Robert Bellah's wonderful book on Religion in Human Evolution has an overarching schema, which is that humans progress (or at least move over evolutionary and cultural time) from a mimetic (ritual) mode of social existence, to a mythic mode, to an abstract, theoretical mode of social development. None of these is lost, but new modes are added onto the prior ones. Thus we enact rituals in our daily lives and in our most meaningful events at the same time that we find meaning in various myths- religious, civic, professional, or familial, etc., at the same time that we in the modern age are obsessed with the analytical quest to find the optimal economic system, the most just state structure, and the most fulfilling personal life.
Being human turns into a rather confusing project, richly deserving all the perplexed attention that the arts have devoted to it.
It is one reason why telecommuting and online education are not as popular as one would have thought at the dawn of the internet age- that face-to-face ritual remains very important to most people, and while we can not always articulate what it is about physical interaction and enactments that is so important, doing without them feels quite empty to many people.
And likewise- following last week's blog on the functional continuity of religious practice in the most unlikely settings of science and atheism- with myth, which continues to shape our lives even in this secular, post-modern age. An example is American exceptionalism- the conviction that we, for some obscure reason having to do with boundless frontiers, liberal / enlightenment founders, and ethnic mixture, have some god-given right or duty to tell the rest of the world how to do things. It couldn't just be that we are more powerful than they are, due to pretty much unrepeatable cultural pathways of economic and technological development. No, we are better people, more good and moral, whom others should recognize as their natural superiors. Or something like that.
All this is buttressed by our various civic cults and stories. However vociferously those pesky lefty historians try to tear down our forebears and tell the stories of those who were oppressed, we are going to just keep on flying that flag anyhow. Even the stars and bars, if it comes right down to it, dagnabbit.
So, as Bellah maintains, myths are not about truth. They tell a story that functions in forming our various emotional and cognitive archetypes into a well-peopled narrative that says who and why we are. They metaphorically represent our position in the world:
"Chaisson would have avoided this error had he been clear about this: myth is not science. Myth can be true, but it is a different kind of truth from the truth of science and must be judged by different criteria, and the myth he tells, [the modern scientific story of the cosmos with a positive inflection, which Chaisson terms a true myth], though it draws on science, is not science, and so cannot claim scientific truth. I would agree that the myths told by the ancient Israelite prophets, by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, by Confucius and Mencius, and by the Buddha, just to stay within the purview of this book, are all true myths. They overlap with each other and with Chaisson's myth, but even in their conflicts, which are sometimes serious, they are all worthy of belief, and I find it possible to believe in all of them in rather deep but not exclusive ways."
"To put it bluntly, there is a deep human need- based on 200 million years of the necessity of parental care for survival and at least 250,000 years of very extended adult protection and care of children, so that, among other things, those children can spend a lot of time in play- to think of the universe, to see the largest world one is capable of imagining, as personal."
"The Kalapalo [natives of Brazil] use the very recurrence of mythic time as a subtle way of understanding their reality. What happened "in the beginning" can always happen. Strange behavior on the part of an individual can be likened to some action of a powerful being in a myth, and is so interpreted. An eclipse of the sun or moon recalls stories in which the sun or moon are "being killed", but also reassures in that in the stories they do not die, but return to their normal state. Basso argues that Kalapalo myth is not a kind of "charter", as Malinowski thought, that provides a model or rule to be followed. Instead myth is an account of the way things are, a reference frame for understanding the world. She points out that Westerners, even anthropologists, are used to explanations that take a didactic, logical, or evidentiary form, and so think of mythic "explanation" as irrational, failing to note the subtle and complex uses to which narrative thinking can be put. We will see that this condescending attitude toward mythic explanation is typical of the theoretic mind, which is at best incipient among the Kalapalo."
and most interesting of all ...
"If we compare [Polynesian] Tikopia beliefs as expressed in ritual and myth with those of the groups we described in Chapter 3, we will see some significant differences. Powerful beings among the Kalapolo, Australian Aborigines, and Navajo were often, though not always, alpha male figures, who could be terribly destructive when crossed, even inadvertently, but with whom people could identify if they followed the proper ritual, and through identification, their power could become, at least temporarily, benign. Some powerful beings were viewed largely as nurturant mothers, as in the case of Changing Woman, but this is hardly the norm in tribal mythology. If the myths do describe a moral order, a Law, as the Aborigines put it, it is not because powerful being are always reliable or even moral. The myths are an effort to understand the nature of reality. Their narrators must use the analogies that lie at hand, analogies from their own social experience, with all its inner tensions and inconsistencies."
So, there we are. Myth uses the metaphors and heavily social cognitive apparatus which is at hand to describe in a very impressionistic way the reality that a culture finds itself in, especially the inferred powers that lurk beneath the surface and above in the heavens. Just as contemporary folk philosophers ("truthers") see malign conspiracies behind every adverse event, our forebears rarely wavered from the conviction that "something", or more likely "someone", was behind every phenomenon, good or bad.
Myth describes our psychological contents far more than it does the external world. It is like hearing a 3-year old describe some complex topic like where babies come from, or what the sun is. You will learn far more about the child than about what is being described. Which is not to say their description is not "true", but that depends on what truth you are looking for.
- Pagan ritualist photoblog.
- Hell tourism.
- Reinhart and Rogoff- not only theoretically wrong, but using bad data.
- The long term unemployed are hosed. But who cares?
- The regulators could hardly care less about foreclosure fraud.
- Our unfair tax system and faith in democracy- Stiglitz.
- Brains at work.. criticizing the brain initiative.
- E-readers- not so great, yet.
- When to cancel debts, and whose debts to cancel.
- Economic quote of the week: Krugman on the fatally and lazily misleading language of editorialists and pundits, with regard to government debt and the R&R scandal.
"Yet the VSPs not only grabbed hold of the alleged result, they wrote again and again as if this highly disputed claim was a known fact. Thus just a few months ago the Washington Post, attacking those who wanted to reduce the focus on deficits, wrote,
'If [debt projections are] even slightly off, debt-to-GDP could keep rising — and stick dangerously near the 90 percent mark that economists regard as a threat to sustainable economic growth.'
Not “some economists”, let alone “some economists who have been sharply criticized by other economists with equally good credentials”, but “economists”.
This is deciding what you want to believe, finding someone who tells you what you want to hear, and pretending that there are no other voices. It’s deeply irresponsible — and you can’t blame Reinhart-Rogoff for that mistake."