So, what’s your aim in life? To win fame and fortune, to be remembered for your wit and wisdom or, like some lucky folk, to have a plant named in your honour?
Alphonse Karr is a ‘fantastic shading bamboo for any garden’. Originally, though, he was much more (or less) than this; he was, in fact, Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr, nineteenth-century French critic and novelist.
Big deal, you say. What has France, the nineteenth century or, for that matter, bamboo ever done for me?
Very little, perhaps, but Alphonse Karr (of the Jean Baptiste variety) is the originator of a very famous, and very useful, phrase. It appeared in his journal, Les Guêpes (The Wasps), sometime in 1849.
‘The more things change,’ Alphonse wrote, ‘the more they remain the same.’
Yeah, that very famous phrase.
I’ve been thinking about human beings, you see. (Clothed ones, I assure you.) Are we capable of change? Real change, I mean, and not just the short-lived superficial kind.
Mostly I’ve thought not, if only because the more I’ve changed – my mind, my manner, my milieu – the more I seem to have, well, stayed the same. (Thanks Alphonse!) Impervious to alteration, that’s me.
And yet for every cynical Karr there’s a doubting Thomas…
Although he never made it as a plant, Thomas Kuhn propagated a very famous, and very useful, idea. It appeared in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, sometime in 1962.
When ‘normal science repeatedly goes astray,’ Tom wrote, ‘then begin the extraordinary investigations that lead . . . at last to a new set of commitments’.
That’s right, folks, it’s the proverbial paradigm shift: the fundamental change in approach or assumptions that takes place every now and then in scientific circles and other realms, including the personal.
Yeah, well, that’s my extrapolation of an interpolation of mine, because Tom himself didn’t apply his ideas to individuals as such. That said, he went close.
He writes, for example, about how those who have changed can convince others to do the same. To him, it’s all about language and communication, which is music, I’ll admit, to my writerly ears.
Fundamental change is portrayed by Tom as a kind of conversion, one aided by the act of translation – a special type of translation.
And here I’d better let him speak for himself.
To translate a theory or worldview into one’s own language is not to make it one’s own. For that one must go native, discover that one is thinking and working in, not simply translating out of, a language that was previously foreign.
That transition is not, however, one that an individual may make or refrain from making by deliberation and choice, however good his reasons for wishing to do so. Instead, at some point in the process of learning to translate, he finds that the transition has occurred, that he has slipped into the new language without a decision having been made.
If Tom is right, we can change ourselves: by immersion and not through abstraction alone.
So, surround yourself with the people you want to emulate. Learn to identify with them and one day you will change. By then, though, it won’t even seem like a stretch: your new self will be more familiar to you than your old.
Change, you’ll say. I haven’t changed a bit.
And that’s the thing about true change, I suppose: it doesn’t feel like change at all.
Perhaps that’s what our man of bamboo, Alphonse Karr, really meant.