I’ve been meaning to clean up my hard drives again, because the accumulation of stuff has slowly but surely been going out of hand. It hit me that my portable disks are crammed with more or less the same things I’ve been saving since the days of DVDs, if not CDs. Coincidentally, being from the VHS generation, the newer modern means of storing data definitely comes in handy, if you don’t have a villa or at least a spare room to physically store either the memories or the crap you’ve been hoarding for all those years.
Sometimes I wonder what will I in fact be needing in the near and distant future. To be honest, the family pictures and personal stuff of that kind means much more than series, stories, games, lectures and the like that at least I store on our portable devices. All of this stuff is essentially a tie-in between the past and the future, or rather my past and future. This bears the question of where the present moment comes in and what it actually means to experience things in the here and now, as opposed to being the subject of seemingly endless supply of member berries that are for the most part self-inflicted. BTW, thank you, South Park, for keepin’ it real!
Anyway, as I was getting rid of my vast VHS collection a couple of years ago, when I was cleaning my cluster of childhood cram, I was recollecting on the old-school way of watching film and taking care of tapes and such. I took one cassette out of its slightly dusty cover and I could still clearly see the heavily (over)used magnetic tape. A walk down memory lane. It was kind of bitter-sweet in knowing I have mostly nice memories associated with those tapes and yet also knowing I have to get rid of them … the tapes, not the memories, because I won’t ever watch a cassette again and can’t pass them on either. The technology changes are so rapid, that saving old VHSs is akin to saving your dusty-ass commodore … if you had one. The time has simply passed them. The memories remain as they should, but unless you’re planning on opening your very own museum of old techs, you’re better of letting go of the old hulks of electronics.
Funnily enough, the same goes for the CDs and DVDs. Although they take up much less of a shell space, you have to ask yourself if you’re really ever gonna watch an old TV show or play an old game on a slightly scratched disk that you’re not even sure if it will work anymore or play as it did in the old “glory” days … or have the same meaning as it did before.
Now, the CD-VHS dichotomy is interesting from the perspective of rights and originality. It’s safe to say that most of us had home-made tapes, while CDs (especially music and games) were originals … until file-sharing became a thing that hit big with the torrent generation, of course. This is not really about piracy (whether or not you view it in inverted commas), it’s more about the means of getting your information and the stuff you like(d). When Internet was not the all-seeing eye yet, the effort of making a compilation of your TV-shows or music was a laborious process … either waiting patiently for the commercials to end, unpausing your VHS-recorder (because tape space was a big deal back then), or waiting even more patiently for your music to download (we’re talking about days, not seconds here).
If I fast-forward to today, there is obviously a chance your car has a CD/DVD-player, so you can enjoy your home-made blast-from-the-past-collections like the top-shit DJ that you are, but that’s not always the case. Hell, modern computers don’t even have DVD-players any more, let alone a floppy disk that was the first one that got limp and forgotten. It’s all about smaller and stronger devices now … and rightly so.
Taking into consideration the rapid changes in information gathering and saving, getting rig of bags-full of VHSs really wasn’t that big of a deal. Just as much as it isn’t a big deal if a file or two get corrupted on your PC over time, because the chances of you really needing them is becoming more and more slim as your accumulation of stuff continues. This is just our spoiled ego wanting something and trying desperately to hold onto it like Gollum holding onto his precious ring … that wasn’t actually his and which inevitably led to his own demise.
I remember when I was researching for my dissertation and especially as far as mythology goes some books were harder to come by. Vandiver’s Heroes in Herodotus comes to mind. I was obsessing about it for over a year, because I couldn’t order either a physical or a digital copy. I got hooked on Vandiver through her audio and video lectures, because she in my mind embodied the essence of a great academic (or rather, she still does), namely: understanding the basics and complexity of your subject matter, knowing how to express it fluently and interestingly, and unveiling not just interesting information, but in a lot of cases deconstructing some misconceptions about said subject matter (of mythology). In the end, I managed to dig up the book from some library in France and had it shipped to the National library here in Slovenia. It took forever, it wasn’t cheap, it was in bad shape, but I finally got it. And then? Well, the book definitely was worth the effort, but to be honest, it didn’t really add anything groundbreaking in my own understanding of myth. I think it was just about that pesky academic dogma of references for the sake of references.
This ties in to what my former mentor said about my hesitancy to research comics for my diploma, because it was essentially a new endeavor altogether. She said that it’s hard (if not impossible) to keep in touch with any given subject. However, if you have keen interest in it, you can manage much more than you can imagine, especially though hard work. It may sound like a cheesy pep talk, but I knew exactly what she meant and she was very honest (especially now looking back). If you love what you do and see merit in it (financial gains aside), you can make up for a lot of what you didn’t know beforehand. I mean, I read comics as a kid like most of us did, but it was still potentially too much for me to go into this new subject given the allotted time I had to finish the paper. Luckily, I endured and discovered (if not rediscovered) my passion for comics and consequentially visual culture in general. So, thank you again, Veronika!
This ties into films as much as it did mythology later on, because myths (stories in general) were (again) a subject matter I enjoyed when I was younger, but had let go over the years. It seems that things come around and one’s inherent interests will always have a lovely grip on you are your reality. I can relate all of this to the whole cleaning is cleansing topic discussed here, because a lot of stuff on my disks in study-related: lectures and books and the like. Alas, no porn (any more) … As much as I would like to think that I will watch, listen or read most of the things I saved on my digital mainframe over the years, that applies only to a small number of works and with more and more of them constantly being produced, the rest of your saved stuff is there just for the sake of being there, you know: just in case. In case of what? The mythical deluge? World war? Profound epiphany? If you don’t need it, if you don’t intend to pass it on and are not sure if you ever will, you might as well get rid of it. Cleaning becomes cleansing becomes purification. Self-baptism galore!
Think of it this way: ask yourself what is your most prized possession. And don’t say you don’t have anything like that, because we all do. It can be a photo, a book, a film, an album, etc. Think about it, what makes it special and why you need it. The truth is, in most cases we really don’t need it. You’ll retain the memory of said object whether you engage in it on a daily basis or not. And here’s the kicker: if your memory of it isn’t all that great, that just means you didn’t really need it as much as you thought. In Buddhist terms this is just unwanted fixation that holds you back from seeing the light and focusing on bettering yourself. Well, in Buddhist terms that can relate to the memories themselves, but that’s another thing in itself. The point is that we can live without our fabled prized possessions just fine (and we do actually), we just don’t want to admit it. These are our baby blankets we don’t want to let go in the “big bad world” we live in as adults.
I don’t have a favorite book for example, because my interests are manifold and I try to view each work in its own light and in its own right. Smith’s colored and collected Bone series comes close, because it was a birthday present, I know it cost a fortune, it’s a comics masterpiece and it’s 1500 pages of storytelling delights that can because of its thickness and shear mass be used as a weapon to boot … but I haven’t opened it in a while and as much as I love proudly parading it on my shelf, the world (or rather my world) wouldn’t end if I didn’t have it anymore.
Humans are hoarders by nature, plain and simple. The whole agricultural system that went hand in hand with the birth of cities and civilizations became one immensely large silo of grain that the heavily-consuming species that we are need … yet, we live in a world that’s on the one hand plagued by obesity and extreme poverty on the other. How can we even come to terms with that? I suggest that first we take the effort to come to terms with who and what we are individually and socially, so the unhealthy ego of mindless gluttony and hoarding gets replaced by the apt ego of positive change that is the drive for progress in general.
With that in mind, “confirm folder delete”? Yes, indeed!
SCIENCE AND RELIGION
I want to expand on the last post about Mythology and Phenomenology by stressing the probably the most interesting part, which is also the most problematic, if not controversial; namely, the interplay of science and religion. Although it may seem more fitting to write science vs. religion, that kind of position is largely unproductive and dismissiveness bears few tasty fruits. And since I am of the mind that this sci-rel interplay should be positive and fruitful, cooperation is key, because nothing (of real merit) exists in vacuum.
The dichotomy of science and religion is one of the central paradoxes in the modern, science-based view of the world – paradoxical in the sense that science and religion are viewed not merely as opposites, but archenemies in the perpetual whirlwind of one-upmanship and desire for global domination. While the first seeks answers from the outside, the second turns inwards and foregoes factuality for pure belief and faith. Both have drawbacks and both can inspire masses, but in one way or another their subject matter is rooted in myths – either to dispel them or to cherish them as sacred objects.
The search for the meaning of life is not just a philosophical conundrum or a future doctrine in the making; it is the very life of what we do in our daily lives and the driving force of our actions … the very ink (or differently colored pixels) in these sentences being read at this very moment. As much as we need to look forward to propel our knowledge of the world and for the world, we must not lose sight of myths as the origins and blueprints of our life journey.
As much as Shakespeare has been examined and discussed in debt, his canon of works still holds countless secrets to be discovered. Myths have similar power, however in a greater scheme of things still. We are constantly only one generation away from losing sight of the wisdom of old that gives us better lives in the future, if only we listen to it. Only one generation of forgetting Plato can eradicate a vital part of our conception about thinking. For this very reason it is essential to constantly reread and reevaluate the lessons of ancient progenitors of humanity.
Forgetting myths is akin to forgetting cultural history, forgetting humanity itself. In light of materialism and hard capitalism of today, the last sentence sticks out like a sore thumb, but nevertheless. The sacred sphere takes the relative/subjective value of an occurrence (such as marriage) or a person (upon reaching a threshold) and places them beyond their sacrality and truth in themselves into the objective sacredness (thus marriage gets a significant meaning). Marriage even begins to play a vital role in our profane existence, as a modern reinterpretation and reapplication through a non-religious hermeneutic cycle of worth and value. Love in the marriage reflects the love of God and the ultimate reality, playing upon one of the golden rules that is not just central to all religions, but is the basis for the conglomerate that is the social paradigm of humanity.
Myth is a mosaic of views and appropriate theories as methodological pluralism, reflecting the multitude of subjective views that make up the collective objective picture of the world. The question of subjectivity and objective reality may be impossible to answer (paradoxically to everyone’s liking). While postmodernism denies objectivity in itself, as we are all mere subjective imprints of the greater social being that we create, ancient traditions like Daoism refer to exactly this interplay of internal subjectivity and external objectivity; the world as such is made of both and flows from the sacred to the profane and back in an endless cycle of life (the aggrandized hermeneutic cycle of sorts).
In terms of theory and academic research, methodological pluralism occupies a similarly complex, “objective” approach to understanding art in general. Albeit in this case, the stigma is not against a narrow view on a particular theory, but a constant search for better understanding and consequent application of theory. While the search for absolutism in art can be an insurmountable obstacle, the desire and willingness to understand different point of view of a given work is crucial to getting that artistic epiphany and seeing the proverbial picture in its truest meaning, i.e. its most objective light. Humans have a predisposition towards particular subjects that stem directly from one’s own self and will therefore always naturally turn towards the direction that personally suits them; yet, it is the awareness of the rest of the paths (theories) that creates contrast and keeps the subjective personal reality in check with the socially objective one(s). This is the dichotomy of religion vs. science, of knowing the rules before breaking them and of understanding the world of myth and comics before managing any sort of valid discussion about either of them. Objectivity may in fact be attainable, but its clairvoyance and perditious path is akin to Siddhartha Gautama’s struggle to reach nirvana.
Returning back to the topic at hand, semantically, we distinguish god from God by mere capitalization, yet its function cannot be measured in ink. Similarly, if everyone has its own life and we call this the subjective view. We have the objective perception of the world as well, which is predominantly rooted in factuality, the scientific view and the nature of things in themselves. But even this can be labeled as relative or at least a temporal truth, until a better, more honest reality is determined … and science essentially constantly one-ups itself to the point that it deconstructs its old “factual truths”. In such a way, the conception of God may be akin to the conception of Objectivity, the reality beyond (human grasp of) reality, the Brahman, the Dao, Heidegger’s Being or Kantian Sublime. Obvious parallels can be further drawn towards Kant’s perceptions of being and questioning whether our sense can in fact provide an accurate view of what there is … or rather Is … I mean IS. In this case, the verb view cannot be overused, since the majority of our internal and external conceptions are based on sight. Whether or not this leads to insight is another matter, but as much as great minds of the past and present have already uncovered, the fact (still) remains that we have merely began to scratch the surface of the greater truths of Being.
Objective value may be taken as the level of excellence. Thinking of canonical works, their objective position as “the best” goes beyond one’s perception of actually understanding them. Picasso’s and Dali’s works excel on many levels, yet most people nevertheless find their obscure worldviews at least somewhat disturbing, the same way as Shakespeare’s richness of language can easily overwhelm his (especially non-traditional) readers. All the creators of myth and art need to be taken in a larger sense and observed as complexly as possible: for the intrinsic values of their works themselves as well as the(ir) contribution to the human race. This observance places the notion of objectivity further under scrutiny; I propose the term SUBJECTIVE OBJECTIVITY, which makes best use of limited means, nowadays especially though science, coming as close to objective perception as we possibly can without being able to uncover the true essence of theoretically timeless Being, which is beyond human limits that our more than obvious temporal existence is plagued with. Humanity as such is drenched in finality and can only strive to come close to Objectivity and God. Myths, through their distorted facts about life and insightful messages about our existence, in a way offer a passageway to higher thinking and higher functions that we need to strive towards, if we want to continue the upward trend and prove the progressive evolution principle.
Religious truth is the search in the realm of aspiration. We cannot be sure, if the convergence with God takes place, so we need faith to carry the mantle of greater truth until we reach it ourselves. Religious truth becomes our perennial object of aspiration, parallel to the scientific final truth about nature. Pragmatically, the truly important things in life can only be aspired towards, since they have value in themselves. This temporal, physical existence does not allow for greater certainty as we desire it (even science is based on presumption and acceptance of the fact that reality in fact exists) – especially due to the current materialistically-spoiled and answer-driven culture, where value is more and more measured by what can immediately and without a shadow of a doubt be placed on the plate of mindless consumption.
The search for Truth is somewhat paradoxically an aspiration for betterment that may not yield any results (in this life, even for the one searching), but one’s legacy may not only teach, but open the eyes of the generations to come (i.e. Jesus, Galileo). Philosophy and religion may deal with extremely difficult metaphysical matters that propose more question than they give answers to, yet their unquenching appetite for knowledge and wisdom have always propelled human understanding of the self and the universe forward (obviously equally applies to science pes se). Without “thinking” as such, there would be no progression, no liberal or conservative movements, no science and the words on this digital page would be not merely nonexistent, but beyond the scope of even thinking about words. This is a direct correlation to the mythic path, which is supposed to be paved with obstacles; the final revelation is merely the icing on the cake, the final layer without which the cake of life is incomplete nonetheless. The future Buddha's final life before awakening was in fact the hardest of all, as the object of his awakening was close as hand like Tantalus was (although from an entirely different perception) endlessly close to nourishment, yet tantalizingly (pun intended) beyond normal conception … except Siddhartha Gautama’s progressed state.
Complete attainment is not in the realm of religion or philosophy, for it is the subject of scientific research. It presupposes an important, sublime, even dangerous path for the mind to traverse and uphold, since it may in fact deconstruct perception of being for most (religious) people in this world. If God, Love (agape, the unconditional love), Truth or Objectivity is the goal of our search, it is perplexingly dangerous (since complete attainment dissolves all future human endeavors and annuls progression that we strive towards), but it paradoxically must remain the fundamental precept of everything that we do, because that is one of the building blocks of human nature. If we want to pursue the case of this mosaic of truth, myth needs to (re)take center stage and remain the marker for inquiry and discovery.
The obvious critique of this seemingly overpresumptuous cadence of myth can be traced back to Aristotle, whose metaphysics differentiated between myth and philosophy, the latter being akin to science. Myths can equally be seen as the primordial “scientific” explanations about the cosmos and consequently about humanity and the human psyche. However, the main reason why myth(ology) takes such high importance in my research is its unparalleled prominence as the predecessor of artistic, scientific, religious, historic and philosophic thought of the present and future generations. In other words, if philosophy is the love of wisdom, myth is the philosophy before philosophy, whose love transcends towards religious Love and its wisdom stirs the eternal human unconscious even through the obscure and unfactual means myth takes such delight in.
Science and religion are rooted in all of that majestic mumbo-jumbo. I dunno how much sense it makes to you, but it puts things in perspective a bit more and connects a few more dots, so I’m happy with that.
The contribution of phenomenology to the study of myth and especially religion lies in its direct and consequently more serious approach; this means that phenomenology refers to the study of religion in itself, as a distinct discipline with its own subject matter. Consequently, the phenomena, such as ritual, sacred texts and traditions are brought into the limelight without a general reductionist approach as was commonly the case … specifically at the outset of every new methodological tradition (where patrons and personal goals are the predominant factors that give rise of subjective inquiry). This means that phenomenology goes beyond the methodological atheism that the aforementioned and discussed theories and approaches in my Myth in theory series generally adhere to. The exploration of the phenomenological subject matter requires the factual examination to give way to emotional, personal and spiritual positions.
The roots of phenomenology can actually be found at the very beginnings of religious thought, where religion and myth were considered sacred and thus viewed seriously and with reverence. There’s plenty of paradoxical irony here, of course. The issue of objectivity certainly comes into play, as there has always remained a distinction between the objective/academic/scientific position and the subjective/intricate/religious view, perhaps most notably observed by Kant. The central paradox is thus assumed; namely, how can one critically study a subject, when its conception is based on matters beyond the factual and physical approach? Dare I say POST-META-physics!?
What the worldly sphere wants to scientifically scrutinize is actually rooted in the world beyond; this is the paradigm of what Eliade divides between the profane and the sacred, the world of society and the world of myth. Essentially, we have returned to the issue of science versus religion, the duality of body and mind, fundamentally the concept of the Dao not being present in the now or the physical reality. This is consequently not only a philosophical dead end but a conundrum for any research like mine that kind of walks on the fringes of what is concrete and what can essentially never be completely understood within the confines of current human evolution. Plus, this already touches upon the Kantian paradox of not being able to prove God’s existence, yet not being able to disprove it either, which is not only one of my personal favorite concepts because it essentially “attacks” both sides of science and religion, but this agnostic paradox is pragmatically very much still in effect.
The duality of science and religion is something that has always interested me personally and academically. Truth be told, the perpetual tug-of-war between the fields is still raging, however, the distinction between these two long-held rivalries lies not in their seeming opposition, but their commonality and cooperation. Just as the yang and yin are not separate but integral in each other as the spherical symbol itself denotes, so the world we inhabit operates between different positions which are not excluding (or at least should not be), but are interwoven as any scientific or academic theory is. Life is intertwined, plain and simple. Even if you’re lucky enough to master a particular field or endeavor, you’ve essentially done nothing, because you are still a minnow in a miniscule pond of potential that we have only begun to explore. It’s not nihilism or some post-existentialism, this goes far beyond money, ego, success, morality and many more issues that we either hold dear to or take for granted, especially when it comes to Being itself (speaking either strictly philosophically or extremely concretely …or rather both). That may be a hard pill to swallow, but if you really think about it beyond yourself, it’s as true as it has always been.
Now, how does this refer to myth? Myths in the sense of stories of Being connect the human condition to the (perceived) reality our condition occupies. While myths may seem like an absolute, fantastic position, even touching upon blind religious obedience, their factual analysis occurs on a seemingly opposite field, the “absolutism” of each is dependent on each other and the middle way of appreciating myth in itself and understanding the blueprints that make up its subject matter seems to be the only palpable position to take. Take the example of the word logos: meaning either word or reason. This perfectly illustrates how religious texts entice the readers to experience their teachings not merely through passive reception, but actually reason and try to find deeper understanding of the subject matter. Thus, it becomes clear that just as myths and religions function on different levels, logos as such demands simultaneous awareness of both meanings (if not more). Consequently, the demand for a distinction between myth and religion or science and religion pales in comparison to a greater holistic comprehension of our subject matter and ourselves.
If religions were obsolete, time would have already devoured them and their many offspring (denominations). Why else would esteemed academic professors still be devout in their religious approach? Why hold to doctrine and tradition of let’s say the Biblical cosmogony, when you can scientifically prove that the world is much older and differently structured? On the other hand, how could Indian sages account for a much much more vast existence beyond the human gaze and conception (even today), if their understanding of scientific facts was “primitive”? Equally, if most of the world still holds near and dear to their religious roots and traditions, why is the mainstream geared more towards science?
Perhaps the best answer is that we need both science and religion to keep each other in check, in a sense maintaining balance by not allowing any mode of reasoning and being to become too pervasive and hegemonic. Succumbing to merely one point of view – no matter how truthful or factual it seems – denigrates the kaleidoscope of thought to absolutism and verges on doctrine (and I mean doctrine as stale dogma, not its original meaning of correct way). I tend to rave about the holistic approach (that I’m still piecing together), because it goes beyond ego and temporal ideology. At least in theory, because the amount of research needed to “master” numerous subjects can quickly verge on the palpable idea of parallel universes, when you’re paradoxically only occupying one. This isn’t meant as a self-deprecating excuse, because I would much rather be privy to parallel existence than not. Also, it’s not about perfection, because that’s as fabled as any divinity. It’s about rooting out unnecessary reductionism and narrowmindedness that set traps for us at every corner. Hello, google generation! Hell, from Nietzsche’s perspective, even liberal democracy presupposes its own dogma and ways of thinking and acting. To carry the analogy further, the democratic model has never been an ideal, neither from its original Athenian roots, deeply embedded in slavery, nor in its current representative form at the backdrop of institutional capitalism. Most of us are still living in the world of aristocracy
As mythologies in theory (unwillingly and unknowingly) depend on tricksters or trickster-like figures to stir the status-quo, we as humans depend on the imagination just as much as we do on hard scientific facts … and in both cases this “anarchy” is inevitable meant as advancement in one way or another. There is no science without imagination. You can’t just dream up the notion of a black hole or dark matter just by looking at movements of celestial bodies and the interplay of their shadows, you need foresight and insight in the same light. Inside or outside a religion, faith and belief are central to our being. In one way or another – even as children – we have to take things at face value (learning the rules) before discovering your own truth (breaking them). We have to let go of our ego and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to our lack of information and knowledge. Opening ourselves up to the world of science and religion (or what they represent) is not just the prerequisite, but rather the norm, the central doctrine we live by. Consequently, the interaction of the self and the world is ever-present.
Similarly to the perception of myth placed between extremes of a sacred and false story, we can observe two central processes that have (depending on one’s position) either driven or plagued (mis)understanding of faiths; namely, the paradoxical relationship between the conceptions of fear and love. Looking from the outside in, true religion is essentially marked more by fear than love, especially through the notion of awe. A profound reversal of the love-inspired Christian teachings of today (or perhaps professed by the mainstream). Historically we can see fear of hell (through institutional demands of the Church) as the first step towards knowledge, with love and thus wisdom as the final goal.
Either in the presence of an actual divine force or psychologically condensed state of implied sacrality, awe as the Kantian sublime refers to the presence of a very “scientific” force beyond human comprehension. The sacred must be by default extremely different from the known mundane world; the hero, priest, shaman or prophet must feel the presence or be in the presence of something unprecedented in order to make the relevance and magnitude of faith a worthy cause. Even to the point of overemphasizing the divine, since the followers can hardly internalize the same true power as the few chosen have been privy to. (How can you comprehend one or many infinities, if the core of your know perception is rooted in finiteness?) This is not a justification of charlatans or false prophets, but refers to the true revelation that goes beyond personal means. Further, this reflects the reality of our world, where the many follow the ruling of the few, whether or not the ideal of the philosopher king is justified. But the ideal should nevertheless always be perused, yet there’s a lot to be said that the Ideal is beyond the conception of what we currently are as humans.
The fear factor becomes a natural, instinctual response, as if marveling at the first sight of the lightning of the mighty Zeus. Awe essentially means nothing and is false if it can simply be “understood” and thus taken for granted, or is too personal, as if being uneasy about the divine out of fear of eternal damnation; akin to love as unwavering belief or blind faith that borders on brainwashing and can be both religiously and politically exploited.
All in all, the mundane society and the sacrality of myth are closely connected, just as much as the mind and the body need to coexist. Well, surely we’re not in the Matrix. Or at least if we do “live” in a simulated digital or spiritual reality, the details and believability of this program are quite extraordinary, especially if this sucker is running on high-settings … I’m just not sure if I wanna know what exactly I’m plugged into in through which orifice.
The mythic paradox is thus not a paradox, but a requirement of trying to understand different positions in themselves; a sort of “empathy”, if you will. Why else does the mundane world or the scientific sphere reject blind faith, yet still count the history of the world from the vantage point of the most famous religious martyr that may or may not have existed? (The simple answer is: because it’s easier.) Why are most celestial objects given mythic names? (Again, awe and tradition … plus, it’s easier to think of Venus than a combination of digits and letter.) The connection between society and religion is almost inseparable. In this context, the religious, imaginative, other-worldly position functions as the extra-perception, even the sixth sense. As it plays the role of art to the requirements of survival and reproduction, it is the expressive potential and the essential driving force of understanding and being. While science may in theory desire to understand everything objectively and beyond ideology, human ego and social constructs are the largest and most powerful tools that we unfortunately have perennially (or only) at our disposal, so we are always gradually tearing down the great mausoleums of old (beliefs) and building brick by brick not a new world, but a clearer world based on their majestic foundations that we owe everything that we are and … are yet to become.
Probably the most infamous connection and possible explanation of mythology is to the human subconscious. In this case, it would be better to specifically say explanation of myths, especially if we in light of the psychological lens consider the individual mythic stories as particular dreams that make up the whole dreamscape reality … a reality that is as complex to comprehend and actually envision through the subconscious as is the whole individual mythological tradition various myths are rooted in.
However, as soon as we consider myths as mere reflections of one’s self or mere dreams, it’s notoriously hard to overlook the position of mythology as something less than the dreamstate. Yet, the myth as dreams theorem paradoxically does not just undermine the potentially far-reaching social, cultural, anthropological traits of myths, it actually enhances their notoriety by trying to understand them as building blocks of one (more or less formalistic, if not structuralistic) way or another … in this case the psyche. All of this is the power of psychology.
Nevertheless, we tend to focus on the “negative”, as the biologically dandy negativity bias presumes. Once the unconscious is let out of the proverbial bag, it’s hard to take the supernatural in myth as serious as in the not so distant past. And not merely that, because the idea of the metaphysics of myth obviously goes beyond both space and time. This is just the modern scientific dogma of thinking we can prove everything and dissect even more than that in order to finally disperse and get rid of anything and everything in connection to the pesky anti-scientific religion … and myth as the religious backbone is indeed the crux of the matter in more ways than one.
Since psychology deals with the mind on the conscious and unconscious level, the issue of behavior, thoughts, beliefs and “truths” can be easily misconstrued, which can and does affect not just one’s conduct, but one’s perception of every single aspect that we can think of. And when you apply that on the larger social level, you easily get enhanced/multiplied versions of thoughts and actions, the reality and factuality of which are far from the main goal. In such a way, the story of a cultural myth is the myth of the story of life, where you play the game of life as best as you can, given your personal biological/cognitive settings.
And before this turns into a tangent about some relativism of life that bears little semblance to the subject matter, the point I’m trying to make is that psychology is – just like every single lens of mythological survey that I’m butchering in this Myth in Theory series of posts – far from perfect in its approach and consequences. It’s not really about perfection as much as about factuality and truth as in any scientific approach, although this fabled … dare I say mythic … notion of perfection is something that I’ve always felt is at the core of psychological examinations. Maybe things get lost in translation, authors in this field express themselves in a particular way or I just don’t get it enough, but when you read especially notorious authors like Freud, you get a sense of grandeur and overwhelming importance at work … whether that is self-imposed or not is another matter.
The other thing is that when I began talking about dreams right off the bat, I was obviously looking at only a certain idea from the immense framework of psychological research. On the other hand, psychological methodology in general to me is extremely diverse and interconnected. From Rank, Peirce, Lacan to Levi-Strauss, psychology and psychoanalysis readily combine with other fields of language study, structuralism(s) and other deconstructive (post)modern theories. Since the mind is at the center of examination and the neural connections between our synapses fire just a bit differently for each and every one of us, it’s actually fantastically ingenious and observant to find concrete and factual connections between us, especially on the “hidden” unconscious level … or on the level of Freudian psychic structures and Jungian archetypes and dreams to circle back.
I would say that the majority of psychological applications to myth stem from influential albeit accordingly quite different researches of Freud and Jung. At least I feel their respective researches have entered the mainstream more than others. I mean, considering popular culture and myth alike, there is plenty of juicy stuff to choose from: from Schrödinger's cat and the paradox of myths as both equally alive as the human condition and dismissed as human religious folly … to Pavlov's dogs as the vague reimagination of Heracles’s (Hellenistic) subjugation of Cerberus’s power which represents nature itself. That’s the juicy stuff that tickles my fancy.
To touch a bit more on Freud and Jung as the psychological yang-yin pairing galore, Freud’s “neurotic” view of religion places myth in the same category of undesired, even primitive stories of the subconscious that hold no academic value, while Jung, on the other hand takes a more holistic and more global approach to myth and religion, reflecting on the issue of dualism, importance of dreams as mythic windows to our world and (equally fixed and fluid) archetypes as the unconscious clues of our understanding of our consequent humanity. If Freud is the conservative straight line in the religious narrative, dismissive to the point of rendering it (scientifically) obsolete, Jung is the sphere that merges oppositions and adds layers to religious understanding. As such, the Trinity for example gets both the Feminine and the Negative principle … and you know that the forced liberals of today gots to love dem apples!
To kind of sum up, if myth (psychologically) indeed happens in the head, it’s a powerful cognitive stimulant that has influenced many a culture and seems to still have intrinsic value for the (post)modern society as well. If myth is a combination of one’s internal world and the greater reality we occupy, it still represents clues of our psyche through which we peer into the mechanism of our very Being. While obviously not all myths are impressive or touch upon the doings of human beings, they were nevertheless written by human authors (looking at the stories from outside of the sacred tradition) and thus reflect human nature in one way or another. Either taking into account the very subjective works of Hesiod, much more meticulous writings of Muslim and Christian body of sacred stories, or the live interplay and enactment of Aboriginal or African myths and rituals, myths are still instructional stories for humans with intricate value … for the mind … and (hopefully) beyond the mind as well.
MYTH IN THEORY: MYTHOLOGY AND SOCIOLOGY (Part 3)
Right off the bat, if you’re scratching your head why I didn’t group sociology with anthropology from the previous part, it kind of feels better this way, at least philosophically, so just bear with me.
I’ve already touched on the role of mythology as a cultural emblem, a body of stories reflecting the nature and order of the culture it originates from, plus its patterns and essence it reflects. As such, the sociological paradigm to the study of mythology may be on one hand the most paramount and yet on the other hand (due to its palpability) not quite too prevalent.
To elaborate on this statement, firstly: sociology and mythology share a powerful trait in their subject matter, since sociology critically analyzes the occurrences that make up any (and all) given culture(s), while mythology (sub)consciously elucidates the very same occurrences through its storytelling. In such a way the sociological reality of today’s groupings, subcultures and governing organisms is paralleled to the tradition expressed in myths … whether or not they are true is another matter, because “factuality” becomes heavily scrutinized by and personalized to the “party” one belongs to. In such a way, strictly speaking it does not really matter if the ancient kings embellished their origins and created a divine backbone to their governing, because perception becomes reality and Truth can be quickly hidden by the patrons, agendas and personal quirks and misunderstandings of the researcher. The same thing is happening today in the “forceful” liberal state we seem to be living, where equality for equality’s sake is akin to perpetual war bringing proverbial peace. Paradoxes and hypocrisies galore!
And secondly, however, the less obvious connection between the theories of sociology and mythology stems from the critique of mythology as a collection of mere fantastic stories, while sociology deals with relations within the human cultural organization. What is palpable in this pairing is the power myth has in relating, controlling and divulging the relations that sociology follows. Thus, the great Indian epic Mahabharata directly reflects the nature of the Indian culture, the guiding dharma principle and its caste system, while the story is bracketed by the great supernatural battle between good and evil (and it’s never preferable to take stories too literal, regardless of their sacrality). On the other hand, great influencing myths of Mesopotamia among other things serve as social, order-inducing exemplars, which can in turn be understood either ideologically as propaganda or as an explanation of rituals as cultural elements. Consequently, mythology can function as a powerful ideological apparatus, particularly when mythic stories take on more sacred roles through the implement of religion, such as the dogmatic ruling of the Church in the Middle Ages for example which culminated in the Crusades and the totalitarianism of the Western religious system, consequently furthering the divergence between faith as such and institutional religion as the barbarous offspring … something Nietzsche would surely nod to.
(The subject of the Crusades is along with The Second World War generally considered primarily negatively, reflecting on the dark depths of humanity, with destruction by far prevailing any righteous consequences. While mythic and especially disillusioned religious parallels can easily be found in both cases, I want to stress the interconnection of events which resulted from them. While pacifism may be the “positive” global outcome of the Great War, the Crusades were principal in acquainting the Western world with the ingenuity, scientific and artistic prowess of the then Islamic tradition that notably influences consequent Western development. Eternal duality at is clearly always at work.)
What sociology and mythology share the most is their position in relation to the individual and the larger human sphere. Both reflect the greater macrocosmic reality that every microcosm each and every one of us is finds himself or herself in and has to cope with one way or another. Whether the organization reflects the story or the other way around is difficult to answer; while culture would already had to have been prominent for the bard to compose myths about it, myth touches upon higher realities than human culture and organization, as Jungian archetypal system also points to. To an extent, this matter is quite arbitrary; the issue of where society historically ranks in connection to religion can easily resemble the eternal question of what came first: the chicken or the egg. The more important concern for my research is the interaction of both subject matters and the dualism of the personal and the social paradigm, which reflects the position of every (human) being that balances its existence between its own being, its own I, and the greater environment it finds itself in …to again extend the initial duality into a tripart structure.
(Strictly speaking, the dual principle of the micro and macrocosmos can be in this sense expended to a triad, where society as the mesocosmos, the central area occupies the space between the human – the personal –and nature – universal sphere. The mesocosmos can essentially be interchangeable with the macrocosmos, since they both reflect a reality bigger form the individuum. Similar observation can be made in the human/family/society triad, where the family unit essentially occupies the social sphere.)
From a theoretical position, the concept of the monomyth finds merit within this framework, where similar cross-cultural, elemental themes get reenvisioned through particular expressions of local environments. In other words, the mythic questions spans from the universal to the social position, from the overreaching reality or the Truth to the specific truths of each and every society, from the sacred to the profane, from Brahman to Atman. In each case, the individual functioned either directly or indirectly within the (human) social sphere or the larger (universal) existence as such. Max Weber’s social forces and structures have clearly always been at work.
While I may be grouping the distinctive fields of archeology and anthropology together, they are in fact diverse and rich in their own right. This is just my way of finding connections between traditions (refers to history in the previous part as well) in order to hopefully uncover greater facts or truths about any field of endeavor … in this case about mythology, of course. So, let’s continue.
History and anthropology are closely connected in their subject matter, as their mutual interest lies in discovering and illuminating the past as factually and determinately as possible. Anthropology, nevertheless, concerns itself more closely, directly and literally to the study of humanity, while archeology as its subfield for example enhances the subject matter through the discovery of remains and consequent function of when can be physically uncovered. The study of humanity is in the general sense the study of humanity’s past ... or in other words remains (hence the continuously important religious and social value of graves and burials rites). Those remains may be (archeologically) concretely discovered in the form of actual bones or artifacts that can be carbon-dated and placed within a narrower historic time-frame, so we may infer their value. Often, this is (anthropologically) done in connection with the current times, cultures and tradition that kind of act as balancing weight or a fluid constant through which we link our present human state with the past and mark the changes and constants in human (past, present and future) development. Further, by also incorporating linguistics and the biological and cultural anthropology as its subset, the central ideology of anthropology is a sort of holistic approach, while the study of humanity in general (the personal aspect) can only be perceived in a greater setting and contrasted with its larger cultural role (the social aspect).
Thus, through the discovery of remains on the coast of Asia Minor in connection to Homer’s accounts in the Iliad, we have a possible factual connection between myth and history. While the actual remains of a temple or a stronghold can hardly speak of its builders’ and inhabitants’ genuine beliefs and a mythological story based on historical accounts of a war between two forces in the Aegean area (yet embellished with divine participants) may only give an outline of what actually happened or what religious or cultural significance the conflict had, this physical connection to the story nevertheless remains.
Authors of any story are directly influenced by the environment they inhabit; so, while the Biblical account of the flood might be more or less directly linked to the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, modern researchers can search for parallels between the story and the actual historic location that may have been subject to floods. Discovery of languages, their development and (crucially for the modern observer) their translations shed further light on the dark past.
In such a way, the creation account from Genesis 1:1-3 describes God as the creative force that names everything into existence. The “word of God”, as it is most commonly translated, actually refers to logos, which can mean word, but is equally connected (if not more) to the influential Greek philosophical thought commonly understood as reason. The difference can be quite profound to say the least (Note also how the young maiden got translated as virgin and presto: we have immaculate conception.) Translational issues can be a major concern in any type of cross-cultural references (let alone sacred texts), as many myths are seen from inside the tradition. Plus, the further back in (pre)history we go, the darker the veil that is placed in front of our far often ignorant gaze. Consequently, a mere story can facilitate geological, transcultural (syncretic), philosophical and historical clues.
If I give some more examples, the Akkadian word zikru from the Epic of Gilgamesh can mean either someone or word, consequently stressing the use of footnotes and endnotes in texts of such magnitude (an academic delight). Equally to logos, while the Buddhist term dukkha is generally translated as suffering, its much more authentic meaning as dissatisfaction or discontent come closer to its actual message. (The issue is even greater as plenty of good Western theoreticians of Buddhism fail to stress this notion that can ultimately hinder genuine comprehension of Buddhism. Because let’s face it, if you tell a Westerner that “life is suffering”, all the goth and emo nihilists with pick up their trusty razorblade and make another cut, because the image that pops into our head is more of Dante’s Inferno than philosophical discontent on both the personal and the social level.)
While the differentiation in the first case may not necessarily govern the subsequent development and reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the latter two examples touch upon vital religious dimensions of the respective Christian and Buddhist traditions, so such miscomprehension can be ideologically and philosophically damaging.
Anthropological and archeological work uncovers further (mis)connections to the “truths” revealed in myths, in a sense bringing the fossilized mythological accounts back to life by adding new layers of mythological understanding and meaning, which was their central function. The phrase can be taken quite literally, since anthropological and archeological work tries to uncover the hidden or forgotten reality of myths, as the cultures of their origin can be under attack by the modern reality of life. While for example the Victorian anthropologists, functionalists and symbolic anthropologists applied their research to better understanding the subject matter, their position nevertheless represented an outside view to the examined traditions and their stories. As such, the observations – whether gained from uncovered remains or being privy to a performance of a story – are mere interpretation of the original tradition. And that’s exactly what we are at the best of times: interpreters. If you say expert, regardless of the years of study and practice, that’s still just your ego boasting. And to that the Buddha says no bueno.
Although the inherent paradox of anthropological and archeological data remains, since the corresponding mythic accounts are generally oral in nature, this kind of research nevertheless uncovers symbolism and concrete material means which try to recreate the cultural environment in which (and through which) mythic narrative was brought to life and consequently continues to shine its relevance and revelation.
MYTH IN THEORY: MYTHOLOGY AND HISTORY (Part 1)
"Every world is a sacred world.” (Mircea Eliade: The Sacred and the Profane)
The world of humanity is a rich playground of mythologies and each cultural mythology is brimming with individual myths, which in turn can overlap, contextually interplay, negate one-another and even change accordingly as times and audiences of these myths change as well. Whether or not myths are oral or written, they will forever be traditional stories that each culture proudly cherishes. Stories that may have individually far differently affected the global conception of humankind, but they nevertheless share various traits despite certain (by default) geographical and historical distinctions.
What I’m trying to provide here is a broader outline of the density and the pervasiveness of myths, so we can understand them better in a larger context. In this post specifically, I’ll be reflecting the interplay of mythology and history and how one discipline echoes through the other. Also, I’ll refer to mythology for the most part in the same breath as religion, even though this connection will be explored in greater detail in a future Myth in Theory post … just so there is no confusion (or at least less of it).
Mythological complexity is fast apparent in the works of most mythographers and scholars of comparative mythology or comparative religion (i.e. Rosenberg, Oden, Ford, Vandiver, Jones, Kimball, Thury and Devinney, Voth, etc.). These scholars point to this very same fact by providing a historical perspective and consequential development of theories that are applicable not just to mythology and religion, but are essential to human understanding in general. We have to consider that traditional stories are often the very rich (imaginary) source of all future endeavors, whether or not we view them as proto-scientific. It also must be stressed that the respective fields and modes of inquiry I’ll be discussing alongside mythology are taken as general premises with specific ideologies. Anthropology has for example been quite diverse, as its branches spread from philosophical, empirical to theological examinations. The study of psychology on the other hand has historically had a shorter time frame to expand, yet has been that much more potent … if not even more far-reaching. Therefore, while we can distinguish myth through the application and function of the subsequent methodologies and theories, it is paramount to notice that these positions are essentially merely outlines that inspire further deliberation on them and aspire to a provide the source of a life-long career (academic or not).
So, let’s dive into history.
When Herodotus, the “father of history”, sets to write his accounts of the Peloponnesian war, he outlines his work for posterity, “preserving the great and wonderful actions [of his time].” (Herodotus: The Histories. 1996: 3) With this foundation in mind and kind of squinting at the fact that Herodotus had let’s say a vivid historic imagination, history as such refers to the events of the past, which were formidable enough to be recorded.
The notion of formidability is fast becoming foreign to us in the current age, where everything is being recorded, everything rapidly loses its shine and the Big Brother is (evidently still) watching our every move (if not with more and more zeal). The study of history has long since presented the main aspect of studying the nature of living and consequent development of not just humanity, but being itself. Arguably, modern scientific study in theory refers to a larger playing field; however, even when for example observing the deaths and births of stars, we are essentially observing the past.
History in connection with myth refers particularly to the study of historical accounts and clues that allow us to come as close as we possibly can to understanding the past. I of course refer to the accounts in question that have either survived or have been (adequately!) translated. Both notions are far from obvious and indispensable, since present understanding cannot be pieced together without either element. Merely possessing all of the tangible pieces that make up the story of our past (surviving historic accounts) does not complete the proverbial picture. Only through placing those pieces in correct order (their translation) can we hope to begin to uncover the past, through it gazing into our present and future. What is more, the picture will always be missing certain (even crucial) pieces and given the cultural/linguistic diversity, the position and meaning of a particular piece can be far from obvious.
But why is understanding the past so important? Should we not leave the past behind, so we may focus on the present and the future? The Greek word historia in fact means inquiry. History has through the critical freedom of the Greek historians and philosophers become the vehicle for just this type of examination of the world (obviously more subjective for us Westerners). Only in studying the past can one learn from it and try to shed light on repeating patters or cycles of life … or discuss either arbitrariness (which would paradoxically be an arbitrary ordeal) or importance (for current and future development).
Clue is the crucial word in this context, since the further back we venture, the more inconsistent the evidence is and arduous the consequent facts may be; apart from the obvious postmodern dilemma of being skeptical of even the present, unless you have (actively) spatio-temporally experienced it for yourself. Myth strongly follows this historical model; the further back in time we go the more obscure and unconsciously insecure the accounts are. Consequently, myth as pure historic account (The Big Bang cosmogony) merges with myth as legend (King Arthur) or even further back myth as supernatural force (natural forces as divine manifestations).
The difference is that myth as storytelling (particularly, the many versions of the same myth, especially in oral form) is from outside the culture factually far less stringent than the question of validity and accuracy of historical records throughout human cultures and times. In such a way, the ordeals of Jesus or Muhammad are unquestionably omnipresent for their respective followers/believers, while erroneous to American Indian tribes for example, whose sacred animals like the buffalo essentially replace the two great prophets as sources of wisdom. Cultural relevance plays a vital role in determining the meaning of particular historical elements, the fact which is further stressed through extensive study of the tradition itself with all of its temporal nuances, not merely providing a verbatim translation of a newly discovered account.
We also have to keep in mind the cross-cultural historicity, since the study of history and archeology has for example been fueled by globalizing tendencies of the more industrialized countries, whose researchers had better sources and hence objectively better means of “conquering” the secrets of the past, even if initially foreign them. (Not to mention they were all aristocrats, because common folk had to work all day or fight wars for the powers that be.) Further, as such a privileged researcher (and an outsider) is inherently less plagued by cultural bias and historical emotional legacies of the researched traditions, s/he may actually be more objectively reliable than someone from within the tradition (the not so obvious implication refers to yours truly as well) … but this is still a far bigger issue in anthropology than history proper.
Since history primarily (and pragmatically) depends on written records, its connection to mythology as originally an oral tradition may seem inadequate. However, mythology as a body of stories has been conserved in large part through the invention of writing. Its consequent use is thus in preserving and restoring the sacred stories for the generations to come; quite apropos, since one of the central uses of writing has been to store information pertinent for the culture it was used by – which is in turn consequently tightly connected with self-comprehension, (material and ideological) excess, growth of commerce and development of civilizations.
The usefulness of writing may seem obvious to us nowadays, since we are heavily dependent on information served in largest part through the medium of the written word (or symbols of one kind or another), but it must be noted that the Greeks just like the Hindus for example initially put greater value of preservation to the spoken rather than written word. Thus, any written account could essentially be under greater threat of destruction than a spoken story, which could live forever through the meticulous and regular retelling from one generation to the next (with changes to boot!). This notion has to be viewed through the instability of ancient written accounts and scarcity of written material. On the other hand, oral storytelling as recordkeeping falls into the category of simplification for amplification, where stock phrases and repetitions were necessary for mastering the narrative from the storyteller’s perspective to be readily comprehended by the listeners ... just ask any ancient bard (if you find one, be sure to tag me). Especially in connection to myth, far greater value was placed on the oral story as a living, flowing account, adapted to a particular audience and time (as opposed to a myth that loses some of its fluidity and depth by being fossilized in only one, “final” version). Hell, even academic writing must be orally finalized before the research is deemed acceptable.
The mythological account may be to an extent seen as the precursor of modern scientific account of the world. The connection of myths as “false” stories and science as factual descriptions is not paradoxical, since myths may reflect actual historicity, but they do so by embellishing the facts (kingship becoming deified). Truthfully, this very aspect is central to the understanding of myths not as wishful thinking or wish fulfillment, but as historicity of human nature and the initial psychological and social levels of societies that these first human accounts have to offer modern scrutiny. In other words, if myth is proto-science, (god) bless its influential imaginary dimension that has given the best scientific minds a vessel for further exploration.
The posts on my blog have in one way or another been around comics and mythology. The disclaimer on the site clearly does not lie. Both of the subject matters bear a strong connection through their mutual storytelling prowess. Both modes of expression rely on visualization, even though myth per se is more ideological, while there is no comics without said visualization. What is more, upon greater understanding of the two respective modes of storytelling, I can say that comics are quite simply saturated with myths (either directly or indirectly). This statement may not be obviously clear for most besides mythographers, but it functions on the same level as literacy and observation.
I would claim that myths are integral aspects of our psyche and our very being. Visual elements equally permeate our lives. Both concepts are so obvious that they can become invisible … just as we do not consciously think about the number of breaths we take or the amount of blinks our eyes make in a day, we take for granted that we can immediately interpret most of visual imagery that bombards our existence. In a similar way, we have long internalized the mythic imagery and symbolism that are given light from rituals, rites of passage, the heroic journey and the archetypal search for the meaning of life itself – either on the sacred or the profane level.
I can relate this to my academic years. When I was contemplating my doctoral thesis, I hit a shit-load of conundrums and bewildering realizations of grandeur of my rather (too) open-ended subject matter, such as:
“The self-reflecting paradox of this research is rooted in the immensity of the mythological lens through which the comics are analyzed. The perplexity stems from trying to uncover (not the essence but) the depth of mythology in only a few years – a task most mythographers spend their entire lives on. Thus, the choice of mythology in comics is anything but arbitrary (or even revolutionary), but an integrally natural choice that pits together our internal (mythic) features and external (visual) elements. My work echoes both the distinction and cooperation of the two systems of inquiry: the personal/instinctual level and cultural/earned mode. It is a self-reflection of humanity at its most natural level which needs to be stressed, not for it to have meaning, because the meaning is already quite evident, but because it fundamentally works on the same level of (self)exploration as does the most advanced science to date.”
Yeah, lots of hyperbole and now that I reread it almost an ego-trip … even though my goal has always been to shed light on the complexity of mythology and the pervasiveness of comics, since both are often misunderstood and downplayed. My message tries to be despite its apparent enthusiasm quite impersonal. I know, another paradox, but this one in a weird way makes quite a lot of sense once you’ve managed to burrow deep enough into the things that interest you.
The whole point of this verbal salad is that I’ll jot down some key theoretical aspects towards the study of mythology that I’ve found through my own research. I try to view them heuristically and holistically … indeed a mythological salad with rich flavor potential. I say potential because people generally tend to focus only on one aspect of myth; for example a psychological or a phenomenological take. This kind of Unitarian approach, however, leaves my salad rather tasteless, so I like to mix it up as often as I can … and add some social or anthropologic seasoning to the big mythological bowl, which makes the salad really pop.
In other words, this is a kind of tie-in post, since I’ll be explaining in future posts under the title Myth in Theory how certain disciplines go hand in hand with the study of myth or are rather part of the theoretical compendium of the study of mythology. Obviously, it will be more mythology than comics, but if I can relate stuff to comics, I definitely will. Plus, when I finish the four B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs collected editions, I want to do another How it Works, but this time a bit more condensed, since 1200+ pages of reading material can amount to a blissful headache of an analysis and a drag to read.
So, that’s what’s coming up. Cheers!
“The truth is one, but the sages speak of it by many names.” (Rigveda)
The mythic quest is one of the defining elements of mythic narrative. While the theoretical framework of mythology and mythography can be readily understood without even touching upon the heroic quest (among other for me key notions like the trickster factor), this notion is rather crucial for understanding the intricacy of interrelations within the mythic narrative.
The key term connected with the heroic journey is monomyth, which essentially refers to the interconnectedness of mythic narrative, especially the narrative about the hero and his or her life journey. The term heroic journey was taken by the great Joseph Campbell from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. He expanded it into a unifying transcultural theory that has now essentially become the mainstream guide for storytelling. Monomythic research tries to find similarities among culturally unrelated myths from different eras, determining common roots of cultures and human development. While common ground can indeed be found, making the application of monomyth (and common human heritage in general) extremely useful, the differences should not be overlooked. Culturally-bound elements mark the temporal and conventional distinctions among various traditions: such as for example the prominence of corn in the myths of Americas as opposed to olives in the Greek tradition.
Although Otto Rank and James George Frazer have for example prior to Campbell theorized on this subject matter, I think it’s still best to (approximately) follow the Campbellian model as the more elaborate and detailed account. His model observed in the diagram will be simplified for the sake of clarity, since both the path in general is manifold and the heroic models (faces) are based on the widest possible variety of world myths. While, I’m generally interested in a more global mythic perspective, you are in some ways “relegated” to the larger tradition you live in (in this case the Western tradition that has been most influenced by the Greek mythic legacy).
The mythic cycle, therefore, reflects the heroic life which follows an essentially simple tripart structure of separation, initiation and return. The journey itself is meant as a challenge par excellence for the person who chooses to undertake it; emphasizing the volition in the acceptance of the task. While the heroes and heroines are bound to their narrative, which kind of negates the notion of free will and free choice, this model is actually a beautiful representation of the trials and tribulations of the common (wo)man.
Also, the cyclical nature of Being is not to be confused with a repetitious loop; whereas the first on the symbolic level reflects the ongoing destruction/creation cycle that represents life itself, the second implies negative fixation, out of which (the Buddhist especially) must break free. It’s the hermeneutic cycle that only has one take.
The hero is more often than not hesitant of the extreme choice of action, since it represents an extreme change from his current position in life and the world, and may in fact be spurred into action. The choice itself, however, is the first and most crucial step that opens the mysterious doors to the greater existence. The call to adventure may of course be refused, however, in doing so, the unlikely hero-to-be reverts back to his mundane existence that cannot impact the greater reality. On the other hand, the acceptance of this life-altering challenge is always met with a figure that nudges the hero in the right direction, crossing the threshold into the sacred sphere where the unknowns are abound. This follows a symbolic pre-death where the hero emerges “baptized” into the greater reality of the matrix world s/he was previously numb about.
(The use of male gender pronouns is not a chauvinistic choice, but it does reflect the notion that there are more heroes than heroines in myth, partly because of the patriarchic society in which the stories emerged. However, the path can be equally applied to both genders.)
Here, the actual mythic journey becomes a reality and the initiation into this supernatural, previously unfathomable world begins. The hero’s trials are apropos of mythic dimensions, since s/he is taken through the whirlwind of the gods and must deal with these (unconscious) dark aspects (of his own psyche) that touch upon every emotional range and trials: from fear to temptation. From the male perspective, the two greatest challenges and consequently accomplishments in this stage are meeting the mother goddess and atonement with the father god, representing the psychological growth and fulfillment of the dual nature of all beings. This reality and seriousness of the expedition is evident though the symbolic death of the now knowledgeable hero, who is reborn with the newly acquired wisdom that is most evident in the acquisition of the boon or the goal of his journey. Significantly, this gift is not meant for the hero per se, because his true reward is the realization of the greater reality and the fulfillment of the life journey, hence stressing the social function of the hero.
Whether or not this boon is accepted by the mundane world, this gift becomes the key issue in the conclusion of the journey. Prior to this, the hero has a choice whether to return to the profane world or not, facing one final challenge of choosing the ego over the archetype s/he is to otherwise become. The change has in fact been so profound, that the culture itself may reject the hero as an abnormality, an entity now too foreign for the people (or advanced for their own good). The ultimate achievement is the mastery of both worlds, where the hero has as the divine mediator managed to bridge the gap between the sacred and the profane. Yet, this kind of “perfection” is not the norm of the story. The Buddha and Heracles achieve divine status both in Heaven and on Earth, as they forgo the mundane world, leaving it on one hand much richer through their own suffering and making a profound transcultural footprint for all the future generations on the other. Further, perfection is not even the ultimate “moral” of the story, since the archetypes that become apparent through the heroic quest are nevertheless marked by the specifics of the culture and the needs of the times in which the story is being (re)told. Plus, myth is not rooted so much in the romantic notion of morality, as it is in an attempt to understand the reality each culture is in.
Taking a sharp postmodern turn, the meaning of a particular story is never straightforward, since the holistic approach alone drives the observer into considering as many layers of it as possible (with the absolution of the perfect understanding forever slightly beyond your reach). The Campbellian mythic model is neither complete nor pervasive, plus it tends to be rooted mostly in Jungian psychology (despite the rich analysis of its subject matter). Reception will forever remain the elusive component in analyzing any work; a fluid constant that emerges as the bastard child of the times and the cultural changes in the tradition from which a particular story emerges. Even so, as much as this heir to the hermeneutic throne of ultimate comprehension tries to incorporate the mesocosmic theoretical facts into its pool of meaning in order to uncover the macrocosmic truths of the greater reality, it is still essentially rooted in the psyche of a particular microcosmos that only one particular researcher can either embody or extrapolate. Because of this, the nature and meaning of a story are more complex than anyone can individually envision. We can compare this with the Buddhist story of the blind men, each touching a particular part of the elephant in trying to determine the nature of what stands in front of them. Correspondingly, everyone provides a different answer, since the trunk feels completely dissociated from the tusks or the tail for example. What seemed universal in their mind was in fact a mere individual, partial truth. In that sense, only God can know the truth, since God is Truth. (Now, what you call “god” and “truth” is a different matter.) Corresponding to storytelling in myth and comics, the authors hold the truth towards which the readers are striving; yet, the difference is in the correspondence, since reception becomes integral for the authors themselves, as they relate their further storytelling (creation) directly through the reception of their readers. If the author is the ultimate reality, the reader is the future Buddha, whose awakening becomes associated with the reality of the work itself, even to the point of transcending it (akin to the Buddha’s philosophy of life becoming a Buddhist doctrinal religion through the followers … whether or not that was his intention).
In accordance with the above discussion, we need to expand the already mentioned archetypal model, particularly as it was postulated by Carl Jung. In this context we are essentially placing reception as a personal position in sharp contrast with the heroic quest (and archetypal patterns) that is despite its many masks centered in universal human forms. However, this dualism is not paradoxical per se but actually enhancive and merely reflects a different methodological position.
Jungian archetypes represent a formalistic backbone upon which we can gaze into the human psyche and consequently understand storytelling (among other things). Jung defines these archaic remnants as an inherently human, albeit unconscious feature:
“‘Myth-forming’ structural elements must be present in the unconscious psyche. These products are never […] myths with a definite form, but rather mythological components which, because of their typical nature, we can call ‘motifs,’ ‘primordial images,’ types or […] archetypes.” (Jung and Kerenyi: Essays on a Science of Mythology (1985): 85-6)
Archetypes function on the unconscious level because they reflect a deeper sense of self and are not a personal feature per se, but a reflection of the human condition; hence the appearance and repetition of them in myths and dreams (in different forms) in dissimilar human cultures across time and space – which is the central claim of the monomyth theory. Jung distinguishes archetypes from instincts; while the latter are psychological urges perceived by the senses, the first manifest themselves in fantasies, dreams, symbolic images and metaphors (cf. Jung: Man and his Symbols). This symbolism presents itself as a kind of primordial language whose personal imagery composes cultural norms; in Campbell’s words: dreams become private myths, while myths serve as public dreams. The process is less evident, since the archetypes are “stored” in the collective unconscious, a shared human trait and a gateway to our past, present and future (beliefs).
Simplified, the similarity of mythic symbolism implies shared, transcultural human knowledge. Its memory is held in the collective unconscious as archetypes through which we try to understand the world (on our personal quest in the shared world). The most influential archetypes are: the Shadow (unconscious part of the psyche), Anima (female psychological tendencies in male psyche)/Animus (male psychological tendencies in female psyche) and the Self (personal essence that needs to be fulfilled). Further, the emergence and realization of the archetypes coincides with the mythic path; namely, through the elements of family, natural forces, helpers and detractors. Despite their universal nature, archetypes appear quite personal to each individual, since they reflect his or her personal nature. Consequently, myth is also a universal tale told from a quite personal position, stressing both the psychological nature rooted in human storytelling and the religious doctrine of a personal god that is also the non-created universal entity. If the Self is the essential part of our psyche, it is also divine; and since Atman equals Brahman, we have come full circle (yet again).
In one of the recent videos I watched about art, I came across a very interesting painting that maybe I’ve seen before, but clearly hadn’t paid nearly enough attention to it. And I really should have, because it captures a lot of the beauty, complexity and ingenuity of art that I keep ranting about.
The picture in question is The Old Fisherman (1902) by the Hungarian artist Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka. Let’s dive in!
If you got an association to Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea … well, good, because we indeed see an old man at the sea, but that’s not really the point. What is the point is that the picture is not really what it seems, or to be honest, it’s much more than it seems. At first glance, the man is leaning on a cane presumably on a boat, on a cliff or some dwelling near the seashore. Interestingly, he seems to lean backwards or is hunched over, perhaps because of a laboring hard life at sea. Also, if we look closer to his face, his eyes seem a bit distorted or he’s squinting … or there’s something else at play that makes his look seem a bit tired, suspicious or at least uneasy.
Now, the reason for this is something that most of us would be hard-pressed to see, namely, the vertical asymmetry, bipolarity, dualism, division within the picture itself. This in fact gives us two wholly different depictions within this on picture. A picture within a picture? Inception? Well, more like inception before it was cool. What I mean is that if we mirror respective left and right sides of the above picture, we essentially get two new figures.
The left-mirrored side thus portrays a man praying. We can call it the pious side of the above old fisherman. Given the shape around him, we can assume he’s in the boat at sea, which is itself relatively calm. The man’s expression is saddened, if not troubled.
The right-mirrored side, however, is where things get even more interesting (and the reason, why the original picture seemed a bit uneasy). This is the darker, sinister, devilish side of the old man. Or we can perhaps call it the Devil itself.
The figure here is now much darker, his shoulders aren’t slouched (anymore), he seems visually more imposing (through the darker tones and straighter lines) and his gaze is fixed directly on us. Even his hair and hat are more upright, perhaps symbolizing the devilish horns. The sea behind him now looks stormy and the scenery seems more menacing. Allegedly, he is supposed to be in a coffin, but I don’t really see it. What I do see is that his garment now seems more regal than in the left-mirrored picture, where the old man is wearing plain clothes.
Overall, this is a fantastic depiction that shines the light on the majesty of great art … you can even call it visual storytelling, because you essentially get a triptych of a sort that shows the polar opposites within a larger frame, the good and the bad, the yang-yin of the overall reality, etc. Kosztka’s genius lays in the fact that he created three pictures in one, despite the fact that the “original” picture seems powerful and ominous even without realizing the gems it hides under its bipolar loins. A picture is worth a thousand words is the apropos saying here.
The reason why we don’t or rather can’t really see this dualism is because first of all we don’t expect it (since we are vertically symmetrical by nature), second of all our brain tries to find meaning within a given context and connect the dots as much as it can, and third we are “fooled” just enough by the author’s mastery and ability of fluently connecting the two sides that we would never think of it. Things like perspective, visual metaphors and allusions come to mind way before you would think of vertically-opposing separations within a single picture. And (again) the real magic here is that this picture at close inspection has all of it!
Overall, Kosztka’s The Old Fisherman is a prime example of art’s complexity, insight and hard work that goes into creating a multilayered visual spectacle. Seemingly simple, yet profoundly intricate. This is a great lesson of how fickle our vision can be and how prone we are to visual illusions and skimming through the complex visual reality. I know this picture is not an illusion per se, as much us our inability to distinguish the hidden gems in question (that weren’t really meant to be seen at first glance) is not at fault here.
But you gotta love art, that’s for sure!
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …