With the election coming up Tuesday, I thought it would be a good time to write down some thoughts I’ve had for a long time about mythology—actually, heavy drinking seems even more appropriate, but I’ve been advised to lay off the hard stuff.
Most explanations of mythology that I’ve encountered treat it as a form of allegory as if the Gods, heroes, talking animals, and all the rest were simply animated hieroglyphics that convey a moral or theological message in pictures instead of concepts. Why it is necessary to spin tales of sneaky serpents or thunder gods to get us to eat our spinach or understand the weather is not clear. There’s another problem with the allegory theory: there are, after all, literary works that are clearly allegories in an unambiguous sense. The Fairy Queen, Piers Plowman, and Pilgrim’s Progress come to mind. These works have their charm, but the pleasure and fascination of myth is rather different.
What beguiles us in myths is precisely the fact that they can’t really be explicated in literal terms the way that a pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins boils down to Aristotelian ethics. As Levi-Strauss insisted sixty years ago, the only interpretation of a myth is another myth. Unlike philosophical, scientific, and even theological discourse, myth operates on a single surface, albeit a surface with a twisted topology. Since there is only a single sheet, it is impossible to ever nail things down. The this world and the other world of modern religions, the reality and appearance of the idealists, the words and the things of the linguists, and the other contrasting dimensions of various non-mythic forms of thought make possible a kind of dual-entry bookkeeping because they provide two separate registers that can be correlated. Myth doesn’t do that. Dreamtime is always just another part of the forest.
Everyone has been denouncing the indeterminacy and pluralism of myth for millennia, presumably in the name of avoiding irrationality. Personally, I agree with William James that it is mostly a matter of taste whether you like your irrationality spread out through the world or you’d rather gather it together in one tight bouquet in the form of God, the labor theory of value, or the definitive symmetry break of the Big Bang. It isn’t obviously right to opt for either methodological or metaphysical monism over theoretical or practical polytheism. After all, the determination to get to the bottom of things not only makes the assumption that things have a bottom, but implies that fundaments are fundamental. The war on mythology invokes its own myth, the very potent myth I used to call the myth of mythology, namely the presumption that things are explained by their origins.*
The bias in favor of a single explanation is not merely personal, of course. It defines a big swatch of civilization. I remember the bemused look I got back in the eighth grade when I asked Mr. Masters why, in its account of Ikhnaton, our world history textbook obviously presumed that monotheism was progress. After all, if it turned out there weren’t any gods at all, why did it make a difference how many gods there weren’t? The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend raised a similar point about how traditional histories of philosophy lionize the rationalism of Xenophanes, a poet who made fun of poetry with its tales of the battles fought with titans and giants and promoted an austere theology in which God “alone is the greatest, the greatest of gods and of men, not resembling the mortals, neither in shape nor in insight.” This is an advance, why? If a god, even the God, is going to have purposes, which is something that only makes sense for animals to have, why shouldn’t he have girl friends that turn into trees or at least a belly button? (I admit that last bit isn’t exactly Feyerabend’s way of putting things.)
Christianity has always had a special relationship with philosophy since Greek philosophy is one of the basic ingredients that went into its original recipe, the other three being Jewish prophesy, Roman political organization, and the marketing methods of Near Eastern religious entrepreneurship. Because it does have an essential link to philosophy, it is quite possible to interpret Christianity as an anti-mythological or even anti-religious or atheistic religion and many of its critics and some of its friends have been making this point from the time of Celsus to that of Slavoj Zizek. Nevertheless, Christianity does have a real mythology, and making your peace with mythology has the advantage of making it possible to dispense with incredibly boring arguments about natural theology in favor of perceiving the power of the stories that underlie it. Hegel’s version of Christianity, with its emphasis on the theme of mediation, provides a mythological gloss on the religion’s mythology. So does the Marxist tradition, which is why I sometimes think of it as the fourth great Abraham religion. What I really want, however, is something a bit more anthropological. I’d like to raise Levi-Strauss from the dead and compel the resulting zombie to produce a fifth volume of the Introduction to the Science of Mythology.
The very first myth in the Raw and the Cooked, M1, is the tale of the Bird Nester, which tells of the rape of a woman by her son. The father detects the crime and, after a long series of attempts at revenge, apparently succeeds. During what is supposed to be a hunt for macaws, he manages to strand the boy half way up a cliff where he clings suspended by a rod and is eventually assailed by vultures that devour his buttocks. Though apparently hors de combat, the bird nester recovers by molding himself an artificial behind from pounded tubers; and eventually returns to his people where he kills his father and throws the body into a lake where carnivorous fish devour most of it. The lungs float to the surface where they become aquatic plants.
The attentive reader will perhaps note the parallels with a myth from another, rather distant tribe, though there are differences that obscure the similarity of the armature of the tales. Instead of the son raping the mother, for example, in M814** it is a spirit father that impregnates the mother and engenders the son, though, since the son turns out to be co-substantial with the father, it could be argued that he also had sex with his mother. In both myths, the son is suspended between heaven and earth, undergoes a long ordeal, and apparently dies only to return after an interval. In M1, the son returns to revenge himself and establish justice. In M814 he returns to grant mercy. In the M1, the son kills the father and turns him into aquatic vegetation. In the M814, the father allows the son to die and, as a result, to transform into a persistent spirit. To fully explicate the nexus between these stories, it would be necessary to bring in other myths and explore, in particular, the contrasts, parallels, and echoes between them and the tale of the Garden of Eden and the saga of Prometheus. One would also need somebody with more patience and erudition than me. That’s why we need an angel to roll away the stone at Claude’s tomb.
*Hence the many arguments that are formally similar to the Cosmological argument for the existence of God and do not manage to get beyond myth but merely present its generating contradiction in a concentrated form. Which is to say that such arguments all turn out to be instances of the Asparagus fallacy. Note the parallel between
Everything has a cause, but that would lead to an infinite regress. Therefore at least one thing doesn’t have a cause.
I’m glad I don’t like asparagus because if I liked it, I’d eat it and I can’t stand it.
What we have here is begging the question played backwards. The conclusion is not a more or less disguised version of the premise, but its denial.