This is the time of the year when Christians celebrate Easter, the holiday that symbolizes death and renewal, the transformation of the tragedy of death into the promise of eternal life. The holiday was appropriated from the pagan festivals celebrating fecundity and the renewal of life upon the onset of spring. Despite their different interpretations of what “renewal of life” means by the celebration of this holiday, both Christians and pagans share an appreciation for the necessary transfiguration that the eternity of life entails. Without death, life would not be possible and therefore eternal life, whether in nature or as an individual spiritually or psychologically speaking, may only be achieved through transformation.
Stories from Antiquity
Though not all stories about transformation throughout history are uplifting, many are tragic in fact, they may be understood generally as a metaphor for the evolution of the person. From antiquity, Homer’s Odyssey is a 10-year journey home through a series of harrowing episodes that challenged the character of the soldiers returning from war. The golden ass, a third-century novel written during the period of the Roman Empire, depicts through the metamorphosis of a man into a donkey the story of the hubris of youth transformed over a plethora of episodes into a pious and devout individual.
The Pact with the Devil
Stories in the modern era often focus on a pact with the devil, the proverbial “Faustian bargain.” In The devil and Daniel Webster (1936), a short story by Steven Vincent Benet, a farmer makes a pact with the devil for seven years of prosperity. In Thomas Mann’s novel, Doctor Faustus (1948), the protagonist, a composer, makes a pact with the devil sacrificing the prospect for love in order to have celebratory success in his career, bringing destruction to others in his wake and eventually to himself as well. Both of these stories were written during the advent of fascism and could be interpreted as cautionary tales against the appeal of populist political movements. They may also serve as allegories about human development in which the ego and its ideals, such as vanity, power, and absolute freedom, struggle in their effort to outstretch the constraints posed by reality in the physical world, morality in the ethical world, and the limits beyond which tragedy inevitably must ensue. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, a 19th-century classic, based on a medieval tale, is the story of hubris that embraces power whose unbridled force brings destruction to those touched by his insatiable will.
One inevitably finds embedded in these Faustian stories the message that suits the adage, “Be careful what you look for, you might get it.” By virtue of his determination to pursue his lofty ideals, the protagonist gradually is confronted with the irony that what he longed most for contains within his worst nightmare. The narrow-minded pursuit to achieve glory and power sows the seed of tragedy. In most cases in these stories the protagonist is brought down with it. For Citizen Kane, ambition unfettered by the corrupting influence of power reaches a final end in desolate isolation. Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab in Moby Dick brings cataclysmic destruction to a ship and its entire crew at the behest of a phantasmic obsession.
Other stories of transformation, however, end with redemption as the reward at the end for the long struggle to actualize the self. Starting from a journey that begins with grandiose dreams in service of the ego, an awakening to consciousness of the fact of its futility and magnitude of destruction opens the doors to transformation. If I were you (1950), written by Julian Green, is a story about a man named Fabian who made a pact with the devil that gave him the power to transform himself into anyone he wished to be. Over the course of several transformations with individuals he envied for various reasons his inevitable disillusionment revealed that unhappiness with himself was the source that fueled his idealized projection. The life lesson learned for Fabian became the realization that happiness is ultimately the result of acceptance of oneself rather than the relentless pursuit to reify an idea of who one should be. His initial failure to come to this realization blinded him both to the inherent futility of his pact as well as to the destruction that the failure to achieve this insight would have brought to himself, to others, and the world in which he lived.
There is an irony in these stories about the ill-fated quest to actualize oneself through investment in one’s ego. In the wake of his disillusionment and destruction fate presents the protagonist an opportunity to realize what was traded away to seal the bargain that launched his personal tragedy. In his awakening he discovers that what is most precious is the spiritual foundation within which the ego may find meaning, purpose, the capacity to love, and reason to live. Without the destruction of the ego that stubbornly clings to its insistent state that negates this fact the self is doomed to shatter against the hard ground that resists its folly.
The Ground Underneath Us
The evolution of the self from the relinquishment of investment in the ego in order to attain spiritual awakening springs from the wisdom that standing on firm ground grants us. In Greek mythology, Antaeus, the son of Gaia, mother earth, could only be defeated in battle by an act of lifting him off the ground from whence he gained his strength. In acknowledgement of the necessity to situate an understanding about how we create meaning in life, the 20th-century philosopher, Martin Heidegger, proposed the concept, “thrownness,” to account for the inexorable context which is the world we are “thrown into” upon which freedom and consciousness may emerge. Without thrownness, freedom has no firmament from which its realization may become cogent.
“Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz?”
While the self, in order to evolve, must realize the firm ground underneath it, it must also come to a realization that in order to actualize itself transformation must take place. The failure to come to terms with this realization reminds me of a phrase from a song sung by the late popstar from my generation, Janis Joplin, when she intoned in imitation of a hillbilly’s wistful lament. Herein lies an almost comical travesty that conflates spiritual redemption with material acquisition. We may see in it a critique that reflects cynicism about the American Dream. At a deeper level, however, it is a message that points to the tragedy that the quest for salvation and deliverance is doomed insofar as it remains fixed upon an idea that has far outlasted the time when it should have perished because it is founded on a child’s fantasy about what the deliverance from longing entails.
Robert Hamm Ph.D