Having entertained, in the last post, the possibility of transformation into a bird, I pass on to an indisputable instance thereof, with scholarly commentary appended.
“Of a man whom nothing could put out of his way, or dérouter in the least,” Harriet Cavendish reports this anecdote to her mother, the Duchess of Devonshire, in 1804.
“I nearly expired when I heard it,” writes Harriet. (The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose, ed. Frank Muir.)
Our man—call him Mr. Swann—has himself expired, so to speak, before his transformation. He awakens, but does he come to himself? What he beholds is a feathered being, which he calls a bird, without further specification; a creature as indeterminate as the insect (or just “vermin,” Ungeziefer) Gregor Samsa will become two centuries later. —“What insect?” asks Nabokov (in Lectures on Literature), and answers: certainly not a cockroach, which is nothing like this “brown, convex, dog-sized beetle … very broad”; nor a dung beetle (Mistkäfer), as the friendly cleaning lady calls him; “merely a big beetle. (I must add that neither Gregor nor Kafka saw that beetle any too clearly.)” While pursuing the identification, the professor remarks to his class: “Curiously enough, Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back. (This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.)” (Blessed asides!)
Mr. Swann has found out that he has feathers, if not wings, but is in no condition to see that bird any too clearly. Yet if the result of the transformation is nonspecific, the transformer is definite: as if signed, this work is by God! One may object that it is in fact by Lord Somebody. I reply, who is God but Lord Somebody? And consider that the Lord and his party (of angels, surely) “hid themselves”—just the behavior to expect from the God that hides (Isaiah 45:15). Further, in his customary way the Lord is trying Swann. We need not ask why he troubled himself to produce the new creation—he simply had nothing better to do, which was a sufficient reason for the old one as well. Finally, that God transforms the awakened dead (who deserve it) into winged things—everyone knows that. To be sure, Swann does not acknowledge his improved angelic character, his soul equipped with wings for more-than-earthly flight; no, he sees only a bird. This suggests a tendency toward naturalism, perhaps even a dangerous skepticism.
Awakened to that possibility, we may recall that (according to Aubrey, in Macpherson’s edition of Leviathan) Thomas Hobbes is unmistakably skeptical on a similar occasion. “Being in a Gentleman’s Library, Euclid’s Elements lay open, and ’twas the 47 El. libri I.” That is, Proposition 47 of Book I, the famous Pythagorean Theorem, with its accompanying diagram of a triangle having what may be considered a pair of wings—square ones, and attached to its legs, as if to the sandals of Mercury. The theorem permits a kind of transformation: with perfect equality you may swap one base square for the two wings. “He read the Proposition. By G—, sayd he (he would now and then sweare an emphaticall Oath by way of emphasis) this is impossible!” But does he persist in his disbelief? By no means. “So he reads the Demonstration of it, which referred him back to such a Proposition; which proposition he read. That referred him back to another, which he also read. Et sic deinceps [and so on] that at last he was demonstratively convinced of that trueth. This made him in love with Geometry.” He has accepted the transformation, by God; nay, he has come to love it, as firmly as Winston Smith loves Big Brother. Nothing was more likely, after all: he was in the hands of metempsychotic Pythagoras, whose flux of wisdom of flux adorns the final book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Many are the transformations recorded by Ovid, produced, if not by the Lord, by one particular god or another; and many of these are from men to birds: Abas, Acmon, Aesacus, Alcyone, …, all sprout feathers, of one particular bird or another. Enough of non-specificity, then; which bird does Mr. Swann become? A swan, I daresay, because he admires his reflection, and they admire theirs. Then too, the swan at death sings a song of unique beauty, and Swann at rebirth utters a remark of incomparable flatness. Besides, he is a distinguished gentleman, and the swan is so distinguished a bird that the soul of Orpheus himself chose to inhabit it, according to Er (Plato’s Republic, 620a), if not to Ovid. Which is not to say that Ovid’s gods don’t produce swans; no fewer than three fellows named Swan (Cycnus) are turned into their winged namesake. And considering that Orpheus became a swan because women tore him apart—and Cycnus the First because Jove blasted his friend—and Cycnus the Second because anger drove him off a cliff (thereby dissolving his mother)—and Cycnus the Third upon strangulation by Achilles—why should not Swann become one upon maltreatment by the Lord?
For maltreatment it is, after all; if the Lord deals with Swann less roughly than the good folk of Pikesville with the king and the duke, and if the transformation by sirrup was sweeter than that by tar, still there is nothing light about a feathering. “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another,” as Huck observes. Luckily our man was equal to the event. Anyone might have “walked slowly” to the mirror, feeling the change but not yet knowing his new power; but that Swann identified himself “quietly,” and then “went and sat down again,” instead of taking to the air—that is an act which for sheer composure far outdoes the unimaginativeness of any Joe or Jane. No doubt the classical education of those days served him well in his sticky situation: remembering the fate of Icarus, unlike that impulsive youth he did not forget his gravity.