Displaced Perspective

Polly Morland, Metamorphosis: How and Why We Change (Profile Books, 2016)

This one showed up on the ‘you might also want to buy this NOW! DO IT! DO IT!’ section of the Amazon page as I stocked up my Kindle for summer (a ritual briefly described in an earlier post). Good title: it made me think of a popular psychology version of Ovid’s great epic poem the Metamorphoses. And this is sort of what it is, but it’s light on theory (a bit of plasticity here and there – we are indeed strikingly changeable, and also adaptable) and mostly consists of real stories of real people whose lives took very sharp turns. I almost said that this was all surprising or remarkable, and that’s true up to a point, but there is also something straightforward and frictionless about the changes undergone by some of the people involved. When change happens, we change, some more than others.


I was left with a question about why true stories were the order of the day. They seemed to me both less plausible and less amenable to explanation than the stories you’d invent to explore the question. And you’d think that plausibility and explicability would be useful attributes, but truth-in-reality does have a claim, of course. It made me wonder why so many people would easily assent to the proposition that literature is the realm of things that are hard to believe.
      But what I really took away was something quite weird. Chapter 11 starts like this:

After the damp chill of January in the north of England, April in Paris is a blessed relief. The turning world has tilted on its axis and winter given way to spring. From the airport train, a collapsed warehouse by the tracks, its graffitied walls crumpled, steel frame like the picked bones of a carcass, now cloisters a little garden of new life.

It goes on, warming to its theme: Paris in the spring is nice. By this time, though, something had begun to prey on my mind: whose ‘relief’ is this? Yes, Chapter 10 is about a wintry encounter, and Chapter 11 (the beginning of a new section in the book) has a more pleasant setting. But who feels that this ‘is [the present tense is important] a relief’. The journalistic voice can’t really claim it, because it is not presented as having moved directly from one to the other. The readerly perspective has a pretty nebulous stake in it, but I suppose there is a degree of participation in a book’s atmosphere that could result in something like relief – but this seems a stretch, or at least an effort of will.
      What we’re left with is a sort of writerly perspective, but a surreptitious one: the journey of the book, the movement of its narrating intelligence, creates an artificial juxtaposition that opens up an emotional gradient. To be honest, this may just be a bit of opportunistic, loose writing. But it may also indicate that our ability to read something like the experience of another mind can reach into some strange perspectives, ways of seeing things that can only happen when events and storytellers end up askance. In this sense, inferred by the reader, books can acquire minds of their own.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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