Myth may present a world that was observed in the older (once upon a time) days, but it also alludes to the sacred reality behind this observed world. Essentially, we get a series of “lies” telling the truth. It is easier to tell such a “truth” through a story, through a medium that allows you to participate in the experience (pertaining both to myth and comics). The power and meaning of a story go far beyond its factuality. Stories are living through each and every one of us and are giving meaning to something otherwise meaningless.
To make a parallel to the notion observed in dealing with art, it is crucial to know the rules before even attempting to make a sharp contrast from the general point of view. Reductionism works the same way; that is to say, it is inherently an attempt at only a single perspective on any subject. It refers to the traditional one-sided methodological approach, where for example the research of religion would only be scrutinized through the lens of anthropology or psychology, as each respective discipline would be perceived as sole exemplar of the analyzed subject matter. The product is thus reduced only to a particular position. As they say, when all you have to work with is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail … and hammering down very narrow linear paths can only get you so far.
A more holistic attitude tries not to be ensnared by neither a biased approach nor the consequent absolutism it entails. Reductionism is a substitution and simplification for the sake of “clarity” and especially the ease of understanding a more complex subject matter. Arguably, the system of education we live in depends on simplification and a “crash course” in all aspects of life – hence specializations and higher education where crucial details of a particular field are further uncovered (often to the degree of where you are able to swiftly deconstruct the conventional stance on your subject of choice, since you essentially comprehend all the aspects of that subject: the good and the bad). It is only specialization and inherent interest that propel the individual towards the depths of understanding … and this obviously refers to life in general.
While those fast Google and Wikipedia searches and consequent brief explanations save time and provide useful information (on the go), this can even become disinformation due to the lack of depth. (I like to use the comics series Sandman as an example. While you can easily “summarize” it as a familial squabble of the Endless, this essentially tells nothing or it rather robs you of the true depth and grandiose reality of the story. And this can be applied to myths as well.) We need to be aware that the advantageous nature of summarization has a detriment: we are never really motivated to truly learn or internalize information on subjects, since it is perpetually present on the internet, not in our minds. (We are often far removed from the bard tradition of old, when memorizing myths or epic poetry and readaptating them for specific audiences was a sign of artistry and cultural heritage.) Single-theory reductionism traverses a similarly dangerous line of thought. Its absolutism reduces other theoretical possibilities and may distort the greater reality and complexity of the subject in question … like a passive recipient who reads a sentence on Wikipedia and automatically becomes either an expert on the subject or a proponent of the single-theory perspective. The whole process is further elongated through the ego-driven impulses that social networking thrives on. In one way or another we are all subject to this … it’s up to every single individual who you broaden your horizons.
Taking a popular critical stance of psychology, it is alluring to think of mythology as part of religion as mere neurosis, only an illusory product of the subconscious and consequently myths as mere stories that falsely fabricate and permeate out existence. Once Freud let this proverbial cat out of the bag and pointed towards the falsity, imagination and artistry of the myth and the sacrality of religion became obsolete, while his mythbusting stance became popular. I do not propose that psychology is a wrong analysis of mythology, since no perspective is “wrong” in the strictest sense of the word, as it is pertinent to its own methodology and its own perspective … and since myths are human fabrications, they should of course be under scrutiny through the layer of human behavior. Psychology itself, nevertheless, is inadequate (as are all theories) … merely a perspective, a tool in the much larger toolbox that the complex study of mythology requires.
The debate between the validity of a particular theory can be quite arbitrary and heavily reflects on temporal appropriateness, especially the deeper you traverse into the rabbit hole. Questions of absolutism have long been central to human conception of being (albeit integral to our unquenching desire of knowing everything about us and around us, the microcosmos and the macrocosmos, respectively). Whether it is the clash between empiricism and rationalism, religion and science or picture and word, all of these apparent oppositions are part of essentially the same unity of meaning and understanding.
(If I make a personal aside here, I’ve always been fascinated by the great thinkers of old. While reading their works and theories on them, I’ve never prematurely succumbed to deconstruction, but have tried to understand their assessments through their own eyes and times. To take two subjective examples, I’m a big proponent of Jung, but have always had an indifference to Lévi-Strauss. While Jung has for my taste a very holistic approach to the comprehension of mythology, I would never consider myself a Jungian nor take his word as gospel, no matter how compelling it may be. On the other hand, I’m well aware of the contributions to mythology Lévi-Strauss has made in his own fields, so to dismiss a proponent of a certain theory because of a personal bias would relegate my own aspiration to have a wide range of worldly comprehension. The point is that both authors need to be understood in their own way … how you adapt their thought processes for yourself is another issue altogether.)
While the study of myth can indeed be viewed through only a particular theory and examined through only specific methodology, this is nevertheless limited – only a single lens. The awareness of other lenses (like those of a microscope) is thus essential to discovering different, specific depths they inevitably uncover. Likewise, if a telescope only has one depth setting, you are subjugated to the limits of its view and its spatio-temporal position … not to mention the fact that this is passive observation though a very limited electromagnetic spectrum of visible light. In essence, a plural, multifaceted approach to the subject matter is key … and that’s why real research of any topic is difficult at best, so it helps to have a liking to the subject matter.
My default stance is between the extreme positions of myth as a false tale and myth as a sacred story, since the first indicates a patronizingly blind perspective from the outside, while the latter becomes a narrow-minded point of view from within a culture that may not understand that “their” myth is a world myth. Something similar can be said about comics: when done poorly, they can be regurgitated trash, but when you get your hands on a masterpiece, the phrase best thing since sliced bread comes to mind.
The inherent paradox of mythology can be summed up by an equally applicable observation about art by the great Picasso, when he poignantly professed that “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Paradoxes in this context and in myth in general are not philosophical nightmares, but reflect the unity of the system in question … like that of Daoism and the interconnected yin/yang pairing. The mythological “lie” is part of the “truth” of being, like the human imagination is essential in the practice of science – the Wellsian imaginary time machine working hand in hand with the current plausible concept of spacetime bending. Without foresight there is no insight, just as much as we need to get out of our comfort zone once in a while to expand our horizons. Consequently, constructive criticism functions the same way.
The discussion of lies and truths is closely connected to the formalism of science. Apart from its modern position of the divine savior (pun intended), science is not the most obvious notion when discussing either mythology or religion. However, myths have also been taken to represents accounts of proto-science. Stemming from the Tylorian model, the anthropological and sociological paradigms of primarily the 19th century pointed towards mythic accounts as reflecting primitive understanding of the world. Labeling a traditional society as primitive or mythic is an arbitrary, egoistic construct of the predominantly Western ideology, a globalizing force, which views the world only through its lenses of mass-acceptance and applicable (modern) means. Like the ancient (aristocratic) historic accounts that serve as “objective” truth, such a perspective screams of miscomprehension, disrespect, narrow-mindedness and especially hypocrisy. The latter is evident through the ridicule of traditional religious rituals, rites of passage and mythic notions such as the Chinese Mandate of Heaven; yet, every single culture that has graced this world has traditional, religious roots that still prevail. Just as marriage is a ritual and upbringing becomes a social rite of passage, the “royal” families in current societies still retain their mythic, divine ancestry (i.e. Japan), not to mention how the secular and religious nature of global politics are almost interchangeable (i.e. religion-based court testimonies or war on terrorism that is essentially a religious conflict, in effect a continuation of the Crusades … or if you want to go back even further, the clash between “Greece” and Persia).
Don’t say I didn’t warn you about going off on a tangent …
New/better/current science can not only deconstruct myths as false tales and religions as based on unlikely accounts of reality, but science constantly – and perhaps unknowingly – deconstructs itself as well, since its subject matter in theory does not depend on political or social perceptions, but are constantly evolving, voraciously devouring all of the factually wrong or inadequate past theories and perspectives; even its own, “sacred” Newtonian theory to boot. Consequently, the Big Bang theory, still the most accepted theory of the beginning of our Universe, is nevertheless just a theory. It is a temporal account akin to the mythic cosmogonies. Like the ancient Chinese myth of Pangu and the creation that lives on for centuries, our current scientific position follows in the same footsteps by proposing a new position of creation. All of this is part of a long-living tradition that has always attempted to understand Being itself. As much as we currently know about our position in the known Universe, we must never forget that the adjective known is central, since humanity is still in its childhood stage of evolution and comprehension of life. Our scientific hubris has made us arrogant in thinking we know so much more than our “primitive” ancestors, yet our conception of life is and will be forever based on their knowledge and wisdom that has been passed on to us (in a mythic beehive of trial-and-error and interconnections). Whether myths teach us lies or truths, we (should) still learn from them either way. The shoulders of our ancestral giants support a heavy burden indeed.
The intrinsic perception of religion (i.e. “finding God”) reflects the way we (and especially children) inherently appreciate color and shapes. In such a way, myths and rituals associated with them become alive and sacred. Science takes away the pure experience – this unfiltered imagination of a child. It breaks the illusion and faith of the sacred world beyond this profane realm. It acts like a filter, a parent who must dispel the illusion of Santa Claus after playing along until a certain age of the child, who is eventually forced not to suspend the disbelief of higher reality any more. The child symbolically bursts out of pre-conscious existence and is faced with a threshold akin to its birth and future life events that will come to pass. Thus, Santa Claus stops to descend the sacred tree of life that is the chimney, bearing divine gifts for the hopeful youngster from his Perseusian sack of endless size and imaginary possibilities – the Gorgonic head obviously representing the conquering of one’s fears and symbolic adulthood. Instead, as even hope, belief and faith get meticulously dissected by factual means in order to find the Truth of life at all costs, Santa Claus becomes a distant star, a mythic dream keeping us in touch with the archetypes of old, or the ancient king bearing gifts for his land to prosper and spread the seeds of humanity throughout the world. From a scientific perspective, the belief in Santa Claus is akin to the belief in any kind of supernatural being, (any) God of course not excluded. Nevertheless, the game of believing in one or another is unimaginably different. Similarly, belief in Yahweh as opposed to Zeus is subject to both a living religious tradition (as opposed to dead, mythic Paganism), as well as generally speaking the outgrowth of polytheism. One world government? Perhaps, but that always seems to inherently apply centralization and suppression before differentiation and multitude … not to mention institutionalism, the crux of conservative religion.
I would argue that the imaginary and the factual world exist simultaneously, so their interplay depends on mutual understanding and respect (a kind of dualism of spirit and matter). Otherwise the complex equation of one plus one equals three becomes not only unattainable, but actually unimaginable. The latter fact is much more consequential, since it is akin to understanding how fire works without having even seen a spark before, as opposed to observing the flame and trying to determine the light and find illumination. This is by itself a difficult theoretical outlook, but in practice it takes on even greater barriers of understanding. That is why the Way of the Daoists requires comprehension beyond oneself, why the Buddha’s noble path traverses though suffering and why Jesus walked a narrow path on the road to Heaven. If the struggle of life were easy, none would appreciate it and the dark forests of the mythic journeys would be lifeless parks of passivity. Perhaps ultimate understanding is hardwired in everyone’s psyche, but finding the keys to unlocking it is a whole different kettle of fish. If science gives meaning, religion and myths (if read correctly) open parallel doors to its factual counterpart and point to Meaning itself. This is the stage when knowledge becomes wisdom. And holy hell, how succulent it is!
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …