I recently read an article about the famed ballerina, Natalia Osipova, and her signature role as Giselle in the story ballet of that same name. She has performed in the past with the American Ballet Theatre and, more recently, with the Royal Ballet Company in London. While the reviewer praised Osipova’s work in general, he found most remarkable her ability to bring new emotional tonalities to each evening’s Giselle. These comments have stayed with me, prompting me to think about the value of change or mutability. As I enter my eighties, I sometimes find myself missing things like my old stick shift Toyota Tercel or stopping by the office at work to pick up a paper receipt of my latest salary deposit. Or I inveigh against people who “communicate” via small electronic devices instead of speaking face to face with each other. So I have let myself do what I so often do when I’m in a muddle–I remember a writer who can help me not just lament the loss of some imagined “better” state of affairs. And that process has brought me to a seldom referenced work published in 1609.
In that year the English poet, Edmund Spenser, published “Two Cantos of Mutabilitie,” that were to become part of his enormous work, “The Faerie Queene.” The word “mutability” means that state in which something or someone is subject to frequent change. Its negative connotation is best expressed by the word “fickleness” and for many people the word carries with it uneasiness and at times bitterness. Change isn’t always welcomed by us, especially when it involves losing someone or something precious to us. I remember resisting Spenser’s “take” in his cantos because I studied the poem not too long after my father had died between breakfast and dinner on New Year’s Day in 1954. The morning after his sudden death, I remember being furious with God and the universe because it was a beautiful if chilly sunny day.
So I located my heavily annotated copy of the cantos and have reread the elaborate debate between Proud Change, a female force, and the petty gods. Spenser offers a radical conclusion in which he argues that though all things in life surely fluctuate, their essence is preserved and so mutability is not our enemy. His own words ring deep and true, I think: “I well consider all that ye have sayd,/And find that all things stedfastnes doe hate/And changed be: yet being rightly wayd/They are not changed from their first estate;/But by their change their being doe dilate:/And turning to themselves at length againe,/Doe work their own perfection so by fate:/Then over them Change doth not rule and raigne;/But they raigne over change, and doe their states maintaine.”
That’s what Osipova is illustrating as she refuses to duplicate her character’s emotional state as she dances first her passion for her lover and eventually her supreme grief over his death. Her Giselles are never quite the same–and yet each fluctuation enlarges upon a central essence or truth, i.e., great love can be both devastated by events and yet preserved at its very heart. All around me I find examples that seem to be “changes” that might disturb me and that do disturb many around me but which, if I embrace Spenser’s final understanding of change, I can see as expansions upon the original. I offered a blog here recently about going to see a local dance group I so admire who had teemed up with a rock band which made their performance very “different” from what I expect from them. By staying open to the mutations this collaboration produced, I agreed with Spenser and experienced the power of the altered movements. And for the past year or so, I’ve been facilitating discussions of Greek drama with a group of lively adults who managed to read every word Shakespeare ever wrote. As they neared the end of this daunting exercise, they said they didn’t want to split up the group, so would I read Greek plays with them. I hadn’t thought much about Greek plays since my undergraduate days when I took the usual survey course in classical literature. But I didn’t want to stop listening to their responses, so I agreed. Our first few months felt pretty rocky because the plays were unfamiliar to me. I couldn’t be the deep resource I’d been on all our Shakespeare evenings. I was just someone who was doing mounds of reading of secondary material and adapting my skills at helping eager minds talks about great writing. I realize now that I somewhere counted on a Spenserian essence that would be preserved even though “changing” the textual basis of our discussions unsettled me in serious ways.
One of Spenser’s strongest arguments for not resisting or fearing change comes in a series of stanzas in which he takes us through a calendar year, month by month, season by season. And Dame Nature argues that it would be terrible if there were only January days or August days. She insists that change and mutation make our lives infinitely more beautiful and cherished. And when John Milton came to write his epic Paradise Lost, he made it clear that Eden with its total lack of variety is not the desired state for humans. So the great Fall became “fortunate” so that the Adam and Eve who depart their idyllic garden are much richer and more complex creatures than they were when they just weeded, ate, slept, and had sex.
Mutability then offers us humans the possibility to keep growing so we do not get “stuck” because to be stuck is to become frightened and narrow in our perspectives on the marvelous world of possibility.