Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Structure of Myth

The Remorse of Orestes, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862

When we try to pluck out anything by itself, we find it hitched to the whole world.             
John Muir

If a typical tourist comes to Delphi today, he or she may hear of Apollo’s victory over the Python and perhaps the tale pertaining to his divine birth. But in doing so, the traveller will hear a story that never existed in isolation. Like any other tale, the tale of Apollo was embedded in a complicated, highly organised cosmos of stories from which it derived meaning. Today we encounter in parts what was once whole. In this way we are all bookish tourists and typical in our piecemeal approach to myth. We contemplate the nose without the face, the face without the body. We forget that every story is embedded in the body of Greek mythology just as this sentence is embedded in the structure of the English language.
This makes myths into highly-complex realities. They constitute a body of meaning in which the whole is dynamically present in every part. This body is expressed in time, and at the same time independent of it. The plot is not just impelled by the past. Mythical time is a totality in which before and after, future and past, are linked in intricate, non-linear ways: The fate meted out to Orestes is not just caused by his filial duty to kill his mother because she had murdered his father. 

His destiny is linked to the destiny pattern of his family line of which incest, betrayal, filicide and cannibalism are but the temporal expression. His fate is implicit in that of his ancestor Tantalus (who dared to test the omniscience of the gods by serving them the flesh of his own son) in the same way that the car pre-exists in a carriage and a carriage in the first conception of a wheel.  Orestes is part of his family destiny, as this destiny is part of the Greek myth.  (Tantalus’s own transgressions fit rather tightly into the topic of generational conflict that made Zeus overthrow his father Kronos, and Kronos castrate his progenitor Uranus.)
To the artistic eye the fate of a major character such as Orestes arises like an absolute necessity in the body of Greek myth. Orestes belongs to that body as a finger belongs to the hand. His destiny is there from the beginning even if it manifests only at the end. In myths the future draws the past towards its realisation. 
In this trans-temporal sphere concepts like cause and effect did not apply as they do now. They are appropriate to physics. In the metaphysics of myth a single effect is never entirely explicable by a single cause. Cause and effect are also interchangeable. An event is pushed by the history at its back and drawn by the future in its front. Past and the future conspire to reveal in time what is essentially beyond time. The story is trans-temporal: it is there before it is told, complete before it unfolds
This qualifies the mythological mindset as one that partakes in wholeness. This this is what makes the encounter with myths so salutary to us who tend to understand everything as the typical tourist understands the story of Apollo: in isolation. If this tourist relates the story to the body of Greek myth he or she will do so after the fact of separation. The wholeness achieved is counterfeit. Most knowledge today is of this kind: a body glued together after it has been cut apart. This has its uses, but also its downfalls. It is brilliant when it comes to the construction of machines, devastating when applied to nature, which is intrinsically whole.
This intrinsic wholeness has remained unobserved in nature and elsewhere because it has remained unobserved in the mind: thinking in time, we remain unaware of the thinking before time that partakes in wholeness.  
In this thinking every thought is linked to others in in the same way as Orestes’ destiny is linked to that of his family, and that of his family to the totality of Greek myth. Every concept is embedded in a body of meaning like a fingernail on a finger: the existence of a spoon necessitates that of a fork, a fork that of a knife. The concept of cutlery implies that of tools and tools that of technology and so on. The links between a spoon and CD player may not be immediately obvious, but they are there in the same way as the links between the fingernails and the optic nerve: far apart for immediate perception and yet related through the overarching reality in which they exist.
Language mirrors these overarching realities. The preposition ‘in’ immediately implies that there is an ‘out’ - and everything in-between as well as adjacent to it: invoking every possible relationship be it spatial or otherwise: ‘in’ thus derives its meaning through the context in which it exists, and how it, as an isolated entity, is intimately related to this context.
This may sound terribly abstract. Yet it is on the back of such seemingly terrible abstractions that we understand even the simplest things. We are composers inside a complex music we don’t even know exists. We handle this music as we handle the grammar of our mother tongue: with utmost perfection, without knowing the laws.
We are too occupied with the one-at-a-time products of the mind to give heed to their production, too focused on the particular to see the whole. We forget that we can only understand the part because we have already, albeit unconsciously, understood the whole.
Heraclitus, the most profound of early Greek philosophers, called this sphere of wholeness the Logos, of which he said:

Although the Logos is common to all, many live as if their thinking was their own. They separate from the Logos with which they are in touch at every moment, and therefore the Logos on which they depend at all times remains foreign to them….

Today we must not remain foreign to a realm on which every thought and hence every one of our actions depends. Oracular culture was still aware of this realm and contacted it through rituals. It is the same realm from which artists draw their inspiration, scientists their insights and inventors their innovations. Most importantly it is the realm we must draw from more consciously if we wish to think thoughts that contribute constructively to the world, that is thoughts that do not forget the wholeness on which they, as well as everything else, depends.
Admittedly direct contact to this realm requires philosophic rigour and meditative dedication. But there are other, easier, more indirect approaches: one of them is through imagination and metaphor.
Metaphors, by virtue of their innate connectivity, emphasise wholeness. They connect where the intellect separates. They join hitherto isolated things and establish a surprising, yet in hindsight obvious, relationship: They provide a moment of poetic evidence. And in that moment we have a glimpse of the wholeness that the intellect hides. A window opens into a trans-temporal world. We feel satisfied because context has been restored, and wholeness renewed.
The moment we think in images we approach wholeness. We engage with realities in which before and after, cause and effect, are relative rather than absolute. Time is not the irreversible arrow shot by the archer of accidental creation. It is a translator of tacit knowledge, the medium through which potential becomes manifest.
Seen from this perspective the future appears less arbitrary. It exists as immanent potential. It has intent present in a fluid state that allows for freedom. Metaphors invite this intent to dawn on the horizon of the mind. They are mobile enough to resonate the fluid state of potentials in transit. Open where the intellect is closed, they offer an antidote to isolation. They are remedial, particularly when used in community.
This makes the development of our metaphoric mind more than an entertaining pastime. It offers an alternative mode of cognition that can complement the one we already have. Above all it provides a canvas for the future to paint itself unobstructed from the limitation of the intellect.
This makes the work with metaphor a first, modest and yet very real beginning for capacities that may initiate a new paradigm. 

The Remorse of Orestes, from Wikipedia 

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