The Philosophers’ Critique of Myth…
What I’ve said about the great cycle of mythology known as the Matter of Troy can be said about most of the other mythic cycles or archetypes, which inspired elaboration after elaboration down the centuries. There are, of course, any number of explicitly mythological poems, such as Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, or Dryden’s Fables. But even more characteristic of the pre-modern imagination is the velleity to translate non-mythological subjects into mythopoetic idioms. In his famous poem Lycidas, for example, an elegy written to commemorate the drowning death of Milton’s friend Edward King, the poet identifies King with the ancient dying and reviving gods Thammuz, Osiris, Dionysos, Orpheus, and Christ, thereby eternizing and universalizing what would otherwise have been an affecting, but merely personal, narrative.
Such mythic transpositions and displacements are too numerous to list, so I’ll give you only three more examples. The Egyptian and Babylonian myth of the killing of the maritime dragon recrudesces, as we’ll see, in the biblical account of creation, informs the entire Judaeo-Christian salvation history, is the central narrative of the Christian sacrament of baptism, and is given new life by Melville in his novel Moby Dick. The ancient mythologem of the Golden Age informs every page of Thomas More’s Utopia, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Rousseau’s and Margaret Mead’s risible fantasies about “noble savages”. Everything from the Grail legend, to the medieval romance of Gawain and the Green Knight, to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, to Eliot’s Wasteland, bears the imprint of the myths of the Ancient Near Eastern and classical dying and reviving gods of the seasons and the vegetation. And even our fashionable hysteria about the obliteration of the planet as a consequence of “global warming” is an unconscious re-assertion of the ancient Stoic eschatological myth about the destruction of the world in a universal conflagration.
Jung has called the archetypes of myth “controlling images”, and indeed, the human psyche does seem to be predisposed to organize and represent the raw data of existence according to these primordial mythic paradigms and categories. But that is a subject for another course, and even if one is not persuaded by Jung, there are other, simpler explanations of why myth is the default mode of the human imagination.
Since what I have called the human conversation has always revolved around the permanent questions about existence and reality, the resort to myth, as we’ll see in a moment, is practically inevitable.
Does God exist? Where does he come from? What is his nature? What does he want?
Does the soul exist? Is it created, or has it transmigrated, with Shirley McLaine, from some other realm? What is its nature? What does it want?
What is birth, death, rebirth? Is there an afterlife?
What is the nature of the world? How has it come into being? Or has it always existed? How will it end? Or will it infinitely endure?
What is the nature of man? Where did he come from? Where is he going to? What are good and evil? Why does evil exist? What is the purpose and meaning of life?
These perennial metaphysical questions and their solutions are ultimately beyond direct human experience, comprehension, or expression; and this is, paradoxically, why they must be posited and posed by the mythic psyche.
As a prisoner of time and space, man’s imagination is constrained by the sensual and finite framework of his worldly and corporeal existence, through which he is constrained to conceive of and represent such transcendent realities– God, the soul, the afterlife–as are by definition beyond sense and time. Myth and poetry are, of course, just such sensual and limited categories– so rankly sensual, in fact, that Plato banished the poets from his enlightened Republic.
When he did so, the criticism of poetry and myth on those grounds was already a century old. The Pre-Socratic philosophers Heracleitus and Xenophanes had indignantly accused the poets in general, and Homer in particular, of having insulted the dignity of the ineffable Godhead in their absurd depictions of the Olympian deities in the corporeal habit and with all of the moral and psychological fallibilities of men.
Such crude anthropomorphisms suggested to them that myth was the least likely modality through which the human imagination could possibly transcend its own existential limitations.