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Thursday, November 8, 2007

While It's on My Mind (i.e., before I forget)

In A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH, as Karen Armstrong traces the history of humanity’s search for transcendental meaning, one of her early claims is that Paleolithic man, a hunter, developed myth to assuage his discomfort over having to kill animals to survive. (Would this same power of myth to accommodate the spilling of animals’ blood not be available also as a force to allow men to slay one another? The question is not raised.) Myths, Armstrong says (and this would be true in any age) give meaning to human life by expressing the inexpressible. Some legendary or historic event, thanks to having been mythologized, recurs in present time, and within the context of ritual re-enactment, participants experience its truth first-hand. Participants are also called by the myth to ethical action--broadly construed, I would add, ethos being what it can be from one culture and time to another.

Armstrong's historical survey traces the widening Western rift between mythos and logos, beginning with Greek rationalism but widening greatly with the rise of experimental science in the 16th century. Today, she notes, the very word ‘myth’ is generally taken to signify ‘not-true.’ At the same time, our need for myth has not disappeared. Hence some of the “very destructive modern myths … [that] ended in massacre and genocide.” Human beings cannot live without meaning, even if that meaning brings death. Reason alone “cannot deal with … [our] deep-rooted, unexorcized fears, desires and neuroses.” Neither can reason alone move us to compassion for one another or concern for the earth and its resources. For those reasons, Armstrong says, we stlll need myth, but we need to create new myths for our modern selves.

The survey is illuminating, but I wonder at the idea that self-consciously created myth can take the place of that which grew up organically within a culture. Armstrong’s concluding suggestion is that we turn to art and literature in general, novels in particular, to fill this spiritual void. I am unconvinced.

Even without the bleakness of her fictional examples, there is no communal experience, no ritual practice, in the reading of novels. Moreover, each novel is its own world, none giving the experience of mythic recurrence, and while it is true that the “exercise of make-believe … breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies,” it does not necessarily follow that we are renewed or uplifted or that our hearts are made glad by this journey out of ourselves. One of John Updike’s novels, IN THE BEAUTY OF THE LILIES, brilliantly captures the American 20th-century zeitgeist in three generations and deserves to be considered a classic, but my overwhelming feeling upon reaching the last page of that book was relief. A myth needs to empower, not paralyze the spirit.

Singing in a choir, playing an instrument in a group with others, preparing and serving a holiday meal, planting and caring for a garden—any of these activities, it seems to me, is more likely than novel-reading to fill the void left by absconded myth.

“Only a novel”? No, that’s not what I’m saying. (How could I reject Jane Austen that stupidly?) No, certainly a good novel is art and worthy of our time and our attentive response, including discussion with others. Fiction can challenge, give new perspectives, open minds. But its lingering effect is more like a series of penetrating questions than a list of comforting answers.

Religion cannot do the work of science, science cannot do the work of religion, and fiction does not do the work of either. It has its own realm and its own virtues. We overburden it at our peril.

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