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23392Re: [mythsoc] How does myth "work"?

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  • James Curcio
    Oct 19, 2012
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      What I can offer to this question is two sided.

      One, looking at myth as a personal phenomenon as well as a cultural one:


      Second, looking at the predomenant myth of our times, though this is an excerpt from a much longer book that goes more in depth:

      http://www.scribd.com/doc/55984853/IoM-is-Myth-Dead (feel free to skip the intro though it has a few things that may be useful.) This book was taught in several classes at SUNY Binghamton so it could be a worthwhile reference for you depending on your angle of approach.

      I hope these are at all helpful to you or others on the list.


      Independently produced, genre-bending works of modern mythology: http://www.mythosmedia.net
      The Modern Mythology blog: http://www.modernmythology.net


      On Fri, Oct 19, 2012 at 7:54 AM, dimwoo <dimwoo@...> wrote:

      Hi mythsoc,

      Long-time lurker here. I'm hoping for some help understanding something. I am writing an essay (for no better reason than to clarify my thoughts) in which I am attempting to define the Self - one's psychological sense of identity - as a story or myth, rather than some inherent function of the brain like memory or sensation. So I'm puzzling about the nature of myth.

      I've read quite a bit of and around Tolkien, and in Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics" he writes:

      "The significance of myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal and mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected. It is possible, I think, to be moved by the power of myth and yet to misunderstand the sensation, to ascribe it wholly to something else that is also present: to metrical art, style, or verbal skill. Correct and sober taste may refuse to admit that there can be an interest for US - the proud WE that includes all intelligent people - in ogres and dragons; we then perceive its puzzlement in face of the odd fact that it has derived great pleasure from a poem that is actually about these unfashionable creatures."

      Key to me here is the line "myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected". Which matches something I read once and ascribed to Tolkien but can't now find, something along the lines of "myth tells a story containing truths that cannot be told in any other way".

      What I'm puzzled by is how myth achieves this. Tolkien above denies that it is through craft: metre & rhyme etc. Lewis says the same thing in his preface to "George MacDonald: 365 Readings":

      "The critical problem [for the literary critic] is whether this art —the art of myth-making — is a species of the literary art. The objection to so classifying it is that the Myth does not essentially exist in words at all. We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version — whose words — are we thinking when we say this?
      For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of anyone's words. No poet, as far as I know or can remember, has told the story supremely well. I am not thinking of any particular version of it. If the story is anywhere embodied in words, that is almost an accident. What really delights and nourishes me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all — say by a mime, or a film...
      In a myth — in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters — this is not so. Any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, `done the trick'. In poetry the words are the body and the `theme' or `content' is the soul. But in myth the imagined events are the body and something inexpressible is the soul: the words, or mime, or film, or pictorial series are not even clothes — they are not much more than a telephone..."

      Is the answer then that myth 'works' by strongly invoking the imagination, by using monsters and magic and other phantasmagorical elements? Is it myth because it summons a strongly imaginative response that more powerfully places you IN the story than any other mode, and leapfrogs over a more detached and discriminatory critical or literary reading?

      Is the difference between myth and poetry that poetry *does* use primarily literary effects, but in surprising new juxtapositions and metaphors (as detailed by Barfield in Poetic Diction) in order to imaginatively create new meanings?

      With myth though that can't be the whole story. There is a 'mythic mode'. Tolkien does use literary devices e.g. formal archaic language for the higher myth portions of LOTR and pretty much throughout the Silmariilion. Also I've gleaned that in myth characters are deliberately one-dimensional, representing a particular abstract principle or truth (to vastly dumb down: dragons=death or disaster, earth goddess = nature, magic rings = evil etc) rather than being a modern everyman whose inner dilemmas and anxieties are exposed within the text. This is along the lines of Lewis' concept of myth in 'God and the Dock' where he presents the dilemma of the incommensurability between Knowing and Experiencing:

      "This is our dilemma — either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste —or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are outside it. As thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, living, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think. You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, not analyse the nature of humour while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things? `If only my toothache would stop, I could write another chapter about Pain.' But once it stops, what do I know about pain?
      Of this tragic dilemma myth is the partial solution. In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction. At this moment, for example, I am trying to understand something very abstract indeed — the fading, vanishing of tasted reality as we try to grasp it with the discursive reason. Probably I have made heavy weather of it. But if I remind you, instead, of Orpheus and Eurydice, how he was suffered to lead her by the hand but, when he turned round to look at her, she disappeared, what was merely a principle becomes imaginable. You may reply that you never till this moment attached that `meaning' to that myth. Of course not. You are not looking for an abstract `meaning' at all. If that was what you were doing the myth would be for you not true myth but a mere allegory. You were not knowing, but tasting; but what your tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely."

      What I gather from this is:

      When we translate a myth we get abstraction: truths about reality.
      What flows into us from myth is reality (what truths are 'about').
      Myth is not abstract like truth.
      Myth is not bound to the particular like experience.
      Myth is a dramatised synthesis of both knowledge and experience that is created within and apprehended by the imagination.
      Myth thus creates Meaning by imbuing quantitative reality with qualitative significance.

      Would posters here agree?

      For extra points (redeemable in all Faery outlets), is the self a myth? It has similar properties. It is irreducible, in that if you too dispassionately study it you 'break' it i.e. become alienated from one's own identity. It is a narrative. It is imaginative rather than purely intellectual or emotional (though it partakes of both). It could be described as an embodiment of accumulated knowledge and experience...

      Thanks for any suggestions. Sorry for such a long post.

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