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Mining meaning: Every myth is a resource
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  " ...Hammurabi's children made their house of slavery's bricks,
imprimatured by some mad priest's imagined good.
The good is gone, the priest stamps on...."
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(--from a poem by George Delury)
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" Other than chance encounters,
we can only encounter in reality
what we have previously encountered in fantasy."
(--Gordon Hirshhorn)
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[ Notice what's hiding in plain sight! ] " ...in plain sight -- the best hiding place of all..."
(--William Safire, NYT, 25Apr02)
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  " Artists steal from other artists. That's what tradition consists of."
(--John Szarkowski, "The Leonard Lopate Show",
WNYC FM Radio, 08Feb05)
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Myths (aka "beliefs") provide meaning to persons who cannot create their own meaning. The persons want the meaning, so they accept the content of the myth as the ticket price -- presuming they are aware that they are doing anything at all, which, generally, they aren't, because they absorb the mythic "semiotic constellation" in their early childrearing, which also constructs their sense of awareness in general, so that they experience the mythical elements as "already there" (aka: real), like all the other aspects of the daily surrounding world in which they (we...) always already find themselves (ourselves...) immersed. Of course myths can have less unambivalently constructive uses, like an elite using them to keep the oppressed from rebelling, but that's not what I want to talk about here. Here, I want to talk about the use we can make of myths and how we can create value without having to buy into all manner of otherwise undesirable things to get it.

[ Oedipus conversing with the Sphinx ]The problem with myths is that their meaning is not meaningfully grounded, and, consequently, to get the meaning, persons have to accept ungrounded things as if they were grounded (justified, reasonable, etc.). Either we don't know where a myth comes from -- "this is the way things always were", "this is the nature of things"... "But why?" "Just because...." Or else the myth is traced back to some command some "Being" beyond mankind's jurisdiction issued: "Thou shalt [/shalt not] [whatever]!" "But why?" "Because [whoever issued the order] told us we don't have the right to question His [Her/Their/It's/other...] commands to us!"

I take it for granted that it is obvious to us (even if not to persons whose childrearing did not include this notion!) that nobody should do anything just because they were told to do so. To obey God's word is to judge that it is the word of God and not Satan's imposture. It is also to judge that God should be obeyed. Therefore, obedience to God is personal judgment that one should obey God, for which one should be able to adduce reasons (justification). "Just because" won't do, since one could adduce that "argument" for any other choice. Myths flourish best when nobody even thinks of asking questions or needing to give reasons (see, e.g., Edward Hall's The Silent Language). To give reasons for one's belief in a myth already makes oneself its equal in faculty of judgment, even if not in the resources each side can muster (Zeus or J-w-h is omnipotent whereas a person wields ca. 0.1 horsepower...). Etc.

But I do not wish to run down the endlessly ramifying paths of this kind of argument in hopes of cutting off all the Hydra's heads. I will only note that, even if anything is as any myth says it is, then once we become aware that we are responding to something, we are accountable for our response to that thing. Abraham could have told J-w-h: "I will not murder my child even if you tell me to. It's not right." (Of course, had J-w-h come back with an offer Abraham could not refuse, then we might be able to accept Abraham's raising his knife in despair: "Abraham! If you kill your son, now!, he will have eternal life in Heaven; If you don't, I will make him suffer living hell for a hundred years and make you watch it, and then I will send both of you to eternal damnation where you can watch each other in agony forever. And if you even make a single whimper about this, you'll find out what I've got in store for both of you!" "Yes, Sir, J-w-h! [Thinks to himself but dares not say: 'I'm sorry, Isaac, but I can't subject you to a fate far worse than death. This is just too awful. Damn You, G-d!']" -- Obviously, myths don't thrive on this kind of semiotic metabolization. ~ Cf. Quote #47.)

[ Ritually amputated fingers (Indonesia) ](Picture at right: "By custom, some Dani women [members of a tribe in Indonesia] still amputate a finger joint to placate the ghost of a relative who dies" --"Stone Age Ways Surviving, Barely: Indonesian village is caught between worlds very far apart", Calvin Sims, NYT, 11Mar01, p.8)

Two quick examples before going on: Some cultures use circumcision to celebrate entry of a new person into their shared social world. If circumcision is not medically necessary, then the underlying message of the myth is: "We will only love and nurture you in ways that will also hurt and take goods away from you." If it is medically necessary, we could imagine a culture which did the act from generation unto generation with each repetition of the act being used as an occasion to encourage their medical researchers to redouble their efforts to find a way that members of their culture could live healthily with intact bodies, and the parents would apologize to the children for what they lamentably had to do because life is not as good as it should be. Far less gravely, but even more absurdly, many persons in our society more or less unhappily expend a lot of energy finding gifts for prescribed "celebrations"....

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We Need a Better Theology!
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Does God (Y-w-h, Allah, the gods, et al.) exist? That is an empirical question, perhaps best addressed by astronomers, physicsts, microbiologists, et al. A theologian's proper concern should rather be with judging G-d if He (She, It, Other...) exists. The theologian needs to judge whether the things G-d does to us are good or bad, whether or not we should do what G-d tells us to do [aka: "obey G-d's Commandments"], etc.[fn.102a[ Go to footnote! ]] ~ For instance, it might be seen as a sign of ethical and cultural progress if Y-w-h sublimated His fetish for cutting off parts of little boys' genitals [ritual male circumcision], and came to find satisfaction in offerings of fingernail and toenail clippings, which, like sloughed off snakes' skins, are authentic signs of unambivalent growth, the removal of which will not degrade their previous owners' quality of life.

Note (05Nov01): The immediately preceding sentence is, obviously, angrily flippant. Y-w-h should have no wish to take anything away from anyone (if Y-w-h is omnipotent, Y-w-h should already have more than enough of everything...). In any case, Y-w-h should be "above" wanting sacrifices of any kind. Instead, Y-w-h should find satisfaction in all events of free human agreement and in the human creative acts which such agreement nurtures, which acts, in their turn, further nurture such agreement.... Y-w-h should rejoice in our giving thanks for these things, and in our acknowledging that we do not have the power to accomplish them by our own wilful efforts alone -- even if, honestly affirming the limits of our knowledge, we do not attribute the grace we have received directly to Y-w-h, but to "mystery beyond our knowledge".

[ Pieter Brueghel the Elder's painting of The Tower of Babel ]"God's Ways are inscrutable to man." You mean He can't communicate? Or maybe He doesn't care enough to try? ~ I once read (ref. lost): "God reigns in sorrow", because He is all alone. After what God did at The Tower of Babel, God has nobody left He can talk with -- except, as we read in The Book of Job: His gentlemen's wagering buddy, Satan. [See: Aphorism #6a.]

If you meet The Buddha (God, Y-w-h, The Messiah...) in the road, greet him (or her or other) graciously, as you would greet anyone else you might come upon in the course of your journey, and proceed according to how they respond to your courteous and respectful overture toward them. Are they friendly? Hostile? Do they respond to your greeting with respect? Do they act as if they were "above" or "better than" you? [For an example of a God who would deserve to exist, see Quote #199.]

My point here is not just to "run myths into the ground". I have always been instructed: "Don't bad mouth something if you don't have something better to propose in its place." "The better" seems to me not so obscure: "Meaning" does not depend on myths and rituals. Good wine tastes good; good music sounds good; good conversation is good; etc. -- largely irrespective of the metaphysical interpretive frame ("meta-narrative", etc.) they are placed in, although it should be obvious that their goodness will better be enhanced by a context which interprets them as goods, than by a context which either takes them for granted and parasitically lives off them, or which, perversely, lives off them by vilifying them and trying to stamp them out, etc. An example of the first alternative is a "free market" economy, which takes human communication for granted and even "lives" by methods which hurt it -- like the distortion of communication between capitalist and wage worker --, but which doesn't have this harm as an emblematic objective ("you have to break eggs to make an omelet", etc.). Old-time "mortification of the flesh", or contemporary projects in psycho-physics more directly attack their own foundation.

I think the "key" (to borrow the "key" word from Susanne Langer's fine book: Philosophy in a New Key...) is that all myths are potentially of value to us [somewhat like minerals, of which even the poisonous can be used for good purposes...]. All we have to do is to "bracket" belief in them: to see what value we can find in them and what use we can agree to make of it, as opposed to "believing it". J-w-h tells us both about the delights of power and also about how power can be ab-used: It is joyous to create something -- however big or small, be it "The World", or the elegant formulation of a universal mathematical "law of nature" or a microcosm of an exquisite artwork (e.g., a Bach musical composition) which, if it had not been created, there would be no hole in "Creation" indicating the lack of it. But power can also be used to pressure someone to do something bad (Abraham, again), or to jerk persons around (Job).

As psychoanalysts say: "Everything is more grist for the mill." I think this needs to be thought through seriously. Of course it is nice to "reappropriate" nice myths. The Biblical story of Creation up to but not including the bitter apple is easy to digest. Harder to digest is that we also need to scour the semiotic remains of the Nazis and Stalin and every other evil in history, to see whether even they [like a mineral deposit of arsenic or mercury...] perhaps contain something we can make good use of. Insofar as Dr. Mengele and the Japanese "medical experiments" in China discovered anything we can possibly use to help persons today[fn.95[ Go to footnote! ]], that too should be "recycled" -- albeit also needing to be "decontaminated". But then, even the "nice" myths need to be decontaminated of anyone any longer naively believing them. For when meaning is based on non-meaning (acceptance without justification), who can say what will happen, because nobody really planned it. Nobody planned that we should believe in J-w-h, we "just do", so we might as easily be believing in some "false idol" instead. "Unanticipated side-effects" will always be with us, since we did not create "the world"; but "nobody at the helm" and "nobody in the crow's nest", etc. are not necessary components of "the human condition".

Demythization is not automatically and necessarily a blessing. Myth may "by good fortune" lead persons to do things that will work out well for them. It is certainly more than possible for a felicitous myth to be replaced by an infelicitous "clear-eyed" tyrant, who hurts other persons (reduces them to slaves or wage-laborers...) because he enjoys the results. (Presumably one of the big "payoffs" of technological advance is that it reduces the "economics of scarcity", so that ever more persons can have ever more good things in their lives without having to take anything away from anyone else -- contrast with the classical Greek polis, which was in its way utopian, but rested on the hidden foundation of the "oikos": the dark region of the labor of women and slaves.)

[ Remember, reflect, renew.... ]What I am proposing is that what is not critically examined can be good only by chance, and no social situation can be as good as we can make it, unless we ground it in goodness through reflective scrutiny. In a "post-mythological" good society, surely some persons will be creators (artists, scientists, architects, engineers, statesmen, etc.). I think some other persons, or the same persons at other times in their days, will also be accountants, conservators, restorers, inspectors, etc. Any meaning, "left to itself", degrades into taken-for-grantedness (habit, custom, myth...). All meaning must ever again be re-new-ed. It seems to me that the highest respect we can accord to [whatever] is to respectfully-and-rigorously test it, and, insofar as it proves good, to care for it [like a museum conservator], and, insofar as it does not prove good, then, to the best of our ability, to prevent it doing any further harm, and "try to find some good use for it".

I propose one useful way to proceed here is to take a myth literally and seriously, and to see what it really says, and how we might do better than the characters in it to effect a more felicitous outcome. I have done this with the myths of Oedipus, Icarus, Abraham and Isaac (above), and The Tower of Babel. The "richer" the myth, the more of this kind of "engagement" it can support. Example (relevant to Freud's "Oedipus complex"): One point I do not bring out in my "rescripting" of Oedipus is that the only real murderers in the story were Oedipus's parents, who tried to avoid the prophesy by having the child killed, as opposed to Oedipus's strategy of trying to remove himself from the vicinity of those he loved, to avoid situations where he would be able to hurt them.

I believe that, even if we are not "mythical" beings, we are narrative beings: We live from the stories we tell ourselves about the meaing of what we do (don't do, etc.). If mythical stories gave "orientation in life", then critically engaging with them may, too, and "the last story of all" -- whether or not we wish to call it in its turn a "myth" --, I think, shall be the story of the storytelling (story telling...) itself: telling ourselves the story of ourselves freely endeavoring in communicative community to improve our situation by becoming ever more responsible for our form of life (see, e.g. Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth, MIT Press, 1985, Translator's Introduction, p.xxxvi; also: Edmund Husserl's lecture (1935): Philosophy and the Crisis of European humanity). I think each further critique of this "last story" should itself contribute to the further realization of the good form of individual and social life the story sets forth as the increasingly realizable goal of human being.

"Rescripting" many myths (e.g., Oedipus) can "resolve" them through applying social intelligence, including improved communication. Where a myth cannot be reduced to social harmonization through discourse aimed at reaching mutual agreement, then we have harder work to do -- but isn't that also part of the story of building a good, a fully human[e] community, through peer conversation aimed at reaching mutual agreement? The happy ending of our story would be a social world in which there was no longer suffering, but only happiness and health. So we need medical research (etc.). Probably this goal will never fully be attained. Certainly for the foreseeable future, we need to be able to make what suffering we cannot prevent be as bearable ("as good") as possible for those who must endure it. This too is part of this "last story" (See my analysis of the ending of Ingmar Bergman's film "The Seventh Seal").

(An "antipode" of this was the Spanish Conquistadors' destruction of meaning by melting down Pre-Columbian gold objects for bullion, or Protestant "iconoclasm" (or, as I revise this text, 05 March 2001, the moslem Taliban government in Afghanistan destroying ancient Buddhist sculptures with anti-tank rockets). One does not need to deface idols to demystify them: Catholic Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child, for example, remain models of ideal human relations -- what the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, in the late 20th Century, would describe as: "The mother whose face lights up at the sight of her child" --, and the Biblical "Creation" remains an inspiring description of the [human] creative process -- if only we dis-alienate these stories, and identify Mary and Jesus and G-d with ourselves....)

"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works...." (Matt 5:16)
"Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." (1 Thes. 5:21)
"Mankind is not the master of all the things-that-are.
But Everyman (woman, child...) is a judge of the world." (me, BMcC)

(From NPR Morning Edition, 14May01) Theology professor Michael Brown, of Emory University, said people are buying bibles "in droves" these days, but they are not reading them. Brown said it seems the people treat the bible as a kind of "talisman", which, if they keep it in the house, will bring them good luck. He said that young persons today have "heard of" various bible stories like Adam and Eve, but they have not actually read the stories in the bible. He said he felt it would be a good idea for students to study the bible in school, except that usually the goal of bible study in schools is proselatizing (i.e., getting the students to "believe in" it). --Perhaps a bit surprisingly, here, we see that theology professors are often more "liberal" than "lay persons". My belief is that people should study the bible in depth, and really engage with the stories, e.g., by asking whether Abraham was a prototype for "just following orders" and/or The G-d of The Tower of Babel was paranoiac. Henri Lefebvre speaks, e.g., of a God who takes responsibility for "Original Sin" (since Adam and Eve would not have got into trouble had they not been "tempted"). The bible is full of stories we can use to imaginatively try out courses of action without actually doing them, so that, by making mistakes in imagination we may avoid making them in reality.[ Go back to the top! ]
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[ For the 21st century: Slow food! Slow reflection on all the fast things running around! ]Leisure is the basis of culture.
 [ Leisure: Luxe, calme et volupte is the basis of culture! ]
Learn  Jan Szczepanski's ideas concerning Individuality and Society.
Read  Edmund Husserl's lecture: Philosophy and the Crisis of European Humanity (1935).
Read  quote from Sigmund Freud on role of factual doubt in imaginative elaboration.
Ask yourself: What is this [whatever] an instance of?
Read Rabelais' description of Thélème.
Revisit The Tower of Babel.
Play with signifiers!
In Hoc Signo vinces? (The art of true belief)
 [ In hoc signo vinces! ]
"Shipwreck with Spectator" (Life as a journey...).
Consider myths 21st century Americans believe in...

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See also my page on Civilization and its Discontents.
Discover a big secret about secrets.
Consider the benefits of "bracketing" beliefs.
What I believe ("The net").  [[ Go to 'This I believe' page via intro.... ]View intro!]
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