Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Musings on Myth

Reposted from my personal blog,One Day at a Time.

So, it's a slow day at the funeral home, and I'm settled in here at my desk with Joseph Campbells's Transformations of Myth Through Time which is actually much less dry than the title makes it sound.

Campbell is an anthropolgist focused on myth and comparative religion, brilliant and insightful and engagingly articulate. The book itself is a collection of fairly informal lectures, so the writing style is a little more casual than I was expecting, as you'll see in the bits I quote below, but it's every bit as fascinating and challenging as I had come to expect from Joseph Campbell.

As I read Chapter 2, certain pieces really got me thinking, and I decided to share some commentary. A lot of it is likely to stir up some controversy and get me called some unpleasant names, and I apologize in advance to whoever I might offend. /disclaimer

[. . .] "And when it came to this problem of explaining what this Buddha-consciousness or Christ-consciousness was, I looked up at the ceiling for an inspiration and I found one. I said, 'Look up, boys, at the ceiling and you will see that the lights(plural) are on, or you might also say the light (singular) is on, and this is two ways of saying the same thing.' In one case, you are placing emphasis on the individual bulb, in the other you are placing emphasis on the light.

[. . .] Now when one of those light bulbs breaks, the superintendent doesn't come in and say, 'Well, that was my particularly favorite bulb.' He takes it out, throws it away, and puts another one in. What is important is not the vehicle, but the light.

Now, looking down at all your heads, I ask myself, of what are these the vehicles? They are the vehicles of consciousness. How much consciousness are they radiating, and which are you? Are you the vehicle, or are you the consciousness?" -p. 29

The underlying assumption here is that each lightbulb emits a light quantitatively- and more important, qualitatively- equal to the bulb it replaced and the bulb which will replace it, not to mention the bulbs surrounding it in the meantime. The individual bulbs are identical and interchangeable, and so is the light they emit; so is its effect on the total Light in the room. An individual bulb's light contributes nothing to the Light but quantity; it has no special characteristics that make an impact on the whole shared Light.

By extension, the analogy asserts that human beings are vessels and vehicles for consciousness in the same way that light bulbs are vessels and vehicles for light; it also asserts that the consciousness contained in and expressed by each individual human (components of a univeral Consciousness which our myths strive to make us aware of and in connect us to) is not only quantitatively equal to that of every other individual, but quantitatively equal and interchangable as well. There is nothing unique about any one individual, no special contribution or effect on the Consciousness or the Universe which can be made by that individual and that individual alone. The next bulb in the row produces an identical light.

A certain interpretation of the Buddhist philosophy expressed in the analogy could assert that the personality and uniqueness that define each of our worldly selves as individuals are actually part of the earthly vessel rather than part of the transcendent consciousness to which Campbell refers. My Western individualism rebels against this notion.

White light, from a physics standpoint, is made up of all the colors in the light spectrum; to produce white, these colors must be mixed in equal amounts- an imbalance produces a bluish or reddish or greenish light. Suppose for a moment that, if we continue Campbell's analogy and represent human consciousness as light, each individual's unique qualities- the things that make my soul a similar thing to your soul, but definitely not the same soul- are represented as variations in the color of that individual's light, and the combination of various-hued lights from the bank of bulbs merges eventually into a white spotlight.

Just a thought.

"Now I want to go back to the main myth of the Navajo. [. . .] It is of the first people having come up from the womb of the earth through a series of four stages, and they go from one stage to another. Some accident happens in the lower stages; a flood comes as a punishment for impropriety of some sort, the breaking of a taboo or something of the sort, and they come on up. And finally they come to the top level, the earth on which we are now." - p. 32

This account could be viewed as approximately parallel to the Biblical account of Man's "fall" and subsequent divine punishments. Adam and Eve's banishment from the Garden of Eden could, in the Navajo context, represent a forced climb up from one stage to the next. The aftermath of the flood in Noah's day could represent another (Campbell doesn't mention whether the Navajo account includes an attrition rate).

Does anyone with more Biblical knowledge than I possess want to see if we can figure out which events there might parallel the Navajo's four stages? It could be an interesting project.

"Furthermore, the land is the holy land. And the land where you are, not the land someplace else. Not only the body, but the specific landscape in which the people are dwelling is sanctified in these old mythologies. You don't have to go someplace else to find the holy land." -p. 29

"But there is a difference between the science of 2000 B.C. and the science of A.D. 2000. And we're in trouble on it because we have a sacred text that was composed somewhere else by another people a long time ago and has nothing to do with the experience of our lives. And so there's a fundamental disengagement.

[. . .]An article from Foreign Affairs called the "Care and Repair of Public Myths" says that a society that does not have a myth to support and give it coherence goes into dissolution. That's what's happening to us." -p.46-47

While I personally do not subscribe to the claim that the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation, any halfway astute observer has to admit that our social structure and the public concerns which become political issues have been influenced heavily by Judeo-Christian philosophy, beliefs, and writings, and that our public is predominantly at least nominally Christian.

That means that a significant portion of America's culture and public life are based heavily on writings and thoughts and laws written thousands of years ago in another place and another culture. We have no native, American myth tied to this place and this culture and this societal reality- all the belief systems tied to American soil and American settings were systematically wiped out with only a few scattered, aging, and mostly disregarded survivals. We are, as a culture and as a nation and as a people, mythically and philosophically displaced. We have no roots of myth or belief to call our own- we're still clinging to someone else's and trying to make them fit.

Campbell's commentary about the land flows from a discussion of how most Native American belief systems, and others around the world, both drew their myth from the landscape around them and, if they relocated, resituated their myth onto the new landscape. They made their home itself the Holy Land. Most modern Americans (and many modern Europeans) don't consider their home the Holy Land. Their myth- our myth, is not tied to our home. It's tied to another place and another culture thousands of miles away on another continent. This has produced not only a sense of cultural displacement, but some very expensive political entanglements out of the resulting sense of obligation to some foreign place most of us will never see, let alone live in and truly identify with.

It occurs to me that this "disconnect" Campbell mentions between our culture and that from which we try to draw guidance may be the source of so much of the cultural polarization and strife today. We have no roots, we have no direction, and of course we're at each other's throats, because trying to hash out a common identity and a common philosophy without that is a nasty process.

The solution? I don't honestly know. I'm not foolish enough or arrogant enough to declare anyone's religion outdated or wrong, and that's not at all what I'm trying to say here. Certainly we can't do a quick edit of the Bible and change some place names and update some cultural references. One, it's terribly disrespectful at the least, and two, someone's going to notice, you know? So what do we do?