Do we need a new myth and if so, how?

This piece was written for and posted to the Talk-2000 mailing-list, which discusses millennial issues, when talk got around to the topic of our "needing a new myth" -- something which Joseph Campbell among others has proposed.

It strikes me as an important question...

Charles Cameron


About this business of myths and stories...

i

A plausible argument can be made -- and therapists of one sort of another are often the ones who make it -- that humans understand themselves by the "story" they tell about themselves: that we carry a sort of account of ourselves with us, in which past episodes as we recall them illustrate "who we are" in a way which gives meaning to the present and limits and focuses our hopes for the future.

The phrase "as we recall them" is important here, because

(a) some parts of the story only emerge into our awareness when we are met with particular kinds of situation, and

(b) there is often some fictionalization going on...

or more kindly put, we seem to "work" our stories in the same way that we may "work" our dreams while remembering them -- and from a psychological point of view, that working is as important as the dream or past event itself. Furthermore, psychological "growth" seems to involve retelling parts of our story in ways that liberate the protagonist (ourself) by opening new perspective and thus new so to speak plot lines...

ii

Societies, too, seem to have accounts of the human predicament which take the form of stories, and which characteristically include the known and the unknown, the visible and the invisible, the rational and the irrational, the stuff philosophy knows and the more things in heaven and earth than it dreams of...

We call these stories "myths", and they are apt to contain cosmologies, taxonomies of existence ("faeries", "humans", "mechanicals" in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "God", "angelic choirs", "men", "beasts"... on down to "fallen angels" in Christianity; that sort of thing), theories of mind and heart ("original sin" and "agape" in Christianity, "hubris" and "truth" in Greek myths, "buddhi" and "avidya" in Buddhism, etc.), as well as sweeping moral codes ("love your neighbor as yourself"), sex, and death... and that may be less than the half of it.

These stories, too, may be of importance in individual human self-understanding: fragments of mythic systems in this sense can frequently play an important part in the telling and retelling of our personal narratives, which is why Jung and others refer us back to mythologems such as the Narcissus myth, or the story of Eros and Psyche... these Great Dreams can act as templates for the retelling of our own story, often to liberating effect. Books like Women who Run with Wolves are full of this sort of thing.

But while this honors the myth in question by taking from it something of deep relevance to the individual, it also has the tendency to dishonor it by reducing it to a psychological truism: the Oedipus of Sophocles becomes a somewhat sophisticated insight at Freud's hands, a puerile platitude in the hands of his followers, the subject of a delightful but meaningless ditty in the hands of Tom Lehrer, and "mo'fo'" -- apparently a very mild swearword -- in the mouths of rappers...

iii

Most of the last paragraph is itself trivial , but I don't think the same can be said of my main point: that Sophocles cannot be explained away as no more than a vehicle for Freudian insight. It is not enough to go to the theater (on Broadway, in Epidaurus) and be handed a program note which reads:

The management has canceled tonight's performance for reasons of economy and convenience: had it taken place, however, all that you would have learned is that males tend to lust after their mothers and feel a murderous jealousy of their fathers. No refunds will be given: this note provides the information you came for, even if you find it a little hard to recognize that fact.

As has been pointed out, we the contemporaries of ourselves find it increasingly difficult to accept the great mythological codes of the past as definitive for our circumstances, and our science -- spectacularly "validated" by the technological uses to which it is put -- has pretty much convinced the majority of us that "angels", "wise coyotes which jest with us", "high gods which take the form of swans or doves to have access to human women and impregnate them" and so forth are "myths" in the pejorative sense -- plain bloody nonsense.

It seems that our cosmology "pro tem" is that of astrophysics, and I believe Joseph Campbell in his The Inner Reaches of Outer Space suggests that the "conquest" of space is the "myth" which holds our current dreams and aspirations.

And yet our dreams demand more of us. They contain, on occasion, a far wider taxonomy of creatures than science allows, "angels", "wise coyotes which jest with us", "high gods which take the form of swans or doves to have access to human women and impregnate them" and indeed all the metamorphic forms of all previous mythic systems.

But there is another point, the obverse of my point about Oedipus: the notion of space exploration and the excitement generated behind it are no substitute for the sheer poetry of Myth in the original sense. Space exploration might constitute the frame of the plot of a new myth, but it is not and cannot be that myth. And it is not enough, either, for Lucas to "follow" mythic forms proposed by Joseph Campbell's Hero of a Thousand Faces in writing "Star Wars"... This makes for a compelling film, but not a film of full mythic impact -- Cocteau or Tarkovsky might have made this project fly, but not, alas, Lucas.

iv

Great artistry is at stake.

Goethe created a modern myth in "Faust" (following folk tradition, Marlowe and much else) which has the poetry...

Wagner attempted a work of arguably mythic proportions with the poetry, music, and staging of his "Ring" cycle -- which to my mind must include also the building of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in one overarching "gesamtkunstwerke".

Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and "Macbeth", "Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Lear" all have mythic qualities in high degree...

Dante had the benefit of scholastic philosophy in creating his "Divine Comedy", but also the art and craft of a great poet...

But great artistry can arise not only from an individual, but also in and through a people...

The Navaho seem, since their contact with the Spanish and the Puebloan peoples a few short centuries ago, to have built a corpus of maybe forty myths -- each one including a mythic story, a nine or seven day ritual, a corpus of a few hundred songs and twenty or so "sand paintings" of such beauty that the great art historian Coomaraswamy declared them the equal of anything we have seen in the west since the Florentine Renaissance... any one of which is a "corpus" comparable to the "corpus" of Christmas or Easter... all integrated within the structure of a larger mythic system (Beautyway, if I remember correctly), and featuring a magnificent philosophy (see John Farella, The Main Stalk).

Myth, then, in its highest sense, demands an awesome artistry of a sort which seemingly comes to us in two ways: by the workings of a "folk" tradition refined and concentrated over time, and by the workings of authentic artistic genius within an individual...

Ritual, too, is a part of all this -- consider the Catholic Mass, which begins with an incredible act of poetry, in which Jesus identifies bread with his body and wine with his blood, then breaks the bread and shares it and the wine with his disciples, the night before his own physical body is broken, his own blood terminally shed.

St. John's account of the Last Supper omits these things, but contains instead in Ch. 17 the great "prayer of union"... the "meaning" of which is contained in the acts themselves: Jesus instructs his followers to do this thing in remembrance of him, to digest his broken body, spilled blood so they may reconstitute him within themselves as a group... that they may be one as he and his Father are one...

And this simple but potentially devastating ritual comes down to us across the centuries having again been refined and concentrated by repeated use -- (there is a passage in Dom Gregory Dix which so beautifully tells of this repeated use that I shall include it at the bottom of this post, where it can safely be ignored by those who so choose, and read with delight by those who love fine prose cadences or High Mass) -- with the formal solemnities a papal Mass, the beauties of a Bach B Minor or Mozart Requiem in tow... yet still with that basic "dismembering" and "remembering" -- "sparagmos", found also at the heart of mythic expressions as varied as the Bacchae of Euripides and the initiation dreams of Australian shamans -- at its very core.

v

When we say we need a new myth, then, we are not IM hopefully HO saying that we need a new excuse for going about business as usual ("let's colonize the moon") but that we need a story which sings to us, containing minimally:

a cosmology which encompasses both what is "in our philosophy" and the "more things in heaven and earth", the dream as well as sensible "reality",

expressed in such a way that it neither strains our credulity nor deprives our imagination,

modular (like the Navaho myth) so that we can approach it equally well from atheistic, scientific, Balinese, Navaho, poetic, Catholic or agnostic backgrounds,

capable of ritualized representation or expression,

and above all, expressed in a language (or languages: words, but perhaps also visual images, music, etc.) of surpassing genius, whether deriving from the individual (Shakespeare, Wagner) or the folk (Homer, the Navaho).

It may take the form of a corpus of stories, an epic poem or poems, a film or films -- even a game perhaps?

It will not be the result of a couple of copywriters in an ad agency noticing that we need a new myth and knocking one out on weekends. . It will not come by our deciding to do it.

It will come either by overwhelming genial inspiration, or by the long and fruitful work over time of many within our community.

And it will speak to us deeper than we know or would be capable of knowing.

vi

One final note: to the extent that any visionary with the kind of inward capability and poetic genius I am referring to has attempted to give expression in the past century to such a thing, it is Yeats, whose "The Second Coming" subsumes both the Annunciation by dove to Mary and the swan's Annunciation to Leda, and looks to "some rough beast" emerging in our midst.

But consider the context in which he views us, consider the newspapers:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

This is far from a hope filled poem, but a "realistic" one as well as a "dreamlike" one: it is a kernel of mythic proportions, a mythologem for our times.

And the outlook here is bleak...


Excerpt from Dom Gregory Dix, Shape of the Liturgy:

For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of human greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner-of-war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc -- one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei -- the holy common people of God.


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