MYTH IN CONTEMPORARY LIFE / Vol. 52, No. 2 (Summer 1985)
Dore Ashton and Matti Megged, Guest Editors
Arien Mack, Journal Editor
Modern man is a product of a nonmythological world, modes of thinking, ways of life. He can face myth and mythopoeia, accept them or reject them, as an integral part of his experience, without demanding from them any absolute solutions. But he cannot cease asking questions, as the conference on “The Presence of Myth in Contemporary Life”—part of which is presented in this issue—demonstrated.
Today it is not uncommon to encounter the claim that myth survives. As proof of the presence of myth it is customary to point to the use of mythic themes by contemporary poets, painters, and the like. Despite their apparent viability, however, these are more in the nature of postmythic strategies than direct expressions of myth. They are evocations of the archaic in the midst of a modernizing society which, by its own self-understanding, is committed to the systematic extirpation of mythical thought. There is, consequently, an irreducible element of alienation that accompanies contemporary mythologizing.
Dilemmas of fair use are endemic to disputes about artistic property. But they seem particularly intense when involving formula stories and heroes; these represent a fundamental collective consciousness. In this country during the last hundred years manufacturing energies, advertising ingenuity, and media appetites have combined to create a powerful postindustrial folklore. In their search for profits, merchandisers have hunted for persuasive versions of time-tested formulas, repeatable patterns that work. And having found them, they have managed to resell them. In effect, modern mythic heroes are franchised on a for-profit basis.
Modern myths are part of ideology and often the hidden part. Modern ideologies consist of various mixtures of myth and theory, which, over time, have a tendency to be transformed into each other. Theory provides a logic for the resolving of certain political problems and their projective transcendence. Myth does the same by means of “overcomings” which defy ordinary logic. The combination, a mytho/logics synthesized as doctrine and represented by the state, forms out of disjunctive moments.
In order to better situate the place of myth in contemporary life, it’s worthwhile looking at societies lacking written records, for whom “mythical thought” is essential. Thus we will be concerned here with the structural qualities of mythical thought, but more importantly with it susceptibility to change. Examples will be drawn from the mythology of the Guajiro Indians in Venezuela and Colombia. Then we will see how this analysis can help to consider critically places given to myth in our literate society.
There has been an assumption in many anthropological discussions of myth that “mythical thought” (however you define it) is incompatible with the “written record.” But if it is hard for us to assess the exact relevance of myth in the literate cultures of the past, what would have to be proven, if one were to defend the theory of an incompatibility between writing and mythology, is that in the eminently literate—and perhaps even postliterate—cultures of today myth does not have an integral and central place. As a specifically distinct mode of apprehension of reality, myth is indeed absent from the modern world. What needs to be defined then is the exact character of its specificity, so that we may better understand, if myth is absent, what, today, takes its place.
A philosophical reflection upon the presence of myth in contemporary life cannot be based, today, on the solid foundation of a clear and essential definition of myth. Not only because the dream of philosophy conceived of as a rigorous science is ausgeträumt, but because in contemporary philosophy one cannot find any satisfying theory of myth. Various uses of the term “myth” seem more or less consciously connected to a rather common meaning of it: speaking of the presence of myth in contemporary culture involves the idea that myth is a more primitive form of thought.
Is “myth” a concept that can no longer survive when we have ceased to believe in the interaction between human and divine beings? Myths are not simply false beliefs. But what are they? In my attempt to see in what way myths can and do exist in the present day, I will partially agree with Wittgenstein, who said that myth is not an explanatory hypothesis which happens to be false. I will also insist that many particular statements that belong to myth have the same form and semantics as empirical statements.
Texts are the human way to reduce the world to a manageable format, open to an intersubjective interpretive discourse. Which means that, when symbols are inserted into a text, there is, perhaps, no way to decide which interpretation they elicit is the “good” one, but it is still possible to decide, on understanding “that” text but rather to an hallucinatory response on the part of the addressee.
Certainly, when we consider the origins of Western philosophy we find philosophers challenging the legitimacy of myth precisely because it stands in the way of thinking by claiming to represent the truth. For a philosopher, myth buries the truth or hides it. And for a psychoanalyst that is good enough reason to take myths seriously.
It has been stated that to think mythologically is like thinking musically. It is also like thinking architecturally, but in terms of living spaces, not of decorative devices or consciously added symbols. Therefore, “myth-hunger” should be transposed into concrete urge for environmental and architectural quality, today’s real myth.
If the spiritual is one day contained in the phenomenon and the next day has escaped through the introduction of hitherto unknown facts, the spiritual is either not contained in the phenomenon itself or the effect of transcendence is only imagined as a result of expectations of spirituality which in itself however has no a priori position in art. But why would we talk about the spiritual, the mystical, the transcendent if we did not a priori assume that it can precisely be found in art and that certain works contain it more than others? In fact, the whole question of quality centers on the amount and intensity of the spiritual in art.