I’ve had many discussions with people over the past few years about why myth is important. Not just a topic of interest, a subject of curiosity. Absolutely essential, if we are to understand anything about consciousness, or art, or literature, or our place in the world. But so much of these discussions come down to a misunderstanding about what the word “myth” means, so what could have been an interesting discussion about politics, permaculture, literature (or sex or food for that matter) becomes a lesson in semantics.
I’d like to avoid rehashing that kind of argument, and toward that end, give a definition of myth that all of us can wrap our heads around. And I hope as a result of it you will see why this is such a crucial issue to explore, as it has relevance in regard to every other discipline of study.
The fact is, myth is something we engage with every day. We just might not think of it in those terms.
This is a thorny topic, too easy to confuse and muddle, or over-simplify. So where can we start?
First, I’d like to start us off with a short excerpt from the introduction of The Immanence Of Myth
(Weaponized press). This excerpt was also published on the net in the popular art journal Escape Into Life as “Living Myths
.” I chose that title because most people think of myth as the study of classical myths, the study of what I would consider dead myths.
Modern myths are, quite plainly, alive. They represent not only our ideas about ourselves and the world around us, nor our beliefs of the same, but also and probably more distressingly, exist at that juncture that lies between these things, and which defy our plain view. Not quite pure fantasy, rarely easily understood as an objective or material force. (More: IoM is Myth Dead
We may use myths to explore why something is the way it is, or what we are to do with it, but a given myth remains just an interface. It is through us, through embodiment and direct interaction, that it is made immanent. There is no transcendent realm beyond the symbols, and in themselves, the symbols are empty shells. The myth is living because we are ever-changing and transitory. In other words, we are living, and myth too is living. It is a part of us, our mirror. It is like the moon in relation to the sun — without the sun, the moon would cast no light, but in the presence of the sun, it appears to have a light of its own. If this seems far-flung, consider this statement: coming world conflicts will be driven by ideological forces along cultural fault lines. In other words, by our ideas about ourselves, others, and the nature of the world we live in. Ideas are not just ideas, when they take hold of us.
Myth is difficult to explain in a top down manner: it is not merely a story, for some stories are myths while others are not; it is not merely the beliefs of people retold in stories or other media, because here again retold beliefs can be devoid of mythic resonance.
Because of this complexity, for the time being let us define a few of these basic qualities through a backward glance at the function of myths past, before turning to ways that these qualities may or may not be applied within the world of commerce and industry.
The myths of the past, it is commonly held, were erroneous explanations for the way that the world is; fanciful stories, which, though colorful and interesting curiosities, surely bear no particular use to our “modern” lives. This interpretation mistakes the thing (fanciful stories and the accompanying art, etc.) for their function. As was later re-discovered by an expansive list of preeminent scholars and authors, including Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and many others previously mentioned in this work, these myths do not principally explain the world, rather, they explain our place within it. Thus, it is not a singular, universal and static truth that myths represent, but instead a personal, cultural one.
It is commonly accepted that mythology served a central role in the lives of humans up until a time when science and industry somehow stole away or otherwise replaced our myths. This belief itself serves as a myth which allows us to establish a place within history for ourselves. It is an internal narrative that defines us in Enlightenment terms.
This is another role which myth serves: it defines who we are, and defines where we are in time; what role we serve, and what the nature of that role is. To the actor, the central question is often “What is my motivation?”
The myth underlies our motive, or at least, it gives it voice. It may be encoded in any medium, but its defining characteristic is its psychological function. When looking at stories, movies, or any other form of media, we may then, once again, ask: what qualifies as a myth?
Perhaps first we should look at how we define anything. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein explained the nature of meaning in language as a case of “family resemblance.” For example, sisters and brothers, mothers and daughters, and so on, can all share certain traits, not others, and yet be considered part of the same family. This, he proposed, was the nature of linguistic definition. Without this concept, we cannot properly define a game, for by any static qualifier certain activities which all of us consider games would be ruled out. This concept of “definition” contradicts the Aristotelian categories most of us are still used to, where a thing is either A or B, and cannot exist as an amalgam of many different potentially contradictory components, occupying a space somewhere between these various “pure” concepts.
Without this recognition, it is impossible to properly identify the various elements of myth at work within the diverse industries, mediums, and personal narratives of the world today. We lose site of how these elements can function in a piecemeal configuration, for example with elements of mythological thinking occurring within a seemingly unrelated milieu. Granting these complexities, we may consider how myth actually functions in the world.
Framing myth in this light makes the discussion of the subject anything but “coffeeshop talk.” Modern myth is on the lips, minds, and knife-points of those in the midst of active revolution, as well as those working in media. In fact, all that is represented, all that we could form an opinion on as we form an opinion on it, is in that process entering the realm of myth. Doubly so when it is presented back into the world through discourse of any kind. This is the perspective of myth from the cultural level.
There are different scales on which myth can be approached.
Instead, I want to talk now about the less understood personal dimension of myth, since many of us are more familiar with how it seems to operate at the macro- level of culture. “Personal myth” is a term several of us started employing in the discussion of immanence and myth, which seemed natural but it has caused a great deal of confusion when it isn’t clearly explained what we mean. It has come to have primacy in regard to myth through the lens of immanence rather than transcendence.
Which sounds pretty erudite, I suppose, but it really isn’t that difficult to grasp if we look at it headlong. So what is personal myth?
Lately I’ve taken to this example of personal myth when asked this question, because so many have experienced it: you meet someone and fall straight through the floor. You fall in love. Which means, you share a story with someone else. You are co-writers. Co-editors. And one of the preconditions of the plot is, “you’re in love.” That isn’t to underrate the reality of that experience, at that time. Not at all. It is real. Real as any other emotions is real. Dangerous as any wild animal. But it is still a story, and our relation with one another depends a great deal on it.
You develop a shared myth about your lives together. Some of it is just in the expectation they’ll be there tomorrow, or other day-to-day assumptions. Other myths might be about your shared future. You scope out houses, or fawn at the mysterious plants growing in someone’s front yard. Anecdotes, shared memories remembered as-if you are the same being, dreams, trinkets representing your shared history …
It may seem like your meeting could have been foretold in the stars because of its raw necessity. Falling in love is a deeply mythic process. Maybe that is why there are so many myths about it.
But sometimes things go “wrong.” Quite often. Whatever it is. They break your trust, however you define that, they run off and join the circus. Or, you suddenly look around, look at the script, and just go, “I can’t believe I listened to my agent with this.”
Whatever the reason, the bubble pops.
Maybe the relationship is strong enough to stick to the story after the two of you fight for a while about plot structure. But if not, our stories become too incompatible. Now you have yours, and they have theirs.
This is your new myth. To hell with the old book.
Suddenly the whole relationship is a different story, maybe they’re even a villain now. It was a mistake, they are “a total asshole.” And who knows, those assessments may be more accurate than the ones you made when under their spell. Now you have to call your friends and tell them the new story. Share it on Facebook. Re-enforce it in your music listening habits. THAT LYING SON OF A BITCH. Turn the music up.
Have you ever stopped and looked behind what you’re doing? If so, I imagine you may have experienced something interesting, as I have. The force of these narratives is so strong that often you can be aware of the Wizard behind the curtain, and still be subject to his capricious whims. For better or worse, we are trapped inside our stories, a hall of mirrors that only death frees us from. (Or not.)
But maybe you don’t see behind these games we play with ourselves, and one another.
Either way, we go on thinking this posthumously written myth is the “true” myth. The most recent story is often the most appealing one. Maybe we’re all just obsessed with “The New.”
But all our myths are — at one time or another, in one way or another — equally true.
Take a breath. I want you to think about an ex-, and then recall yourself in the story you shared with them. Reify that story just for a moment, and pretend all your premises at that point in time were true. If you do it right, you’ll either feel nauseous and dizzy, or like the linebacker from the Rams just sucker punched you in the kidney. You will likely find a wide range of myths that conflicted with one another when you were with them, and a different assortment of them.
Consider that these stories were equally true, equally untrue.
Hard to swallow, isn’t it? We’re all constantly changing our stories, and the fact that we pretend otherwise is one of the greatest scams about “human behavior” that popular culture seems to pull off. (And yet we have this delusion that we have somehow “evolved” beyond myth because of the centrality of science in how we think of the world around us.)
We re-write the past like this, and we do it so constantly that it is absolutely unimaginable that a sense of our history is anything other than a series of overlapping myths. Our experience is a palimpsest—that is it is scraped only partially clean and used again and again.
A palimpsest is a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off and which can be used again. The word “palimpsest” comes through Latinfrom Greek παλιν + ψαω = (palin “again” + psao “I scrape”), and meant “scraped (clean and used) again.”
There are many more esoteric ways of explaining what a myth is but this is the most direct. It’s a part of the process by which we come to know anything, because we have to make assumptions and make a story of things to understand them and understand our place in them.
“We are our narratives” has become a popular slogan. “We” refers to our selves, in the full-blooded person-constituting sense. “Narratives” refers to the stories we tell about our selves and our exploits in settings as trivial as cocktail parties and as serious as intimate discussions with loved ones. We express some in speech. Others we tell silently to ourselves, in that constant little inner voice. The full collection of one’s internal and external narratives generates the self we are intimately acquainted with. Our narrative selves continually unfold.
State-of-the-art neuro-imaging and cognitive neuropsychology both uphold the idea that we create our “selves” through narrative. Based on a half-century’s research on “split-brain” patients, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga argues that the human brain’s left hemisphere is specialised for intelligent behaviour and hypothesis formation. It also possesses the unique capacity to interpret – that is, narrate – behaviours and emotional states initiated by either hemisphere. Not surprisingly, the left hemisphere is also the language hemisphere, with specialised cortical regions for producing, interpreting and understanding speech. It is also the hemisphere that produces narratives.
“Narratives” are simply a specialized version of myth.
So, understanding that personal, national, cultural, spiritual myths all operate the same at different scales, at least structurally, we can see that modern mythology is not a topic relegated to one discipline, but is instead an open discussion that could benefit as much from exploration of cognitive psychology as it can from the analysis of literary symbol or the direct experience of a shamanic ritual.
In all cases, the operative word is literary. This is precisely the stepping-off point for all the work I’ve done the past 15 years, to which I hope to share more of here. If you’re curious and would like to catch up, feel free to poke around my sites.
Teaser image by born 1945
, courtesy of Creative Commons license.