Life Imitates Art? Part II

The metamorphic transformations inflicted on their human victims by Ovid's capricious gods have serious or even fatal consequences. When Jove's wife Juno, jealous of Callisto's relationship with her husband, changes her into a bear, Callisto is forced to wander alone for many years, still in possession of her human feelings but trapped in a bear-like form. After fifteen years she runs into her own son Arcas, who fails to recognise his mother. He is only prevented from killing her by the intervention of Jove, who turns them both into neighbouring constellations. After Semele becomes pregnant with Jove's child, Juno tricks her into asking Jove to make love to her in the 'way' he does to Juno. This leads to her death as,

"Her mortal body

Could not endure that rush, and in that mating

That gift, burned utterly."

Similarly, Dorian, although he avoids the physical stigmata of the ageing process and his evil deeds, as his portrait suffers in his place, ends eaten up inside through 'the living death of his own soul'. Despite ostensibly enjoying a life of permanent youth and freedom of action devoid of moral consequence, Dorian finds his relationship with society, and through that himself, destroyed by these very negations of his natural life cycle.

While Metamorphoses focuses on the whims of the gods and the impact of their actions on humans and Dorian Gray appears to emphasise the ethical pitfalls of excessive narcissistic behaviour, Kafka's Metamorphosis deals with the social and economic costs arising from Grigor Samsa's transformation. From being the major breadwinner for his family, Grigor undergoes a parallel metamorphosis to his physical one. In his new form, he is no longer able to engage in any dealings with normal society and so becomes totally dependent on the goodwill of his family to take care of him. Conversely, as he decays, his family undergoes its own metamorphosis. Whereas previously they were totally dependent on him financially, they are now obliged to become self-sufficient and start to engage actively with the world outside their family unit. These contrasting transformations come to a head when the three lodgers, renting accommodation from his family, notice him as he edges forward from his room to listen to his sister playing the violin. Outraged at the sight of Grigor, one of them declares:

"(i)n view of the revolting conditions prevailing in this household and family... I give immediate notice. Naturally I shall not be paying a penny for the period I have already spent here; on the contrary, I shall be considering whether to lodge some claim for damages against you..."

Grigor's sister argues that they must therefore get rid of it (Grigor) and the rest of his family agrees. His annihilation is now complete on both the social and economic levels. There is nothing left for Grigor to do but crawl back laboriously and painfully to his room, where he is promptly locked in and from which he is never to emerge again.

Just as the metamorphoses occurring in artistic works have personal, social and economic consequences for the protagonists involved so too do those in the real world.

For the victims of the Agent Orange provoked deformities and their families in Việt Nam, there is a real fear they will not be fully accepted in society. In the documentary Battle's Poison Cloud (BPC), a Vietnamese girl, Phan Thị Kiều Oanh at the 'Friendship Village' school, for those affected by Agent Orange, describes how the families of normal children are very happy while disabled families are not very happy because of the sorrow of war, though they do love their children and try to do their best for them.

In addition to worrying about their child's ability to fit into society, Vietnamese families looking after disabled children or siblings are frequently placed in an extremely precarious situation economically. As Nguyên Cảnh assists her granddaughter eat by chewing her food to soften it before feeding it to her, she explains how her great fear is that when she passes away there will be no one to look after her, as her daughter-in-law has to work hard in the fields for the family.

Wayne Dwernychuk, an independent Agent Orange expert interviewed in BPC, informs us that the Agent Orange 'poison' has now seeped into the earth and is there to stay. Many barrels of dioxin were also buried in the ground and there were also numerous accidental spillages, such as the 22,000 litres of Agent Orange that seeped into a lake beside Biên Hòa town. The 22,0000 inhabitants now live in an area, which has been contaminated to a level 1,000 times that considered acceptable in the US. To make this area safe for human habitation would require a total evacuation of the entire population followed by the removal and burning of a significant layer of the topsoil.

It has been estimated that between 10 and 15% of the South of Việt Nam has been contaminated. Given a recovery cost for cleaning the land at a minimum of US$500 the cost of making it safe for human habitation would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. While this would be chicken feed for a country that spends hundreds of billions on their military, it is prohibitive for a poor country such as Việt Nam. Furthermore, while it might be possible in time to replace the vegetation destroyed it is unlikely the forest would ever again be the habitat of the rich variety of wildlife that roamed their pre-war.

In effect, the south of Việt Nam has become a sort of nightmare Heraclitean laboratory, where the people, the animals, the vegetation and the landscape have been - and continue to be - engaged in a process of constant metamorphic transformation over the past 30 years.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag refers to six thousand photographs of those about to die at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Comparing these to the photo of the shooting of a 'Vietcong' prisoner, she remarks how;

"More upsetting is the opportunity to look at people who know they have been condemned to die:.. the documentation of this atrocity courtesy of the Khmer Rouge record keepers, who had each sit for a photograph just before being executed. A selection of these pictures in a book titled the Killing Fields makes it possible, decades later, to stare back at the faces staring into the camera – therefore at us."

However, upsetting thought these photographs might be and although they are not fictional, they are still distant and removed from the viewer in that they are reminders, albeit grim and horrific, of an event that has passed; one which all 'right-minded' people can comfortably abhor and reject without being compelled to act. In a similar manner, the narratives of Ovid, Kafka and Wilde, while providing wonderful and fascinating insights into life through the medium of the fantastic, are also 'safe' as their readership is under no pressure to rouse themselves from their reveries and take action.

In BPC, however, we are faced directly with the actual, ongoing torment of a people, condemned to a horrific lottery where random and harmful metamorphoses emerge with the bodies of their children at birth. As awareness of the effects of Agent Orange grows more and more Vietnamese have to live with the knowledge that their own bodies could well now be carriers of this poisonous dioxin which, by corroding their DNA structure, could lead to them inflicting their offspring with some deformity.

We therefore no longer need fiction to transport us into the world of dramatic metamorphoses; it lies in front of us if we are only willing to raise our heads from our contemplation of works of art. Since the spraying of the lands of Việt Nam with Agent Orange, there have been many human-provoked events which have cursed ordinary civilians with chemically induced metamorphoses. One needs only look at the aftermaths of disasters such as Bhopal and Chernobyl, the use of Depleted Uranium weapons in Iraq as well as, for instance, the recent research showing the increased in birth problems in Fallujah in Iraq, and medicines such as Thalidomide - not to mention the increasing roles of GM foods and cloning.

Life has indeed imitated art though now it is humans who play both roles those of Gods and victims. The question we must answer, is whether we will treat such realities as we might a work of art, closing our minds to it when we grow tired of its consumption or will we resist such abstractions and instead strive to assist those who need our support, while working to prevent such horrors in the future?

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