the nascent natural sciences – to another – the social sciences and politics. To live at the beginning of that century, and to live at its end, was to live in two different worlds.

One way that the idea of adaptation works in the practical sphere is illustrated by the use that engineers make of ideas drawn from biology. For example, biologists discovered that spiders spin silk at different speeds to produce different threads for different uses. When spun quickly, silk is stronger, because the crystals constituting it are smaller and have fewer flaws. The spider uses this kind of silk to make its web. It spins thicker strands, and more and less sticky silk, for other jobs; cocoons to protect its young, a thread to hold onto while using the wind to blow it to a new hunting site. By studying the structure of spider threads, engineers garner ideas about how to make new materials permitting radically original designs in everything from buildings and bridges to aircraft and computer hardware.

Adapting ideas from one domain to another is a characteristically creative human activity. The most familiar example is the adaptation of literary works into television series and films. Two striking facts leap out when one contemplates this activity. One, the most obvious, is how the narrative techniques of the different media work: what a film leaves out from a literary original, and what it adds or changes to make the story work in its own medium, are marks of where the essentials of the respective art forms differ.

The other, less obvious, fact is how much adaptations rely on their contemporary audience expectations. Look now at the 1967 television adaptation of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga novels, and the 2002 TV miniseries version; and compare both to the original books. Fifty years ago what could be said and shown on television screens was not so different from now, but if the fifty year old version seems tremendously old fashioned to contemporary eyes, and not just because of technical advances since made, it is because many of the conventions of acting and directing have changed, and most of all in the degree to which they exploit the text itself.

Films of the 1930s and 40s, and television costume dramas of the BBC type of the 1960s and 70s, were unafraid of words. Long speeches, long continuous dialogues as in stage productions, and long monologues such as in the opening of the 1967 Forsyte Saga in Kenneth More’s beautiful voice, were the result of much greater closeness to literary originals. The 1967 Forsyte took the panoramic, bird’s-eye approach to retelling the saga; the 2002 version, far more compressed, filleted out and emphasised the story of Soames Forsyte – wonderfully played by Damian Lewis – and his tragically unhappy marriage to Irene. The dialogue was sparer and sharper, honed to essentials, leaving the acting to convey almost everything about the personalities of the characters and the nature of their relationships. It is beautifully done; the comparison between the two styles is not invidious; one can enjoy either. But they are a striking example of the difference between then and now in the way adaptations are made.

Some adaptations take on a status that makes it hard for later adaptations to compete. This is true of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, and the contrast with the film version starring Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. Where the former successfully allowed itself the original’s textual weight, the latter was a film made for its times – a romantic tale, in essence appealing to the same constituency who watched other recent examples of the genre, such perhaps as Becoming Jane with Anne Hathaway and Never Let Me Go also with Kiera Knightley. Again the comparison is not intended as invidious, merely illustrative. The earlier adaptations cleaved to the textual original, the later to what the director knew the audience would expect.

The stories that obsess and absorb us all are few in number, and they are mainly stories of love, suffering, loss and the quest for redemption of one or another kind; some with happy endings, some not. They are told and retold, in different forms, in different adaptations, each shedding new light on new possibilities in them. Jan Philipp Gloger’s 2016 production of Cosi Fan Tutte at London’s Covent Garden asked questions about human fallibility and fidelity in general, not just about the fickleness of women; the new perspective was enabled by a staging that, among others, involved the cast materialising out of the audience in the stalls. In the 1990s the Estates Theatre in Prague repeatedly hosted a Don Giovanni (where it was first premiered in 1787) in which the amorous Don appears as a dissolute modern fashion designer, in just such a rout of partying we read about in the gossip columns of Hollywood magazines.

These are instructive metamorphoses: they are an integral aspect of the way art lives on, constant only in its originality. A same story differently told cannot fail to make us receive it afresh. Resistance to such innovations is commonplace, but it is worth remembering that a person who would most enjoy adaptations and re-envisionings of his work would without question be Shakespeare, whose plays have been given the full spectrum of experimental and innovative treatments in all forms. Some of these promise to be classics in their own right: Ian McKellen as a fascist Richard III in Richard Loncraine’s gripping film version will himself probably recognise this as a more enduring achievement than his portrayal of Gandalf.

There is a quite different kind of metamorphic activity in culture: the use of ideas and metaphors from one area of creativity in another – for one tendentious example, the employment of ideas from particle physics in literary criticism. Here the ice grows thinner over which theorists skate, unless they are truly at home in both terrains. One study of the novel El Tunel by Argentinian writer Ernesto Sabato was conducted 'by applying some of the language of quantum theory' to it – on the grounds that Sabato had commenced his adult career as a physics teacher. There was some justification for the endeavour: the novel is full of ambiguity, constructed in parallel timelines, with labyrinthine destinies for the characters – all in ways suggestive (to the authors of the study) of superposed quantum states awaiting an observation that would collapse the wave function into a definite state, or turning on something like quantum entanglement in the implicated destinies of characters.

The ice is thinner here because although metaphor can be a powerfully illuminating tool, it can also run away with its users and become forced and implausible. Often literary theorists use scientific terminology ignorantly or in disanalogous ways. In one scholarly study of Hamlet the worlds of Elsinore and the afterlife where Hamlet’s father roams were likened to superposed states, as in the 'Schrodinger’s cat' thought experiment, and the relationship of the Prince to Ophelia was likened to quantum entanglement – all very well, but not vastly illuminating, nor even compelling: for the ghost enters the physical realm of Elsinore to deliver his message, and the pull between Hamlet and Ophelia is remarkably weak, unlike the entanglement of space-like separated particles subjected to action on one of them, producing instantaneous mirror-image change in the other.

It is in science itself that the true and ubiquitous nature of metamorphosis is most apparent. Evolutionary theory in biology is the classic example; in a saga both grander and more amazing than imagination can absorb in one bite, the story of life emerging into ever more complex and diverse forms, and doing so over vast epochs, leaves us reeling once we grasp its implications. From looking at the multiferous forms of nature we see our own: the highly advanced state of human society is matched by little else in the world, but our limitations are reflected back at us also. Butterflies and bees see flowers covered in dots and circles in the ultraviolet spectrum, where we see a narrow range of colours only. Bats hear noises high above our capacity to hear, and elephants far below. The biologist EO Wilson offers this analogy for humans in a world wild with colour, scent and sound sealed from us: we are, he says, as if walking deaf and blind in the streets of New York.

Both science and science fiction, however, prise open the lid on the world beyond our ordinary kin, and then we see it transfigured: and art does it also, changing our view of things into new forms; and music can alter us emotionally as we listen, speaking to us beyond words. Myth and folklore is full of shape-shifters, transmogrifiers and metamorphoses, those that Ovid reported and Kafka invented, made to seem not so strange after all because we can think without surprise of the tadpole turning into a frog and a caterpillar into a butterfly. And perhaps we find even more interesting the idea of an ugly duckling turning into a swan – that comes closer to home, more central to the human concerns we have about possibilities that matter. But it is still a metamorphosis, and it needs art to bring it home. Change, alteration, transfiguration, transformation: the works of metamorphosis are present in everything alive, and are the essence of life itself.

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AC Grayling

AC Grayling is the Master of the New College of the Humanities, London, and its Professor of Philosophy, and the author of over thirty books of philosophy, biography, history of ideas, and essays. He is a columnist for Prospect magazine, and was for a number of years a columnist on The Guardian and The Times. He has contributed to many leading newspapers in the UK, US and Australia, and to BBC radios 4, 3, 2 and the World Service, for which he did the annual 'Exchanges at the Frontier' series; and he has often appeared on television. He has twice been a judge on the Booker Prize, in 2015 serving as the Chair of the judging panel. He is a Vice President of the British Humanist Association, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.