Monday, February 6, 2017

An Open Letter to my Colleagues in the Study of Mythology

             David Miller tells a charming anecdote in which Joseph Campbell delivers the punchline, saying, “A myth ith ath good ath a sthmile,” punning on the idiom, a miss is as good as a mile. More than simply recalling the incisorless speech of a child, mything and missing are a conspicuous pair pertaining to the study of mythology as well. There is, as Dr. Miller points out, something missing in our mything.
              Indulge me the telling of my own anecdote, one that I’ve heard in various settings and circumstances my whole life, and has always suggested to me the peculiar ability of my people to ignore discomfort or emotional disturbance. It goes like this:
                             An English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is Norwegian. As the child grows older, it obsessively reads about farming and farm implements and dresses in overalls, flannel shirts, and hand knit sweaters bearing wintry designs, but all his basic functions develop normally. He walks, eats, sleeps, learns, and so on, but for some reason the Norwegian child never speaks. The concerned parents take the child to the doctor, who reassures them that the child is normal in all other areas and he is sure there is nothing to worry about and that the child will speak in time. Well, years pass and the child becomes a teenager and still does not speak, although he seems to be completely normal in all other respects. The Norwegian child’s English mother is particularly distressed by her son’s apparent inability to speak, but she tries to hide her worry and sadness from the child while she works very hard to make her unfortunate child’s life comfortable. One day she makes the now 17 year old, still silent child, a bowl of tomato soup and takes it to him in his room where he is listening to music on the stereo. Not long after, the child appears in the kitchen and suddenly says, “Mother. The soup is a little tepid.” The astonished mother says, “All these years you never spoke a word, and it appears you could speak all along! Why? Why did you never say anything before?” “Because, mother,” answers the child, “up until now everything has been fine.”
 For most of my life, whenever I heard one of the several variations of this joke, I merely chalked it up to a gentle lampooning of Scandinavian stoicism. But now I find something deeper and darker in this old joke, a disturbing truth about a cherished value, comfort. This little anecdote reveals the disturbing shadow of comfort in that when one becomes too comfortable one is removed from, or taken out of the stream of life, one lives as an invalid. Being comfortable and certain, suppressing dissonant voices and unwelcome experiences, creates a wound; a wound that inhabits and inhibits individuals—as well as scholarly disciplines—as well as intellectual discourse, and inhibits the development of more subtly complex perceptions of the sublime mysteries to which one is exposed through the often prosaic effort of living.  If one is to more deeply understand the sublilme mysterium which lives us, a willing acceptance of the uncomfortable, discomfiting voice, the voice of the stranger at the door, the speech of that which is disturbed and disturbing, is essential. One must encourage the kind of disturbing conversations and inquiries which are often missing from the methodology that we, in the Pacifica tribe, employ in the study myth. And like the little Norwegian boy, I found that up until a few years ago, the way we studied myth had been fine. But it is no longer fine, at least not for me, and now I have something to say.
              Considerations of disturbance lead me to, once again, consider David Miller. In a keynote address, in fact, the same speech in which he told the anecdote I previously referenced[1], Dr. Miller spoke of the need for those of us who employ what he calls a synoptic study of mythology to address its criticisms. Upon reflection, I believe Dr. Miller was characteristically generous in his understanding of our understanding. Those of us who attended Pacifica Graduate Institute and who, like myself, received a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies, run the risk of cultivating an embarrassing self-deception because we did not really study mythology; we did not study the source material that C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and James Hillman studied. Instead, we learned about Jung, Campbell, and Hillman, and their psychological, metaphorical approaches to mythology. All too often critiques of that, largely psychological, method were received as ad homonym attacks rather than legitimate, albeit disturbing, appraisals. Professor Miller assumed, perhaps over-optimistically, that those of us listening in full sympathy with him on the cusp of that Labor Day weekend in 2012 knew full well what he meant when he uttered the word synoptic. I know that I thought I knew. I knew that the word synoptic meant that several different stories, perhaps by several different authors, writing in different places and at different times, despite their lack of correspondence or consistency, all told the same story. I was sure that I knew that the word synoptic meant that different narratives point to the same meaning—in the case of myth, a psychological meaning—and I became enthused to write just such a synoptic methodology for the study of myth and answer critics like Roland Barthes, Bruce Lincoln, and even our own academic sibling, Sophia Heller (whose work holds no small appeal for me). Not surprisingly, as a psychotherapist the program running in the background dictated that, for me, the best use of myth is that use which clarifies and valorizes the human-all-too-human condition. Other, unconsidered and "irrelevant,"  perspectives had been of little importance and held only a marginal interest for me. Perspectives like that of, say, William Faulkner’s, himself a great mythographer who is supposed to have said, “One of Keats’ odes is worth any number of old women;” or that of Roland Barthes, who seemed to aggressively suggest that myth “…is stolen speech” and is best understood semiotically, or even the notion of Goethe’s in which he insists that the presented form of myth is not allegorical or metaphorical but is itself an Ur-phenomenon, or in other words, the reality that a Greek statue of Aphrodite is not a mere representation of the goddess, but is itself nature manifesting in material form, the very form love would necessarily take were it to become incarnate.
              So I wrote David a longish letter about my plan to write a methodology for the synoptic study of mythology illustrating that all myths had one meaning—namely, a psychological one—to which he responded that that would be a fine idea, and that since he didn’t have ownership of the word synoptic, I could use that word however best I saw fit, but he wanted me to know that the way I used the word was not how he used the word. Professor Miller borrowed the term from Feldman and Richardson (The Rise of Modern Mythology 1680-1860), a term which they used in the early 70’s to argue for a return to treating myth as a “master field” unto itself, a primary subject which could be used to illuminate other disciplines rather than the other way around, causing mythology to be embedded within other disciplines. For example, from a Jungian perspective, archetypes are meant to “attract, to convince, to fascinate and to overpower” (Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious). Myths, in Jung’s conceptualization, are the epiphenomena of archetypes, psychic products which are themselves twice removed from conscious inspection or elaboration. From such a perspective mythology is in service to psychology, and while that is very appealing to me, it is very far indeed from being the only possible reason for the existence of myth. For instance, it is clearly possible that it is not only differing levels of consciousness which are responsible for the production of myth, for archetypal images are “…neither evenly distributed, nor found on all continents” (Witzel, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, 15). It may be that physical and social environments, pathway dependencies, charismatic qualities of political or spiritual leaders, and other individual and cultural factors all, in some way, condition systems of mythology. As G.S. Kirk stated it, “Analysis of a myth should not stop when one particular theoretical explanation has been applied and found productive” (The Nature of Greek Myths).
              Because I am nothing if not persistent, although I acknowledge that some call it perseveration, let me return to Jung’s statement about archetypes, those productions of Psyche which he described as overpowering, fascinating, and enthralling, or some words to that effect, and which provide a very big clue to that with which mythology is engaged, and why we find it so engaging. Jung’s language is very similar to the language the 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant used in his descriptions of the sublime[2]. But the sublime is not a product of psyche; it is itself a totality which exists outside of psyche and to which psyche may be exposed. As I recall, Kant argued that the sublime has at least two dimensions, one of magnitude and the other of force. In other words, when confronted with the sublime, the experience is so big, so immense, that one simply cannot wrap one’s mind around it; it is incomprehensible. In addition to its incomprehensibility, there is the added and intense feeling of being overwhelmed in its presence and one’s physical and emotional integrity feels threatened by an encounter with the sublime. What makes the sublime even more disturbing is the feeling of undeniable pleasure in the face of the apparent “counter-purposiveness,” as Kant named it, and which one experiences as the disorganizing, distressing, and disturbing effect upon cognition, emotion, and consciousness in general. One would expect such an encounter to be painful, but instead the sublime encounter evokes pleasure and an aesthetic experience one retrospectively understands to be beauty.
              Perhaps it is, in fact, the sublime which is the proper subject of myth—that mysterium tremendum which the logos of myth attempts to render intelligible, and if this is so, the addressed subject is so vast, so extensive, so interminable and immeasurable that only one approach to its study, or a singular voice of understanding serves ultimately to trivialize and domesticate an ungovernable and unfathomable reality. As David Miller put it, “The danger is that we may be unaware and unconscious[3].” Unaware and unconscious of the embedded political, theological, social, and psychological agendas buried so deep within the psychological way we study myth as to be unrecognized, we are more likely to further shackle than free, more apt to obscure than illuminate, more likely to limit than restore mythography to its rightful place as a master discipline. As the philosophical method referred to as destructuralization has repeatedly demonstrated, what we see is determined by what we cannot see; or as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, “Our vision, […] what we are able to see, is sponsored by our blind spots; [knowing] what we are determined not to know frees us and forces us to know something else” (Becoming Freud). To accomplish the knowing of what we do not know provokes and invites disturbance and discomfiture, it demands from us a willingness to allow our senses to incorporate something that initially appears insensible. But there is something else going on in one’s experience of the sublime. One’s own ideas and intuitions (both conscious and unconscious ideas of one’s own reason, which Kant suggests interact with the sublime, if not actually constituting an aspect of it) are brought to bear on the experience and eventually result in a harmony of reason with the sublime. With this move, the sublime becomes “purposive” rather than “counter-purposive” and creates a feeling of deep, acute pleasure. The deep disturbance is now matched by a higher pleasure rising from the newly discovered purposiveness, and it persuades us, as the poet Shelley noted, to forsake the easy for the harder pleasures. Of course, one can’t shoehorn the sublime encounter into a continuous state of being. The purposive and counterpurposive states are alternating continually and neither of them wins out, which is to say that experiencing the sublime subjects one to a disturbing, rapid alternation of feelings and perceptual states[4].
              If myth is indeed the speech of the sublime (ology typically refers to the study of something, but the root word is logos, commonly taken to denote speech) then one, single, unopposed perspective is nothing more than a blind alley in a welter of urban streets. Myth needs a variety of approaches and voices in interposition to even begin to plunge its limitless logos; it requires a cacophony of voices clambering to live in the awkward fullness of life rather than seeking out a comfortable, banal, and ultimately regressive paradise of belief. Campbell knew this very well, and while his rhetoric or his imagery sometimes left the earth, he never did. And if there is a hell, it is not to be found in some distant place either, but exists here and now, formed by all of us together. It seems to me there are only a few ways out of hell; one is common and used by many: fail to attend to the hell and become so much a part of it that one no longer sees it. An alternative way, a challenging path to be sure, demands that one live seeking out the sublime encounter, a way of living and thinking that places one, more often than not, uncomfortably outside of one’s pleasingly comfortable beliefs. This way out of hell requires one to disregard easy pleasure and instead be determined to recognize who and what voices, in the midst of hell are not hell, and subjecting them to rigorous examination help them to be recognized and abide, creating a space for them and in so doing, experience marvelous hopes, extraordinary insights, and sublime pleasures, rendered all the more marvelous for their difficult acquisition.

[1] The Symposium on Myth, August 31, 2012.
[2] As found in his 1790 work, The Critique of Judgment.
[3] Keynote address, August, 2012
[4] I have written about this rapid alternation of perceptual states in an article entitled, “The Disturbing Release of Personality,” published on the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s website,