The Immanence of Myth

by James Curcio on 2008-04-17 07:31:29 tags: cassirer, generation hex, james curcio, myth, mythos media, nietzsche, philosophy, post-modernism


By James Curcio

The following are in-progress chapters for an upcoming work The Immanence of Myth, which picks up and expands on some of the ideas first presented in “Living The Myth” in Generation Hex. This will be an exploration of myth in its function as intermediary between human and world (represented as language, music, sculpture, or any other form of expression), and how the myth-making process underlies all of the beliefs that we hold about the world, no matter how logically consistent they are. Though it is my general preference to simply know this, and explore the creation of myths in different media, I've been feeling lately that an expression of those underpinnings may be insightful, even useful for others. The book will be co-authored with Rowan Tepper, M.A. though the following was written by myself. (Addendum: there is a PDF version of these sections and one more available HERE.)

The Function of Myth In The 21st Century

Mythology isn’t just Bulfinch’s; far less is it Frazier's Golden Bough. It is the living, breathing story of humanity. Myths deal with the questions we all face in our lives, propose ways of being in the world which put us in accord or conflict with those various common dilemmas, and ultimately structure that world. However, it deals with those things that are often left unsaid, or which are difficult if not impossible to approach in any other manner. Thus, in an exploration of the subject, it is almost as if we need to explore all of the connective tissue linking to the heart of myth, without striking at that heart directly. For that heart is at once our own, and the truly unknowable font of being which supports it. This is the realm of the unquantifiable: that which is felt, glimpsed, experienced, but never fully secured. Nevertheless, the representation of this unknowable, which we call myth, can be tentatively defined, named, and owned through the process of naming.

On a personal level, a myth is the story of life. As living itself can act as intermediary between the chance and arbitrary nature of life and the possibility of an underlying, unifying form, myths are also the emergent and recursive cultural code that has always driven human civilization. Recursive because the stories that carry through the ages repeat themselves, in different forms, from one generation to the next.1 Emergent because, at the cultural level, this code gives rise to all of the complexities that society has born, and can be considered to have a life of its own– whether we mythologize that cultural intelligence as the Will of God, the Hive-mind, or the Manifest Destiny of mankind, (or more dangerously, of a specific people). (F. N. 1 This progressive permutation is best represented by the symbol of a spiral, or the Tibetan Swastika, as it is neither a teleological progress, as we might represent with a line, nor a fully closed one, as we would represent with a circle.)

Put another way – the mythic life is the whole, of which our current awareness is but a fragment. There is a sense in which we are living within our lives as the protagonist cast into a random situation that was neither our design nor our intention, and yet another in which we are disconnected from time, observers and creators, partaking in each other's creations. The personal life, its pains, frustrations, successes and hopes, are all transient and relatively insignificant except when given mythic resonance. The tale is what matters. Legends and heroes always lag a generation or two behind the present, and the times we live in are desperately in need of both, as it has always been. You’re living it right now.

Life is a dream you won’t remember upon awakening, and myth is the dream retold. This retold dream is the realm of myth, and concurrently, its representatives take the form of art, music, and literature. (In other words, those very forms of representation which were banished from Plato's Republic on account of their ephemeral nature.)

Thus, there is a cultural dimension of myth as well, which we will deal with, however the key to first understanding – and thereby creating – a living mythology comes through self-examination and exploration, rather than a strict exploration of the “world out there.” We transmit our living mythologies to each other through our art, but equally so, through our impact upon one another in our day-to-day lives.

Each of our lives is a story, an album, a painting, in which we play the starring role, but only posthumously, in hindsight, or through the internal wrestling of the creative process which separate us, momentarily, from our day-to-day concerns. These stories weave together into an ever-changing tapestry which we call culture. Each of us can essentially be demigods for those who inherit the worlds we create, but only if we are worthy of it.

From this we may recognize that the beliefs and symbols that live on through us, which we convey to those around us, are the currency of the mythological realm. This ongoing tradition that we partake in as a member of the brotherhood of our species is like a river that flows ever forward, sometimes branching off, or dying to drought or dam, yet always flowing, never reaching an ultimate destination.

It is impossible to speak of myth, and not simultaneously speak of artists, and the arts. Religion, art, and myth were born of the same impulse, rendered with the same brush-stroke. I am not just referring to those who manage to find a vocation of art. All myth-builders are artists, on the most fundamental level, as art is not just about what different people or cultures find aesthetically pleasing – it is also, and possibly more fundamentally, a process which tells people what things mean in an ontological rather than ethical sense.

But we do not exist as completely disparate, floating totalities. Myth is born of the social fabric. To live our myth we need to first come to terms with the history of the beliefs of a culture, the culture that bore us into this world, and as a result our personal history as well. As James Joyce said, “history is a nightmare from which we are desperately trying to awake.” What does it mean to be at this place and this time, and how has it made you who you are? How do the beliefs of our fathers and fore-fathers continue to structure and define the face of the reality we experience on a day-to-day basis? Preliminary answers can be found in our family trees and personal psychological makeup, which each of us can unearth in the creative process, but it is also, and I would say more importantly, present in the ideological history of our culture.

A history of dates and facts is somewhat irrelevant on its own; all axioms and preconceptions must be evaluated from the vantage point of the task and situation at hand. The value of historic knowledge, in regard to this specific investigation, lies in an analysis of the evolution of ideas, rather than in the necessary validity of facts. There are a number of reasons why this is the case: facts are only useful within a specific context, the methods we use for “investigating” truths in fact create them, and as has been said before, History is made by the victors. Everything we “know” probably isn’t true. So it had better be useful, meaningful, (or at the very least, entertaining.)

So this is the terrain. Further discussion of myth and culture would be useless or even misleading without an exploration of the various elements that build up this “mythic tapestry,” through a philosophical rather than historical exploration of these elements. It is worth noting that many works already exist which provide a systematic philosophical analysis of the ideological history and function of myth.2 Though in various ways we are indebted to these works, our ultimate mission is not to explore what myth has been, except inasmuch as that can shed light on what its function is at present, nor is it to merely further the thesis of these works. Rather, it is our aim to continue a movement already well underway, namely, the re-legitimization of myth and myth-making as one of the principle, if not the principle, form of human representation. (F. N. 2 Included prominently in this list are Cassirer's The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Joseph Campbell's Masks of God I-IV, Theodore Adorno and Max Herkheimers Dialectic of Enlightenment, Eliade's many works especially Myth and Reality and Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. This is not to say that the postulates or conclusions provided in these works are congruent with one another, or with our own thesis; nevertheless all of them contributed to bringing myth out of the realm of fanciful poetic naturalism. )

We are nowhere with this word “myth” until we can determine what its personal and cultural function is, in total, and where the points overlap between these various elements. In other words, we need to build a map of a cognitive terrain that is not necessarily a “where” or a “when,” and so the rest of this work is dedicated towards exploring what one might call the ideological topology of myth.

“The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes. Without chaos, no knowledge. Without a frequent dismissal of reason, no progress. For what appears as sloppiness, chaos, or opportunism has a most important function in the development of those very theories which we today regard as essential parts of our knowledge. These deviations, these errors, are preconditions of progress.”-Paul Feyerabend.

If we're going to start mucking around in the cultural machinery, it seems sensible that we should start at the bottom and work our way up. Along the way, we will demonstrate the underlying fallacies (or even, more commonly, misappropriated truths), that have been instrumental in sculpting Western civilization, and which still control people's thinking to this day.

What is the bedrock we generally try to set our cultural ideas in? How do we make the determination between real and unreal, the valuation between good and evil? How should we live our lives? We must ultimately take a leap of faith, and declare an axis mundi. This axis mundi goes by another name: truth. Truth is a subject so abstract that whenever we explore it we risk simply talking a great deal of nonsense. But it's also a subject so central to our existence that the simple mention of it is bound to make people froth at the mouth.

The reason for this reaction is that we believe that truth is at the root of our beliefs. Without that implication of certainty, how can we make certain actions? It's what many of the first Philosophers set out to find, as if it was a tangible, distant shore we could discover, lay claim to, and be done with once and for all. Unfortunately for them, and for us, congruent linguistic analogies don't necessarily correlate with the shifting sands around us, as if saying a thing could make it so. Many of our beliefs are based on nothing more than such cockeyed quasi-poetic analogies. If it seems to follow, then it must. Even if it does play out through logical analogy or axiom, what does that actually mean? Do we knock our heads against the limitations of language, rather than peek through to the other side?

We can easily question if there is such a thing as specific or universal truth at all, or even if there is any point in asking in the first place. However, these questions don't get us out of the mire either. Whether there is such a thing as truth, or whether we have been duped by a simple linguistic or neurological illusion, we have that word and the reality it represents, and these have been with us for centuries. Aside from the seemingly lofty goals of philosophy (unearthing “truth,” defining and even determining the nature of being, and so on), in a much more everyday sense truth is an idea implicit in most of our conversations, our actions, our beliefs. There's no escape from the necessity of dealing with this topic, even if the nature of such inquiries is like the Zen koan of the goose in the bottle: “How do you get the goose out of the bottle without either killing the goose or breaking the bottle?” Most investigations of truth kill the goose. Nevertheless, we have no choice but to continue. It has always been human nature to blithely fumble around in this darkness, so off the precipice we go…

In everyday speech, usually when we speak of truth, we actually mean honesty—congruence between what we believe to be the case, and the information we can gather about it. (Even when we aren't speaking of truth as “honesty,” the basic idea of correspondence or congruence remains. This is actually a prevalent myth about truth that originates in the representational nature of language itself, which will be dealt with later in this section.)

For instance, we commonly say, “he’s not telling the truth.” Implied in the statement is the belief in a static thing that exists free from the limitations of context and interpretation. It's there, if we can but find it. This truth-myth is so old, so pervasive to our thinking, that we may not notice that the ground we're standing on isn't solid. It is easy enough to demonstrate that even facts, the currency of truth statements, are fluid rather than static. For example, it is a fact that the Earth orbits around the Sun at the moment, though in 100 billion years that may not be the case. Our interpretations of these facts are even more transient, and relative, as the history of astronomy demonstrates. For all I know our present view of even the most seemingly self evident facts, or truths we derive from them, may be bounded by our cultural or personal short-sightedness. This highlights yet another reason why myths are so central to us as humans, why it has been with us for as long as civilization and language. Myth-making is truth-making.

Like all words, the meaning of truth depends on the context of its use. In use, it is evident that the singular word “truth” is used to represent a plurality of situations which don't hold the same ontological status. Most of the so-called truths that we take for granted are in fact untestable cultural myths, which become personally held beliefs through imitation. These beliefs may have no truth let alone fact behind them, but as beliefs, they are presumed true a priori. Others are fact-based statements, which can be verified, or not, depending on the context and presuppositions provided, but which may nevertheless be untrue, useless or even harmful in the wrong contexts. (More on that in a moment.)

In other words, the truth that it is five o'clock (a contextually relevant fact, which can be said to be “true” under certain contexts) is not the same kind of truth as “killing is wrong” (an untestable but potentially useful belief, with obvious sociological and ethical implications), or “everything happens for a reason,” (an untestable ontological or metaphysical belief.) These “truth statements” are as different as apples and oranges, their primary resemblance is that all are based on the symmetry or asymmetry of the correspondence between one thing and another.

Where, then, should we begin? To begin discriminating between our truths we need to look at what's operating underneath our “truth statements.”

In the Introduction, I mentioned that it was important that we come to understand the history of our axioms. By this, I mean that to understand any philosophical or religious train of thought, the preconceptions, what you might call the ground of the system, is in many ways more important than its final conclusions. It is generally the statement not the thing that ultimately gets evaluated. Traditionally this “ground” is a thesis or hypothesis, however it has as its ground any number of silent preconceptions which may or may not be true, and may or may not be useful or appropriate to the context of the question at hand. Many of these are cultural presuppositions which we simply cannot see because they are so pervasive. The myths a culture holds about truth aren't merely skewed: they are entrenched. Questions directed towards such beliefs, aside from often being considered impolite, are met with utter confusion. This has nothing to do with the fallacy or absurdity of the question: imagine traveling back in time 700 years and asking people around the dinner table why they think the Earth is flat, and not round. Who can say someone won't read this in a hundred years and scoff that we don't realize that it's a ten-dimensional hypersphere?

This is historic distortion is not the only way that we get ourselves into trouble with presuppositions. It is very rare that an author recognizes that his conclusions are only valid if the presuppositions he has made in his thesis are in fact a priori correct. The very foundation may be faulty, in which case the entire structure, though potentially logically or otherwise consistent, will bear the underlying distortion from the basement to the roof. On top of this, these presuppositions must match the specific context of the question being asked for them to be true in a significant, that is to say, useful or meaningful way.1 Our general ignorance of the need of this congruence allows advertisers and politicians to make statements that seem like truth, even common sense, but which are rotten at their core. This “ignorance” isn’t just the result of plain stupidity. Presuppositions tend to be invisible, as they are often culturally determined. They are subtle and they are pervasive. (F. N. 1 To further complicate the matter, there are many cases where just one or the other is important, and some where both are. In other words, there are times when it is vastly more important for something to be useful than for it to be meaningful, times when it is more important for something to be meaningful rather than important, and times when both are necessary for something to be considered “true.”)

I’ve found it’s much easier for us to see the lies perpetrated in the media within other cultures, for this very reason. Within our own, many of us are too close to get the necessary perspective to actually think (rationally or otherwise), about what’s being said. If we are easily able to spot them, it is likely that we are not in fact entirely a part of that culture, sub-culture, or micro-culture; we are not entirely assimilated.

As another case in point, consider that we feel the effects of gravity every day. Science has yet to discover why gravitation works, but nevertheless it is presupposed that there is such a thing as gravity, since it is a prerequisite of our experience, such as it is. Following from these theories of gravitation can be derived that cohere with that experience, even if they are grounded in what is, in former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s rather curious epistemological language, an “unknowable unknown.” This process of extension can give us theoretical knowledge of realms we can't possibly have first hand experience of, at least yet: distant space, the subatomic realm, potentially, even death.

It is possible, if not necessarily probable, that the common sense prerequisite which we all take as given is the result of a skewed or too-specific frame of reference, as we come to see from thought experiments such as Edwin Abbott’s ‘Flatland.’2 If we extend ourselves into the unknown using a faulty premise, we may create good science fiction, but that is all. (F. N. 2 For those who haven’t read it, Flatland is an example of the kind of skewed conclusions we might find when drawing conclusions from perspectives that do not, and most likely can not, have a full picture view of what’s taking place. )

This dependence of the conclusion upon its silent presuppositions is sometimes called a Cartesian Circle,3 possibly with some amount of irony. Analytical truth and tautology are nearly synonyms; the logical definition of truth requires a conclusion to be drawn from a proposition, conversely, its propositions follow from the conclusions. Yet, as we have seen, all truth is contextual, or perhaps more accurately—“truth,” when employed in a sense that matters, is dependent upon the use to which it is put rather than its self-congruence. Nor can efficacy be the only yardstick used to determine the ultimate truth of a statement, as the most efficient solution could easily yield abhorrent results. (F. N. 3 This comes from Descartes’ “proof” that God exists and is not a deceiver which runs: 1) If God exists and is not a deceiver, then if I clearly and distinctly perceive that p, p is true. (2) I clearly and distinctly perceive that God exists and is not a deceiver. (3) If I clearly and distinctly perceive that p, p is true. (4) So, God exists and is not a deceiver. In other words, Descartes only knows that God exists and is not a deceiver if he knows that his clear and distinct perceptions are true. But he can only know that his clear and distinct perceptions are true if he knows that God exists and is not a deceiver.)

The method we use to come to our conclusions is a product of an age and its ideological history, a particular nervous system, a social and physiological disposition. In other words, all represented thought has been a product of a holistic cultural disposition.4 Philosophy, art, and even science are essentially psychological and mythic in nature: all are forms of representation. (F. N. 4 I do not use the term “holistic” randomly here. The interaction of the parts as a whole is a fundamental aspect of what Culture is.)

We can learn a great deal of history, of philology, and of psychology, from our philosophical and scientific inquiries, and yet we may find nothing “true”5 in it, for we have set ourselves about the task of studying the “outside world,” created systems of likeness for studying those perceptions, and inevitably wound up studying those representational systems we have created rather than the world itself. The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach — who was seminal in the formation of Marx and Engel’s ideas — made the assertion that God is the objectified essence of humanity, and in this sense he was correct, although I would add in parenthesis that God is not merely human nature writ large, rather, he is the objectified human representational system. Frederick Neitzsche’s words, “We still have faith in God because we still have faith in grammar,” help explain this statement. (F. N. 5 In the sense that we suppose a Truth to be static, or to stand alone outside of a perceptual relationship.)

In the terminology of Jean-Francois Lyotard, these “self evident,” often invisible axioms can be called meta-narratives, which are “the supposedly universal, absolute or ultimate truths that are used to legitimize various projects, political or scientific. Examples are: the emancipation of humanity through that of the workers (Marx); the creation of wealth (Adam Smith); the evolution of life (Darwin); the dominance of the Unconscious mind (Freud); and so on” (Introducing Post-Modernism – Appignanesi and Garratt.). What he refers to as “meta-narratives” I would simply refer to as “myth.” There is no difference between Freud's Elektra-complex, and the myth of Sisyphus, in regards to their “truth”—both are stories or concepts which are used to frame reality, which may be valuable in some contexts and useless or even dangerous in others.

Lyotard actually defines the Post-modern condition as “skepticism towards all metanarratives.” To truly be free thinkers, we must strip ourselves of the idea that our ideas themselves are realities. No matter how much we may depend on the useful fiction of an unconscious in the process of psychoanalyzing ourselves, or even of the gravity which keeps us glued to the surface of the Earth, these ideas which we use to represent the forces we experience are nevertheless never more nor less than ideas.

This is equally true in science and politics, and this is where this train of thought has dangerous implications. Very few studies or tests are done without a presupposed end result. Nowadays, very few studies or tests are done without massive vested corporate interests, which further weighs the importance of those end results. All information that we receive is parsed in a manner determined by the nature of the questions we are asking, and the answers we expect to find. We can find answers that aren’t congruent with those expectations, but the questions are nevertheless structured by them. Such truths are thought to pre-exist the questions, however the questions and method of inquiry structures them as well. Thus, to an increasing extent, our very realities are being shaped by corporate interests. (Not that they haven’t been just as sharply shaped by political or religious ones in the past.)

These problems combined concern the validity of all knowledge. What we’re talking about here is the metaphysical method: how representational systems such as math and language plumb truths from the world, and how we codify these truths as existent facts. This is not merely the method of philosophy, but as philosophy is one of the fathers of science, it also bears a great deal of import both to the lens science applies to phenomena, and to the world we see as a result of this view.

It is also self-evident that since this metaphysical method is the specific device used to investigate as well as “prove” the proposed system of thought, (whatever it may be), it is really the method itself that is brought to question when we investigate the validity of an argument, rather than the philosophy itself. Or perhaps, more succinctly said, the heart of philosophy, insofar as philosophy is not art, is this method of like and not like—which is the analogy structure of Aristotelian logic, and the basis of linguistic representation as well. I would suggest that the forms of individual and cultural cognition are knowable through this application of the structure of language, however it is a tool unsuited to many of the tasks we put it to, and which can lead us to propose concepts that do not bear out in life. For example, the most obvious expression of this binary is “being” and “non-being.” A great deal of conjecture has been spun around these seemingly opposite ideas; yet what exactly is “non-being”? What is its relationship to “being”? Surely it is not the relationship that 0 has to 1, as 0 still exists in the same sense that 1 does, it merely lacks any quantity. This linguistic concept of “non-being,” formed from the idea of the negation of that which is (“being”), cannot, by definition, be. If you took and negated all things that were, are, and ever will be, one might say “then, you are left with non-being.” Yet, you cannot say such a thing, because you aren't left with anything at all. It is a conceptual phantom, created by the structure of language, and thus, the structure of logic. Thus the crucial point: this exalted method of extracting truth does not, as many philosophers would like to think, strip away the illusions until only truth remains. Rather, it is a form of representational illusion, a form of myth-making, itself.

The method of representation becomes an embodied “fact” for those not subtle enough to recognize what it means to represent. Thus the downfall of Western spirituality has been the result of a series of simple literary mistakes, concretizing rather than recognizing the metaphorical reference, and thus (for instance), considering Heaven a literal “place” where one “goes.” These “literary mistakes” impacts our lives constantly, in the sacred cows we hold, and hold against one another. It drives people to kill one another over ideas, and lies at the root of bloody tribal conflicts that have raged unceasingly for centuries, keeping our species in an unnecessary, near-constant state of struggle and turmoil over war-torn, often infertile lands.

Analytical truths are useful within specific contexts and useless outside of them. It is a method of inquiry – a tool – which does not function well when applied to existential (or, in Ludwig Wittgenstein's terminology, “metaphysical”), questions. One may as well try to screw in a light bulb with a sledgehammer.

When it is employed to plumb philosophical questions it is ill-suited to, the logical “analogy system” of language is used to try to look around corners and in some way come to understand the absolute existence, the essence, of an object. If we know A, and we demonstrate that A=B, even if B is by definition “unknown,” and unknowable, then supposedly we still have come to know it. The general argument of this position is that logic is based upon the methods and modes of perception we use. Thus if something is logically valid, it is consistent with the world as the world itself is logical, as logic is derived directly from it. What a trick.

The extreme that evolved out of this general position came in the form of logical positivism, which expressed that the only sensible method of philosophical inquiry is analytic, and so only questions that can have analytical conclusions are themselves sensible. Everything else is metaphysical. In other words, philosophically speaking, nonsense.

This philosophical dead-end does not consider the intention which drives an author to choose one avenue of inquiry over another, for instance, Freud's emphasis on the Oedipal mythic framework as a means of understanding all son – father relationships. The unintentional autobiographical nature of such “science” reveals far more than the author likely intended, but none of it should be considered universally true.

Even more to the point, the logical consistency of a statement doesn't necessitate truth, unless if one of your initial propositions is, like Ludwig Wittgenstein states in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “the world is the totality of facts, not of things.” Logic is only valid on its own grounds, thus the only valid proposition one can draw from this is tautological, e.g. only facts which can be evaluated through logic can be defined and verified. This doesn’t mean that things outside of those boundaries are untrue, only by definition forever undefined. Yet, as previously discussed, by what method do we prove that logical congruence is an indicator of truth except for that of logic itself?

This is the very mummifying and enervating quality which Nietzsche railed so hard against in Twilight of the Idols,6 before any of the logical positivists, or empiricists, were born.7 The real substance of our lives come in the forms of experiences, stories, narratives, relationships, wants, fears, desires, and so on. This rationally obsessed position corners us out of being able to ask any of the interesting questions that should be at the very center of philosophy: what is consciousness, how do we know things, what is the nature of existence? The only questions that have meaning, when approached from the strict limitations of formal logic are incredibly limited, and often unrelated to any existential necessity. (Such methods certainly have their place, as it is most likely more useful to use mathematics than a fable about a young boy and his pet dragon to determine the area of a given isosceles trapezoid. But when it comes to giving us something of value regarding our lives, mathematics is out of its depth.) (F. N. 6 Reason in Philosophy.) (F. N. 7 Ernst Mach, the members of the “Vienna circle,” Ludwig Wittgenstein in his earlier years, Whitehead, etc.)

Does all of this mean we should throw our hands in the air, and give up questioning altogether? Should we limit the question we are ‘allowed’ to ask to the most rudimentary inquiries of fact, as the analytic philosophers would have us do, or on the other hand conclude that it’s “all the same” and imagine up whatsoever we choose? Surely we must be able to deal with these issues in a meaningful way.

Allow me a personal tangent as a means of directing us towards an answer: at around age sixteen I became obsessed with a need to understand the basis of other people's certainty. At the same time, as is the case with most inquisitive adolescents, I was simultaneously stricken with a burning need to unearth my identity. This is what initially drove me to explore philosophy, because those existential questions gained a horrific gravity that put them at the fore of my thoughts. I couldn’t sleep at night because of them, and wrestled with them constantly. At the core of this dramatic struggle, initially, was the simple question “what am I?” Any question of personal identity eventually leads you to a question of consciousness, (you can't know what you are until you know what it is that is knowing), which leads you to questions of veracity, (you can't know what you are until you know how you know), and that leads you nearly full-circle to questions of identity and meaning.

The question is the thing. How different is it to ask “What is its function?” as opposed to “What is its meaning?” The questions we ask frame the reality that we live in. This process of questioning and building answers atop those frames is what I refer to as myth-making. It is a myth because we are reaching into the dark- we pose scenarios, hypothesis, we may even devise ways to test them a million times over and yet they remain myths: the intermediary between man and the void, the dark unknowable.

“The mind creates symbols to interpret the data of experience; to understand knowledge and the significance of science it is necessary to understand the function of symbolic forms of explanation. Forms of cognition are affected by language and myth; language, myth, and science are all forms of human expression. Experience begins with the immediacy of feelings; but as living creatures respond in accordance with their needs, certain items in their experience take on sign and symbol functions.” (Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.)

Ultimately, there is no better way to express such “questions” than in the form of myth; that is, stories or narratives that express the significance of these questions, that wrestle with them, and ultimately, in one way or another, define the way that we exist within the world.

All of this follows when you realize8 that the only concept of truth which mirrors life is not static. This flies in the face of the concept of enlightenment truth that has been central to Western Civilization since, and arguably before, Plato. However, it is a common observation that the only existential constant is change: everything is in the process of coming or going. Letting go of the need to define, delineate and dominate through the imposition of singular truth (the tyrant), is not the end of reason or sanity, it is it's beginning. Even if we found such an enduring, unchanging and absolute truth, what would we do with it? More to the point, what would it do with us? Certainty is often a harbinger of fascism. (F. N. 8 The literal realization of this is presented, in subtly different forms, as an existential possibility in many Eastern paradigms: most notably in Taoism, where it is recognized as a given, and in Zen Buddhism, where the emphasis is on immediacy (Satori) and paradox (expressed in the koan). In fact it seems likely that the more Western thought strives to define, divide, and conquer the world through literal qualification and quantification, the less such an experience seems possible for those truly existing within the cultural topology.)

Taking all of this to heart, “truth” isn't what we thought it would be. When we have limited it to what we can know with certainty, it merely becomes a list of tautologies. It is only when it is opened up to the possible paradoxes of contextualism that we can find it: a recognition that two opposing things can be true, in different circumstances, or where truths can change over time, or even change when our perspective changes. With this, truth again enters the realm of myth.

There should be no equivocation on this point: everything that we believe is a myth.

“In what strange simplification and falsification man lives! One can never cease wondering once one has acquired eyes for this marvel. How we have made everything around us clear and free and simple! How we have been able to give our sense a passport to everything superficial, our thoughts a divine desire for wanton leaps and wrong inferences! How from the beginning we have contrived to retain our ignorance in order to enjoy an almost inconceivable freedom, lack of scruple and caution, heartiness, and gaiety of life- in order to enjoy life! And only on this now solid, granite foundation of ignorance could knowledge rise so far… Even if language, here as elsewhere, will not get over its awkwardness, and will continue to talk of opposites where there are only degrees an many subtleties of gradation; even if the inveterate Tartuffery of morals, which now belongs to our unconquerable “flesh and blood,” infects the words even of those of us who know better– here and there we understand it and laugh at the way in which precisely science at its best seeks most to keep us in this simplified, thoroughly artificial, suitably constructed and suitably falsified world– at the way in which, willy-nilly, it loves error, because being alive, it loves life.” (Beyond Good and Evil, Fredrich Nietzsche.)

Excursis: Magical Thinking

At the closing of the previous article, I lead us to a somewhat awkward position: in seemingly absolute skepticism, we can rediscover truth in myth, and through that, a new license on reality through a recognition of its plasticity. After skepticism has had its say, it probably seems that we are dangling off a precipice. Without looking down, it may seem a great fall, but glancing backwards we will find it is but a step to solid ground.

With a contextual sense of truth, we are again opened up to the possibilities of magical thinking, which have existed as a central element of culture since the dawn of civilization. Magical thinking,9 though maligned in modern psychiatric literature, is a process which has not so much left us as left our conscious sphere. However, with a grasp of what was discussed in the bulk of this chapter, the magical thinking we arrive at is not that of the schizophrenic or bushman who misappropriates cause. Instead, we recognize our participation in the process of determining the meaning of everything we experience.10 The meaning we give to experiences and sensations, even something as simple as a color, is in our hands. For most, this process is primarily automatic or subconscious. However at some point, on some level, we have to choose which meanings (or often, causes), to attribute to which events, sensations, etc. Fundamentally, it is through choosing to accept predetermined meanings which we opt into cultures. Culture comes about, in part, through an agreement upon certain terms. If a group all choose to give x meaning to object y, they are then entering the same domain together. Some domains are more ubiquitous than others, possibly as a result of our biological commonality, that there are some “truth pacts” which are in certain places and times more likely to take hold and last. (F. N. 9 As defined by Frazier, magical depends on two principles: the law of similarity (between effect and cause) and the law of contagion (things which effect each other continue to effect one another even when taken out of contact.) Though there are more possibilities than the ones Frazier outlined, all of them come down to how we determine causality from the events of our lives, and the meaning that we attribute to this causal web. It is the latter aspect which we will be focusing on in this Excursis.)

(F. N. 10 There is the story of the American in the train who saw another American carrying a basket of unusual shape. His curiosity mastered him, and he leaned across and said: “Say, stranger, what you got in that bag?” The other, lantern-jawed and taciturn, replied: “mongoose”. The first man was rather baffled, as he had never heard of a mongoose. After a pause he pursued, at the risk of a rebuff: “But say, what is a Mongoose?” “Mongoose eats snakes”, replied the other. This was another poser, but he pursued: “What in hell do you want a Mongoose for?” ”Well, you see”, said the second man (in a confidential whisper) “my brother sees snakes”. The first man was more puzzled than ever; but after a long think, he continued rather pathetically: “But say, them ain’t real snakes”. ”Sure”, said the man with the basket, “but this Mongoose ain’t real either”.-Aleister Crowley, Magick In Theory & Practice.

A note here on the distinction between these two forms of magical thinking. Believing in the reality of those snakes will likely lead to a misappropriation of cause. If you become too sure in your beliefs, you will likely find yourself falling prey to the same sort of superstition which is easily identified in tribal and aboriginal cultures throughout the world. (It can also be found in many New Age publications, and health stores.)

If a person spends hours or even days working to bring about a certain end result, they will attribute a successful result with their efforts. It is altogether possible, if not even probable, that success had little or nothing to do with the operation, though the operation may have set them in motion. If the results are not what they were hoping for, this belief structure generally allows for “intrusions” of various kinds, such as another shaman operating at cross purposes, or some other more subtle force which waylaid the operation. (“It wasn't God's will,” “I sinned in some way,” “my magic wasn't strong enough,” etc.)

Consider this case in point: during the middle ages, a meteor falls to earth, which a young farm boy discovers. This meteorite is placed in a church, and considered a holy relic. The local despot, who is preparing for war, takes this as a sign from God, and leads his army to victory. The historians of the time attribute his victory to the meteorite, thus further increasing its “magical power.”

Now, there's nothing to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the meteorite wasn't a sign from God that he should ride to battle and certain victory, but Occam's razor would certainly point to the confluence of other factors, from the skill and number of his troops and the weather on that particular day to the location that they fought, and so on. However, at the same time, such factors cannot account for the confluence of those events, (defined by Carl Jung as “synchronicity”), or the fact that the falling meteorite was the galvinizing cause, without which the success would not, and therefor could not, have occurred. So, in this sense it is true to say that the attributed meaning (“the meteorite is a sign from God that we will be victorious on this day”) was correct, if only because that meaning was attributed, and led them to a successful outcome. )

Take for instance the color yellow. There is the English association of cowardice. Yet Buddhist monk's robes are a yellow-orange because to them it is the color of death. Even death itself has a different association for a Chinese Buddhist than a Catholic in London. We may instead choose to hold a personal association. As a result of a past experience, it may make us feel joy, or despair. Someone may say something to you, they meant it as a joke, but you suddenly feel tears welling to your eyes, because it reminded you of an old dead friend. Getting a handle on someone’s “key words,” and what they mean to them, is means of coming to learn their language, through their language their myth, and through their myth-them.

It is this association of meaning, this “naming” of things, which is the root of our ability to build worlds.11 It is this ability to choose to create and give meaning, to reconstruct the coal of our experience and turn it into diamonds for those who have the subtlety to recognize them, which defines man as myth-maker. This capacity exists within us all. We construct our reality through mental images and words which we use to represent our experience. The references become bounded to that which they refer. (In this light, many “primitive” beliefs may seem less bizarre. For instance, the cliched tribal beliefs that a person’s true name shouldn’t be given away lightly, or that a photograph might steal or trap someone’s soul.) To this extent myth can almost be considered a disease of language, as Ernst Cassirer notes in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: “The phenomenon of 'paronymy,' the use of one and the same word to convey entirely different imagery, becomes here the key to the interpretation of myths. The source and origin of all mythology is linguistic ambivalence, and myth itself is a kind of disease of the mind, having it ultimate root in a 'disease of language.'” This is the case because ”…man puts language between himself and the nature which inwardly and outwardly acts upon him, that he surrounds himself with a world of words in order to assimilate and elaborate the world of objects.“ It is also, as we will explore in the final sections of this book, the way in which we assert our dominance over each other, and even over nature itself, oftentimes with disastrous results. (F. N. 11 The power of this ability must not be understated. The simple choice to consider the base biological drives a hindrance to spiritual life, rather than the path to it, helped create one of the predominant historic trends of Western History.)

Because we create maps of our environment that are not the same as the environment, we may analyze our maps—our history, as I said in the Introduction—our symbol systems, and, through this, continually deepen our experience of our self. Symbols are devices which, when unmasked, accurately refer to existential truths, so long as you can decipher the reference, and avoid the disastrous consequences of fundamentalism. (Mistaking the symbol for that which is referenced.) Religious symbols are particularly potent in this regard; they too represent reality, but to the believer, they in fact represent ultimate reality. Through unraveling the reality that the symbols points at, and invoking it into the present, one does not merely understand religious symbols— one lives through them. This, not fanatical belief or even blind faith, is what religion12 is. (F. N. 12 “Religion” from Latin religi?, religi?n-, perhaps from relig?re, to tie fast. Note that the meaning of this word is fundamentally the same as the meaning of the Sanskrit word Yoga, literally “union, yoking,” or “to join.” In both cases it is an attempt at joining the reference, which the religion refers to but cannot in itself embody, and the individual. This “joining” may also apply to the social body of the religion, though it is usually through the imposition of social dynamics that the religion polarizes into its opposite, and atrocities (holy wars as with the Crusades, bloody in-fighting over interpretation as with the Protestants, inquisitions, etc.), occur. )

How is such a symbol invoked? One steps outside of their normal role, and makes their body and mind a fit receptacle for a particular energy,13 which is codified in symbols. These symbols are impressed upon the mind as words, but during ritual, through art, meditation, and so on, scent, colors, etc. all congruent with the nature of the invocation strengthen these associations, further exalting the mind to allow this “deity” to indwell within it. It is worth noticing that this process exists most prevalently in the 21st Century as media- movies, albums, etc. For many Americans, movie stars and the like have become our pantheon, and Los Angeles our Olympus. (F. N. 13 “Energy” may not be the most telling word to use, but it carries less baggage than the term “archetype,” which in some ways is more appropriate. What we are speaking of is that disembodied character, whatever it may be, that the symbols refer to. Gods, spirits, and the like exist, in the least, as objectifications of existential, human realities. So it is that the Gods resemble us, and are more like us than unlike— otherwise, what use would the Gods themselves have for War? )

The difference between different practices is cultural and aesthetic. I theorize that the ritual garb and mask of a Siberian shaman and the makeup of a pseudonymous performer like Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson could serve the same function, if the performer approaches the act with this kind of intent, and a rich background in the subject.

The symbols we use and realities we exist in do not themselves exist within a void however. I do not mean to imply that by simply changing the linguistic structure and associations connected with a horrific situation we can transmute it into Shangrala. We are social animals, and the “magic” that we work with language operates primarily in the social and historic, in other words, human sphere. Under most circumstances, we aren't capable of entirely changing the nature of reality outside of this human sphere merely by calling it by a different name.

To summarize: ritual is an enactment of a mythology allowing us access to dimensions of our singular and collective being, through the language of symbols with specific connotations, in what is essentially a play-acting process. The energies and beings dealt with may be thought of as real or psychological projections, ultimately they are as real or unreal as any other impression that you might have. Every action, word and gesture may have symbolic meaning or mythological resonance. This resonance must occur between the myth or ritual and the individual(s) enacting it, in whatever mediums they choose to work.