Dolores Brien reviews Sophia Heller's new work The Absence of Myth, in which the author aims to deconstruct theories that consider myth to be essential to our psychic and spiritual well-being.
Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Dolores E. Brien
The Ghost at the Back Door
The Absence of Myth
by Sophia Heller
(State University of New York Press, 2006)
Dolores E. Brien
Living long outside of myth,human thought has emptied the word myth of its original value and turned it into a concept that mirrors those who use and study it.
Sophia Hellers The Absence of Myth is certain to arouse controversy among those who look to myth as a remedy for our religious and psychological malaise. Hellers aim is to deconstruct theories that consider myth to be essential to our psychic and spiritual well-being, despite an apparent consensus that there are no longer living myths. The problem, as Heller sees it, is that although myth is declared dead, it has not been properly buried. Myth persists today but as a mere ghost of itself, coaxed through the back door by those who believe that myth can fill the void resulting from the failure of religious traditions and the culture as a whole to provide meaning and purpose. As a result myth has become an unwitting pawn in the debate on the meaning of life. Even to propose, as some have done, a myth of mythlessness signals a reluctance to let go of myth, to bury it once and for all.
The "absent myth" is defined by Heller as original, archaic myth, sacred narratives that expressed for a people the reality and truth in which they lived. Our modern world, however, has been thoroughly demythologized, the consequence of a process that began as far back as the Greeks who were the first to subject their myths to criticism. Myths demise is nowhere more evident than in the common use of the word "myth" to mean that which is false, a fantasy, a liea contradiction of archaic myths which were accepted as truth itself. Today, such myths are no longer lived or experienced as the reality they once were, but have become a subject for historical or hermeneutical studies.
In this rigorous and exhaustive work, Heller targets mythologists known chiefly to other mythologists, but also well-known figures in Jungian depth psychology circles, such as Joseph Campbell, Jean Shinoda Bolen, James Hollis, Adolph Güggenbuhl-Craig, Christopher Hauke, Maureen Murdock, Christine Downing, and Polly Young-Eisendrath, among others. She charges these theorists with continuing to make the case that myth is a viable source of psychological and spiritual insight. In Hellers view, clinging to myth amounts, in effect, to an unwillingness to deal with the psychological or spiritual as they relate to our actual, existent, here-and-now human condition.
Hellers response to this reluctance to bury myth is developed in four chapters, bookended by an introduction and a conclusion. In the first chapter, which bears the title of the book, Heller examines contemporary theories of myth that, paradoxically, she argues, could develop only because of myths absence. Living long outside of myth, human thought has emptied the word myth of its original value and turned it into a concept that mirrors those who use and study it. The second, The Personalization of Myth explores the notion of personal myth as the consequence of myths absence. Though it may profess otherwise, the personal myth approach does not and cannot seek to remedy this absence, because it utterly depends on it. Its philosophy basically says that what the collective has lost, the individual can and should reclaim. The third chapter, The Lingering of Myth asks how is it that myth lives on amid the general acknowledgement of the lack of a transcendent God.? Heller finds an answer in the postmodern style that opts for imagination and alternating perspectives over literalized and fixated assumptions as to the nature of reality. In chapter four, The Negation of Myth, the author aims, as she says, to give the benefit of the doubt to myth by considering the possibility that the persistence of myth has another underlying aim which is a striving for consciousness. But then she raises the question is the idea of pure consciousness itself a myth?
Chapter 2, The Personalization of Myth will probably provoke the greatest response and dissent, certainly among Jungians, but also among the purveyors of myth by means of self-help and new age media. Heller critically examines, in this chapter, the assumption underlying much of the current interest in myth: although the collective experience of myth may be dead, myth lives on internalized in the individual.
This assumption found, if not its source, certainly its confirmation, in C.G. Jung. In the Prologue to Memories, Dreams, Reflections, which Heller cites, Jung declared that he has undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only tell stories. Whether or not the stories are true is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth. Midway through MDR, Jung comments that when he asked himself whether he "lived in myth," he was compelled to answer: No, he did not. Myth is not what he lived by. "Then do we no longer have any myth? No evidently, we no longer have any myth."[my italics] "But then," he asked himself what is your myththe myth in which you do live?"
Heller notes that in the original German text, the phrase personal myth does not exist. Jung actually said: to tell the myth of my life, which as she sees it, is closer to the idea of myth as the fictitious. It suggests an awareness of the subtly drawn line between what is true and what is story, but also an acknowledgement of myth as a better and more appropriate way to explore and give expression to what constitutes the inner life of the individual including dreams and visions as well as thoughts. Jungs myth is understood to mean my story, my subjective viewpoint, my critical self-reflection. This can come only from the individual, because no one has else access to ones inner subjective reality.
The problem for Heller resides not in the personal story, but in reading it as a mythology that would seek a higher, archetypal, more authoritative truth or meaning to ones life. The dilemma arises in the assurance that this higher meaning unequivocally exists and is available for the taking, or rather, reclaiming. Wolfgang Giegerich, in his essay The End of Meaning, provides an apt example (not cited by Heller). Jung tells of a woman who seemed possessed in her search for meaning because of the emptiness of her life. And Jung comments: But if she could say, I am the Daughter of the Moon. Every night I must help the Moon, my Mother over the horizonah! that is something else! Then she lives, then her life makes sense, and makes sense in all continuity for the whole of humanity. It is this co-opting of myth for ones own personal fulfillment that Giegerich and Heller criticize. This is a quite different matter than telling ones story as a means of self-reflection and understanding. True myths on the contrary are never personal or subjective, but the experience of a collective.
Why, Heller asks, must ones life story be glorified as myth? To attempt to find personal meaning in myth, according to Heller, is to inflate oneself, to make oneself more important, more unique than one actually is. It is to seek a self-validation whose authority, however, comes from outside oneself, from the archetypes. She criticizes the adoption of mythic themes such as the heros journey and the descent into the underworld as templates or as a program through which to find personal meaning. Such myths cannot fulfill that expectation because they represent another mode of being which has long since become obsolete. What we call myth was for premodern humans an entire world in which they were completely immersed. My myth, on the other hand, is no longer really myth, but a psychological stratagem to compensate for the loss of meaning.
To seek in myth a direction for ones life, claims Heller, is to turn away from the realities of the circumstances of the present in which one lives. It stands in the way of attaining that level of consciousness that is awake to the conditions under which we now exist and only through which we can expect to find meaning. This is, for me, the most challenging of Hellers objections to personal myth. It asks for a closer scrutiny of the Jungian emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual that ignores the fact that the individual is not at all singular or unique to the extent that, like all other individuals, he or she has been formed by and immersed in a specific historic time, place, and given culture.
This focus on the individual stems partly at least from Jung who famously said that the individual alone matters because only the individual can transform the world.
If things go wrong in the world, this is because something is wrong with the individual, because something is wrong with me. Therefore, if I am sensible, I shall put myself right first. For this I needbecause outside authority no longer means anything to mea knowledge of the innermost foundations of my being, in order that I may base myself firmly on the eternal facts of the human psyche.
In that same lecture, however, in speaking of dreams, Jung said: Moreover, every individual problem is somehow connected with the problem of the age, so that practically every subjective difficulty has to be viewed from the standpoint of the human situation as a whole. But then in the following sentence Jung adds: But this is permissible only when the dream really is a mythological one and makes use of collective symbols. But these dreams, he continues, are those that the primitives called big dreams. Returning to Heller, she finds this leads to self-inflation; moreover, it is delusive because as modern humans we no longer have access to these collective symbols such as the premodern human had.
Heller digresses to discuss what she calls self-writing as a way to discover ones own myth. She takes a hard line towards the practice that is currently very popular particularly for its therapeutic value. Heller finds self-writing as much a means of creating a self as it is about a recollection of and meditation on ones personal story. It represents a desire to memorialize oneself, to prove that ones life has been worth something, has had some meaning. Self-writing is used as a means of overcoming our insignificance and offers the pleasure of leisurely lingering before oneself. Self-writing is an egoic act and delusional because we live in a time that not only has declared the death of myth and the death of God, but also the death of the self and with it the end of self-writing. Hellers judgment is derived from that postmodernist view which denies the possibility of a coherent, objective self. Self-writing amounts to self-construction. There is no real or essential self to write about.
Heller works within a postmodern frameworkthat complex of ideas and attitudes prevailing in contemporary Western culture which aims to deconstruct (among much else) ways of knowing that claim to be universal or total, so-called metanarratives. In Chapter 3, The Lingering of Myth she writes from a postmodern perspective filtered through Jungian lenses, exposing those corners still haunted by the ghost of myth namely: in mythopoesis (in which myth is deemed not given but made); in myth as archetype and metaphor (in which archetypal psychology is examined); in the substitution of simulated myth as sufficient to compensate for the absence of myth; and the problem of the in-between (an approach to resolving myths absence by equivocation: the present/absence of myth.)
In the last chapter, The Negation of Myth, Hellers discourse leaves the Jungian postmodernists to follow Wolfgang Giegerichs Hegelian pathway. What I mean by negated myth, she tells us, is the penetration into the nature of myth itself such that its form has no choice but to dissolve, to give way to the consciousness that has endeavored to comprehend the myth. In other words, she will argue that myth falls away as a new form of consciousness emerges. She explores such issues as why not myth, the inessentiality of myth and what comes after myth in which she examines, among other things, what the end of myth means for Christianity.
In her Introduction Heller states that those who hold firmly on to myth as a source of meaning will likely turn a deaf ear to words of myths obsolescence. That is true, but there will be those who do listen and remain open, but are not yet fully persuaded. I am one of them. The problem, as I see it, is the narrowness of Hellers approach which is limited to a strictly rational exegesis. This is certainly not wrong and is essential to understanding the problem. But I think there is a distinction to be made here between rationality and thought or thinking. As Wolfgang Giegerich has eloquently argued, philosophical thought has everything it needs within itself and doesnt need something outside it to complete it. But is rational thought identical with philosophical thought or to put it in reverse is philosophic thought exclusively rational thought? Myth and mythmaking are not rational but imaginal, not logical but intuitive, symbolic. On this account should they be excluded from the idea of thought? Thought about myth cannot be purely rational thought and to leave it as such is to leave the thought incomplete. Hellers work is entirely justified in its own right, necessary and useful, but it is not complete, leaving myth without access to the fullness of thought.
Heller is much concerned about self-inflation which results from seeking archetypal meaning in myth. My impression is that she may have come to this judgment after researching self-help and new age sources, which do foster this aggrandizement of the individual with the use of myth or mythic themes. I doubt, however, that this is always or even predominantly the case. I believe people are drawn to myth as to other resources primarily to understand their psychological and spiritual situation and not to seek reassurance that their personal experience has some kind of archetypal significance.
As I mentioned, Heller is critical with self-writing, which she believes is an egoistic practice, to give the individual an importance he or she otherwise do not have. Again, I believe she is mistaken in this. The feminist movement was born of womens telling their stories to one another. That was what consciousness-raising was all about. By sharing our stories we came to value and to trust experience over against institutional, social and cultural norms and expectations. Was this an exercise in self-aggrandizement or a means of self-discovery. As I recall, we had no interest in some overarching narrative Meaning. According to Polly Young-Eisendrath, by telling our individual stories women were developing (whether they were aware of it or not) a feminist epistemology, a feminist theory about how women come to know and recognize themselves in the world.
The difficulty, of course, are the different meanings given to myth and mythmaking. Heller does not allow much latitude here inasmuch as she insists on defining myth strictly as a narrative which is deemed sacred and which is lived as an all-embracing, total experience. This is not, obviously, what is meant by myth as it is most frequently used today. But there is another problem here, which I found troubling, that has to do with Hellers apparent acceptance of the postmodern dissolution of the individual as an indisputable reality. Has postmodernism brought us to a level of human consciousness beyond which we cannot go?
Myths are found, not made, anonymous in their origin. Heller claims that the mode of being, for those who live in and by a myth, is different from our own, modern mode of being. Certainly, the modern human has become as much a creature of technology as its creator to an extent inconceivable in premodern or ancient times. But nevertheless, we cannot claim to belong to a different order of being. On the contrary, we have only to think about the persistence, for instance, of tribalism from the archaic world up to the great world wars of the twentieth century to the current Middle East conflict. There is continuity with that archaic past and not as much of a distinction as Heller seems to suggest. It is the poet more than the philosopher who reminds us that we will always return to our past which can often only be reached through our imaginations. We want a beginning to the story, Margaret Atwood tells us.
And we go as far ahead in the future as we can. We want an end to the story. And thats not going to be just us getting born and us dying. We want to be able to place ourselves within a larger story. Heres where we came from. Heres where were going in some version or another. And when you die this is what happens. And some of these stories are happier than other of those stories. But theres always more. Theres always there and then. And then what happened?
The individual too has the same need. The telling of ones story is the desire to place ourselves within a larger story, not for grandiose reasons, nor even to find Meaning in doing that, but rather, to understand just what was and is going on in this life I am living at this particular moment in history. Despite the radical disruption of postmodernism, there remains, and I venture to guess will always remain, a desire for continuity. To be in touch with ones past is to be in touch with the fullness of ones humanity.
And then there is this question: When we speak of myths demise how are we to understand religious belief such as that of Islam and of Christianity? Heller makes two references to Christianity. She views it as a shift from the logos of myth to the Logos itself, Gods word, making myth unnecessary. But Christianitys destiny is the same as that of myth; it too is becoming obsolete. Myth is dead, but psychologically so is Western religion. No one argues that archaic myth is dead, despite the reluctance to bury it. It is not so certain with religion, with Christianity or Islam. At least two Jungian psychologists, namely, John Dourley and Lionel Corbett acknowledge the decline and eventual death of institutional Christianity but teach that it survives in essence within the individual. This seems to be much the same argument made by those who believe myth lives having been transferred to the individual psyche. In any case, this is an issue which was admittedly beyond the scope of Hellers study but not irrelevant to it.
The Absence of Myth is an intensely, closely reasoned work, that courageously challenges attitudes towards myth and the uses to which it is put. In doing so, Heller opens up the opportunity for a much needed dialogue on this subject that has such an important place in Jungian thought and therapeutic practice. I have had to oversimplify her complex argument. I undoubtedly have misunderstood much along the way. Neither a psychologist or mythologist, I read it from the vantage (or disadvantage) of the lay person. In the long run, such important ideas cannot remain framed forever in abstract language, although they may begin there. They need, at some point, to be let loose to inform those whose lives are affected by them.
copyright 2006 Dolores Brien. All rights reserved.