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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, November 17, 2005

myth and suffering

Awake at about 2:45, and lay roiled in energetic thoughts till the alarm went off at 5:30. I think I dozed for a few minutes before 6:00, when Kimmie was up and the radio went on. (It was news. The song that launched me from bed: "The One I Love" by REM.)

Robin had the early shift, starting at 7:00. She belatedly stumbled down the stairs to the basement to put on her runners, with a travel-mug of my freshly made coffee. I saw her out the door to the garage so she wouldn't have to use time locking it with her key.

"Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise," I said. "What it does for women I'm not sure."

Robin did laugh.

"It makes them grumpy," she said.

For my part, I was working not on my research notes, for which I had no stomach, but on a document I created last night: an annotated file of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I simply saved my existing typed compressed version (which runs 38 pages in Word) under a new name, and started reading through it, typing in any thoughts that came to me as I read.

It started last night at teatime--time to push on with my research reading, which I have been enjoying very much lately: works such as A History of Warfare and entries in Peoples, Nations and Cultures. But last night I felt distracted, uninterested. I thirsted for something else--something to remind me that there are deeper, more important truths. So I turned where I usually turn now for inspiration: to Joseph Campbell. My vague plan: to apply his insights to my own current life-problems, questions. Here is paragraph 2 of chapter 1:

Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind.... [M]yth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.

Consider the boldness of what he's saying: what he's calling myth is antecedent to everything we call knowledge, art, or culture. I next wanted to remind myself: apart from metaphor, what is myth? Webster's gives this:

1a: a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon

Fairly pedestrian. I turned next to S. H. Hooke's Middle Eastern Mythology, where, I remembered, he has a useful analysis of myths by way of introducing his subject.

First, the Greek word mythos itself comes from temple rituals, which had both a physical-action part and a spoken part. Mythos referred to the spoken part of a temple ritual.

Hooke stresses that myth is above all intended to do something, and therefore the right question to ask of it is not "Is it true?" but "What is it intended to do?" With this functional definition in mind, he sorts myths into five categories: the ritual myth, the myth of origin, the cult myth, the prestige myth, and the eschatological myth.

Interesting, but really only taxonomic, rather than cutting to the heart of the question. For this, I turned back to Campbell himself, this time Creative Mythology, volume 4 of The Masks of God series. Yes: this was what I was looking for. He introduces his topic with a recap of what mythologies are (this is my own compressed version):

Mythological symbols touch and exhilarate centers of life beyond the reach of vocabularies of reason and coercion.

The first function of a mythology is to reconcile waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of this universe as it is: the second being to render an interpretive total image of the same, as known to contemporary consciousness. It is the revelation to waking consciousness of the powers of its own sustaining source.

Those three sentences could easily be the basis of a lifetime of contemplation--as they are the product of a lifetime of study and reflection on myths.

Campbell goes on to describe the third function of a mythology as the enforcement of a moral order: shaping the individual to the requirements of his social group. In this way it is a map of how society is supposed to be.

This is what he says about the fourth function of a mythology:

The fourth and most vital function of a mythology is to foster the centering and unfolding of the individual in integrity, in accord with d) himself (the microcosm), c) his culture (the mesocosm), b) the universe (the macrocosm), and a) that awesome ultimate mystery which is both beyond and within himself and all things. Creative mythology springs not, like theology, from the dicta of authority, but from the insights, sentiments, thought, and vision of an adequate individual, loyal to his own experience of value. Thus it corrects the authority holding to the shells of forms produced and left behind by lives once lived. Renewing the act of experience itself, it restores to existence the quality of adventure, at once shattering and reintegrating the fixed, already known, in the sacrificial creative fire of the becoming thing that is no thing at all but life, not as it will be or as it should be, as it was or as it never will be, but as it is, in depth, in process, here and now, inside and out.

On reading that, I felt a fresh surge of energy, vitality, flow through me. A functioning mythology enables--in fact is that which alone can enable--an individual to live in accord with his or her world. This is why I do what I do. To serve this function, I turned my back 26 years ago on worldly achievement and success. I have not always lived in integrity with that choice. And for not living in integrity those times, I am now suffering.

There's much more that could be said on this topic, but I'll leave it there for now.


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