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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, May 28, 2007

sound theories, absurd practices

Tired today after a mainly sleepless night. I woke at 12:30, and with various concerns pressing on my mind, I eventually decided to go downstairs and read. I'd had a mild headache since Kimmie and I got home from our outing yesterday (the annual New Westminster Heritage Tour of houses), but assumed that it was dehydration, since I hadn't had any water all day. So I drank lots of water, and also a couple of whiskies, while I sat reading The Golden Bough in the dead of night. The reading itself was very pleasant and interesting, and made me feel that the night was not a complete waste. Then I lay on the sofa under a couple of blankets, and whiled away the remaining hour or so until dawn. It was good to get up and start making the coffee and so on.

Since then I've made a journal entry, and keyed notes from A History of Israel, volume 2. But my plan is to spend most of today working on my writing-for-hire.

My reading in The Golden Bough was from chapters 49 and 50: "Ancient Deities of Vegetation as Animals" and "Eating the God". I picked it up at the final section of chapter 49, "Virbius and the Horse", and in the first paragraph read these words:

Myth changes while custom remains constant; men continue to do what their fathers did before them, though the reasons on which their fathers acted have been long forgotten. The history of religion is a long attempt to reconcile old custom with new reason, to find a sound theory for an absurd practice.

I was struck, for this was already the conclusion I had formed from reading the book so far, and have been thinking about for the past few weeks. Based on Frazer's evidence, I thought that the definition of superstition ought to be, simply, "a new explanation for an old practice"; and here Frazer himself was dishing up basically the same thought, summarizing what he has been presenting over the past 625 pages (much more in the original work, of course). Those six words, "Myth changes while custom remains constant", portend vast things for our human condition.

Recently too I read a definition of myth that I had not heard before, quoted by Neil Forsyth in his The Old Enemy:

Myths are the stories we believe.

Plugging that idea into Frazer's observation, myth is the believable story we tell to account for a practice we're already doing. The practice itself is a cultural habit, and like all habits, is very difficult to break, even if one wants to, and generally we don't want to break our cultural habits. Why should we? They've always been there; they're part of our identity, part of who "we" are.

This is a rich topic, but I'm afraid I don't have the mental power right now to explore it further. Maybe tomorrow!

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