Sunday :: Apr 3, 2005

Pontificating Myths

by larre
"The dominant myth that informs a person or a culture is like the 'information' contained in the DNA of a cell, or the program in the systems disk of a computer. Myth is the cultural DNA, the software, the unconscious information, the program that governs the way we see 'reality' and behave." -- Sam Keene
So what if Fox News once again got the facts wrong and pronounced the pope dead a couple of hours before he actually expired? What's the big deal? As Fox's very own Shepard Smith said at mid-day yesterday while brushing aside the Vatican's insistence that the pope was still alive:
"The exact time of death, I think, is not something that matters so much at this moment... for we will be reliving John Paul's life for many days and weeks and even years and decades and centuries to come."
Reading that kind of gassy nonsense and watching all the obscure priests and insipid church-watchers ponderously pontificating about the intricate rituals of declaring one pope dead and electing another, you may tempted to mutter to yourself, as I am, "why should I care?" Why does the life or death of the head of a medieval-minded church (one I was born into, I must confess), that has a membership liberally pegged by its own admission at only 17% of the world's population, matter in this modern age?

There are times when pop psyche offers an efficient way of glancing in the mirror to see what's going on with us. In the midst of intense sentimentality over the pope's death, persistently execrable media coverage of the unfortunate matter of Mrs. Terri Schaivo et famille, continuing controversy over the wacky shenanigans of English royalty and the humiliating high costs in moral stature, lives, and money being expended by Bush's myth-inspired war against Iraq -- this may be such a time.

So, naturally, I turn to Psychology Today. And there I found what may be the answer to why we should care. It is not the fact of the pope's death that matters. It's how we see the story is being told -- by the media, by our friends and neighbors, by ourselves to ourselves -- and the unconscious myths we are absorbing from that.

In a six year-old article titled The Stories We Live By editor Sam Keene offered some insights that I have found useful these past few weeks. "When we look at the panorama of the 20th century," he writes, "it's clearly been shaped as much by unconscious myth as by conscious science." At the very least, Keene suggessts, we humans are not yet the rational animals we like to think we are. At the worst, our prevailing notions that we are so modern are just as mythical, and destructive, as any religious dogma.

Let Keene explain:

Ancient stories such as those of birth and rebirth [of Christ] still have a powerful place in our society and our psyches. They endure despite a tidal wave of science and technology that has changed not only the landscape of our cities but our fundamental notions of the nature and destiny of humankind. The wave of "rationality" has not washed our psyches clean of myth. Rather, it has altered the stories we tell about ourselves and replaced old myths with new ones (such as the myths of "progress," and "modernity"), which it insists are not myths at all but "factual" accounts of objective reality.

When we look at the panorama of the 20th century, it's clearly been shaped as much by unconscious myth as by conscious science. In the salad years of our century, Freud and Jung warned that beneath the veneer of reason, mythic struggles between Oedipus and the Father, Eros and Thanatos, Ego and Id are always being played out in the psyche. And indeed they were right.

In politics we have witnessed the demonic power of myths of race and nation -- blood-dreams of an Aryan Reich, a pure Yamato people, lily-white suburbs. And in God's name various militant neo-fundamentalists throughout the world have sown hatred, mounted crusades and killed millions in new holy wars.

Meanwhile, East and West have been poised on the edge of an apocalyptic battle ready to exterminate life to defend their sacred myths, their "isms." In the Vietnam War era we watched a great nation, unable to break the spell of such mythic metaphors as "domino effect" and "containment of Communism," descend into tragedy.

And everywhere that technology has carried the myth of progress, entire species of our animal kin are dying and watersheds are being polluted by insecticides that promised better living through chemistry. Far from marching into a rational future, the myth and politics of modernity have unleashed the dread possibility that we may indeed end our collective storytelling -- and our story on this planet -- with a bang or a whimper.

Essentially, Keene first lays out the standard case that myths are created as a way of organizing society around a collection of values "always personified in a pantheon of heros... and villains... ." But he goes beyond that to suggest that when we subsciribe to the myths we also imbibe "an unconscious, habitual way of seeing things, an invisible stew of unquestioned assumptions."
A living myth, like an iceberg, is only 10 percent visible; 90 percent lies beneath the surface of consciousness of those who live by it. Outsiders to a system of myths -- whether anthropologists, tourists or therapists -- can see it, but it's nearly invisible to those inside. As the saying goes, "We don't know who discovered water, but we are sure it wasn't a fish."
To illustrate, he offers a short list of conflicting cultural myths that have contemporary echoes:
Differing cultural myths make Methodists unthinkingly munch hamburgers and Hindus worship cows, or make roast dog a delicacy in China and an outrage in America. Each culture unwittingly "conspires" to consider its myths as the truth -- the way things "really" are. The average American, for instance, would consider the potlatch feast in which Indian tribes in the Northwest systematically destroy their wealth as irrational and myth-ridden, but not the suburban weekend habit of browsing in malls and throwing away money on expansive, unnecessary technotoys. We view the Moslem notion of "jihad," holy war, as a dangerous myth but the invasion of Grenada as a political necessity.

* * *
We can see the dual nature of myth in many of the problems we face as a nation and as individuals. Consider, for example, the myth of the individual that is central to the American psyche and the American body politic. A profound respect for the individual's rights and freedoms led to the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. They limit the power of government and preserve the highest degree of freedom to do business and exploit our natural resources.

But the same mythic vision of a nation of individuals also gives birth to a form of loneliness, anomie and alienation that makes it difficult to deal with our largest social problems. We relish the freedom to do our own thing but cannot marshal the national will to create, for example, a health-care system for our old and disadvantaged. Our sense of individuality is often too strong and our sense of community too weak to motivate us to promote the common good--for our fellow humans or for the natural environment we all share. So the acid rain falls on the just and the unjust, and we're ambivalent about what -- and how much -- the government should do about the homeless, air pollution, the greenhouse effect, traffic jams.

In other words, there is an objective reality. When that reality collides with our carefully nurtured myths, in Keene's words, "we need to reinvent ourselves" and rewrite our myths.

I think that's what's going on with the pope's death and the coming election of a new pope. Important myths are being edited, rewritten, absorbed by new generations. The negligible parts are details like when he died, how the news was transmitted by email, whether his head was hit with silver hammer, how a successor will be chosen, etc. etc. The more important parts are embedded in the socially organizing myths we are telling ourselves about who he was and what he did and did not do well.

It's not history that's being told. It's our future.

larre :: 8:58 AM :: Comments (9) :: Digg It!