Legend has it that Proteus was a sea god, shepherd of the water flocks, capable of seeing the future and of constantly changing his appearance. Imbedded in the legend is the question: if, like Proteus, we change from childhood to old age, from innocence to experience and then again to innocence, from corruptible to corrupted matter, how can we establish our proper identity? In the midst of the ebb and flow of the world, what can be defined at any given moment and place? We are never one: we are many. Multiplicity is our nature.
All of us must one day be confronted with the terrible question that the Caterpillar asks Alice in Wonderland: "Who are you?" The answers that we try to give throughout our unfolding lives are never utterly convincing. We are the face in the mirror, the name and nationality given to us, the sex that our cultures steadfastly define, the reflection in the eye of
those we look at, the fantasy of the one who loves us and the nightmare of the one who hates us, the incipient body in the cradle and the motionless body in the winding sheet. We are all these things, and also their contrary, our self in the shadows. We are the secret traits missing in our supposed faithful likeness, in the description of us meant to be exact. We are someone about to come into being, and also someone who has been, long ago. Our identity, and the time and place in which we exist, are fluid and transient, like water.
Time, experience, fire and water, habit, travel, the seasons, conception and death, dreams, perspectives, emotions transform us. Made of corruptible matter, we grow old and decline, and whatever expectations we may have of an invariable immortality are denied by memory and usage which also transform what they remember and use. The old metaphors that we have used throughout the ages de define ourselves are all images of change: the coursing river, the falling leaves, the molded clay, the ashes. Our identity stands always between the person we no longer are and the person we may one day become, never quite inhabiting the present and never quite inhabiting any other time. As soon as we say I am we define something that lies outside us, like the skin of a snake, another image of transformation. Verbal tricks allow us the illusion of constancy but merely illustrate the unfulfilled wish of constantly being. We tend to think of the past as the source of our existence; Miguel de Unamuno thought that time flowed from the future into the past, and back again. We exist in both currents, swept back through our many ghosts and forward to our future identities.
Maybe because we constantly take from the world instead of sharing its common space, we end by losing even our own state of being, like the thieves in Dante's Hell. In the seventh division of the eighth circle of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil come across a chasm thronged with serpents, through which the souls of the punished thieves run naked and terrified. As Dante looks on, he realizes that serpents and sinners are one and the same, turning from attacker to victim to attacker, so that form changes into form, and shape loses itself in shape, "as up before the flame on paper, goes a brown colour which is not yet black, but is white no more." Because in life the thieves have taken from others what is not theirs, they are condemned in Hell to lose everything, including their own features, "never again being that which they once were." Their punishment is a reminder of our multiplicity: we are as one with the world, plural and not singular, and hold no dominion over it.
Throughout the ages, we have imagined ourselves and the world as the fruit of a transformation, one that is still going on. Perhaps the observation of seeds and cocoons and eggs suggested to us the notion of a never-ending change, so that even death is not a final stage. Transmigratory voyages of the soul and progressive states of punishment or redemption haunt our consciousness: we like to think that even after our last breath this body and this mind will become something other than food for the roses.
The master of multiplicity is of course Ovid, who saw everything as the result of a story. For Ovid, the things of this world are like the answers to a riddle: the laurel tree an answer to the riddle of Apollo and Daphne, the nightingale to that of Philomela. The world we see is only the frozen stage of something still taking place, and that will continue to change into something else we still ignore. In that way, the tales of transformation become exemplary in themselves, models of the transformative whole that, paradoxically, never changes. Ovid sums up the notion in Book XV:
"Everything changes, nothing dies; the vital breath blows on, from here to there, taking hold at will of all sorts of different creatures; from the bodies of beasts it passes to that of men, and from ours to that of beats; it is never extinguished. Malleable wax, receiving from the sculptor new forms, never remaining as it was and changing endlessly of shape, is nevertheless always the same wax; just so, the soul, I tell you, is always the same, wherever it might travel under its various guises."
As witnesses of change, we remain ambiguous. We mourn the passing of things, and how they grow old and turn to dust; at the same, we enjoy the newness of every change, the melting of the snow and the new buds on the leaves. We speak of transformations as distressing, but rejoice at the same time in transformative experiences. We are afraid of seeing in the mirror a face we will not recognize, but we admire maturity and the wisdom that sometimes comes with experience.
Ernst Renan, in his Séminaire d'Issy, remarked that "An endless multiplicity seemed to me the law of the world.” This is certainly true for a reader. Our libraries are catalogues of metamorphoses, not only the multiple characters of of Melusine, Gregor Samsa, Dr. Jekyll, Pinocchio and Dorian Grey, but those of ourselves as readers. Our books change us and we change with our books, so that the same story is never the same twice. Even in this catalogue of metamorphoses, Kafka read after (or before) Wilde is not the same as Kafka read before (or after) Stevenson. Only that, contrary to the snake, we keep our previous skins, layer after layer. Our last readings may even render the original text inaccessible. As in Dante's image, the paper we read will never be white again.
Literary creatures are constantly en train de devenir, in the instance of becoming something else. They are themselves and yet not themselves: their avatars, their reflections, their desires and nightmares reflect back their identities to their dreamers, readers and writers. The literary world exists in a state of flux, as if constantly changing into a mode of being something else, something better and stranger, as if tending towards a persistent immortality. There is no one state of mind in that universe: every state is being thought into another, as if echoing the splendid announcement of St. Paul (I Corinthians 51):
"Behold, I show you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality."
There is another scene in Alice in Wonderland that perfectly illustrates Paul's notion of eternal multiplicity: not only Alice's many identities, but also those of her readers, and it take place in one of the first chapters of the book. After falling down the rabbit-hole, Alice feels she's no longer herself, and wonders who it is that has taken her place. Instead of despairing, she decides to wait until someone looks down to call her, saying: "Come up again, dear!" And then she'll ask: "Who am I, then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I'll come up: if not, I'll stay down here till I'm somebody else."
The many faces (all our own) that await our inquisitorial eye both in dreams and in everyday life, end up, alas, becoming real. At first, their appearances may amuse us, or befuddle us; after a time they cling like masks of flesh to our skin and bones. Proteus could change his shape but only until someone grabbed him and held him secure: then the god would allow himself to be seen as he really was, as a blending of all his multiple identities. So it is with our myriad identities. They change and dissolve in our eye and the eyes of others, until the moment when we are suddenly able to pronounce the word I. Then they cease to be illusions, hallucinations, guesswork, and become, with astonishing conviction, an epiphany.