Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Myth & object

Plato frequently shows Socrates inventing myths. Whatever one may think about why this is (shelves have been written about it), I regard the interface between philosophy and myth as of paramount significance; it is neither an accident of genealogy or an idiosyncrasy of certain writers.

A myth is a kind of fiction, but unlike ordinary fiction its denizens seem to have not less but more reality than the inhabitants of our ordinary and familiar world. There is a curious parallel between mythification and what Viktor Shklovsky called ostranenie or "defamiliarization," a notion I have had recourse to before. The latter effect renders us "estranged" from the familiar, usually by some striking trope or vivid description, inflecting the ordinary in such a way as to show it shot through either with significance or with an uncanny refusal of significance. Mythification can also effect this, not however by contrasting the ordinary with some conventional setting (making it stand out against it), but rather precisely by placing it into such a conventional system. "The wine-dark sea," "flashing-helmeted Hector", and so on, are only the smallest-scale examples of the workings of such a system, which extended as far as vast interpretive parallels between various events, natural phenomena, and concepts. These equivalences are indeed conventional, i.e., "arbitrary," and philosophy must address itself to understanding them as such, because treating them as "natural" is just superstitious. But philosophy's myths are meant to indicate their own fictitious status in a way that does not undermine the effect of estrangement, but rather produces it in a particularly philosophical mode. A conscious mode, I want to say, though that's only partly accurate.

The long-time reader of SCT will note that this notion has some resonance with earlier posts on fiction, theme, and secondary worlds. Or, to refer back to just yesterday, the whole notion of defamiliarization is a close parallel to the seeing of an object as "withdrawn"--the perplexing or even uncanny vorhanden hammer instead of the friendly, accessible zuhanden one, or (to switch from Heidegger to Sartre) the eerie, nausea-inducing tree-root that refuses any appellation rather than the one to which the word "root" obligingly adheres.

(Part of these reflections was sparked by reading chapter 4 of Thomas Pavel's Fictional Worlds.)

1 comment:

  1. "A myth is a kind of fiction, but unlike ordinary fiction its denizens seem to have not less but more reality than the inhabitants of our ordinary and familiar world."

    I don't think this works as a criterion of distinction between myth and fiction.

    The denizens of a work of fiction can also have a more palpable "reality", or in plain words, a greater hold on our imagination, than actual persons, e.g., Sherlock Holmes, Othello, Hamlet, etc.

    If you say that you were trying to make a distinction between myth and “ordinary fiction”, then the question is: What do you mean by “ordinary fiction”? Do you mean “fiction of inferior quality?

    In that case, you should also make a distinction between great or powerful myths and lesser or inferior myths.

    If you do, then what really is the difference between a great work of fiction and a great myth and between inferior fiction and inferior myth?

    In this context, what do you make of the metamorphosis of myth into religion?

    Ramayana and Mahabharata are myths, great works of fiction, but their main heroes, Rama and Krishna respectively, have become the central objects of religious worship and have acquired the status of religious cult deities in Hinduism.

    Religious worship necessarily requires the transfiguration of the characters and events in myth. One can only worship, in a religious way, that which is far greater and vastly more powerful than oneself.

    Therefore, in this process of religious transfiguration, the characters and events in myth now assume a greater reality than ordinary persons and events.

    It is this process of religious appropriation and transfiguration which sets myth apart from fiction. Otherwise, there is no distinction between a great work of fiction and a great myth.

    But it’s all gigantic hoax of religion, this transfiguration of fictional characters and events into ones with a literally greater reality and significance than ordinary human beings and events!

    Could it be that philosophy participates in the perpetuation of this hoax (E.g., Plato's "Noble Lie"?) by usurping the use of myth from religion?