Posts Tagged ‘myth’

It’s  interesting how marriage can change a young man’s mind for the better, and sometimes to his complete surprise.  It is as if a thousand thoughts, neglected and unspoken in the careless days of bachelorhood, silently combine in wonderful ways to produce new understandings of the world ; which then make themselves known step by step.

This process, of unconscious thinking, has a name given by psychologists : they call it latent learning.  Of course, psychologists, being of a cautious disposition, presume that all the unconscious knowledge we have has been previously learned at a younger age, from the time of birth ; there are few now who are so bold as to presume that individuals might have knowledge that they brought with them into this world, or knowledge that they might have acquired directly mind from mind.

These thoughts were going through my mind recently as I was re-reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a book I first read when our first daughter was on her way into the world.  For reasons I could not have been fully aware of, I began to take an interest in what was to me a somewhat alien world – the world of myth and legend, of allegory and fable.  And, to my surprise, through that master story-teller I discovered the importance of these genres ; and their essential truths.  Much more was to follow in the coming years.

Most people now know, I think, that Tolkien wrote his great book in order to fill a gap ; a gap so obvious that no-one seemed to have noticed it ; or, if they had noticed it, they felt unable or unwilling to fill it.  What was missing was a truly Anglo-Saxon grand myth.  True, there was Beowulf, but however fine that was, it made but a small contribution to our heritage and was of limited scope.

On my first reading these aims of Tolkien quickly drifted far from my mind.  That was because I was so enchanted by the story, so drawn in to the adventure, that I forgot completely the wider aims of the author.  And that was just it ought to have been ; for no successful story was ever written merely to be an exemplar of a  genre ; a mere literary exercise.

And who can doubt the success of The Lord of the Rings?  And who can doubt the essential and eternal truths it first embodies and then expresses?  Who does not, at some point and to some extent, identify with each and every character in the tale?  Whether you be woman or man, you will sympathise with Eowyn in her dilemmas.  Also with Aragorn in his dangers and toils ; with Gandalf in his mighty hopes and fears.  And we can even identify with Sauron in his striving for mastery over all things both living and unliving.  And who needs reminding of hobbits?

In myth there is a hidden power.  It is the power to stir those obscured thoughts that come to the light of consciousness only when stimulated by some mysterious power that is latent in the very words we use.  If myth were mere fantasy then our rational minds would dismiss it on first sight, and by this stage of our evolution, myth would simply not exist.  But, although a myth may contain elements of fantasy, it is not those elements which stick in our minds and touch our hearts.  And that is why true myths are ageless and enduring.  That is why they adhere to our language.  That is why all successful novels are based on traditional myths.  That is why myths appear and reappear in all our arts and sciences.


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I know a nice lady, Mrs Bradshaw, who once had a real-life adventure. So my short account of her adventure begins like this : “Mrs Bradshaw pulled on her favourite green sweater, ran a comb through her hair, and stepped out of the house to go to her sister’s rather forbidding place in Reading”. This is exactly how it happened ; I was there and saw it. Indeed, I was there throughout her adventure, and recorded all of it.

But, in my desire to protect her privacy, I decide to change some details. My account now begins : “Mrs Mason pulled on her favourite black sweater, ran a comb through her hair, and stepped out of the house to go to her sister’s rather forbidding place in Bracknell“. The question now arises, Have I told lies? Will my account of Mrs Bradshaw’s adventure be accurate? Is it believable any more? Can I be regarded as a reliable reporter?

Most people would argue that no lie has been told, provided the purpose of the story is merely to relate the substance of the adventure. In this case, the names and other details do not matter. For Mrs Bradshaw, we may read Mrs Everywoman. Or even Mr Everyman. So, now I have produced a work of fiction which is also a work of truth.

But, suppose the adventure which I am relating does not have a satisfying ‘ring’ to it? Suppose it does not quite capture the spirit of Mrs Bradshaw? Suppose that, on the day of the actual adventure, she is feeling a little below par, and is not quite herself ; and, as a result, she is not acting as the mighty heroine I know her to be? Would I be justified in recalling an earlier event (which I witnessed) that showed her in her true colours – and working that event into my story? Now I have deepened the fiction ; but am I still being truthful?

What I seem to be constructing here is not lies, but an account of the nature of Mrs Bradshaw ; the focus is now on her personality as well as her adventure – but much more on her personality. And, since my memories and my reason lead me to suppose that most women could handle the adventure with the skill and heroism of Mrs Bradshaw, I am narrating not a mere lie, not a mere fiction, not a mere fantasy ; I am constructing a myth. For a myth is a narrative that is founded on disciplined observation and disciplined imagination ; it is also somewhat idealized. A myth does not necessarily tell the truth, but it reveals a truth within the mind of the reader. It opens the reader’s mind, if not to the facts, then to the possibilities.

We all love myths, so let there be more of them.

So to the anthropologist who discovers a small number of stones lying a little below the surface of the ground. By exercising a disciplined observation, he surmises that these stones somewhat resemble real bones that he has seen in a modern skeleton ; he therefore exercises a disciplined imagination to conclude that these stones were moulded to the shapes of the bones of a human-like being. Further disciplined observations and imaginings lead him to conclude that the imagined bones are one hundred thousand years old. Yet more laborious observations and imaginings lead to the proposition that the long-dead creature walked upright, had a dark skin and black hair ; also brown eyes seem appropriate to his personality. And, why not give him a name? Phillip will do.

But, surely, isn’t this mere fiction? No such person ever existed. What modern anthropologist was present to record these details one hundred thousand years ago? The anthropologist’s narrative is almost all an imaginative disciplined construction. Lies? Deceit?

No. It is much more interesting than that. What we have is a myth. And a very good one it is, too ; for it holds our imaginations captive and enlightens us, if not to the facts, then to certain principles and to certain possibilities.

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Sigmund Freud was a remarkable man.  Most people know that he was Jewish and born in Central Europe in the late nineteenth century.  The most productive part of his life was spent in Vienna.   He served in the German Army in WW1 and died in London just before WW2.  The socialists seem to have hated him ; both the Communists and the Nazis burned his books.  But it was the Nazis who gave him his biggest problem, because they were so close to his home.  At least twice the SS turned his house over in an attempt to drive him from Austria.  But he refused to leave.  In the end, when it was clear that his life was in a greater danger than before, his protectors (who included British and American diplomats as well as the Archbishop of Vienna) persuaded him to go to England.  His older sisters, who were too frail to travel, subsequently perished in the cleaning-out of religion in Austria.

There is not much in the life of an individual that is particularly interesting to the wider world.  What does interest us is what a person makes of his or her life ; the evolution of the soul.  And that evolution is conditioned by experiences – of other people, of places, of ideas and of the person’s own activity in the world.  Without the right kinds of  experiences, a person of the brightest potential may turn out dull and achieve little of note.

Freud was a most determined man.  Was he born that way?  or did his experiences make him so?  We can only discuss his experiences and, even then, only so far as we know them ; for experience is not only made of ordinary events but also of the private mental responses to those events – which then become events in their own right.  As a brilliant young neurological researcher at university, Freud was informed by his supervisor that he had no prospects of advancement ; no Jew had a chance.  Did he give up?  No, he qualified as a medical doctor so as to ensure an income, and then he studied psychology, which is where his main interest lay.  We recall how the Nazis tried to drive him out of Vienna and how he resisted right to the end, and how it took the strongest persuasion of his friends to get him out.  For the last eighteen or so years of his life he endured cancer of his jaw ; but he just worked harder – right up to a few days before his death from that affliction.  And almost always, his good humour and humanity shone through.  He did, however, reserve considerable irritation for those who disagreed with his psychology.

We see signs of this determination in his writing.  No detail in an argument was too small.  No causation was too far back to be left unattended ; no consequence was too slight to be overlooked.  He seems to have had intense powers of concentration as well as deep and broad knowledge of human nature as commonly understood.

Although a Jew, Freud seems not to have been at all religious.  The socialists made much of his Jewishness and circulated the idea that his psychology was nothing more then ‘Jewish psychology’ ; as if only the Jew were possessed of an Id, an Ego and a Superego ; as if the interaction of these aspects of personality had no application to Gentiles.  But Freud brushed all this nonsense aside and was always  at pains to mention that ‘his’ psychology applied to all mankind.

But he was traditional in his sources of inspiration.  Mere mention of Freud has the name Oedipus mutely attached.  He quite rightly saw that, whatever we might think of the classic myths, they were nevertheless the products of human intelligence ; and they have long endured in the minds of people ; so therefore they both reflected our one-time understanding of the world and also conditioned our evolving understanding of it.  He was also sceptical of our ability ever to comprehend reality.  Our state of knowledge is always provisional.  Always.  And, although Freud never said so (as far as I know)  this of course is a religious insight.

In view of his scepticism and in view of his trust in human intelligence, he was quite at ease when saying that yesterday’s science is today’s myth ; and today’s science will be tomorrow’s myth.  He even referred to his own theories as “My Myth”  – which implies, of course, that one day they will be overwritten. For him, all our knowledge is but a palimpsest, but a most stupendous one, in which not much is actually lost (though it might become feint) and much is recoverable by careful examination.   So, as well as a profound determination, Freud also had a humility that went even deeper.

It might be remembered, too, that Freud’s ideas probably did most to ensure the demise of the Victorian lunatic asylums.

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