The Need of Myth

We are used to hearing about Myth as untrue, and also as “a special kind of truth”. I like the religious definition of “a story that tells a sacred truth,” as this cuts to the heart of it. That’s really, one suspects, what Tolkein was getting at with Middle-Earth: telling a story that told deep and real truths. In this sense, Myth becomes a kind of synonym for Art.

Let us now, by way of comparison, imagine abstract man, wihtout the guidance of myth – abstract education, abstract morality, abstract justice, the abstract state, let us imagine the lawless wandering, unchecked by native myth, of the artistic imagination; let us imagine a culture without a secure and primal sacred site, condemend to exhaust every possiblity and feed wretchedly on all other cultures – there we have our present age, the product of that Socratism bent on the destruction of myth. And here stands man, stripped of myth, eternally starving, in the midst of all the past ages, digging and scrabbling for roots, even if he must dig for them in the most remote antiquities. What is indicated by the great historical need of unsatisfied modern culture, clutching about for countless other cultures, with its consuming desire for knowledge, if not hte loss of myth, the loss of the mythical home, the mythical womb? Let us consider whether the feverish and sinister agitation of this culture is anythign other than astarving man’s greedy grasping for food – and who would wish to give further nourishment to a culture such as this, unsatisfied by everything it devours, which transforms the most powerful, wholesome nourishment into “history and criticism”?

Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, pg. 110

I have often found Nietzsche to be a passionate and entertaining mountebank: he talks nonsense, but he does so in a way that hits upon realities, incants the inexpressible. I have read that he was intended for the ministry; he makes a fine shaman. And this passage hits upon a reality. Why is our age so devoted to superheros? Why do we fight over them as past ages fought over gods? Because of the need for myth, some emotional primality, some ur-sense. The more we bust Myths, the more we long for them.

We are not, and never will be, as rational as we imagine. Some part of our deeper brain has needs that abstraction cannot satisfy. Words are not merely vehicles of argumentation, but of entrancement. This does not exist for no reason, or devil’s anti-reason. That which exists, fulfills a need.

We dramatize the weather, the traffic, and other impersonal phenomena by employing exaggeration, ironic juxtaposition, inversion, projection, all the tools a dramatist uses to create, and the psychoanalyst uses to interpret, emotionally significant phenomena.

We dramatize an incident by taking events and reordering them, elongating them, compressing them, so that we understand their personal meaning to us – to us as the protagonist of the individual drama we understand our life to be.

David Mamet, “Three Uses of the Knife”, pg. 3-4

The greatest sin we can commit against ourselves is to refuse to be human, to demand godhood of ourselves. We are not gods, and God forbids us to think of ourselves as such. Myth invits to share in what is greater than ourselves, not to supplant it.

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