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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, November 25, 2005

the symbol without meaning

Another day, and what can I tell you.

Yesterday morning I opened up yet another new document to make, what, philosophical? personal? notes in. I took another Joseph Campbell text, his essay "The Symbol Without Meaning" from his The Flight of the Wild Gander, the highlights of which I keyed into Word sometime last year. It is yet another approach to the question of the mythology of our own modern age--and a profound and fascinating one, written later than his Masks of God series. I'm connected with this somehow, my work is connected with it, but how? how? Instead of merely reading and thinking, this notes document gives me the chance to read, think, and make notes right in the text: my own thoughts, my own insights.

In the course of this one short essay Campbell covers the whole sweep of mythological development, from the Paleolithic Age to the present, in terms of an abiding contest between two archetypal mediators of mythology to society: the shaman and the priest. The shaman is the older: he existed in the age of the hunting cultures of the Old Stone Age, the individual who, through vocation from the dream-world, the realm of the spirits and gods, was chosen to a spiritual life. He journeyed to the spirit-world and met and battled its denizens. The visions he saw were his own, as were his means of expression to the group--if any. For being a shaman was not a job: he might be considered a dangerous or outcast figure as much as a medicine man or soothsayer. The shaman lives on in the few hunting societies left on earth.

The priest was the product of an agricultural society that had become settled and diversified with a division of labor. Priesthood was a job, a social role, just as being a farmer or a soldier or a potter was a social role. It was a powerful role, because mythology, religion, was a powerful force, closely associated with the running of the state. Kings in the earliest days were gods, then priest-kings, and then the job-function became separated out to a separate clergy. Priests were part of the social order, and were charged with maintaining it. Priests we have with us still.

The basic tension between shaman and priest is that of personal mythology vs. collective mythology, personal vision vs. the voice of authority.

Fast-forward 4,000 years. Campbell chooses 1492, the year of Columbus's landfall in America, as the watershed when the ancient mythological order of the priestly state was broken. Columbus had expected to find Paradise in his travels; he had expected to find the confirmation of the mythological map of the world set down in the Bible. Instead he found the New World, seemingly a place no one associated with the Bible had ever been. The era of scientific exploration of the earth had begun; to learn the form of the world, people would no longer check a Bible, they would get in a ship and look for themselves.

The Scientific Age had begun (in fact had been in motion since the time of Roger Bacon and William of Occam); soon the Industrial Age would follow. As the world's mysteries were seen increasingly to be the product of mechanical and mathematical forces, man's mastery of it also grew, confirming the power and truth of that method of knowing. Lip-service continued to be paid to the ancient myths, to God and his heaven of angels and their omnipotence, but people invested their time, money, and effort in physics and chemistry and their products. Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud delivered the death-blows to the Judeo-Christian God for thinking people--at least as he had been worshipped for the previous millennia. Priests languish, preaching to aging, shrinking flocks.

Campbell thinks that the rise of science and technology is a resurgence of the spirit of the shaman, or of, as he puts it, the titans--those mythological individualists who would not bow down to the laws of the cosmos, as would the gods themselves. The truths of science are provisional: growing, changing. In Campbell's own words:

With the rise of modern science, the entire cosmological structure of the Bible and the Church has been destroyed and not the cosmological only but the historical as well. The gradual, irresistible, steady development of this new realization of the wonder of the world and of man'’s place and possibilities within it, against every instrument of resistance of the Church, has been, and continues to be, the fruit of the labors of a remarkably small number of men with the wit and courage to oppose authority with accurate observation.

And he closes the essay with these optimistic words:

[N]ot all are of that supine sort that must have their life values given them, cried at them from the pulpits and other mass media of the day. For there is, in fact, in quiet places, a great deal of deep spiritual quest and finding now in progress in this world, outside the sanctified social centers, in small groups, and more often, by ones and twos, there entering the forest at those points which they themselves have chosen, where they see it to be most dark, and there is no beaten way or path.

I feel I am one who has entered the forest where it is most dark, and there is no beaten way or path. My job is to record my discoveries here, in a sense. There is no companionship, and no reward; only the dark trees pressing in as night falls.

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