Thursday, August 6, 2020

Thinking Myth: Seeing the Nothing That Is not There and the Nothing That Is

(A Presentation at the 2020 Mythologium, a conference on Mythology, July 31-August 2)

I’m very pleased to be invited here today, and to be able to talk about nothing. Oscar Wilde once remarked, “I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.” In Genesis, we are told that “In the beginning […] The earth was without form, and void.” Heinz Pagels, an American physicist, remarked that the universe is “a re-expression of nothingness.” Ernest Hemingway, in A Clean, Well Lighted Place famously writes, “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada (translation: well, anyway…). Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.” Shakespeare’s Lear tells his fool, “This is nothing, Fool.” The Fool replies, “Then tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer, you gave me nothing for’t. Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?” Robert Thurman, in his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead remarks, “No sane person fears nothingness.” And then there was Martin Heidegger, who said, “The nothing nothings.”

 Marcus Aurelius said that life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, and that is never truer than when one decides to wrestle with nothingness. When we inquire into nothingness as an absence of something, or as an alternative to, or a lack of, something, we’re asking the wrong question. Shadows and holes have locations and even qualities of temporality, but they don’t consist of matter. Nothingness is not a negativity contingent on some positive something.

Nothingness always encompasses us, it inhabits us in the form of the intuition of what we were before we were born, and where we’re headed when we die. When we speak of nothingness, of no-thingness, we’re not speaking of emptiness, we’re not speaking of disorder, nor are we speaking of incomprehensibility, because contrary to being incomprehensible, we feel the looming presence of nothing attending our every mood. We are inclined to believe that something is better than nothing, that more is better than less, and that there are no voids in the natural world. But nothingness is something entirely of itself, and when I use the word in the context in which I am using it today, I’m not being coy or evasive, suggesting that nothingness is a euphemism for a something that is unfathomably mysterious. Nothingness is Chaos in its archaic Greek sense, the primordial source from which all order comes, and by which it is maintained.

Nothingness is a reality so unimaginably rich, so pregnant with inconceivable possibility, that no language or use of language can capture it, no matter how precise or innovative, no matter how poetic or imaginative or expressive it may be. We know that even mosquito larvae see shadows, so one might conclude that the perception of “nothing” doesn’t depend on complex or highly evolved mental states, in fact, the cognition of “nothing” may be primal. Silence, too, is often thought of as nothing, but silence is not simply the opposite of sound. What we hear as silence, a dog hears as noise, or John Cage heard as music; and Cage said that “These sounds (which are called silence only because they do not form part of a musical intention) may be depended upon to exist. The world teems with them, and is, in fact, at no point free of them.” (Alex Ross, Searching for Silence, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010)

Moods and emotions, particularly dread and anxiety, place one in relationship to, and suggest a relationship with, nothingness. In fact, these moods constitute, in part, what Heidegger called “Fundamental Thinking,” and they allow one to be more fully aware of Being, what Heidegger called Dasein, and in Heidegger’s view, Dasein is projected out of nothingness. Indeed, much, maybe even most, of life is lived through feelings that are not, in themselves, cognitions. Moods or emotions are not something that we possess, that we put forth, but instead they are aspects of living—ontological experiences which possess us, and by which we understand ourselves to be overcome or subjected to. Dasein, or literally There-Being, is fundamentally a disclosure of Nothingness, and one may go so far as to say Being IS nothingness, as they are not conceptual opposites. Nothingness belongs to essence itself, and it issues forth Being. But logic tends to break down in the face of Nothingness because logic exists in relationship to matter and time; logic does not exist in relationship to the unimaginable, the unthinkable, or in relationship to no-thingness. Logic, reason, and rationality are not able to reach into Dasein or Essence itself. Isaiah Berlin put it this way:

No matter what I say I always have to leave three dots at the end. Whatever description I give always opens the doors to something further, something even darker, perhaps, but certainly something which is in principle incapable of being reduced to precise, clear, verifiable, objective prose.” 

One might say that Life ‘happens’ in the ellipses.

To understand Nothingness, one must let go of anthropomorphisms and the tendency to want to reduce experiences and concepts to certainties and facts. So, traditional anthropomorphized notions of a universe that is responsive to human entreaty or influence must be renounced, and the phenomena represented by relational narratives must be surrendered to the ellipse. Consequently, these ellipses are shockingly rich, downright Protean, one might say. Poetry lives in the ellipses, and most importantly for our purposes here today, so too does myth.

The Greek word, poesis, means to make. It is, Donald Polkinghorne says, “an activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.” (Practice and the Human Sciences: The Case for a Judgement-Based Practice of Care, SUNY Press, 2004, p. 115) It is apparently, but only apparently, the act of creating something out of nothing, creatio ex nihilo. But, the only way that something can be created out of nothing, is for the nothing to be nothing like what we typically understand nothing to be. The nothing of creation cannot be an absence or a lack, it must be something else. As Wallace Stevens put it in his poem, Of Mere Being, it’s “beyond the last thought,” and “without human meaning, without human feeling, a foreign song.”

                    The Palm at the end of the mind,
                           Beyond the last thought, rises
                           In the bronze d├ęcor,

                           A gold-feathered bird
                           Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
                           Without human feeling, a foreign song.

                           You know then that it is not the reason
                           That makes us happy or unhappy.
                           The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

                           The palm stands on the edge of space.
                           The wind moves slowly in the branches.
                           The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

By conjuring “the palm at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought,” Stevens demands that we struggle free from rational, familiar thought—"you know then that it is not the reason,” he writes—in other words, it’s not the cognitive function of reason—"that makes us happy or unhappy.” Abandoning reason, we enter a world beyond the factual, beyond the familiar world of known things, we experience the transcendent essence of being, and we become aware of the Nothingness, which is that unanthropomorphic world “without human meaning, without human feeling.”

That palm tree beyond the last thought and beyond human feeling on the edge of space is, in Stevens’ poem, the symbol of indefatigable, indestructible Being which is projected from Nothingness. The barely glimpsed bird with golden feathers in the palm tree, the “fire-fangled feathers,” can only be a Phoenix, the bird that self-immolates and is reborn from its own ashes. And the brilliant mind of Wallace Stevens knew that the Greek word for palm is phoenix, and by placing the phoenix in a Phoenix, he emphasizes the abiogenic fecundity of Nothingness.

Once to a friend, Anton Chekov remarked that if you see a gun on prominent display in the first act, you can be sure it will be fired in the third. So, let’s pick up that gun and examine it for a bit before we fire it. Freud once remarked of his own theories that they appealed to him because they tended to, like the theories of Copernicus or Darwin, diminish man’s pride. While that may be one of the greatest humblebrags ever uttered, Myth has a similar power to absorb and disturb us in secret ways, diminish our pride; it puts us human beings in our place in the world, and in the order of things.

Myths point to, or implicate intriguing truths, the apparatuses of Being and disclosures of Nothingness that generally remain frustratingly secret, and in a certain sense, allow us to explore—or at least wonder about, that which lay beyond the last thought. Myths highlight the existentially puzzling phenomena to which we’d rather not give too much attention, things like consciousness, death, the constant struggle between free will and determinism, and all the other issues of human There-Being that remain stubbornly resistant to the intellect. Myth allows one to grasp the full force and effect of a complex world on limited human beings, and this is so because myth arises from a response to Nothingness, an attempt to understand Nothingness.

Myths are projections of Being (or Dasein) much in the same way as Being is a projection of Nothingness. Heidegger’s use of the word understand (verstehen) is one of the two essential constituents to Dasein, or There-Being (Da is the there in there-being), but he didn’t use the word “understand” in the way we typically use the word to indicate a grasp of something, to see things more clearly, or to integrate information into a larger context. Rather, Heidegger insisted that understanding was not so much a cognitive process as much as it was a capability, a capacity, a possibility of existence. For Heidegger, one who understands something is one who can deploy practical skills. This doesn’t require one to have a highly developed theoretical understanding of one’s skills. I’m pretty sure, for instance, that Babe Ruth would not have been able to speak to the technical aspects—such as the transfer of energy, or apply the principles of fluid dynamics to the effort of hitting a home run. Ruth just knew—he understood (er verstand)—how to hit a home run. It was simply a part of his being.

Let’s look at another poem, because in the context of this presentation, the poesis of Wallace Stevens and mythopoesis are pointing at the same thing—nothingness, and the search for a practical relationship to it. Here’s Wallace Stevens again, and his poem, The Snow Man:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

In this poem, we see that all the conditions to properly recognize nothingness are satisfied. A mind of winter isn’t created through or because of an intellectual or theoretical effort; it’s fashioned out of experience, the experience of having been cold a long time, so long in fact, that you begin to act, even think, like winter itself; moving slower, sometimes ponderously slow, and parts of your psyche become brittle and exposed, as other parts are buried and the flow of libido is thinned, conserving energy while ambition is dormant and darkness absorbs us into our own depths. There’s no misery in the sound of the wind and a few mutinous leaves, because now, one is the winter wind; one no longer inhabits the winter landscape, one has become it. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is the experience one has just before freezing to death, so one can see the risk accompanying such understanding. One recognizes that one is oneself the Nothing that is not there as well as the Nothing that is.

Human Dasein and the Nothingness from which it’s projected can’t be grasped, can’t be logically apprehended, and when myth is used as a parlor game whose only object is that of recognizing and identifying one’s ego with the patterns of a particular archetype while neglecting the frequently perilous challenges of the archetypal, the various myths and mythic figures become just another story the ego can use for its own inflation, or to engender the comfort of familiarity and certainty, and confirm what one wants to be true, or even what one has believed all along.

Personalizing myth and archetypal images in this manner is similar to a butterfly collector pinning a butterfly in a shadow box; the object of beauty and fascination, the object of a particular kind of awe, is no longer alive. Semiotically speaking, the butterfly thus pinned has become a sign rather than a symbol. Likewise, the myth is reduced to a psychic tchotchke, an object of bemusement, in which one is no longer able to find beauty or follow heedlessly on its unhurried, meandering, often erratic way, leading away from the comfortable environs of domesticity and deeper into, not just the natural world, but deeper into one’s own nature and the sublime discoveries awaiting one there. (I should point out that the Greek homonym, psyche, is used to denote both butterfly and soul.)

Thinking mythically, thinking not of archetypes but of the archetypal, one finds the real power of myth; one wakes up, as it were, and is less constrained, less burdened, and less in opposition to the complexities and limitations of living a human life. Mythic thinking opens the doors of perception to astonishment, to contentment, to life with its full range of emotion and experience. Thought this way, one discovers, to quote from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, that “Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form - all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.”

Thank you, and I am very grateful that you were willing to listen so attentively to nothing.

Missing Out and the Anxiety of the Unlived Life


                           (A talk to the Northern Arizona Psychological Society 5/15/15)

I have noticed over the years of working with clients that much of what troubles them, “all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain” as Melville wrote in Moby Dick, is the lack of congruence between the life they are living and the life they believe they should be living. Freud would have called it the difference between the ego (Ich) and the ego-ideal (ich ideal), in other words, it is the difference between who one is and who one might have been, and may yet become. The me I fantasize about is a me, according to me, that I might well have become if only some of the things that I had experienced had been different, or if only I had made different (and the script often insists, better) choices. The fantasy me is what I call the unlived life. It is unlived because I want to believe it was once an option, and a part of me wants to believe it may still be possible. A significant motivation upon the part of the client entering therapy is to discover why the unlived life was not possible. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, “The story of our lives becomes the story of the lives we were prevented from living” (Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life).

It is the unlived life that keeps us awake at night, by either losing ourselves in the projected fantasy of what it might be like to be living the life we are not able to live, or alternatively, the unlived life haunts us as a spectral delivery mechanism for anxiety: why don’t I feel loved, why don’t I feel safe, why don’t I feel special? Why can’t i feel satisfied? What would it be like to be able to satisfy what feels so unsatisfiable in our daily lives. Freud suggested that all anxiety is separation anxiety, particularly separation from the mother, but I think it is also the case that anxiety is created from a sense of being separated from oneself, a separation from one’s true and proper life. One might think that the psychoanalytic answer to separation is love.

The first experience of love is the love of oneself (no separation of self), secondly, the love of what one was (separation from self), and thirdly, we love what we would like to be, because if we could become what we would like to be, there is something of a successful reunification of self (Jacques Lacan, Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954). The first three kinds of loving are ultimately narcissistic and creates a self enclosed world in which nothing is hidden, nothing is unlived, and consequently then, nothing is threatening. When we eventually begin to see some cracks in this self-contained world others, like mother, become objects capable of acting independently rather than acting as mere extensions of oneself, and another experience of love is discovered. Freud calls this love anlehnung, which is loving the mother who brings the nurturing and the father who protects, a love that is unsatisfyingly dependent.

But are these the only two options? Are narcissism and dependence our only choices?  Jacques Lacan suggests that “Freud rejects this hypothesis, and reminds us of of the existence of repression, which has, in the end, a normalizing function. Repression proceeds from the ego and its ethical and cultural requirements [...] For the ego, the formation of an ideal would be the conditioning factor. This ideal is now the target of the self-love which was enjoyed in childhood by the true ego” (ibid, 132-3). The ego ideal becomes the target because in hitting that target we become special once again. And feeling special provides one with a feeling of indescribable satisfaction.

Being special is the peculiarly singular ambition of contemporary American culture, is it not? It is worth wondering though, “...what the need to be special stops us from being” (Phillips). Being special is, I think, another way of saying we don’t want for anything, anymore, and the best way to not want is to have enough money to buy whatever we will: we purchase the best home, the best technology, car, body, and the best love that money can buy. One is tormented by the things and experiences one has missed, obsessed by notion that missing out has sabotaged satisfaction.

When we look at ourselves in this way, it isn’t hard to see why Freud wanted to talk about pleasure seeking and the avoidance of pain as the organizing principles of life. How many times have we heard clients suggest that a life without pleasure is not worth living? Simply surviving life is nowhere near pleasurable enough, and even spiritual practices that nudge one toward asceticism are festooned with the trappings of materialism (at least they are here in the U.S.), if not of the literal comfortable, pleasurable variety, then materialism of the spiritual sort. As an aside, our spiritual disciplines foster the primacy of the unlived life by delaying the most “important” existence to a time after death or make a goal of enlightenment in such a way that only a very few, if any, can achieve it and thereby creating one more life one cannot live and may only experience in fantasy and self-reproach.

The entire point, it seems to me, of the unlived life is to provide pleasure by imagining a more complete satisfaction, and perhaps such imaginings or fantasies are even attempts at some kind of self cure. As Adam Phillips notes: “Our solutions tell us what our problems are.” Perhaps it is the unconscious wish that the unlived lives might somehow materialize in one’s mundane life and become real, and really lived, experiences. Perhaps these fantasies of a more satisfying life are ways to deal with a reality that leaves us very little wiggle room in terms of free will. Schopenhauer said, “A man may want what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” Perhaps it is only in the fantasy of the unlived life that we in fact are able to experience a truly free will.

Whatever one chooses to think about the idea of free will, one cannot but be aware that there is a gap, sometimes a yawning chasm, between what we want and what we have and that we can’t get around what we have in order to create what we want. This realization is essentially what Freud meant by “the Reality Principle.” And in some important ways, the unlived life tells us what is wrong with the life we are currently living; to put it clinically, what are our symptoms if the fantasy life is the solution? In a very general way, one might think that symptoms tend to cluster around anxiety and frustration, and this is particularly true of the gap between the lived and the unlived life.

`The anxiety and frustration one feels is about missing out, missing opportunities, missing crucial pieces of knowledge, missing the joke. Missing out means not getting it and not knowing; missing out means not belonging. And when we suffer from the anxiety of not belonging, we are once again with Freud in his notion of separation anxiety. Look at the way we are attached to, say, our smart phones. Has anyone’s phone buzzed with a missed call or a text message since I’ve been speaking? How hard was it to resist looking at the message or knowing who called? The technological umbilical is very, very short these days. We don’t want to miss out on anything.

Another reason so much anxiety accrues around separation is that children understand instinctively that should they be separated from or lost to their parents, their very survival is in doubt. Instinctively, children “know” they don’t have the resources to take care of themselves and to be abandoned is tantamount to a death sentence. Separation becomes paired with the idea that one is unloved and unwanted, a shame-filled being in search of some other, any other, with whom one may fuse in a narcissistic attempt at ensuring one’s own survival. Often in the unlived life, the conceit is that one is highly competent, successful, and loveable. In the unlived life, one has either achieved a complete satisfaction, or at least knows the way to it.

A foundational idea of psychoanalysis is that there is something unfeasible, unrealizable, or unworkable about the telling and the living of a contemporary, modern life, and psychoanalysis became a story about why people couldn’t speak honestly about their own lives, and about what it was they couldn’t speak about. In fact, what we suffer from, as Phillips writes, is biography. “[W]e need to cure ourselves of biography,” he says, “and our beliefs in it” (Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, 21). We all know the problems with our own biographies; we’ve all had the experience of being at a family reunion, a wake, a wedding, or some such thing telling stories about our own history when an older relative interrupts to say, “it didn’t happen that way at all!” One reason for this is that we must live our lives forward, while biography is constructed backwards.

Our biographies, our histories, are fictions; they have to be fictions since that is the only way to make a different future for ourselves or, conversely, justify the future we are living into. If one listens carefully in the therapeutic hour, the stories we hear are the stories of unmet needs, stories of what one wanted long ago, of what was missed, and what is wanted for the future. The stories we tell about our lives are usually, and unconsciously, meant to mislead--both others and ourselves. We are constantly trying to unknow what we already know about ourselves; we create the illusion of a life that makes sense (in either a positive or negative way) so that we won’t perish of the truth. In therapy, the mere clarification or chronologizing of biography is not the agent of change. Rather, it is the creation of a kind of intimacy within the therapeutic hour that allows clients, and ourselves, to realize and speak what is true about oneself. That kind of intimate honesty is never found in biography.

Often, people are haunted by their unlived lives, the lives they should have had, and the story of their lives becomes the story of what they have missed out on, and the idea that one is missing out can be paralyzing. One result may be that, fueled by the anxiety of missing out, one cannot commit to anyone or anything, and even if one does manage a commitment, one cannot stay faithful to it. Furthermore, the inability to tolerate missing out is really an inability to tolerate any form of frustration, and if one refuses to tolerate frustration, one will not tolerate satisfaction, either. A generalized greed begins to dominate one’s choices; a greed for sensation, for experience, for consolation, for regard drives one on until, like Terry Jones’ enormous glutton in the Python’s movie, The Meaning of Life, one simply explodes from surfeit. I think that if addiction is anything, it is frustration that’s too easily satisfied. When one is willing to wrestle with frustration and anxiety, rather than effortlessly ameliorating them by distraction, denial, pharmacology or the like, one is liable to discover strengths one never knew one possessed, or creativity in problem solving, and a novelty of thought one never knew one was capable of.

“In general it is also certainly true to say,” Freud writes in Contributions to the Psychology of Erotic Life, “that the psychical significance of a drive rises in proportion to its frustration.” In other words, the more frustrated we are in our wanting, the more we value and desire the absent object. Freud is not simply counseling us on the pleasures of self-restraint or a kind of ascetic denial (yet there is undeniably pleasure in pain), but he is speaking to the idea that frustration is the vehicle for illuminating our desires, and necessarily then, illuminating the conditions for our satisfaction. What we might call therapeutic change.

But we don't want to change, change is not simply being something at one moment and then deciding to be something else the next. It is a painfully ambivalent process, and it goes on far too long for our tastes, alternating us between what we were and what we will become, suspending us between what we are and what we want to be.  W.H. Auden wrote: We would rather be ruined than change/ We would rather die in our dread/ Than climb upon the cross of the moment/ and let our illusions die. 

      The 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant highlighted this alternating psychic movement in his descriptions of encounters with what he called the sublime. 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 understand him, 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 contain a sublime beauty. 

     Perhaps it is, in fact, the unlived life that, improperly regarded, threatens to trivialize or domesticate the sublime, and constellates as a singular image of satisfaction that serves ultimately to trivialize and domesticate an ungovernable and unfathomable reality. The danger of the unlived life is that we remain unaware and unconscious of the embedded political, theological, social, and psychological agendas buried so deep within the lives we must live that we are more likely to shackle rather than free ourselves, more apt to obscure than illuminate, more likely to limit than expand our lives. As Freud insists, what we see is determined by what we cannot see, or by what we refuse to see.

To accomplish the knowing of what we do not want to 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 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 initially disturbing experience of the sublime 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 craft 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. 

     Sometimes, people understand the gap between the unlived life and the lived life, and the frequent alternation between them to which we are subjected, as a kind of hell. And if there is a hell, this is as good a definition of it as any, for hell is not to be found in some distant place, 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 helping 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.

     Forsaking the easy pleasures of the unlived life for the harder pleasures of living the life one has is a difficult challenge: one must value both equally and move between and among the lived and unlived lives because much of living is the task of embodying the imaginal. A significant part of understanding love, for instance, happens imaginally and then must be, through trial and error, embodied between and among people in the material world. The purpose of living, as I see it at least, is to make what is implicit in imagination explicit in living; this is the gift the unlived life offers us.

The Mything Voice: A Conversation Regarding the Study of Myth

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, 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 study the studies of 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. 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.” 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 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. 

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.