Sunday, August 27, 2017

Stop Personalizing Mythology. Just knock it off!

Google the phrase, personal mythology, and one gets in the neighborhood of 2.4 million results. Personal mythology is a big deal. It’s an especially big deal for mythologists and mythographers working on the edges of popular culture, particularly those who seek to capitalize on the spiritual vacuum afflicting the Western World at present. Religion is in precipitous decline, even among (perhaps most noticeably among) the implacably religious. An odd statement perhaps, but bear with me; “none” is the third most endorsed religious identifier in the world after Christian and Muslim. 

But even more problematic for religion is that those who strongly identify with a religion are in wild disagreement with one another over what their religion says, what it actually demands of, and how it compels, believers. For instance, many who argue that the bible is the literal word of god have never, apparently, read the Christian bible. Doctrinal literacy is at an all-time low, and the bible takes its place on the book shelves—likely adjacent to War and Peace or Democracy in America—of people who also own many other books they have never read, and chagrined to various degrees, understand they should have read them; just another artifact or accessory that implies or signals something to others about the intelligence, sophistication, or piousness of its owner.  In contemporary life, some of the most egregious acts of cruelty, moralistic meanness, and unchristian malice are committed by those who proudly, obtusely, and very, very loudly proclaim themselves to be humble servants of the Christ they so preposterously claim to revere, a god with whom they must be only passingly familiar. The silver lining appended to this cloud is that religious affiliation is falling off markedly; people are leaving organized religions in droves.

Polls suggest that the numbers of those who claim some sort of religious affiliation are declining precipitously. Presently, one in six Americans claim no religion at all, and by 2050 that number will likely be one in four. But most human beings appear to possess perspectives wired for narcissism atop brains wired for belief, and fortunately for those thusly wired, into the breech ride the personal myth missionaries. Personal mythology is one of those oxymoronic phrases, like jumbo shrimp or minor miracle, that seem to offer new depths or innovation that is, in reality, simply a contradiction in terms. I find the use of the phrase “personal mythology” to be particularly arrant in its narcissistic and personalistic expropriation of a necessarily cultural phenomena. Mythology is mythology precisely because it is a cultural product; it belongs to a particular time, a particular geography, and a particular group’s experience of the lived-in world. To personalize a myth does violence to the myth by making it ubiquitous and holographic; it no longer symbolizes a larger, culturally contextualized experience of hope, say, or anxiety, or sociopolitical influences, but it rather is made to reflect only itself to itself—its meaning is reduced to only its merest appearance.

Personalizing myth is similar to a butterfly collector pinning a butterfly to a display; the object of regard, of beauty, of a particular kind of awe, is no longer a living thing. Semiotically speaking, the butterfly once pinned has become a sign rather than a symbol. Likewise, in personal mythology, the myth has become familiar, domesticated, and has no ability whatsoever to produce in the one regarding it a sense of awe and mystery, the very experience that Joseph Campbell insisted was the first function of mythology. It seems to me that in personal mythology, myth and archetypes are conscripted into the service of the individual ego in order to reassure and support, legitimatize, or valorize the individual’s mode of expressing herself in the world. One may realize that one has characteristics that are analogous to Aphrodite, or those that line up with Mars, but that sort of pattern identification is focusing merely on archetypes and not the archetypal. In focusing solely on the archetypes, one may behave with a self-conscious awareness of approximating some archetype or another and its behaviors, even attempting to cultivate the behaviors of archetypes with which one wants to identify. Used this way, personal mythology is nothing more than a psychic tchotchke, an object of bemusement, a parlor game; it is little more than an exercise in pattern recognition—something humans are doing all the time, consciously or not—that has no relevance to a contemporary, lived-in-world. Its only aim is the satisfaction of the ego’s need to see itself as having penetrated to the core of some deep mystery.

Personal mythology simply projects one’s own ego onto the world, and then having repressed one’s own projection, stumbles across it as though it were a novel, self-evident fact of existence, and plants its flag, declaring itself to have found the soul of the world and the mythic foundations of existence. Personal mythology is nothing more than self-bamboozlery, albeit a pretty and a satisfying bamboozle, and its adherents, as was once said of President Coolidge, once bamboozled, are impossible to unbamboozle.

The archetypal, on the other hand, possesses and overwhelms individuals, often to their great dismay and without their awareness, without their consent, and impels them to actions of which they had never thought themselves capable. Survey some of the writings of the personal myth genre and you will be invited to discover your inner guru or lover or magician or warrior, and so on. Pleasant things to discover, certainly, but what about one’s inner demagogue, savage, murderer, traitor, fraud, and so forth? These are all archetypes, too, and live in the inky darkness of every heart. But understanding archetypes, even locating them within, is not the same as understanding the archetypal. David Miller writes that the archetypal “refers to the deep self, to complexity and fundamental ambiguity, to plurality and polymorphous structures, to depth, to the fact that things have more than one side, many sides, like the many gods of mythology. The logic of the term is metaphor” (A Myth is as Good as a Smile: The Mythology of a Consumerist Culture[1]). The archetypal is never only one thing.

The archetypal seems similar to Kant’s description of the sublime in his Critique of Judgment, while the archetype may be related to what he described merely as the beautiful. As Kant imagines it, the sublime has a few dimensions, most notably those of magnitude and force. The sublime is immense, it is an experience, as well as an idea, that one simply cannot wrap one’s mind around. In addition, the sublime is overwhelming and destabilizing to individuals when it is encountered; it’s not all that comforting or pleasant, in fact, it’s often destabilizing and disturbing. Encountering the sublime requires one to wrestle with the inner and the outer experience much longer than one would ideally like, until some sort of equilibrium is reached, and reaching equilibration, a profound aesthetic realization is realized. As the poet Shelly once remarked, the sublime requires us to forsake the easy for the harder pleasures.

There must be, I believe, a similar wrestling with mythology because, strictly speaking, mythology is not relevant to the modern contemporary world; the study of myth is always pointing us backward, to the past. Wolfgang Giegerich puts it this way: “Working in and with mythology is anachronistic, atavistic, regressive. Gods are lifeless relics. They are the result of learning, not of religious or mythological experience” (The Soul’s Logical Life: Toward a Rigorous Notion of Psychology, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1998; “Killings," Spring 54, 1993). Myths allow us to explore how we once thought rather than how we think now. But here is the interesting, and I think important, thing about that: myths give us the chance to wonder deeply, and imaginatively, about why we no longer think that way and how, in the unconscious, inky depths of ourselves, we still want to. We are attracted, ironically, to the comfortable certainty with which myths provide us. We know, for example, that we live in a heliotropic solar system and the planet Earth orbits around the sun like all the other planets, but it doesn’t feel that way, does it? It feels as if the Earth is still and the sun is moving. One’s intuitive experience is that the sun moves and the Earth is still, and we occasionally need to remind ourselves of that in times when, say, we witness a glorious sunrise or a heartbreakingly beautiful sunset. Myth is often more aligned with intuition than with the reality of being--which we cannot fully know, and therefore we find solace in that which makes intuitive sense to us. 

On their surface alone, many mythological narratives offer the reader an unparalleled delight; that itself is an important function of myth. But mythology is ultimately meaningful when we use it to explore the deeper structures and motives toward which myth points. Those structures are not generally apprehendable with an understanding other than metaphorical, and we always end up saying what it is "like." This is not a failure at all, in fact, and this dance, this wrestling, this perspective, is a deep movement into and among the rhythms of contemporary life, our own as well as the life of the world. Wittgenstein suggested that the limits one perceives on one's world are created by the limits of one's language, and it is at this place, the place of limits, a protean potential for change and the realization of meaning exists. But to get there, on must transgress boundaries and categories, comfort and conventional thought, and that's why understanding the language of myth in the context of our present mythlessness is so important. It is literally the activity of working at the limits or the edges of oneself, and of oneself in the world. Myth must not, I believe, be worked within the confines of what one finds comfortable, attractive, or familiar; those things never take us closer to boundaries or limits. Furthermore, it seems proper somehow that if one is working at the limits, boundaries, or edges one becomes unsure of the way, one feels lost. The forms become strangely alien, perhaps even frightening or horrible, and our charge at these times is not to flee from nor banish them, but to more deeply understand what they are telling us about ourselves and our world.

The ancient gods and goddesses have no relevance to modern thought or life, no influence at all, but the archetypal energy and thought from which they precipitated is shaping our modern world at every turn. It isn't Aphrodite or Ares, Sekhmet or Anubis, angels or demons, at work in the world but, every bit as archetypal, it is greed and wealth, digitalization and information technology, political theory and science, and to think of myth only in terms of individual, ancient gods and goddesses is to not only be wrong, but to be exactly wrong.

The pull to domesticate the archetypal image is powerful, and it is ultimately destrictive to the image precisely because it excises the image from the primal, polymorphous, uncanny depths in which it first formed--those "terrors of which myth are made;" yet that is exactly what person mythology seems to do. It may also be a danger to one's self as well, because a domesticated, familiar, comforting image is finally, at bottom, only the image of desire and the product of desire's corrosive dullness and fatuous pacification. James Joyce called art that inspires in the observer the desire to possess the represented image pornographic, as opposed to didactic art that demands a conversation, or the transcendent image that inspires a "seizure of the heart," an aesthetic arrest. Doesn't that sound something like a heart attack? To have the epiphanic, transcendent, or numinous experience, one must risk being in danger. William Blake's Tyger is beautiful, but to run into a living, hungry tiger in the jungle is much more of an ordeal and much closer to the experience of the sublime (if one is fortunate enough to survive it).

A more rigorous, critical thinking will prevent our mything from lapsing into the prosaic and comfortable, from becoming a fantasy of consolation. I think there should always be an element of danger as one works with metaphor and myth. I don't mean physical danger, obviously, but I do think I mean an element of psychological danger in the sense that one is courting actualities that once realized, have the possibility of changing one's life, of bringing one to one's knees, of overturning and subverting one's perceptions and values. It's dangerous! And the failure to make room for, and valorize this type of danger (as well as ignorance and confusion) and focus incessantly on personally uplifting, comforting, even protective images and narratives, produces in me a bone-deep exhaustion and cynicism. Personal mythology turns myth into a mirror in which every face is perceived except one's own. In her Wolf's Hall, Hillary Mantel writes this: "Why does everything you know and everything you've learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corner are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world, too." By now you know where my sympathies lay; let's knock the corners off the certainties we think we know about mythology. Let's knock off the mummery of personal mythology. It is possible to have a personal relationship to the realm of the mythic--one thinks of methodologies like transpersonal psychology--but the mythic realm has no relationship to you, at all. A mythology that is in service only to individuals is not mythology; it's merely belief and fantasy, belief which has no real egalitarian, relational tie to the collective, to humanity writ large, to the social units of culture, other than in its desire to proclaim certainty and to regulate the behavior of the masses.

One may believe whatever one wants, I have no issue with that until it gets personal. And when it gets personal, that usually means somebody is knocking at my door, telling me that I should believe the same things they believe. By my lights, that sort of compulsion only happens when the personal is seen as the anodyne for the collective, when dogma and missionaries are born simultaneously, when vice and ferocity are ennobled, and evil glories in its grotesque convictions.

[1] David Miller gave this presentation at a Pacifica Graduate Institute conference on Archetypal Activism in Santa Barbara, California, on June 12, 1999.  An abbreviated version of these remarks was published by The Salt Journal, 2/1 (1999), 64.