On Mythos: A ten-point plea for a muddier ontology.
(Presented, on invitation, at The Bridge Cultural Initiative, in Charlottesville, Virginia, October 4th, 2008.)
This lecture is, really, a lecture on “How to Believe in Mythos”— but mythos in very far-reaching sense. Mythos as the whole nether-region of our strivings, imaginings, and imaginaries. It’s my container term for all the meanings, fantasies, and micro-narratives that populate our daily consciousness.
Traditional conceptions often counterpose mythos to things with a surer-footed ontology, like logos, history, or even Reality. Thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Cassirer have propounded visions in which forms of mythos can claim a greater ontological dignity than usual, visions in which mythos begets these actualities, pervades them, or is even co-constitutive with them. As Heidegger says:
“The mythos is that appeal of foremost and radical concern to all human beings which lets man think of what appears, what unfolds.”
And we may like the ring of this, or harbor a semi-poetic hunch that mythos is in the mix with the harder realities around us. We might also sense the mythic or fabulist character of our most obvious and plainspoken truths. However, we might not be able to tack these intuitions down at the edges. What I’d like to show, in a slightly more straightforward way, is how mythos begets these actualities, how mythos pervades them, and how mythos is co-constitutive of the very real things surrounding us. Key to this is showing how mythos works on the world in a naturalistic way, how, for example, an idea exists and exerts its influence on the world.
How does an idea exist? In what way? In what way does mythos exist? In order to make room for the mythic, we must first re-examine our high-walled ontologies, and discard the idea that we can strictly parse What Is from What Is Not. When we review various candidates for Being— toasters, juniper berries, supernovae, gods, the fifth postulate, Charlie Brown, personalities, movements, possibilities— it becomes clear that, even if we considered them all really real, their ontologies each have their own distinctive flavor. Numbers have a different ontological character than juniper berries. Memories have a different style of existence than, say, bulletin boards or supernovae. It occurs to us that maybe ontologies come in a variety of shades and colors, in ways that might prove tricky to reduce simply to Being or Non-Being. Furthermore, why should we perform such a reduction? Why should we not ask how rather than if these entities exist, how they exert their influence on the world? We can lower the walls on our ontologies and move a bit better with what Hilary Putnam calls a “conceptual relativity.”
“Believing in mythos” means then, first off, loosening the belt on our ontologies, allowing things to half-exist, exist in ill-conceived ways, or exist as delicate, fledgling beings that are just beginning to take root. After all, when, where, and how did something like democracy or language first exist? This muddier ontology is especially suitable to the arenas of culture and the human psyche, where few things exist as boldly as bronze statues.
Accordingly, there are two kinds of Unbelief, both of which accept the high-walled ontology of What Is versus What is Not. The first kind— the realist, the literalist, the eyebrow-arching skeptic— wants to strip the mythic away from the extant. He wants to get down to the beams and screws, to only What Is, plainly and indisputably. Mythos, for him, clearly does not make the cut. The other kind of Unbeliever— the escapist— cherishes mythos for its Non-Being, wants to keep it distant and distinct, as a flight from history. They do nothing to tug it into fuller Being. Or, if they do believe in the ontological dignity of mythos, it is in a separate-but-equal supernaturalism in which mythos and history still do not greatly intermingle.
To believe in mythos, with all your heart, is a two-fold operation. You have to be engaged in both its invention and its substantiation. The hard-line Realist must loosen-up and learn to believe in mythos as one “believes in Santa Claus,” to the degree that he is real, in the world, fat, jolly— even as an idea. The escapist must, for his part, learn to buckle down and believe in mythos in the way one “believes in democracy,” working to make a notion manifest and as boldly real as a bronze statue.
My own belief in mythos runs deep and personal; so it fits to begin with a personal example. It concerns the Philadelphia Institute for Advanced Study, an institute of higher-learning founded by myself and Richard Davis, in January of 2007. Since that time, most of the questions I field have less to do with the program and goings-on at the institute than they do with its essential reality of the thing. I always inform everyone that, yes, we do have classes, projects, events, heated debates, seminars, and so on. Everything on the calendar is accurate and up-to-date. It is a real building, made of brick and mortar, filled with real people of flesh and sinew. But, this does not answer their essential question about the institute-qua-institute. In order the answer that question, they need a better read-out on the plans, the legitimacy, and the accepted opinions concerning the whole operation. Until this survey is complete, they receive it all with a cool, bemused skepticism.
But then, sure enough, some fluke happens. An article in the city paper emerges on Thursday, praising us for our deeds and vouchsafing our reality for the reading public. By Friday, the Institute exists. We have become real by editorial fiat. What was the critical difference? A thousand word article written by some young staffer— or some other blurb or little strip of mythos— is published and this is what anoints us with ontological dignity. In some ways, it’s true: every little bit helps to make us more real, more actual, and more historical. Nevertheless, true-believers understand that it does not happen all at once. Its reality began much further back, with an inner circle of attendees, who because they came and spoke and exchanged ideas, willed the institute into a fuller being. We could ask sillier questions: do schools exist? When does a school become real, actual, or historical? When did the so-called School of Athens, for instance, become real, actual or historical?
One video-blogger made a very astute observation about our Video Brochure. He said that we “seem to exist in a strange crevice between real Philadelphia and, well…some other one.” Truer than the author may have intended. Notice that we were neither in “real Philadelphia” straightforward, on-the-map, in-the-phonebook Philadelphia— nor in this “other one”— a Fantasyland, a pure loopy unreality. Instead, we were sitting pretty in the crevice in between— the birth canal of Becoming. The place to be, culturally speaking.
As a disciple of the American Pragmatism espoused by Richard Rorty, right here at the University of Virginia, I do not believe we can ever cut away all the mythos in order to find a surer, more deeply-set reality behind appearances. Even the realest realities, the things and states-of-affairs taken as being uncontroversially “just-so,” are in a certain respect, the strong inventions of Man. However, the realism I’m assailing in these pages is not simply an epistemological realism, but a more dispositional realism, a grumpier and mundane form of realism that pooh-poohs the necessary mythologization of everyday things and meanings. This realism dismisses the ontological dignity of new meanings when it is these new meanings that makes things exciting, interesting, and aglow again with new possibilities.
A pertinent example of such mythologization involves the visual arts, notably some of my favorite visual artists: the American collective Dearraindrop— who hail from Virginia— and the Philadelphian lone-ranger weirdo Howard Kleger. In the past, I have described Dearraindrop as “creators of a new American mythos.” They take all the floating, lost elements of the American collective consciousness— snowcones, icons, cartoons, fluid memories, warped slogos— and remake them into a living, writhing high-mythic whole.
The Realist may likely look upon these elements as merely dead symbols and insignificant objects— as being “just” a commercial, character, ploy, or television series. Resentful of an American pop culture that he considers to be irremediably crass and unsalvageable, he may perceive its mythologization as a case of seeing meanings that “are not there.” In doing so, he is likely to misconstrue Dearraindrop as “nostalgic,” as merely offering a re-presentation of these pieces of recent cultural history; when in fact, they are sewing new things out of old fibers. Even on a microlevel, the slightest line or shape, in a Dearraindrop drawing, can assume a meaning, a meld, or a flashing similarity between a duck, a god, and a wordballoon. But do these similarities really exist? Does this American mythos really have a fighting chance? The Realist sees little more than thick depiction of non-Beings, rather than a whole theogony of new possible meanings. So quick to strip mythos from history, he misses the solid meaning in the admittedly overwhelming flux.
Howard Kleger is precisely the same kind of mythologizer; only his approach is more of a love-affair with everyday tasks and objects— with bottles, receipts, bicycles, check-out clerks, OfficeMax, and irritating neighbors. Howard imbues these things with hypermeanings that most by-standers— even most psychologically stable individuals— would say are “just not there.” Realism would discount Howard’s spewing of metaphors as a proliferation of nonsense or impossible meanings; while their accepted, day-to-day meanings are there, real, natural, somehow encased by the object. The Realist will see a Kleger assemblage as only capable of one meaning: as a pile of trash or a bullshit diagram. He will not see the mythic unity that, emergently, wraps the whole thing up in a red ribbon and gives it a new name— a “trash mobilizer” or a “plastic knitter for a non-erect penis.” Howard’s “nonsense” is more like Wittgensteinian nonsense than it might first admit. For Wittgenstein, nonsense included the religious, the ethical, the artistic— forms of mythos, all of them— not because they were irreal or insignificant, but because their reality or significance could not wholly apprehended by language and sense. The same probably goes for Howard’s prototypical meanings as well.
Meanings, which are all mythic in character, far outnumber the countable objects of our world. We need room for them in our ontological menagerie. These meanings are in fact constitutive of our world, including our Lebenswelt, our lifeworld. Mythologization, then, adds to this constitution. As Nietzsche writes: “The world become ‘infinite’ for us all over again, inasmuch as we cannot reject the possibility that it may include infinite interpretations.” (The Gay Science, 374).
Mythos fills the inert world with something new and human. It is what Giambattista Vico meant when he said that the task of poetics is “to bestow emotion upon insensate things.” This is true of poetics both widely and thinly conceived. The cupboard, a piece of furniture, as seen by Rimbaud, becomes what? “The cupboard is open, and gives off from its kindly shadows inviting aromas like a breath of old wine; full to overflowing, it’s a jumble of quaint old things.” So far so good. Still a thing of the world. But Rimbaud continues. Is he seeing what is simply not there, or is he instead, padding the ontology of the world?
“Oh cupboard of olden times, you know plenty of stories, and you’d like to tell them; and you clear your throat every time your great dark doors slowly open.”
When we behold a cupboard, a thunderstorm, or a dark Russian night, we apprehend, simultaneously all the meanings accumulated over a lifetime of encounters and mythopoesis. Meaning and mythos act upon us as much as those objects themselves. We often do not recognize it as such; because most new metaphors and mythopoesis happen in our childhood or adolescence, during a time in our life when we lived easily and comfortably with a muddier ontology. The child and the adolescent do not so strictly differentiate What Is from What Is Not. Only in full adulthood do things settle and become what they uncontroversially are. Through experience, the unknown becomes known, and all the mythos founded on mystery dispels. We usually call this process “disenchantment,” the story of mythos felled by logos.
But in order to re-enchant the world— and imbue it with hopeful mythos— I do not recommend a regression to childhood and adolescence, by trying either to repeal the lessons of experience or supernaturally step outside of experience. Rather, we should up the ante, require a bit more actuality to our mythos and bring it more fully into Being. Enough so that we can believe again. Enough make things exciting again. The imaginary friends of our childhood must become long-dead philosophers, future generations, alter-idems or stage personalities. That is, as adults, we should demand a grander mythos rather than a surer actuality.
Clinical hypnosis speaks of rapport, a state of heightened suggestibility brought about between the subject and operator. In order to induce this state— even in milder, conscious forms— the operator— the hypnotist— must adroitly see-saw between suggestion and substantiation. He cannot blurt out “your body feels like a block of marble,” when the subject does not feel like a block of marble, point of fact. If he does so, prematurely, he drops the ball and dispels the hypnoidal “glow” necessary for further abstract conditioning. Instead, he is wise to begin with something tiny, light, local, and incontestable… “In the nape of your neck, there is an infinitesimal point. At this point, you feel a very powerful force— a very, very powerful force.” This force, in the beginning, is mostly the child of the subject’s imaginative faculties. It is, nonetheless, already partially real. He feels its presence. The operator presses on… “this point is now becoming more and more powerful, and beginning to spread into your head and shoulders.” He makes the suggestion more and more tangible for the subject. Once it’s firmly established, he then goes onto more suggestions, and the cycles continues.
When bringing these internal realities into Being, the operator proceeds slowly, nurturing them and never blundering with an evident untruth. Likewise, the operator cannot overcome a strong-heeled skepticism in the subject. The subject must be open and ready to believe in partial realities. Both must act with utmost care and patience to achieve this hypnotic rapport, in which thinking makes it so, perhaps not by leaps and magic, but by slow alternation between suggestion and substantiation.
Well, I think this same back-and-forth occurs in a wider sphere— socially, culturally, and psychologically. Not just within hypnoidal phenomena in everyday life, but in the wider world of human creation. Few things simply pop into Being, uninvited. But we have to be delicate and open with our fledgling beings, our twilight concepts— our mythos. Human reality is suggestible, but things do not come into being so literally. They enter obliquely, through a sidedoor. When man learned to fly, he did not grow wings, as might have been expected. Often times, mythos will sputter until actuality is ready to welcome it.
Consider the Cenotaphe a Newton (1784), by the delirious neoclassical architect, Etienne-Louis Boullée: a tremendous, 150-meter, perfectly circular dome that, aside from possibly housing the sarcophagus of Newton’s remains, would also contain the vault of the nightsky within. Unfortunately, it was never to be. The epoch lacked the engineering. It dwelled inside the collective imagination for about two hundred years, until Buckminster Fuller finally saw it through substantiation with his geodesic domes. Shortly after attaining this shining new reality, it found yet another home in Disneyworld, in the Epcot Center, to once again straddle the line between mythos and history.
Let’s consider another architectural typology: the cathedral. What is constitutive of the cathedral? Cathedrals have naves and aisles, spires and maybe flying buttresses, but we cannot say that this is all. In the cathedral, measured stone suggests and points to the immeasurable, the Unmessbar, in Goethe’s terms. This Unmessbar, though, is inextricably part of the cathedral, part of its meaning and experience. In fact, this architecture is so good at mythologizing that God himself must borrow back some of the grandeur of His houses, just to win the crowds over. But can we ask if this numinosity is really there in the brickwork? Would it make sense to enter the Metz Cathedral, shrug, and remark “yeah, it’s tall, so what?” Mythos is constitutive of cathedrals, and it is arguably mythos that brought them into being. Even a militant secularist, such as myself, must entertain its numinosity to fully understand the architecture.
For many years, I was guilty of a fundamental misinterpretation of pre-modernist painting. I had been judging it by the rubric of “philosophically disenfranchised” art since Manet and Cézanne. Modern art theory, if not modern life itself, had done much to demythologize the mythos of classical art. Everything from its content to its mode of representation had been broken down, analyzed, and thrown away or into question. But in the Renaissance or Baroque experience of painting, that mythos was all there, mixed into the oil by brushstroke. And to truly understand the works, today, you have to buy into that mythos in a number of ways.
Above is The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio, an ambitiously mythic work if ever there was one. Caravaggio lived and painted during the sharp-taloned Counter-Reformation, which is to say during same the Roman Inquisition that pinned Giordano Bruno to the stake and pyre. A charged atmosphere, to say the least. The meaning and public reality of this piece was far different then than it is for the contemporary world. Images were far more precious, imbued with aura and wonder, especially those as lifelike and cinematic as a Caravaggio. The Roman public passing through the Contarelli chapel, in the early seventeenth century, would be mostly illiterate and dependent upon such images to understand the larger world. They would also, most likely, take hagiography at face-value, and read this work as history and the word of God, logos. They would relive the martyrdom, along with every last bit of fury contained in the work. Young artists saw not only the martyrdom of Saint Matthew, but also the death knell of Mannerism. A new style had been born, a new pattern for the mythos to come. And, finally, for a human cauldron like Caravaggio, all the blood, terror, and hope of redemption seen on the canvas could be also found in the man himself, in his own troubled mind and life. Everything real or imagined.
So to understand this painting, we cannot approach it from a cooler, “philosophically disenfranchised” point of view. We cannot ask “what is its theory?” We must enter its mythos. We must believe in the painting, in its narrative, in its representation, and in its aura. Only then do we experience it.
Cassirer praises Ludwig Klages for his doctrine of the “demonically-living reality of the images.” “…Klages’ doctrine is able as almost no other to do justice to the true significance of the myth. It does not seek to “think” the nature of myth from the outside, but to enter into its characteristic way of seeing things.”
Say we saw Return of the Jedi in the theatre, and would not or could not suspend our disbelief— if we only saw Harrison Ford, Alec Guiness, George Lucas, or Star Wars merchandise. We’d hesitate, in this case, to say that we understood the film at all, as cinematic or narrative experience. This suspension of disbelief, and Aristotelian identification, is on some levels delusional. On others however, it is fair to say that these mythic figures truly do exist. They shape us and live on within us. They pattern and organize us. And, perhaps most importantly, they excite us.
Just as the hypnotic rapport, with tighter and tighter cycles of suggestion and substantiation, yields greater and greater results, culture is at its most exciting when mythos and realization are in swift overturn. The last thing you need is a cold splash of realism, a nay-sayer extinguishing the white-heat of cultural renewal. Nothing can kill a budding cultural-circle like an infusion of jaded elders, who are unable to understand the cause for excitement or the belief in genuine novelty. It is my contention that culture-makers should busy themselves with even more delusional forms of mythos like Time Travel, Ghost-Busting, and the founding of new Republics, and spend less time with frank realities like the art market and the will-to-publish.
By now, you’ve surely noticed how much a “Belief in Mythos” has in common with William James’ “Will-to-Believe.” James understands as well as anyone how “there are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.” He speaks rightly when he says “the state of things is evidently far from simple, and pure insight and logic, whatever they do ideally, are not the only things that really do produce our creeds.” However, James, in my opinion, does not follow his own consequentialism out far enough in The Will To Believe. Had he done so, I think he would have had a stronger answer to the “scientific absolutists” who dismissed tout court his Protestantism-by-volition.
When we read The Varieties of Religious Experience, we see little mention of the origins or causes of religious experience. James describes only the shapes and effects of these experiences. That is, we children of the Enlightenment might doubt the divinity of such an experience, but we would probably not go so far as to doubt that it is an experience, whatever its source. In The Will To Believe, James frames things a little more clumsily. He yields a little to the demands of a high-walled ontology by allowing to the divine to become a “religious hypothesis,” which ultimately either is or is not.
A better, more Jamesian response to the Huxleyans of his age is to show how religious mythos actually works upon the world; how the ultimate questions of divine ontology are relatively immaterial in comparison with the moral strivings they seek to uphold. Where Huxleyans ask for “sufficient evidence,” we do not have to proceed without it. We only have to alter our sense of “the evident.” Mythos straddles Being and Non-Being, but not in a form of agnostic undecidability, but by a breakdown of the distinction itself. We secularists can allow that God both is and is not, by some measure or metaphor, if only in the hearts of men. The same is true for saints, angels, heavens, hells, souls, divine objects, and mystical revelations.
Take for instance the great Meister Eckhart.
Meister Eckhart, the man “from whom God hid nothing,” was many things, but a liar he was not. Eckhart tells you about the plenitude of God with the same earnest affability with which he might talk about his early morning stroll through the courtyard. He says “der warheit bekennet, der weiz daz ich war spriche”— “he who knows the truth, knows that I am speaking the truth.” And I believe him. Listen to him speak about the plentitude of God:
“This is certain: you would like in part to prepare yourself and in part to be prepared by God, but it cannot be so, for however quickly you desire or think of preparing, God gets there first. But suppose that the preparation could be shared between you and God for the divine work of ingress— which is impossible— then you should know that God must act and pour in as soon as he finds you ready. Do not imagine that God is like a carpenter who works or not, just as he pleases, suiting his own convenience. It is not so with God, for when he finds you ready he must act, and pour into you, just as when the air is clear and pure the sun must pour into it, and may not hold back. Surely, it would be a great defect in God if he did not do a great work, and anoint you with great good, once he found you empty and innocent.”
(121, Eternal Birth).
At times, Eckhart struggles to describe his inner experience:
“There is an agent in the soul— no, not an agent but something more, a Being— yet not a Being, but something more than Being liberates— something so pure, sublime, and precious that no creature can get into it to stay except God himself. To tell the truth, no even God himself could get in there if he were creaturelike. There is no device or condition by which God can enter there, save as he comes in the naked divinity of his nature.”
(135, Youth Remains in the Soul)
It seems to me that Eckhart is retelling empirical accounts of his inner experience, whatever their origin, corroborated by a number of other mystical lineages, such as the Sufi and Gnostic traditions. These mythic things and events— God, the soul, the Unity of Being, the plenitude of the Divine— correspond to something, whatever its ontological status. Either something deep within us or something yet to come, as an unsubstantiated possibility. In hypnosis, we put forth some dimly-lit, abstract, unfalsifiable suggestion, so that it might sooner or later, become true. An empty meaning-receptacle that we fill with belief. I have a hunch that God, the soul, the Divine, and the Vault of Heaven may have a similar function. To say “there is an infinitesimal point in the nape of your neck” is remarkably similar to the statement “God is everywhere and nowhere at once,” is it not?
Until we know more about how they exist, we secularists should learn be more patient with religious mythos. If we’d like, we can interpret divine entities as something like holy asymptotes, or, along with Catholic philosophers such as Gianni Vattimo, picture the central thrust of Christianity to be secularization, incarnation, or substantiation.
In this regard, theology is poetic, in the sense traced by Vico. An act of imagination, that contributes to the meaning of things, that re-enchants and re-sacralizes our world. A mythos that can bring on a divine rapture in people like Eckhart, Bruno, or Haf’ez by maneuvering them into an ecstatic relationship with all Creation… Which is exactly what I recommend: using all mythos at our disposal to re-enchant the world and fill it to the beams with a new and totalizing excitement.