Thursday, March 27, 2008

Deconstructing Mythologies

Deconstructing a mythology takes a long time.

I'm not speaking here about analyzing the cultural and psychological aspects of ancient mythologies and pre-Christian pantheons (people who might have accidentally stumbled here looking for this type of exploration, allow me to send you on to a truly excellent blog called Between Old and New Moons). Rather, I'm speaking about the cultural stories that we tell ourselves--even today in a modern Western world that so thoroughly assures us that we've left mythology behind--stories that shape our understanding of identity, community, truth, and meaning. What do we do when we have the sneaking suspicion that the stories we tell ourselves are doing more harm than good? How do we deconstruct the "meta-narrative" (as postmodernism would put it)? How do we gain perspective, step back and take a good look at the water that we fishes are swimming in? How do we deconstruct and redefine these stories, how do we create new stories that will help us to shape our lives in new and perhaps better ways?

This question has been on my mind for quite a while now. Working ever more deeply into the mythologies and particular worldview of Druidry, I've started to notice how distinctly it contrasts the stories told to me by modern Western culture. For instance, the very notion that we are so strongly shaped by story is in some ways central to the Bardic mysteries of the Druid path. A notion that I have not seen acknowledged or articulated so well in most other religious traditions--not even in the Catholicism in which I was raised, though that tradition does utilize the power of myth very effectively. Luckily for me, I've always been a poet, a writer and to some extent a storyteller. Perhaps some neophytes to Druidry would find this centrality of story and myth to be counterintuitive at first, but for me, it just made sense. (It was also, I admit, rather empowering for me, as a "starving artist" type who had grown up feeling like poetry had only one of two fates in the modern world: to be tamed and enlisted in the service of the mainstream, or to be marginalized and rendered irrelevant by it.)

This idea of story-shaping came up again for me recently while reading Daniel Quinn's novel, Ishmael, in which the narrator engages in a kind of Socratic dialogue with a telepathic gorilla, exploring concepts of identity, captivity, mythology, history, culture and progress in the modern mind. Over the course of the novel, Ishmael and the narrator deconstruct vast assumptions inherent in "Taker" mythology--about how things came to be this way, about man's rightful possession of the world, about his cultural amnesia and dismissal of the past, about his ability to know definitively the one right way to live while also professing a fundamental ignorance that leads him to destroy the very world he would transform into a utopia... And while all of this is interesting, most of it was also very familiar to me already. I'd already wondered at the oddness of the Genesis story about the Tree of Knowledge and the Fall of Man. I'd already questioned the paradox of asserting man's unconditional and rightful control over the world, while mourning his apparent incompetence at fulfilling what was supposedly his destiny. I'd already learned, by watching nature all my young life, about the very simple "peace-keeping law" of live-and-let-live, of belonging to the world rather than trying to claim it for your own. (In fact, I'd even written a sonnet in high school that began: "I know I cannot claim this world as mine...")

What really fascinated me about this book was its exploration of the conflict between different mythological worldviews, how they interact, and the relative futility of trying to argue one's way out from the inside. I know there is a wonderful quote about precisely this issue, but I've just spent two hours scanning the book and I can't find it (urgh!), so you'll have to trust me that it's in there. Deconstructing a mythology takes a long time. It may even take a lifetime, since after all it took many lifetimes for such a mythology--for Mother Culture--to build up and build up, to come up with answers to every possible question and objection. This is why books like Ishmael and texts like Plato's dialogues, even when they are successful, often leave a reader feeling frustrated. No one text can undo all the work that a lifetime of subtle assumption and reinforcement has accomplished (and no one blog post can do it, either), so instead they ask question after question to which the ready-made answers provided by Mother Culture become increasingly dissatisfying. These texts do not ask questions for which there are no answers--Mother Culture almost always has an answer ready, no matter how flimsy it might be on closer examination--and it would be a mistake to think that because they don't succeed in check-mating the current mythology with a question it cannot answer, that they have simply failed or been a waste of time. The goal of these texts is to point out the bars of the cage, to bring to the foreground our own dissatisfaction with the story we've been enacting. After all, we cannot break free of a cage if we cannot see the bars.

But there are also other kinds of texts. Usually slim, simple, straight-to-the-point little books that look modest, even humble in their aims. But the power of these texts is that they offer a new story about who we are, how we do or should live, and why. With other texts doing the work of pointing out the bars, these books slip us the cake with the file hidden inside. Because, as the narrator of Quinn's novel points out, "People can't just give up a story. That's what the kids tried to do in the sixties and seventies. They tried to stop living like Takers, but there was no other way for them to live. They failed because you can't just stop being in a story, you have to have another story to be in."

Of course, telling a new story, giving ourselves a new myth, doesn't mean the new one will be better than the old one, or even all that different. I guarantee you most high schoolers will have read at least one or two of these kinds of books. There's Descartes' Discourse on Method, there's Marx's Communist Manifesto, there's Machiavelli's The Prince. And what most of these books have in common is that they spend only a little time critiquing the current mythology, and then they set it aside to tell their own story. Descartes, for instance, talks about God and the nonmaterial only long enough to assert a fundamental disjoint between mind and matter, the nonmaterial and the material--but already this is a new story, a whole new way of talking and thinking about mind, the self and the nonmaterial. His reasons for declaring this disjoint are obvious (he needs to set up his arguments for science in a way that won't send the Church after him for blasphemy). And so, the reader asks no other justification for such an assertion, not realizing that this new story now holds this unchallenged duality at its very heart and depends upon it.

A similar phenomenon goes on all the time among particular social or cultural groups within larger society. For instance, a story I've heard circulating among scientific atheists recently is that they're a persecuted minority and that science is in danger of being lost under the waves of anti-intellectualism rampant among misguided religious believers. Now of course, I look around a see huge amounts of time and money being funneled into the sciences on all levels of education and industry--I see some of my close friends being paid to attend grad school and further their education, while I have to wait tables just to buy myself time to write poetry and silly ol' blog posts--I even see religious believers embracing, applauding and utilizing sciences in their everyday lives, and even sometimes to support and deepen their spiritual beliefs--and this story sounds like nonsense to me. What could they possibly mean when they say science is in danger?

What they mean, of course, is not that science as a method is being threatened. After all, as a practical technique for discovering useful information about the world and how it works, science has secured its legacy over the past couple hundred years and it's unlikely to be displaced by less practical methods any time soon (even the fundamentalist Christians and creationists have taken to using pseudo-science to justify their beliefs, an effort bound to benefit science more than creationism under the inevitable closer scrutiny of thinkers to come). What this particular cultural group is worried about is not the loss of their method, but the loss of the mythology which gives them a particular self- and community-identity within a larger cultural context, and which shapes that larger cultural context as a whole.

After all, the supremacy of science as the single best way of "knowing things about the world" (i.e. science as a mythology or ideology, rather than as a working method) is just the latest manifestation of the Taker mythology that the world belongs to man and it is his destiny to control it. To propose, as many religious people do, that the world belongs to man through God is a dangerous step away from humanity's self-proclaimed autonomy. It's not so far a leap to move from this idea to the idea that man, in fact, belongs to God (or the gods) and that, therefore, man actually belongs to the world, and not the reverse. If people begin to change the story they tell about themselves, if they begin to see themselves as belonging to the world instead of possessing it, then science and other methods for attaining knowledge of and control over how the world works, while still useful, will no longer of primary importance. This is why "anti-intellectualism" is an accusation thrown at religious fundamentalists, while "snobbery" and laughable irrelevance are thrust upon anyone who reasonably and quietly questions science's current primacy, even when that person is, herself, highly educated in other fields such as philosophy, theology or political theory. (Okay, yes, someone over at Cosmic Variance called me a snob when I insisted that philosophy and the history of ideas is something worth knowing. So it is a bit personal.)

Most of us get this. We know that scientific atheists naturally feel threatened by religious fundamentalists. So when they declare (with the fundamentalists' whole-hearted agreement) that religion and science are at war with one another, most of us let this assumption slide without demanding a justification. But this is exactly the kind of mistake we first made with Descartes and his mind-matter dualism. No argument stemming from the basic assumption that religion and science are mutually exclusive will succeed in changing anyone's mind on either side, because we're still trying to argue our way out from within a shared mythology. We've already seen that this type of arguing doesn't work--the best it can do is illuminate our dissatisfaction (and I think it's safe to say that this is exactly what it accomplishes). Sometimes bringing this dissatisfaction to light is helpful and moves us in the direction where we can begin to formulate alternatives. This is the case in texts like Quinn's and the Socratic dialogues, when the discussion is framed civilly between comrades both seeking a greater mutual understanding. When couched in terms of ideological wars between cultural groups, however, such dissatisfaction is often just chocked up to the inherent frustration of dealing with such stubborn idiots, and so we miss our chance to think more creatively about its root causes.

I think I've worn myself out on this topic. I know you must be heart-broken. I have more to say, about poetry and faeries and coincidence, but I'll leave that for another day...


  1. Let me start by saying I haven't read Ishmael as recently as you. I read it more than two years ago.

    I think what I didn't like, at the end of the book, was not quite what you might think. Quinn sets it up such that any and all dissatisfaction with the thesis of his book must come, and can only come, from the voice of "mother culture". This voice, he says, is unconscious, and ever-present, and always resists any ideas contrary to its program. In other words, if you don't like what Quinn says, it's only because you're still hypnotised by Mother Culture. It can't be because of any flaws on his part. And that strikes me as intellectually dishonest. No one should claim infallability like that.

    At the risk of sounding a little arrogant, I for my part am not so controlled by 'mother culture' as to feel a need to defend it from foreign thinking. My life has been a sustained argument against mother culture. What I didn't like was the way I thought his central questions too simple, and his answers too simple, his explanation of the problems of the world entirely too simple. As if the whole of human history and thought could just be swept away, and entirely replaced with just his book, and no other!

    Granted, his purpose is to introduce environmental ideas to readers who have probably never encountered them before. In that respect, his book is remarkably successful. And I did appreciate the Socratic-dialogue style of writing. But from there one should move on.

    Anyway, if you do pick up the sequel, "My Ishmael", let me know what you think.

  2. Hmm... I certainly see what you're saying... But I'm not sure how much I would agree with it, exactly.

    For instance, since it is a novel and not a formal philosophical treatise, I'm not sure how fair it is to assume Quinn was attempting to propose a complete and self-sufficient system of thought. For me, the simplicity seemed a natural result of the dialogue form and not inherent to the philosophical ideas themselves; likewise, then, I think it would certainly be easy to disagree with some of the ideas Quinn proposes without simply being dismissed as "brainwashed by Mother Culture," especially since the nature of Mother Culture and its particular kinds of influence are pretty well detailed over the course of the book. On the other hand, it does force you to take on the responsibility of explaining exactly how your argument is distinct from some of those underlying assumptions.

    In some ways, I think the book's simplicity, far from being detrimental, is actually an asset. I don't happen to think that Quinn's main focus was merely ecology and environmental awareness, as you suggest (though I could be wrong, perhaps this was his stated purpose, and either way it obviously plays a large role in the book)... Rather, the division between world and humanity, the discussions of mythology, identity, community, morality, etc. all have far-reaching implications in politics, economics, science, religion and even fields like anthropology, history and aesthetics. Reducing the book to a discussion of environmentalism alone doesn't do the work justice, in my opinion, especially since Ishmael claims that it was not with the Industrial Revolution that this problem began (as most environmentalists would claim), but with a particular conception of civilization itself. This is a much bigger issue than just, say, developing sustainable "green" industry.

    Another issue left up in the air--and one I think that's most uncomfortable to confront for the reader--is whether or not you even can "break away" from Mother Culture in fact, even if you begin to recognize its influence and try to resist it. That's why I very much like the bars-of-the-cage analogy. You and I may both want to believe that we're thinking and living "outside" or beyond the influence of this dominant mythology, but quite honestly, I'm not so sure that identifying the bars and actually breaking through them is the same, or that the latter necessarily and always follows from the former. For me, the death of Ishmael at the end of the book actually suggests to me that anyone managing to get by, to "get fed" and survive, is in some sense still living within that system. In some strange way, then, choosing to live in actual, literal captivity (whether like animals at the zoo, or even native peoples forced onto reservations)--which is the choice Ishmael makes at the end of the novel and which leads to his death--is actually a path to freedom, because it's refusing to work with that dominant culture's story.

    That last part is just conjecture, obviously, but for me it really complicates the message of the book, because we have to consider not just what Ishmael says as "true" (as though he were the stand-in for the author lecturing us) but look at how what he says is supported or undermined by the plot of the book itself (minimal though it may be). I think in this sense, the book is ultimately pessimistic, not because people won't discover the "bars" of culture (whatever its current form) but because it is simply fatal to actually attempt to live outside them (to "enact" rather than only "tell" another story). Obviously you personally are living, working and eating well enough these days, which suggests that as much as you are aware of or against our current cultural system, you're still functioning sufficiently within it (regardless of whether that culture is exactly like Quinn portrays it or not). Do you kind of see what I'm getting at? I think this also ties back to Ishmael's demand that the narrator justify why he should even bother discussing alternative mythologies, and insists that just wanting to know in order to know isn't enough of a reason ("Just because something isn't a waste of time isn't enough reason to do it.")

    Anyway, this response is far too long. Sorry. :)