Saturday, July 25, 2015

Spock and the Next Myth

From monomyth to polymyth. Double-header reviews of "The Origins of the World's Mythologies", by E.J. Michael Witzel, and "I am Spock", by Leonard Nimoy. 

Myths are essential. They organize our world with purposeful, dramatic meaning, and situate us in a cosmos that is otherwise utterly mystifying and inhuman. All cultures have them, and the weakness of a cultural myth, such as that of late Rome, indicates lack of confidence and can lead to general malaise and decline. Where are we on this spectrum? It is hard to say, but the bulldozing confidence of Indian extermination, manifest destiny, and saving-the-world-through-democracy seems to have slacked off in recent decades. We have settled the frontiers, won the cold war, and possess an unwieldy world-wide empire which is as ungrateful as it is costly.

Our myths / ideologies of progress and unlimited human potential are met at every turn with stark limits, whether in the form of stunningly regressive religious ideologies from the world of Islam, which have fired the imaginations of millions in revolt against our neocolonial domination, or in the form of CO2, which tells us that our profligate ways can not continue without turning Earth into a wasteland. What next?

Before we get to that, it is good to ask what has led to this point: the history of human myths. Eminent scholar Michael Witzel has written a tome on the subject, a vast attempt to put human myths world-wide into a system of lineal evolutionary relationships that go back 50,000, even 100,00 years, to the origins of modern humans, more or less. Quixotic? Quite. Turgid? Totally. In fact, this is a poorly written book that is chaotically disorganized, repetitive, and keeps putting the cart of theory ahead of the horse of evidence. The theory, basically, is that there are common threads of myth (a remote high god, a golden age in the past, and a flood that punished humanity) that traces back lineally to the beginnings of modern human consciousness. This collection of themes was substantially elaborated in all descendent cultures, and especially so in a subset of northern cultures that covered the Indoeuropean, East Asian, and North American regions, to a full story line from creation to apocalyptic destruction, which we know so well in the Bible and other sources.

The theory is obviously full of holes and exceptions at every turn, and I ended up siding with the much-disparaged Jungian counter-view that stories like these are more or less spontaneous and heavily anthropomorphic emanations from human psychology, uniting universal questions with archetypal answers. The completeness of one's story line may have more to do with the local cognitive and organizational gestalt than with thousands of years of lineal descent, notwithstanding the sometimes remarkable durability and accuracy of oral traditions.

It is interesting to note that the putatively more primitive (what Witzel names Gondwana) mythical themes seem more relevant to human meaning, as they tend to be more animistic, very landscape-focused, ancestor-focused, and transactional. The other lineage in Witzel's system (the Laurasian) is more hierarchical, filled with generations of gods, complex and colorful relations between them, plus the stories of Prometheus and original sin, but posits few interactions between contemporary humans and the cosmos. It seems, frankly, more concerned with supporting a temporal hierarchy of king and nobility than with filling the world at large with personally significant meaning.

At any rate, however ancient these myths are, they no longer function for most people in the developed world (putting aside for the moment the continuing social hold of organized religions on billions of people, who may not consciously realize or participate in the ancient and absurd nature of the implicit cosmologies, the fictional heros, or the drama of human sacrifice in the chalice, etc). Our modern cosmos is definitely not that of the scriptures, and nor is our spiritual or moral universe. Through the enlightenment, all this was gradually discarded in favor of true stories, and in return we gained the immense confidence that such revolutionary factuality bestowed, having, in essence, escaped from Plato's cave- from the murk of fantastical fictions into the sunshine of reality, and the immense technological powers that this reality turned out to harbor.

Does all that mean that myth is now dispensible? Not at all. While we have dispensed with the various fairy tales received as myth through the ages, (which, in fairness, many cultures, like the far northern Inuit, treat in very playful fashion rather than the reified & doomed earnestness common among the reigning monotheisms), the function of myth goes well beyond a factual reporting of our past. That origin story has been replaced with a new, and durable reality. What we have subsisted on, ideologically, since the enlightenment, has been the myth / ideology of progress, because the reality we discovered was even more magical than the classical myths had foretold. The elegance and vastness of the real cosmos, from the tiniest particle to the big bang, is more astonishing. And the utility of fossil carbon, nuclear power, electricity, silicon circuits, and the countless other secrets that have been revealed have multiplied our powers, not to mention our populations, many, many times over.

Yet where is the meaning? If all our powers merely serve to satisfy greed, which turns out to be bottomless, what have we gained? Prosperity does seem to have some positive moral effects, making people more secure, less violent, and more capable of caring for others (up to a point). But if one looks closely at traditional cultures, one sees great and deep happiness there as well. It is not at all clear that our hugely wasteful, hive-like societies are optimal on ethical, social, or spiritual levels.

I think we are seeking a new myth, or myths. The last time there was such ferment and seeking was the axial age, which capped an epoch of great human progress to give us our current, if relic, organized religions. What will the current age provide? It remains very difficult to say, since one key property of a myth / ideology is that it is fictive. It is a construction that provides confidence and meaning without recourse to facts, though at the same time, it is hopefully not antagonistic to the appreciation of true stories about reality. Patriotism is a common example. Everyone can be patriotic and love their country, yet every country is not better than every other one.

One one level, we are bombarded with what might be called micro-myths, from books, movies and TV shows. Most are mere stories, not rising to the level of comprehensive narrative about our past, relations with the world, and most importantly, our future. The products out of Hollywood are becoming ever more simple and formulaic, with their comic book characters. Which might make them increasingly mythical, if they weren't so dedicated to only one facet of the cultural myth: the hero tale, reminiscent of works like the Ramayana.

A much-loved example of a more complete myth is that of Star Trek. The recent death of Leonard Nimoy provided an occasion to watch some eposodes and read his (second) autobiography, "I am Spock". Which is a wonderful book, filled with warmth and insight. Nimoy not only portrayed Spock in the original series and the string of films, but directed two of the films, had a wide-ranging career in other acting and directing roles, and made countless appearances, among other more or less successful projects.

He speaks with great nostalgia and appreciation of the role. While Nimoy is surely more than just Spock, Spock is in turn far, far more than Nimoy was, created, or bargained for. Star Trek, and its science officer particularly, created a modern myth of continued human progress, with high ethics and integrity, intrinsic diversity, and (weekly) adventure devoted to searching through that complex reality that surrounds us, bringing peace and reason in equal measure. (Was Spock a Christ-like alien being brought to the Federation via his human mother to redeem mankind through logic? The mind reels!)

It spoke volumes to its own time, and just as strongly to ours. Exploration doesn't have to happen in the outer world of aliens and M-class planets. It can be questions of basic science or forays into the inner worlds psychology, conducted scientifically or artistically. And it includes a dedication to solving the big problems with everything we can muster, particularly reason and logic: climate change, social justice, economic prosperity. The metaphor is quite general, and we can all be in on the adventure.

The one thing we can't do is travel to other star systems. The warp drive that the show is based on physically impossible, so the myth remains firmly fictional in that critical respect. Whether there are dramatic and intelligent beings in other star systems may also remain unknown. In theory, there must be many other civilizations around the galaxy, let alone the universe. But detecting them seems only remotely plausible, and interacting with them, frankly impossible. Still, using some modest artistic license to reveal human ideals and possibilities is a far cry from the monotheistic myths which not only posit, but demand, belief in a vast conspiracy & hierarchy of spirits and other supernatural phenomena as clearly dredged from our psychological makeup as they are scientifically unbelievable.

This is a bridge that we crossed, intellectually, with the enlightenment. Gone are the days when everyone had to believe the same thing, and draw meaning from the same wholly crazy story. Because no myth fully answers each person's questions and perspective. The answer is that we live and will continue to live in a world of many myths, a polymythic culture, and should be quite wary of a single myth returning to dominate. America is particularly diverse, which is reflected in a wildly divergent zoo of cultural myths, from the die-hard son of the Confederacy to the roccoco sexuality of of hip-hop. Start Trek is only one myth of a great variety, one that resonates with many, with positive humanism at its core.


  • Ten feet of sea level rise? What shall we do?
  • Hilary Hahn, on her violinistic upbringing.
  • Samuelson back in the 50's: ... Fiscal policy, meaning changes in taxes and government spending, were the way to deal with the business cycle. The Bureau of the Budget could manage the economy to good effect.  He did not mention the Federal Reserve Board.
  • Krugman: "My guess is that euro exit will still prove necessary."
  • Policing in South Carolina. No cause for stop, no cause for arrest, no cause for death.
  • And what is a "lawful order"?
  • A carbon tax is needed: we can never rely on supplies becoming scarce. Or on new tech being cheaper than coal.
  • A transaction tax is finally on the table.
  • Trains are five to ten fold less carbon-emitting than planes.

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