“Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.”
William Butler Yeats
I’ll end this tripart mythological excursion with elements that are probably not the most obviously connected to mythos and can be viewed as more general to various doctrines and theories, but for me they work extremely well in this context as well. Whether or not they are the cause of myth, vice versa or just purely go hand in hand with it. With Daoism/dualism and hierarchy, we are essentially dealing with two ideologically prevailing factors. What Daoism represents in philosophical and religious terms, the issue of hierarchy adds in a more natural, secular light. Whether you take mythology as other people’s religion or religion as other people’s mythology (arguments can go both ways), the stance between mythology and religion in this context is that of one being the aspect of another.
Daoism is a Chinese philosophical/religious tradition stemming from the 5th century BCE, founded by Laozi through his seminal work and apart from the Christian Bible the most translated written account in the history of humanity: Dao De Jing. Characterized by the eponymous yang/yin symbol, the teachings of Daoism reflect a return to natural, fluid states of being, where spontaneity is king and one’s essence becomes part of nature itself. The term Dao is as elusive and all-encompassing as its subject matter, since it can be referred to everything from meaning, method, word, god, life, principle, yet its most common translation is the Way (the true path of life). (In a perfectly paradoxical way, I use the Dao, not the Tao spelling, because having obviously had vast experience in writing capitalized Ds for all my life, it just flows more naturally that way. Wink wink nudge nudge.)
However, definitions are not central here half as much as mere understanding/feeling about the tradition is, so dwelling on the word and its possibilities means straying off the Daoist path. The complexity of either explaining or even understanding Daoism lies in a central paradox that Daoism can neither be explained nor understood per se. The very first lines of Dao De Jing deconstruct its own subject matter and reflect upon the arbitrariness of language and writing. As the Dao that can be understood is not the true Dao, the central paradox of comprehending the incomprehensible extends to many aspects of philosophy proper as well, since comprehension and the ability to describe are not always straightforward. The paradox within the Daoist mainframe is generally more a paradox to the Western rationale or at least seems paradoxical to the untrained eye. A crude and somewhat out of context parallel can be made to the mastery of a particular subject, where an art critic can for example immediately see the grandeur of a painting where a layperson cannot perceive anything exceptional about it whatsoever.
Even study of myth in an academic factuality can becomes subject to spontaneous, natural realization of either-you-get-it-or-you-do-not type. What I mean is that even if you grasp the parameters or modes of mythic/folktale survey that Jung, Levi-Strauss or Propp have come up with for example, this nevertheless tells very little about the actual depth of those stories, their cultural meaning and a somewhat natural way that they impact future storytelling. Even de Saussure’s duad comes to mind, but the parole part in terms of mythology and Daoism extends into spiritual aspects and life itself, which are about as elusively non-formalistic as you get. That’s partly why we still haven’t answered the question of what is the meaning of life for example. And who knows, maybe that’s a good thing.
Daoist influence over my research in general, however, primarily extends to the yang/yin dualism that emphasizes wholeness (of the mythic paradigm), spontaneity that reflects the natural talent and beauty (of the artistic, comic paradigm) and the middle way (Aristotelian golden mean) that urges the understanding of extremes and even contradictory theoretical approaches. The middle way symbolizes a free-flowing “doctrine” which states that life’s balance (and its consequent essence) is to be found through subduing the extremes of one’s existence; between hedonism and asceticism.
The yang/yin symbol is among the most common and widely used icons of humanity, where the circle’s unity and eternity is equally divided between the forces of light (yang) and darkness (yin), male and female, heaven and earth, etc., respectively. (Hence the reason, why yang comes first, although this doesn’t mean it’s more important.) The fluidity and transference of the two principles are strengthened by the symbol’s wave form, while the smaller circle of the opposite element within each half sphere further stresses the presence of one element within the other (in Jungian terms: each male has its anima, each female its animus). Visually, this symbol represents the perfect contrast and balance, since it reflects absolutism and void, stasis and flow. Despite the fact that for most of us the term duality implies rigid division and linear straightforwardness, Daoism embodies perfect dualism with all the bells and whistles (or just dualism galore!). Consequently, it reflects stasis just as much as it does hierarchy for example … it just always depends on context. And context is always key.
The concept of hierarchy, on the other hand, may seem out of place in this context, yet, through the (dualist) Daoist objection of Confucianism and through the view of the Indian caste system, all these elements become intertwined. Confucianism was the most dominant political, social, philosophical and national doctrine in the formation of China. It stresses correct order and social virtue; in Daoist terminology, Confucianism is the yin (society) to the Daoist yang (nature). Confucian hierarchical system is based on the perfect family unit, which extends into the ideal social order. As such, it stresses virtue and embodies the Eastern aspect of society as opposed to the Western ideal of individuality (a bit clichéic, but still pervasive). The hierarchical aspect that is most pertinent within the interplay with Daoism, reflects the ideals of each tradition: where Confucianism stresses ritual and social order, Daoism reverses this abstract position and places ritual as the bottom of the scale that follows justice, kindness, virtue and finally Dao as the highest goal. This position not only deconstructs Confucianism but myth and religion per se as well, since ritual is rooted as the central social function (inducing order) that the stories and their ideology promulgate.
Consequently, the concept of hierarchy (even as a thought system) is a necessity which allows humans to take gradual steps towards higher goals of either teachings or life in general. There is a quite pragmatic reason why a child does not start studying the English language with the complete works of Shakespeare for example. One cannot even begin to comprehend such complexity without the basic understanding of language and culture themselves, which is a huge understatement at that. Similarly, comprehension of religious thought and even pictorial language (unless one possesses innate understanding and has revelatory affinity to the subject matter) must be trained in order to dwell into come complex aspects of the traditions in question. There is hierarchy or prominence on the pictorial plane just as much as within the mythological narrative. The only question is its respective application and meaning.
Hierarchy as such becomes present even in Buddhism as the eightfold path for example reflects the higher goal of (self)understanding and consequent liberation. We can even draw parallels to the notion of masterpieces; while the Buddha’s fundamental endpoint extends beyond any connections to the human system of governing and beyond the Self itself, he paradoxically and (in)advertently becomes the highest hierarchical ideal for his followers. Further, while we can account for future bodhisattvas and buddhas, the process began with the original “masterpiece” of the Buddha. The masterpiece in any art field spurs the future development of that tradition. In comics for example, Watchmen has forever changed the game of the superhero genre, while The Epic of Gilgamesh still echoes epic mythological narrative in works today (even if indirectly). And to give probably the most famous example of how ancient concepts carry on even in the mainstream, we can look to the teachings of Yoda in the Star Wars film series, where either the Dao or the Buddhist awakening reflect the Jedi concept of oneness with the (sacred) universe. The master clearly read the Dao De Jing, said ‘nuff.
Finally, a hierarchy of thought and understanding is present is the postmodern mainstream thought as well. The central concept is dualistic and devised between unknowing and knowing. Once we take the first step towards teaching, we embark on the “threefold path” of information (the basics), knowledge (individual, internal application of what was learned) and wisdom (external, truths extending beyond the individual), each concept providing higher and higher insights of ourselves and our world. Information are the rudimentary building blocks, the crude, yet vast array of stimuli that are already in itself subject to the binary opposition of signifier and signified. The realization of this pairing, however, can only begin to form as part of learning, gaining intelligence, knowledge. Wisdom adds further layers of comprehension through life experience, understanding of the self, the social and the general spatio-temporal dimension; in other words finding peace in yourself and contributing to both the inner and the greater social reality of your existence.
This ▲ of information, knowledge and wisdom is the learning and living curve of humanity as I see it. Just like Peter Barger’s and Auguste Comte’s respective social theories for example, this model in not necessarily merely progressive. Ideally, one’s evolution and comprehension of the self and the world should maintain a steady growth (akin to constant learning), regression and stasis of understanding can also be possible. On the other hand, hoarding knowledge (even books) becomes as arbitrary as not giving a rat’s ass about anything other than yourself. In essence, you can find comfort on the level of not knowing or ignorance just as much as you can struggle with the weight of the wisdom of the world. There’s no real magic cure or path as such, because it’s all relative to your being, what makes you tick. There are just guidelines. Hence the greatest of Buddhist teachers instill lessons without words and appropriately to the level of your own self.
As observed, all of these complex philosophical notions are essentially rooted in dualism, which reflects contrast as a creative force. Among all mythologies, the Hindu tradition provides probably the most comprehensive view of the world (in all of its manifestations … or lack thereof), particularly through its open-ended, pluralistic and adaptable view of the divine. Among the most elemental aspects is a relatively straightforward incorporation of seemingly opposing notions into its rich subject matter, such as the perception of the Buddha and thus Buddhism as one of Vishnu’s avatars (a similar claim can be made regarding Jesus and consequently Christianity, but the term “stretching it” comes to mind as well). In this light, it is important to note that in many instances the Eastern religious conception differs from the Western model also from a personal pluralistic position; namely, it is not uncommon for a person to share Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian beliefs within a single lifetime as part of syncretistic interchange.
The complexity of the dual nature of the divine Hindu triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva is for example evident in their equal transcendence and mortality. They encompass everything, while equally reflecting nothingness. Vishnu is ever-present, yet dies as each of his avatars. Brahma is the all-creator, yet Shiva decapitates one of his five heads for not recognizing his greater transcendence, only to be paradoxically punished in turn. The end result, however, is the emersion of Banaras, the city of light. Mainstream (mis)understanding of the Indian gods is akin to misapprehending comics merely as childish, comical or an appendix of literature. While Shiva is certainly mostly characterized as the destroyer god and Vishnu the preserver, they nevertheless also embody creative and destructive functions, respectively. (Broad dictionary definitions in this case don’t really hold much water. Similarly, Aphrodite has been seen more as the goddess of love, instead of sexual passion, which is far more apropos. Her Roman incarnation is another matter, because as Venus, she has taken on a motherly role for the whole Roman nation.) It becomes a question of one’s belief and interest; while the Hindus have 330 million gods, the worshippers of Shiva within this tradition are nevertheless monotheists (or rather henotheists, if not monolatrists). Shiva for them embodies the totality of the life process of destruction and creation. Equally, many readers of graphic novels stay true to their belief in this particular genre, yet the graphic novel is but a form of the larger, pluralistic comics pantheon.
Returning to the issue of duality, to an extent this can be applied to the ancient Greek pantheon as well, however, in an entirely different light. The Greeks’ dual nature is evident in their embodiment of natural forces and their personifications; Aphrodite is thus not only the personification of sexual passion, but IS sexual passion as well. (If you ever wandered, why Zeus couldn’t keep it in his pants – or under his toga – now you know.). Hence, the modern observers’ apparent contradiction of how to view the ancient gods was entirely mitigated during their heyday. Further, understanding that the Olympians typically embodied both sides of the coin, it is easier to comprehend how Apollo could for example be the healer as well as the harbinger of death; both notions represent the extreme positions of life and the sun god’s power appropriately extended in both directions.
I briefly mentioned the Indian caste system before. It reflects the hierarchical nature that is not merely present in every aspect of human endeavor, but the world itself. Humans are mere cogs in the social system, in the greater wheel known as the Earth, which is a plain rock in our Solar System that occupies a small edge of the Milky Way galaxy, which in turn is a mere spec in the galactic supercluster called Laniakea that is of course a tiny part of the known Universe (whose possible boundless state perplexes the understanding of the limit-driven worldview of humankind). We play our roles in one way or another, whether or not we are lucky enough to have an occupation that defines us, so we can live a life that fulfills us. Just like humanity in general plays a role in the natural world, heroes play their roles in myths, which in turn are central human communication devices. The only difference is that human aspiration for (self-imposed) greatness has put us on the trajectory to escape nature and rival the divinities that we have speculated and worshipped ever since we first marveled at the lighting in the prehistoric sky. The reality of the universal hierarchical system is based around a generally weak and simple, yet, extremely pervasive process; gravity, through which the transference of energy shapes the order of things in the cosmos. As such, bodies with bigger mass attract smaller objects; what the hierarchical pyramid typically represents in a two-dimensional model, is essentially a spherical, cosmic dance that the rich Hindu tradition has postulated for countless generations.
To end this post in more cosmic terms, we are quite literally made of star stuff, remnants of dying stars that exploded a long time ago and spread their material into space. What one of the mythic theories about the conception of Being describes as divine semen or celestial fertilizer, becomes through the workings of modern scientific insights the poetically perfect menagerie. The modern profane-based cosmological theory – the Big Bang – essentially presupposes a beginning from a single starting point and expresses a massive expansion, which in the long run implies a reversal in the so called Big Crunch, where all information reverts back to the singularity. (At least that’s one theory. And if parallel existence is a fact, things get complicated even further.). The consequences are twofold: the state of being in the Universe seems to be in constant motion, plus the information (essentially energy) as such is always conserved. From the perspective of the philosophical/religious traditions of the East, we can transcribe these two notions through the principles of duality (the eternal yang/yin flow) and the divine breath (Atman equals Brahman, or the soul being divine), respectively. While such an idealized rhetoric ideologically places humanity within this “divine” cosmos, we are both nevertheless physically and conceptually dependent on the greater cosmic hierarchy and not the other way around. Like in all myths, universal cosmology comes first and humanity comes last (and not because it would be the most important part).
Pragmatically, the caste that is humanity has started at the lower possible levels, before evolving into the highest caste on this planet and is now actually breaking out of this worldly system by trying to overpower the natural cycle and control nature itself; a profound reversal of the Indian caste system, where the “untouchable” Dalits actually fall outside the hierarchy. Humanity is becoming a self-consciously untouchable Leviathan, voraciously craving the divine power ... just brimming with everlasting mythic remnants … and it’s quite simply beautiful.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …