Myth SpaceCory Panshin on March 20, 2011
I’ve noticed that a persistent theme runs through many of my blog entries, even those that seem on the surface to have little in common: the question of where history leaves off and myth begins.
I come face to face with that question whenever I speculate about prehistory. I do my best to respect the facts, so far as they are presently known, but I’m also aware than I’m telling stories based on my own ideas about human nature and the relationship between the past and the present. So I have to wonder: Am I writing about the real past or the past of my imagination?
Mythic themes also crop up in my present-day entries — but there I’m a lot more confident that I’m not just spinning tall tales. Julian Assange, Lady Gaga, and Anonymous are inveterate self-mythologizers. The people of Egypt and the people of Wisconsin have the courage to stand up against tyranny because they are touched by myth. Myth is the power source for all great historical events — but not for the great events alone.
The simple truth is that humans everywhere constantly engage in mythologization. We mythologize our own lives, the histories of our tribes or nations, and our accounts of the origin and fate of the universe. Every one of the cultural visions that I’ve been discussing in these entries consists of a mythic story woven around a framework of practical experience.
This mythologization is most apparent when it comes to history, which is essentially an anthology of mythic stories with a few facts tossed in for seasoning. But it’s also true of science, which for everyone but the professionals is a collection of cosmological fables involving invisible entities (black holes! dark matter!) and powerful unseen forces. And much the same might be said of the self-narratives we construct about our personal lives.
Our mythologizing tendencies are not anything to regret, however. We humans are story-tellers because that is the best way we know to make sense of our experience. Without the familiar scenarios of conflict and danger, sin and redemption, failure and triumph, all our knowledge would be a jumble of scattered facts, without meaning or purpose.
It even seems possible that we are incapable of “knowing” anything at all except through the prism of story — and that we are equally incapable of acting without story to give us direction. Story is bound into the very fabric of what it means to be human, and there is no reason to wish it to be otherwise.
But not all story is mythic story — and that makes it essential to look more deeply into the special nature of myth and how it differs from ordinary narratives.
The best definition of myth I know comes from Joseph Campbell, who called it a form of story that is “transparent to transcendence.” That definition is itself somewhat opaque — but a couple of items I’ve discussed in previous entries may serve as useful illustrations.
In one of those entries, I referred to a study in which test subjects who had just read a bizarre and nonsensical story displayed heightened problem-solving abilities when compared with subjects who had read a more rationalized version of the same story. The researcher’s conclusion was that stories which do not fit our normal frames of reference are capable of forcing us into a higher mode of comprehension and integration.
On another occasion, I cited two cases of robots that were given open-ended directives — effectively “strive upward” and “seek the light” — which caused to them respond in surprisingly creative ways that appeared almost human.
Taken together, these episodes suggest to me that the essence of myth is to be simultaneously closed off from ordinary understanding and open to higher dimensions of possibility. That is what gives it the power to take us into uncharted territory.
This element of the unknown and the unknowable is the special component that mythic stories possess and ordinary stories do not. A story about a boy becoming a man or a girl becoming a woman is not a myth, because we see that happening around us all the time. But a story in which a man or woman becomes a god is truly mythic, because it depicts something foreign to all normal experience. A story of that kind baffles our expectations and can even alter our beliefs about reality.
To acknowledge the power of myth, of course, is not to say that myths are invariably beneficial. They can grow overly familiar, losing their transformative power and becoming endorsements of things-as-they-are. They can be distorted to justify hateful and destructive behavior. And obsessively dwelling on stories of the unknown that are not solidly attached to fact — such as conspiracy theories or certain forms of pseudo-science — can turn people into cranks.
But to say this is no more than to say that we humans are imperfect. And as a practical method of processing large amounts of information, shaping that data into meaningful patterns, and offering guidance on how to move forward, the transcendent narratives of myth have been unequaled for 200,000 years. The ability to mythologize may be what made us human in the first place, and it remains at the heart of our humanity.
There’s yet another consideration, however — which is that we don’t merely create and tell mythic stories, we also inhabit them, just as we inhabit all our other stories. And this means that in a very real sense we live in two realms simultaneously, the realm of ordinary daylight reality and an uncanny twilight realm that might be called “myth space.”
To some degree, myth space can be seen as a kind of augmented reality or overlay on ordinary life. Art and music and literature are aspects of myth space, as are science and philosophy and religion. From the rational point of view, all of these might be regarded as no more than colorful trappings devised to add interest to the otherwise mechanical round of eating and sex and survival.
Looked at from the side of myth, however, myth space appears every bit as real as ordinary reality and a good deal more important. And once we start to take that idea seriously, we quickly realize that myth space has rules and conventions of its own that are very different from those of ordinary reality but no less familiar or effective.
To put it bluntly, myth space is a realm of magic. It operates in terms of symbolic manipulations rather than physical cause-and-effect. But even those magics are not something rare and special but are so much a part of our everyday lives that we accept them without question.
For example, consider those shout-outs from Anonymous to Mario Savio and from Tony Schultz of the Family Farm Defenders to Tom Joad that I described in the two previous entries. It is precisely these kinds of symbolic — we might go so far as to say “ritual” — identifications that provide the formal structuring of myth space.
Making it more interesting, Tom Joad himself is a thoroughly mythic figure who vanishes at the end of The Grapes of Wrath after suggesting that he intends to merge with the world-soul and will henceforth be present “everywhere.” Although Joad’s apotheosis is presented in the vocabulary of realistic 20th century fiction, it doesn’t take much of a leap to perceive him as assuming demigod status, like so many mysteriously vanished mythic figures before him.
Tom Joad is not “real” of course — not even a real man, let alone a god — but within myth space that does not seem to matter. What counts is that he has become a transcendent force that can be invoked for higher purposes — as Bruce Springsteen did in “The Ghost of Tom Joad”:
Shelter line stretchin’ round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest
The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad
For that matter, what Tony Schultz did at the protest in Madison, Wisconsin last Saturday was also in the nature of an invocation. It’s very telling that even before introducing himself to the crowd, he began by saying, ““Has anybody seen Tom Joad? Tom Joad, would you please report to the speaker’s [table?].”
Within the magical assumptions of myth space, it’s well established that when you summon a deity to appear — particularly one that is already omnipresent — they can’t help but respond. So what might pass in ordinary reality as a joke, or a signal of old-timey populist sentiments, takes on a very different aspect in the light of myth.
To suggest as much, however, confronts us with the question of what order of “reality” the stuff of myth space actually possesses. Is there some external source for the demands that we strive upward and seek the light, one which manifests itself in all our pantheons of gods and demigods? Is it something inside us, a cosmic force hard-wired into our innermost nature? Or is it merely an elaborate trick we’re playing on ourselves as part of an evolutionary bootstrapping operation?
Ultimately, I have to dismiss all of these as inadequate metaphors for the unknown and unknowable. It doesn’t much matter to me which one anybody else chooses — but for my own part, I suspect that any choice would render the story I am trying to tell no longer transparent to transcendence. This stuff is as real as it needs to be, and that’s good enough for me.
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