Life Imitates Art? Part I

All art is at once surface and symbol

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray Preface)

The concept of metamorphosis has provided a rich vein of material for artists throughout history. Hundreds of artistic and literary works have benefited from characters gifted with shape altering abilities or who have been cursed to involuntarily change their form.

However, metamorphosis also plays a fundamental and critical role in the natural world.

Scientific works, dating back to Goethe, deal with the evolution of plants and animals in the natural world, as they journey through the various stages of their life cycle. Human beings are no different, as they too are born, gradually evolve into adulthood from the years of childhood until they finally proceed into elder years to their final individual metamorphosis, where their human form ceases and rejoins the earth.

This process of metamorphosis, which is a constant for all living organisms appears quite natural to us all - apart, perhaps, from when we contemplate our own personal fates or those of loved ones - as the natural process of ageing is visible all around us from our earliest days. These standard, rhythmic, life cycle metamorphoses are generally in marked contrast to the fantastic and often 'out of the world' metamorphic fantasies portrayed in many artistic works, particularly when they lie outside the natural and human sphere of influence.

We are now, though, living in a situation where the power of transforming nature and the processes of evolution in plants and other living organisms has become a mere component of human 'knowledge'. No longer is metamorphosis merely in the hands of aloof or remote Gods or an immutable fact of nature. Today, humans have uncovered the secret of metamorphic change and are using it to an ever greater extent. However, it would be hard to argue that we have used this newfound power to any greater benefit than that displayed by the capricious gods of yore.

Daydream Fiction, Nightmare Faction

Throughout Metamorphoses, Ovid (re)presents a fascinating range of transformations, many of which involve frightening alterations in the forms of humans, who have displeased the gods. The reader is confronted with the licentious wiles of Gods, who transform themselves into alternate forms to more conveniently seduce the objects of their affection. This power to transform themselves or humans, however, lies firmly in the hands of the Gods and is beyond the power of humans. In Kafka's Metamorphosis, we are introduced to the surreal world of Grigor Samsa who, upon awakening from a restless sleep, discovers he is no longer clothed in his human form but has apparently transformed into a 'beetle' or a 'bug' during the night. In Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, the eponymous 'hero' wishes he might stay forever young while his portrait ages in his stead. And indeed, the 'Narcissus', as Dorian is referred to by the painter Basil gets his desire, as his picture begins to age and suffer the sins of his mortal form.

Yet, no matter how gripping, convincing and well constructed these stories are, they are still works of fiction. Readers are free to vicariously live the narratives and 'be' the characters described in these texts, secure in the knowledge that they can safely break off their engagement with them, by simply closing their books and (re)opening their eyes to the world around.

Such an escape back to reality does not exist for the narrative of those portrayed in the documentary film, Battle's Poison Cloud, which investigates the use of Agent Orange in Việt Nam by the US forces and its consequences for the people who live there. From the outset the viewer is confronted with the nightmare of modern day metamorphosis as the camera coldly gazes at rows of jars of malformed foetuses and aborted babies swimming in formaldehyde. These deformed proto-humans, frozen forever in their moment of becoming, bear testament to the metamorphic power possessed by humans today.

Today there is no need for supernatural or magical explanations for these metamorphoses. They are the results of conscious actions by other humans, who dropped millions of gallons of the poisonous dioxin Agent Orange (1) from planes, onto the countryside of Việt Nam and the heads of its people, to strip away the abundant forests to better able to target the Vietnamese resistance. Indeed, this process itself, which consisted of first dropping napalm to kill the trees and vegetation, followed by Agent Orange to burn it and bulldozers to sweep what was left away, resulted in a veritable metamorphosis of the country's topology. What once had been a landscape covered with flourishing, luxuriant and abundant forests was turned into a severely scarred and barren earth.

During this period, the Vietnamese resistance was obliged to live and work for months and years at a time in underground tunnels, emerging only at night for reconnaissance missions, such as locating and mapping US bases. As Noam Chomsky observed when reviewing the 'Pentagon Papers' - Reasons of State – the Americans did not appear to even regards these Vietnamese as fully formed humans:

"the Vietnamese appear only marginally, and then only as items to be controlled by the American instituted regime, never capable of performing its assigned task; or as infrastructure to be rooted out;" though at times "there is occasional recognition that the creatures who inhabit Vietnam may be human, or at least animate."(2)

Perhaps this mentally projected metamorphism of the Vietnamese people into something other than the 'human', helped the Americans involved in the conflict justify their intervention in Việt Nam to themselves.

Despite the immense suffering endured by the Vietnamese during the war, not least during the chemical attacks, the most severe consequences of these actions have only come to light since the war. Although the Vietnamese tried to protect themselves from the showers of dioxin, by covering their faces with towels drenched in water or even their own urine, many were directly contaminated. Furthermore, the dioxins dropped took root in the land and waters around, from whence it was able enter into the life cycles of the plants, animals, fish and people in the future.

Of all the chemicals released in Việt Nam, it was the estimated 80 million litres of Agent Orange, used over a period of some 8 years from 1962-1970, which were to have the most devastating long-term consequences. Agent Orange was a 'man-made' dioxin, which was a thousand times more deadly than any poison to be found in nature. While it is difficult to obtain exact figures as to the exact toll of human victims of Agent Orange in Việt Nam, Vietnamese estimates in 2000 were that some 400,000 people had been killed or injured by this dioxin in the 1960s and that since then it had contributed to another 500,000 birth defects.

Where once the idea of 'unnatural' metamorphosis might have belonged firmly to the Gods of imagination striding majestically through the pages of Ovid's poetry, the apparent inability of a Kafkaesque Grigor Samsa to develop into anything else but a 'beetle' or for the Dorian Gray creation of Wilde to 'mystically' project his negative essence onto a portrait of himself, it has now entered everyday life. No longer do the standard and regular workings of natural metamorphoses exist alone. A whole new world of random and self-perpetuating transformations is now present; one created through the conscious actions of humans.

While we can avert our gaze from the sufferings of our fellow humans, as we might from those of the protagonists in the artistic works discussed, we know that the reality outside the immediate range of our mind and senses continues. No matter how much we wish it might not be so, we are also aware that our wish to 'un-remember' or put aside the reality depicted in BPC is hardly a valid one, as long as the lives of so many are plagued by uncontrollable metamorphoses, living nightmares from whence they are currently powerless to awake.

For more information on the devastating legacy of Agent Orange in Việt Nam, visit

1. Agent Orange received its name from the colour of the barrels within which it was contained.

2. Chomsky, Noam; For Reasons of State (Pantheon Books, New York, 1973) p. 73. Further on an American advisor is quoted as stating 'Naturally we torture the Vietcong... The only way to combat these people who act like animals is to kill them." P 92