Involuted Mysteries: Unwrapping Meanings in Literature, Theory, and Art before 1800. The Symbolism of Numbers, and Their Associated Topoi, Part II

Myth and Science

…I know nothing, of course, about physics, but my ignorance at least allows me to observe that the modern scientific theories of magnetism and gravity are, whether actually true or not, re-assertions of the ancient mythic representation of God as (in Aristotle’s famous designation) an “Unmoved Mover”. God, according to this ancient mythic image, is the stationary lodestone, the unmoving Centre, that draws everything in the cosmos back to Himself, maintains all things in their obedient orbit, and prevents them from flying off under their own eccentric energies, into space. As for String Theory, I recall that it was Pythagoras who first noted that the universe pulsates with a certain mystical music, caused by the silent vibration of invisible strings, whose division according to certain ratios holds the key to the secret mathematical structure of the cosmos.

Of course, I recognize the superior utility of science to myth. Newton’s law of gravity enables us to predict and therefore to control nature. If we know the weight of a circus acrobat and the height from which he jumps onto a teeter-totter, and we know the weight of the person standing on the other end, we can calculate how fast and how high the latter will be propelled into the air. This is useful – indeed, life-saving – information, at least for the acrobat who needs to be assured that his landing platform is at the right height.

But utility aside, the law of gravitation is ultimately unsatisfying. For starters, it is hardly as beautiful as the profoundly paradoxical idea of God as an Unmoved and Unmoving Mover, nor does it really explain any better what this thing called gravity is, or why it is a necessary condition of our universe. In that regard, the mythic mystery is infinitely more provocative and meaningful.

When I draw such connections – when I discover a higher meaning in the mythic fictions that underlie empirical scientific truths or facts –, I am merely evincing a typically pre-modern cast of mind.

 

Gravity and the Myth of the Soul

Before we quite leave the earth’s gravitational orbit (figuratively, but also literally, as we’ll momentarily see), let me draw your attention to two other ancient mythic expressions of the same physical reality, and one modern one, all fecund, however, with the kind of meaning that is entirely beyond the scope and capacity of empirical science.

My first ancient example is comparatively speaking, not very old. It comes from Ovid, one of the most suave and sophisticated writers who ever held a pen.

Ovid’s creation myth at the beginning of the Metamorphoses remains a seminal text, without the reading of which no one escapes my classroom. As some of you will recall, Ovid’s cosmogony is utterly traditional in describing the creation of the world as the ordering by God of a pre-existent material chaos in which the elemental opposites have invaded each other’s proper territory and are in a more or less permanent state of war. God, or Nature, he writes, composes this strife, separating the aggressors, assigning each of them to its own province, and binding them fast “in harmony”.

This is how the Roman poet describes this ordering process:

The fiery weightless element that forms heaven’s vault leaped up and made place for itself upon the topmost height. Next came the air in lightness and in place. The earth was heavier than all, and, drawing with it the grosser elements, sank to the very bottom of the universe by its own weight. The streaming water took its place last, and held the solid land confined in its embrace.

I’ll come back to this in moment, but clearly Ovid knows a thing or two about the modern theory of gravitation.

The second example comes, somewhat paradoxically, from Plato. Paradoxically, because in the Republic, as you know, Plato affects to be a strict constructionist of philosophical truth, and therefore banishes the “lying” poets from his ideal city.

What rather mitigates Plato’s criticism of poetry, allegory, and myth, however, is his stubborn penchant for quoting Homer, and his own invention of a number of allegorical myths, as his means of explaining the invisible, incorporeal realities – God, the Ideas, the Soul – which apparently could not otherwise be explained than in those ostensibly dangerous, and so forbidden, sensual images in which poetry traffics.

Plato’s ubiquitous reliance upon poetic figure, allegory, and myth – the allegory of the cave and the myth of Er in the very Republic from which he banishes the poets, the figure of the charioteer in the Phaedrus, to name only a few – suggest that his antipathy to the supposed falsity and sensuality of poetry is hardly to be taken literally. But then the opposition between philosophical truth and poetic fiction, science and myth, is a conventional and continuous topos in Western literature to which we’ll have to return later.

In the Phaedrus, Plato compares the human soul to a pair of winged horses driven by a charioteer. This is another seminal topos to which we’ll have return, but here we are only concerned with Plato’s explanation of why the soul loses its wings.

In its perfect, pre-lapsarian state, he says, the soul soars freely amongst the heavens, the habitation of the Ideas and the gods, borne upward upon wings that are the element within man most akin to the immortal divine. In the supernal regions, the wings of the soul are nourished upon the eternal and incorporeal Ideas, but when the soul conceives a foul affection for the material and transitory goods and pleasures of this world, and when she gives in to these lower passions, her wings begin to waste away, and she droops in flight. After her wings have thus completely atrophied, she at last settles on the solid earth, and finding a home there, she contentedly receives an earthly body.

The first thing one notices about Ovid’s and Plato’s mythic narratives is that the empirical fact of gravity can only be described by them in expressly moral and religious language. Ovid characterizes the earth, the heaviest of the four elements, as “foul” (sordidus) and “gross” (densus). It is, in Hamlet’s later description of the earthly element in man, “O…too, too solid/sullied”. Under its own weight, the Earth sinks to the very bottom of the universe, the farthest that is, from the lucid and weightless heavens, and functions there as a sort of cosmic dust bin, catching all the flotsam and jetsam that falls into it.

This is not an auspicious habitat for man. Ovidian man, in fact, is an exile, a “stranger and pilgrim” on the earth, to use the language of Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, always “mindful of” and seeking the “better, that is, the heavenly country” whence he came. For Ovid, rather, that which is essential and original in man’s nature, the “true man”, as Plato called it, is the incorporeal soul.

In his later account of man’s creation, Ovid conceives of the human soul as a displaced fragment or spark of the Divine Fire, first stolen by Prometheus from heaven, and then breathed into the inanimate lump of clay that had been shaped by the arch-sculptor into the human body. That body is thus the human correlative of the cosmic prima materia: it is a formless chaos until it is animated by the Soul of God, just as the cosmos is a formless chaos until Nature or God informs it with order.

Man walks erect, as Ovid goes on to explain – and we note that homo erectus is another important datum of modern evolutionary science, pre-empted by the mythic imagination – man walks erect, writes Ovid, because, his re-ascent to his heavenly home depends upon his morally and intellectually fixing his gaze, throughout his earthly sojourn, upon the divine region of his birth.

 

Which leads me to my modern example of a myth about gravity and how to defy it. It comes from an inspired piece of cinematic art, the 1970s movie starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd entitled The Blues Brothers. At the beginning of the scene in question, Jake (the Belushi character) is standing reluctantly in the narthex of a church, having just been collected from the prison gate in the Bluesmobile by brother Ellwood, who brings him there for his reformation. Suddenly, Jake’s body is bathed in, transfigured by, the celestial Light of revelation. “I have seen the light; I have seen the light”, he proclaims, somewhat redundantly.

The light he has seen is the idea to get the band back together, and with it to earn the money necessary to pay the back-taxes on the orphanage where the brothers were raised. Meanwhile, in the church itself, a prayer service is being led in the style of an old Negro revival meeting, by James Brown. Preacher Brown and the choir are singin’ and gyratin’ the exuberant praises of the Lord, and the infection is caught by the congregation. They begin dancing in the aisles, and soon in the rafters, to which they have been propelled by the energy of the indwelling Spirit. In mid-air, they perform long and lazy somersaults and other acrobatic maneuvers as if they had broken completely free of the earth’s gravitational orbit.

And indeed they have. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they are enjoying the state of enthousiasmos (to use the language of the ancient pagan mystery cults); they are entheoi, possessed by God. In the more appropriate Christian language of St. Paul, they have “put off mortality” and “put on immortality”; they have become no longer earthly and carnal creatures, but new spiritual and heavenly beings, for whom gravity and the other laws of nature no longer apply.

Though Belushi and Ackroyd are sending up (forgive the gravitational pun) – though they are spoofing a certain kind of modern American religion, be assured that its roots go back to the mists of human pre-history.

Plato’s, Ovid’s, and the Blues’ Brothers’ conceptions of gravity are thus informed by a grand religious myth with an inherent structure of meaning, at the centre of which is not physical nature but the incorporeal human soul. The circular journey of the soul, its birth in a pre-existent spiritual heaven and inmergence in the Divine, its fall into the body and exile in the world, and its celestial repatriation and re-absorption in God, is in fact the regnant salvation myth of Western Civilization. The continuous history of this myth is too long to trace here, but in due course it made every major philosopher and poet, pagan and Christian, its adherent and evangelist, down to the beginning of the modern era and beyond.

 

World as Divine Animal

The myth of the soul, however, is only the anthropological phase, as it were, of a larger ontological myth that expresses the overarching mystery of the whole: the duplex nature of all existence.

Beneath the deceptive surface of all multiple sensible phenomena is occulted a single, invisible Reality, which is alive and intelligent, and yet immutable and eternal, that is to say, Divine. It is not too much to say that in the sixth century B.C., the ontological mystery gave birth to Greek philosophy, when, gazing out upon a material world of apparent multiplicity, mutability, and transience, the Pre-Socratics posited – through a leap of faith, indeed – the existence of a single, unchanging, indestructible universal Essence or Nature (Physis) invisibly suffused throughout all things.

In the next century, Plato inherited this datum and expressed it as the fundamental opposition between Being and Becoming. For Plato, as you know, that category of things that is subject to change and decay (Becoming) cannot truly be said to “be” at all; true Being belongs only to what is unchanging and indestructible. In the Phaedo, Socrates notes that while the changing and transient phenomena of the world of Becoming are discernible to the physical senses, the unchanging and enduring entities of the order of Being are knowable only by the intellect; thus he identifies two fundamental classes of existence, each having a pair of characteristics: the visible and mutable, and the invisible and immutable.

To the former category belong the corruptible body and all ordinary physical things; to the latter belong God, the immortal soul, as well as the universal, intelligible Ideas. These three species of Being are, to use the Platonic metaphor, innately “akin”. The Ideas are, as Plato explains elsewhere, the indwelling souls of the particular things they inform. And the very same relation of invisible indwelling soul to visible body applies to the world at large.

The cosmos, as Plato explains in the Timaeus, is a Divine Animal. The Mind of God is its soul, which invisibly indwells and animates it, and the sensible material world that envelops it is God’s body.

This image is nothing less than the mystic basis of all religious, mythological, and philosophical imagery: man consists of an outer visible body and an inner invisible soul; so too, correspondingly, do all individual things in the world; so too does the world itself. So too, by necessity, as we’ll soon see, does the literary text.

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