Thursday, November 10, 2016

Myth and Reality

After finishing the Delphi Project I am working on a book to document our work with collective imagination. The following essay explores the mythological mindset as a forerunner of contemporary possibilities in this realm.

Tholos, Sanctuary of Athena Proneia, Delphi, Greece

Myth and Reality
Understanding mytho-poetic realities is not easy. They slip through the vanishing point of the perspectives we superimpose upon them. We are left with a heap of bones without a body. And from this heap we assemble a skeleton of misconceptions.
The most notorious of these misconceptions is the notion of myth itself. What today is generally understood by this word is the very opposite of what it once meant. No matter if our meaning is na├»ve fancy, projection of psychological realities, or artful imaginations spun on the heirloom of an older, more imaginative age, it will carry the mark of unreality. Even if we love myth it is hard to escape the condescending feeling of having been emancipated from it. Like the fabled tooth-fairy we treat it as a standard story that casts a charming spell on children, but is otherwise irrelevant. 
Our intellectuality is a hurdle to comprehension of myth. In fact, the notion of myth, the way we understand it today, did not even exist in pre-intellectual times. The content we associate with myth, of course, was current. But it was not a ‘myth’. It was reality. It was part of the perceptual horizon that held the pre-intellectual world in place: not a story that is learned at some point but an envelope of meaning one existed within. It was history, genesis, explanation, orientation, a way of seeing, a lens to look through.  It was to the ancient Greeks what our paradigm is to us: a collective way of experiencing, seeing and interpreting the world.
To us the table is real because the table is there. We see it and others see it too.  There is no need to doubt its reality. We take its existence for granted; and we do the same with everything else that enters the sphere of our perception.
The early Greeks did the same. Yet their perceptions differed from ours. Creatures that we confidently assign to personal fancy were shared perceptions: where we merely see a river the early Greeks saw a river god.  Where we perceive a well, they beheld a nymph, that had a name, a history and attributes that translated into the particularities of place.
No one believed in gods because there was no need to believe in them. They were experienced rather than surmised. The difference between Zeus and Agamemnon was that the Olympian god was a fair deal more present than the Greek leader. That’s why he was a god. 
But how can we who sit in front of computers, use smartphones and travel with aeroplanes, make sense of realities so different from our own? Here the philosophic insights of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (marvelously researched by Owen Barfield), can come to our aid. 
It is well known that the English poet distinguished between personal fancy and objective imagination. It is not so well known that he further divided the imagination into primary and secondary.
By secondary imagination he understands the images and metaphors a skilled poet produces, pictures of universal rather than subjective relevance.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge  1772 - 1834 
By primary imagination Coleridge understands the artistic-poetic capacity that every human being applies to create the perceptual world; everything we see: the trees in front of the house and the table inside of it. He means to say that everything that we perceive as being out there has previously been put there by an unconscious activity we employ at every moment to create the reality we inhabit. Through primary imagination we acquire a particular brand of reality in childhood and share it from then on with those around us. This activity is the poet, painter, sculptor and architect in us all who shaped this world to the specifications of our cultural community. And it is this inner artist who continues to maintain it later. At any moment we recollect what we have created in childhood. We become curator of reality, constantly repeating and reinforcing the parameters of the world we exist in. (Poets, artists and innovators typically retain some of the creative momentum in later life.)
Two hundred years ago this was too daring an insight to be taken seriously. Today there is much evidence to support it. A telling example is people who are born blind and operated on at a later stage of life: What happens when they open their eyes for the first time? What do they see?
Not what most of us would expect. For them the world we take for granted does not yet exist. All they see is a bewildering flicker of colours. The flood of sensations makes no sense whatsoever to begin with. Nothing is there before the inner artist commences work. Only gradually do impressions of blue knit themselves into a pullover, and various sensations of ochre, beige and brown flatten into a surface of a table. Their mind still has to create what for others is habitually fixed: the seemingly solid reality they inhabit.
This illustrates rather marvellously the action of primary imagination. It is the artist that paints the world we inhabit, the architect that designs its structure. Above all it is the builder who lays down the foundations that we accept as solid, unshakable reality.  What is real and what is not, what we perceive as inside and what we perceive as outside, what is fixed and what is not fixed depends on the brand of primary imagination we have imbibed in childhood.
The brand we imbibe today differs from that of the early Greeks. Both are possible interpretations. Both reveal relative rather than ultimate truths.  Both create a highly consistent and meaningful world that is absolutely real to those who inhabit it.
It is extremely important to be aware of this fact. Older paradigms cannot be understood as long as we naively believe in the sole reality of our own.
Each way of experiencing the world needs to be understood as equally valid and hence on its own terms, within the parameter of its own perceptual realties. Otherwise we only excavate our own opinions: we mistake the meaning of myths and fail to learn what they have to teach: another perspective on reality that can widen and complement the one we already have.

I highly recommend Owen Barfield's book What Coleridge Thought

Images from Wikipedia:

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