Is Myth Dead? Part 2: the sacred and the profane James Curcio
To anyone who winces at the thought of a story being just fiction, the relegation of myth to the status of untruth should appear incredibly unfortunate. Myths have been the lifeblood of culture since the birth of civilization, and they live on in all of the beliefs that structure our experience of reality. So the modern definition, “a commonly accepted but untrue belief,” is not at all what we mean when we say “myth” in this book. However, the common definition tacitly defines the predominant myth of our times, our cultural stance in regards to spirituality, our dependence upon fact as our only source of psychological nourishment. (It also belies our misunderstanding of the purpose of a symbol, but that will have to wait until we dig a bit deeper.)
The value that myth provides is demonstrated in the fact that it has been with us since the birth of civilization. The myths, art, and religions of antiquity sprung into existence together. The earliest artistic artifacts are religious, or is it the other way around? It is hard to say. Myth and art, still nearly inseparable terms, provide a distorted mirror for us to regard ourselves in. We see ourselves in a new light, the best artists showing us existential truths through the distortion or even complete abandonment of empirical truths. Thus artists, and the myths they weave from their own lives, direct our eyes inward, both as individuals and as a culture, in a new way.
It is a self evident fact that myths speak to our humanity. They convey meaning. This was clear to me from an early age. As a youth I remember staring at the television in befuddlement as documentaries would attempt to discover the supposed “historic truth” of a myth. Did giants actually walk the Earth before the time of King Arthur’s court? How did Noah manage to get every species of animal aboard a single ship? These are the wrong questions to ask, and for the wrong reasons. Myths speak to the narrative, the qualitative, to the emotional side of us which quite simply need stories and images, both grand and mundane, for us to relate ourselves to. It can provide psychological nourishment, and cultures that are devoid of the ability to distinguish myth from literal truth suffer for it. Such a thing could hardly be called a culture at all.
If you bear with us a moment in the premise that myth is something vital to our nature, then an absence of it, or more accurately, an absence of the ability to recognize it, would be a deep cultural and existential crisis. A quick glance at current events makes it clear that we are in just such a position, even though no solid connection between the two has yet been drawn. This is a feeling that I experienced very strongly as I passed through adolescence, and I quickly discovered that it was something many others were feeling, though few were inclined to voice it. I tried to convey this in my first novel, Join My Cult!,
“Spiritual, cultural apocalypse is much more subtle than mushroom clouds, fallout, and radiation burns. People can deny it. No statistics can prove it. The only evidence we have is a feeling of profound loss, and hope for a future that does not reduce the qualitative values of life to quantities, and for companions to share these stories with so that they can have value, and pass on to our children in the next world. ”
Apocalypse literally means “lifting the veil.” (Greek: Apokálypsis.) I’m using the more modern version, but maybe not without a hint of the possibility for great transformation in times of uncertainty and turmoil. And lurking in even the most mundane hearts lies the possibility for transformation, however distant. The symbolism of the Blasted Tower trump in the Major Arcana of the traditional Tarot deck reflects this idea nicely, that moments of revelations most often occur at the points when all previous expectations have been utterly destroyed. Emmanuel Kant even hints at this with his aesthetics which include the sublime. The sublime of course can include what we commonly associate with it, but at the same time, it can include the powerful, horrific forces of nature and the psyche. This is apocalypse, and it is an idea closely linked with the sacred, as we will see moving forward.
Neil Stephenson’s novel Anathem deals with the modern crisis of the sacred as well. The following passage is especially relevant,
“So I looked with fascination at those people in their mobes, and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same each day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer other to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them.”
An obvious conclusion of modernity is that we have no unifying myth, as Georges Bataille proposes: we live in a myth which is an absence of myth. Our world is a fast-paced, materialistically oriented, cultural melting pot, in which it seems that any need for mythology would quickly boil away. Even amongst the ranks of those who are generally most sympathetic to the psychological value of myth, there has been increasing question of if myth has any place in our modern lives. For instance, Michael Vannoy Adams presented this material at the “Psyche and Imagination” conference of the International Association for Jungian Studies at the University of Greenwich, London, July 7, 2006,
“Recently, one Jungian, Wolfgang Giegerich, has argued that, at this stage in the history of consciousness, myth no longer has any psychological function… Ancient mythological figures, he contends, “do not suffice.” They are insufficient because, he says, “even though they may display certain formal similiarities” to the modern situation, “they are incommensurable” with it. …Giegerich, however, maintains that the modern psychological situation is utterly without precedent, without parallel. It is so radically different — or, as he says, so logically different — from the ancient mythological situation that any similarity is merely formal and thus insignificant. Giegerich says that the modern situation has “fundamentally broken with myth as such, that is, with the entire level of consciousness on which truly mythic experience was feasible.”
Often the most obvious conclusion is often not the most poignant one. We do have myths, though they often exist in mediums not surrounded by the aura of the sacred. This will be demonstrated time and again throughout this work, as it is demonstrated in our daily lives if we know what to look for. Modern myths are so pervasive that they are nearly invisible. Those that are considered archaic, that is, they have ceased to function in the manner that they were meant to, become more apparent to us. We call our relics “myth.”
On its face it certainly feels more accurate to say that we have lost touch with an understanding of the sacred rather than with myth, though exactly what that means, and whether it is ultimately accurate, also remains to be explored. It is far more likely that we have lost a sense of the sacred, but we cannot as a race lose our myths — certainly not before such a point that we have no beliefs or culture whatsoever. The history of civilization is, at one and the same time, the history of myth. Mircea Eliade explores this subject in The Sacred & The Profane. For our purposes at the moment it should be enough to highlight that the sacred represents not a single idea, but rather an entire category of ideation — a world-view. It is a world-view that perceives the world manifest to our senses as itself symbolic of an invisible world. “By manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to be itself. A sacred stone remains a stone; apparently (or, more precisely, from the profane point of view), nothing distinguished it from all other stones. But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality.” (Eliade, Sacred & The Profane.)
This conception of the sacred seems to demand the transcendent, the invention of the supernatural. This category is required for no other reason than to draw a contrast with the profane. It stands to reason that everything is natural; even if the universe is unexplainable, it would still remain “natural.” Forgive the tautology: nature is what is. The distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” is only relevant, only meaningful, in the context of the profane when contrasted with the sacred. Needless to say, inventing the “supernatural,” a new category of being to house the sacred, creates its own slew of problems that must be dealt with, such as superstition.
In Eliade’s conception, and I believe it is a point well taken, a sacred object is so because it is a symbol, a link, with the archetype standing “behind” the physical, profane object. A sacred canoe is not just a canoe, it is “canoe,” or it is a canoe within the context of a specific myth pertaining to canoes, or the sacred river, etc. This distinction also cuts across experiential boundaries. The sacred and profane shows themselves not only in the perception of things but also in the perception of time. For instance during a sacred festival, a concept that we have mostly lost touch with in our purely profane holidays6 — one enters into the time before time, recapitulating the birth of the world, or some other mythological event which occurs outside of profane time. The phrase “time before time” is an odd approximation, a metaphor created from within the field of time. Sacred time and sacred objects do not truly stand “outside,” “behind,” or “before” their profane counterparts; they are distinguished as occupying two separate ontological categories simultaneously, and there may even be some kind of exchange or interplay between the two, as sacred festivals and rituals demonstrate.7 It is to that point, the crossroads of the sacred and profane, that this work is ultimately aimed; for it is in this intermediary zone that myth actually occurs. The constructed supernatural realm loops back into the otherwise inaccessible elements of our own being, as a piece of psychological sleight-of-hand that allows us to conditionally stake a claim in the ever-shifting, dark chaos that is the true nature of reality, un-sculpted by human sensation, consideration, and expectation. The condition we must
6. All of the major holidays in the United States, for instance, are profane: means of re-enforcing consumer behavior or an excuse to drink. They borrow iconography, of course, most commonly from Christianity, many of those symbols themselves taken wholesale from Pagan sources.
7. This is to some extent shown in the distinction between kairos and chronos, the time of experience which stands on its own, divine or sacred time, perhaps even an “eternal” moment, and chronological time.
accept when engaging with myth is that we pretend the shadows on the wall, the image on the screen, or the entities in our dreams represent some type of reality.
It may come as a surprise to some that we are never too far from the trappings of mythology in our daily lives. They are in movies, books, our mutually created narratives on the Internet, even on television. They can be insightful or vapid. The very drive for people to make complete fools of themselves on reality TV is also the attempt to fulfill a mythic need. To be famous is to be externally mythologized. The thing that many of us find so repellent about these trends in pop culture is the complete and utter lack of the sacred. Myth is not absent.
We relate with these stories differently than people who lived in a world before the computer, television or typewriter. There seems to be something different about how we experience stories, even though the analogy of campfire storytelling and Internet communication is occasionally drawn.
8. Modern myths of this nature often don’t strike their audiences as deeply because they are perceived as just stories, or movies. The lights come up in the theater and the illusion is dispelled. Or, more frequently nowadays, we lose attention entirely mid-stream and surf to another channel or web-page, to take another fragment into the bricolage of our wandering consciousness. In a capitalist society, myths too take on a capitalist bent. Further, they serve its ends. They are more readily consumed than engaged with, but this does not mean that they do not leave their mark. All of this hearkens back to the lack of the sacred, rather than of myth. The formative or even subliminal effect of the media we’re steeped in is hard to say, but certainly the multi-billion dollar industries of marketing and advertising would be useless if it was not far-reaching.
9 There are many examples of what could be considered modern myths embodied in media: rather than saying that The Lord of the Rings is a modern myth, though clearly it is, it is more relevant to say that every piece of media available contains layer upon layer of myth. Further, any given myth is implicitly built upon other myths, and myths are used to make them readily accessible to us. For instance, there are a variety of common myths which allow access to the viewership of a news broadcast with a particular political agenda. The broadcast can further establish or re-establish these myths, and build new ones, but it is already working upon…
8. The Virtual Campfire: An Ethnography of Online Social Networking, Jennifer Ryan. Unpublished Master’s Thesis.
9. A note about characterization, and the usage of terms such as “capitalist society.” It should be obvious that, within the contexts we are beginning to explore, “capitalist society,” “existential philosophy,” “corporate culture,” and so on are all myth-structures that we’re essentially presupposing. Like any other myth they may or may not relate to a series of facts, but more important the effects of the characterization is real. In other words, there are sufficient people that believe in such a thing as “capitalist society” as to make it worth talking about, even if, speaking very strictly, there may be no such thing. Even “culture” can be considered a myth in this sense. This applies equally to phrases like “world-view,” a term which has become fairly commonly even outside anthropological writing. Terms like this sometimes create more questions than they answer. What exactly does it mean? Is it a passive or active process? Can it be willfully changed, or is it provided fully-formed? We will attempt to engage with as many of these terms as possible, but there must be a level of approximation in using such terms, or else we would be footnoting every couple words, and the book in front of you would be thousands of pages long. Let us say that it could be either of these things, in different contexts, and move forward.
…certain expectations. So, you don’t find many polyamorous bisexuals watching Fox News in rapt attention. In other words, media acts both as a mythic amplification and sorting device.10 It even affects evolutionary selection processes, but for that’ll have to wait to explore throughout the Immanence of Myth, upon its release.
Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.