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.
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.
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.”
“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.