Being heirs of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism, we suffer from a kind of cultural schizophrenia. We alternate between the conviction that everything can be comprehended rationally through science and the compulsion to escape from the resulting aridity into a world of feeling however fantastically inspired. As if we were two different beings at different times, we might spend countless hours mastering the technical facts about HD plasma TV and then escape into the emotional roller coaster of an adventurous, romantic, or violent movie.
This condition is an extension of the natural difference between our reason and our emotions. But it is pathological to the extent that, in the absence of a unifying principle of meaning, the two parts of ourselves are not related in fruitful tension but divorced. By day in the lab we think of the unborn fetus as two accidentally joined cells subdividing according to the laws of physics and chemistry that we know. By night at home we feel empty without the caress of an unconditional love. Rarely do we consider how both can be true of the same being. Our humanity is thus reduced to an unsteady either/or state.
Yet, our nature being what it is, we crave to transcend this schism between facts and feelings. We want to be whole, fully human beings, even as we discredit the very thing that has the power to unite us: the power of myth.
One of the contributors to the schism is our daily exposure to the cliché antithesis between “myth” and “fact.” Every political partisan, science journalist, and commodity advertiser will one time or another try to shame us into abandoning the myth (meaning a falsehood) for the fact (meaning what he wants us to believe instead). Examples taken almost at random: “King Tut Curse: Myth or Fact?” (ThinkQuest NYC); “Is it myth or fact? Take our MythBusters
quizzes to find out” (Discovery Channel website).
We impoverish ourselves by the erroneous notion that the ancient Greek myths were childish ways of “explaining” phenomena that “we now know” are caused by this or that principle of physics. Thus ancient myth is relegated to the category of falsehood and then co-opted by the sentimentality of HBO or Disney.
Similarly impoverished are the kind of fundamentalist and the kind of scientific atheist who read the Bible entirely literally. The former has such faith in the literal historicity of the Bible that he may reject much true scientific knowledge; the latter has equal faith that disproving the Bible’s literal historicity is grounds for rejecting biblical religion altogether. Call the Bible “myth” and the former is offended, the latter delighted, because both take the word “myth” to mean “falsehood” and both, in different ways, worship factuality.
The profoundest vehicles of human knowledge are thus banished before the reductive, either/or choice between hard facts and wishful thinking. We are bounced between dissolving skepticism and sentimental credulity, left to embrace now an emotionless reason that banishes faith, now an emotional faith that flies in the face of reason.
The beginning of healing may lie in recognizing that in reality, myth is not the enemy of fact. It is the vehicle of the significance of facts. Nor is it the servant of feeling. It is the vehicle of authenticity of feelings. Myth has the power to engage both reason and emotion, both knowledge and imagination, in the unifying and transcending experience of meaning. Whatever the art form in which they are represented (drama, fiction, poetry, painting, sculpture, music, dance, architecture, film, cartoon, advertising, etc.), myths are valuable because they contain and convey realities that engage our whole selves and that cannot be conveyed in any other way.
Consider the familiar sort of myth depicted in the TV automobile commercial. The newest car, the complex product of science and technology, races at high speed through a pristine romantic wilderness somewhere in Utah. Here the mythic image temporarily unites our rational and romantic sides in a single experience that we cannot find in our own lives either by owning a car or by traveling to Utah or both. We can buy the car, but in it we’ll as often as not be sitting in a freeway traffic jam. We can head for the Utah wilds, but we’ll soon face the cold-turkey terrors of separation from the familiar machine that got us there, not to mention the computer, the telephone, the water heater, and the light bulb.
But the myth imaged in the ad gives us the thrill of a desired union of technology and nature unencumbered by deer crossings, power lines, and cops, the thrill of an imaginary redemption from our divided selves.
Is the myth depicted in that TV commercial true? The answer depends on what we mean by "true." The image depicted cannot be realized in practice. But what moves us more—our own car or the commercial? Our car of course moves us physically. But the myth we may carry in our minds for days or weeks or even a lifetime, and it will influence not only our purchase of a car and our vacation plans but our very concept of what constitutes joy.
This kind of myth—driving fast through perfect wilderness in a perfect vehicle—is a self-evident fantasy, bounded not only by practical impossibility (and therefore potentially arousing more frustration than satisfaction), but also by time, place, and culture. Powerful though it is for a modern American, the automobile ad would probably mean very little to an 18th-century or a 23rd-century American, or to a Bedouin or a Sherpa.
But consider the myth of Narcissus or of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Such myths as these transcend not only our rational knowledge and our personal feelings but our time, our place, our language, and our culture because they go to the heart of what human beings are. They remind us that whatever we understand and however we feel, we are part of a larger reality than we can contain, and yet a reality revealed and accessible to anyone who knows the story.
If we try to say exactly what
we know from a great myth, we find it impossible. Good luck trying to express in your own words the meaning of the disaster of self-love or of the temptation to be like God in knowing good and evil. You will soon find that any way of articulating such realities falls short of what is conveyed by the myth itself. We may analyze, synthesize, emphasize, and formulate. Nothing gets at the reality like simply retelling the myth. But tell the story of Narcissus or of the temptation of Eve and—presto!—there is the reality in all its glory and terror.
Is the story of Narcissus true? Is the fall from Eden? Far truer than the evening news. But to ask whether or not in historical time there was ever a boy named Narcissus who fell in love with his own image in a pool, like demanding the medical records of his wasting away, would be absurd. To prove and to disprove his historicity would be equally empty. The authenticity of the myth itself commands us more powerfully than any documentary evidence could do. Similarly, to discover whether our DNA can be traced back to one male and one female human being would be as insignificant as asking for videotape of the serpent whispering to Eve. What could such paltry facts offer in the face of the story of Eden, with its profound implications for our understanding of the meaning of ourselves, life, free will, suffering, and death?
A few weeks ago, walking home from the park with my dog, I was struck by the thought that the most amazing phenomenon in the universe—more amazing than the hydrogen fusion reaction on which all physical life on earth depends, more amazing even than the fact of human consciousness—is the fact that human consciousness can and does conceive of non-physical, non-temporal meaning—transcending but revealed in the facts and feelings of our lives. That is, we are compelled to find in a thing or an action or an experience its quality—whether is it good or bad, fair or unfair, kind or cruel, true or false, deep or shallow, beautiful or ugly—and its significance, its place in the invisible pattern of all things that are.
It is to that apparently miraculous activity of the human mind—the pursuit of meaning—that myth speaks, carrying us beyond our reductive either/or limitations and putting us in touch with reality, whose mystery we can experience but never comprehend.