Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mythology and Demythology

Yesterday, someone asked me on Twitter about “myth” and John Foxx’s music; specifically, what I saw in it that was “mythical”. John Foxx himself would tell you that there’s nothing “mythical” about his music. The short answer to that is that all art is mythical. But I’m not sure that people understand what I mean when I say that, and it’s a definitional problem.

When John creates art and songs that center around “The Quiet Man”, he is creating a myth. It may, to a certain extent, be an extension of his own private mythology (and we all have them). Current albums by John seem to have a “lamenting love that was lost or never happened” theme, and that also is part of a mythology, whether it be autobiographical or not.

So, what do I mean by “mythology”? Most people think of the stories about deities of different cultures—Greek Mythology, Roman Mythology, Celtic Mythology, etc., etc. But that is a very narrow definition of mythology. Mythology represents all of our interpretations about life.

I saw a quote from Joseph Campbell on Facebook yesterday that perfectly defines it:
“Mythologies are in fact the public dreams that move and shape societies, and conversely one’s own dreams are the little myths of the private gods, antigods, and guardian powers that are moving and shaping oneself: revelations of the actual fears, desires, aims and values by which one’s life is subliminally ordered." (The Hero’s Journey, p. 61).

As indicated, there are “collective mythologies”—myths adopted by a society (so-called “conventional wisdom” is part of this), and there are “individual mythologies”—the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the way things are based on our own experiences, dreams, and fears. The term “myth” implies something fictional, but it really tests the definition of “reality”. We tend to associate what is “real” with “facts”. (This is another myth). Philosophy spends a great deal of time trying to get at the truth behind subjective interpretation, and that is incredibly difficult, if not potentially impossible, to get to. The brain does not function without meaning; there is always an interpretation, and it is never totally “objective”.

Different phases of life embody different mythologies. The imaginative figures that we learn about and literally believe in as children become demythologized as we get older. “Demythology” is a sad but necessary process, the need to get away from literal beliefs and rediscover the myth symbol or narrative in a broader sense. A good example is the belief in Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Children literally believe in Santa Claus when they are young, then at some point they realize that there is no such person coming to their house. However, the mythical image of Santa Claus and what it represents can still be enjoyed by adults without literally believing in it.

Demythologization is painful. We would rather find reasons to cling to our myths than let them go. It’s not just about letting go of figures like Santa Claus. Adolescents are often surly and moody because they are going through that very process. There is an innocence that is stripped away as we become older, and the more experiences we have, the more disillusioned we can become. This frequently happens with religion—especially with religions that insist on clinging to outmoded mythical ideas. The experiences of those who grew up believing that “this is the way it is” from their religion’s standpoint often clash with the realities they face. This often leads to a period of rebellious atheism—“clearly there is no God”. There becomes a rejection of everything the society values, because we believed those stories were “truths”, and when we discover they are not, we assume they must be “lies”.

However, because something is a “myth” doesn’t mean it’s a “lie”. Facticity doesn’t equal truth. It may not be literally true, but it often contains a deeper truth that isn’t easily expressed—the myth acts as a metaphor. Psychoanalysts are doing mythical work—they attempt to bring the patient to an awareness of their myths. One has to be aware of what one believes about the world before they can think of changing it. And more often than not, we are deeply unaware of what we believe—we take it for granted and don’t think about it.

Understanding your own myths and that of your society is critically important. I had a professor in my undergraduate years, who was discussing Matthew Arnold’s essay on Hellenism vs. Hebraism. To paraphrase his interpretation—Arnold said that you must choose and live by your own myth, because if you don’t, someone else will “shove theirs down your throat.”

I did an exercise with my Religion students, where I asked them to look at the current 2012 Republican debates and the Republican objection to Obama, and regardless of where they stood on the issue, to identify the mythology there. They were perplexed at first, but once we started deconstructing the various talking points—and showing how they’ve repeated themselves throughout history—they were amazed at how little awareness they had of our “national mythology”. There is a tendency to take the news at face value, because we believe that journalists report “facts”. (This is another myth). “If it’s on TV, it must be true.” Like Lon Milo DuQuette said in his wonderful song, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

And that’s the value of demythologization—it forces us to deconstruct our worldview, and to be open to something less limiting. After demythologization, there is often a reintegration of the mythical content—we now see it in a different light, in all of its colorful context. Of course, this doesn’t always happen—sometimes people get stuck, either by suspiciously rejecting everything as “false” and the world as “bad”, or by clinging more tightly to literal beliefs, no matter how irrational. The irrational is always with us and should not be rejected, but it needs to be balanced with rational assessment. Rational assessment isn’t always “scientific method”—sometimes it’s just using your common sense.

There is a great deal in John Foxx's work that suggests the invisible, the hidden, the ghostly—which, in spite of all his pleading, does give his work an “esoteric” bent. His Ballardian themes are mythical. His story of a man who lurks in the shadows—who may be a shadow—who moves through cities that represent layer upon layer of the past, seen in the present—and who is something of an explorer of those forgotten regions—is patently mythical. There is an attempt to view a larger back story, in the context of his own (or his character’s) interpretation, no matter how minimalistic. In my own opinion, I see a tug-of-war between being publicly noticed and appreciated and retreating into privacy and an inner life. But there’s also a tug of war between doing things “logically” and “rationally”, and trying to come to terms with “irrational” experiences. His best work, in my opinion, integrates a cold minimalism and an eerie sense of the layers of history. Together, you have that sense of the numinous, which suggests a deeper awareness if you pay attention to it. Whether this is his intention or not is irrelevant. We all function within mythologies, unless we are consciously attempting to break from them (what Jung calls “individuation”)—and that is an incredibly difficult path tread by very few.


harry said...

An important blog, because it identifies the ways the mind actually functions rather than accepting the delusion of rationality. And the more we understand the forces that shape our conduct, our thinking, our identities, the closer we are to having something worthy to be called free will.

Brigid N. Burke said...

Thanks, Harry--I think you are "spot on" with that assessment. One can't be "free" if they're unconsciously enslaved to an idea.

Anonymous said...

See Kal Bashir's Hero's Journey at It goes beyond myth to entire story (Kal call's it monostory).

Anonymous said...

(Posting on behalf of RoboPA, as Blogger somehow ditched his comment):

Excellent article. I would suggest that Jung's path of individuation is not just understanding our current personal/collective myths, but it could also meaning emerging out of them to other myths. I think Jung would not suggest we can ever be free from the symbolic/mythical. My guess is that he would say that the collective unconscious is actually what gives birth to cultural and personal myths throughout history.