Archive for the Mythology Category

In the Face of Armageddon: Watchmen and the Problem of Nihilism

Posted in Alan Moore, Apocalypse, armageddon, comic books, cosmicism, DC Comics, Ernest Becker, Existentialism, fiction, graphic literature, graphic novels, Kierkegaard, Literature, Love, mortality anxiety, Myth, Mythology, Nietzsche, nihilism, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, Science, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2014 by Uroboros

SPOILER WARNING

Deconstructed Superheroes

Deconstructed Superheroes

Mythic heroes are supersized embodiments of a society’s highest values, and their struggles represent its deepest fears. One way or another those fears revolve around our anxieties about death and the problem of nihilism, the belief that life is devoid of intrinsic meaning and ultimately pointless. In The Denial of Death, anthropologist Ernest Becker said hero narratives are a kind of ‘psychological armor’ that generate:

  • [A] feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning…’an immunity bath’ from the greatest evil: death and the dread of it…Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the symbolic animal.

The emergence of multi-billion dollar superhero franchises over the last fifteen years, therefore, raises some interesting sociological and philosophical questions: what do these particular narratives say about Western culture’s most cherished beliefs? How do they reflect our fears and frustrations? This is what Alan Moore and David Gibbons explored nearly thirty years ago in their groundbreaking superhero comic Watchmen. Philosopher Iain Thomson says Watchmen deconstructs “the very idea of the hero, overloading and thereby shattering this idealized reflection of humanity and so encouraging us to reflect upon its significance from the many different angles of the shards left lying on the ground.”

Smiley FaceWatchmen is set in an alternate 1980s where the existence of superheroes, especially the Superman-like Dr. Manhattan, has resulted in an American victory in Vietnam, more terms in office for Nixon, and a clear strategic advantage in the Cold War. That is until Dr. Manhattan, fed up with humanity, decides to leave earth and live on Mars, thus escalating the threat of nuclear annihilation. The future of the human race looks pretty bleak. This set-up allows Moore to dramatize various reactions to death-anxiety and nihilism. Thomson says that, with Moore’s ironic heroes, “nihilism is a natural fall-back position. It is as if…since our values are not absolute, they must be relative—their absolutism having led them falsely to assume these alternatives to be exhaustive.”

Variations on an all-or-nothing, extremist approach to nihilism are clearly expressed in The Comedian, Rorschach, and Ozzymandias. The Comedian believes life’s lack of intrinsic meaning renders the world absurd, a cosmic joke he chooses to parody with a cynical life-style ironically symbolized by his smiley face button. The Comedian pursues the American Dream by brutalizing, abusing, and killing—enjoying the carnage with a sense of glee, unconcerned with the impact it has on others—because, if the world is doomed to atomic conflagration, why worry? Be happy.

RorschachRorschach agrees that the world is meaningless, but decides to double-down on the need for moral absolutes by taking it upon himself to impose them—vigilantly, violently, if necessary—on a street level, one criminal at a time. He is an extreme deontologist: immoral acts are never tolerable even if their long term consequences are desirable. He says evil “must be punished, in the face of Armageddon I will not compromise in this.” His harsh ethical code is symbolized by his mask: “Black and white. Moving. Changing shape…But not mixing. No gray.” Thomson says Rorschach embodies the modern world’s “deep fear that we are powerless to live up to our own ideals” as well as the “even deeper fear that these ideals themselves are mere projections with which we cover over and so conceal from ourselves ‘the real horror’” i.e. the universe’s utter indifference to our efforts to make it a purposeful place.

 

Ozzymandias

Ozzymandias

Ozzymandias is the most distorted version of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch solution to modern humanity’s existential crisis. He is willing to sacrifices millions of lives in order to save humanity. He has raised himself up to a level of such megalomaniacal self-importance that he no longer feels bound by any moral principle, save the cold utilitarian calculations he thinks necessary to humanity’s long term survival. In the end, Ozzymandias has become the most despicable character in a story full of monsters masquerading as heroes. He’s a genocidal fascist.

Dr. Manhattan represents the opposite strategy. Instead of ironic engagement, he chooses apathy and detachment. His superhuman status gives him a perspective on time and space that makes humanity’s problems seem so small and petty. He reduces the universe to a clock without a maker, an accidental enterprise with no end goal in mind. “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles,” he says. “Structurally, there is no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?” Thomson argues that Dr. Manhattan embodies the scientific disenchantment of the world, “a world science takes to be intrinsically value-free, and so ultimately meaningless.”

Dr. Manhattan

Dr. Manhattan

And yet it is this very detachment and withdrawal that allows Dr. Manhattan to revise his nihilism and create new meanings. By helping Laurie re-evaluate her own existence, he comes to see each human as a “thermodynamic miracle.” The unique causal chain that culminated in the emergence of ‘Laurie,’ and every individual for that matter, is an event “with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible.” Doc’s change of heart may reflect Moore’s underlying optimism about the scientific method: by dispelling the objective existence of divinities and spirits, science by definition disenchants the world, but, by relocating the supernatural in the imagination itself, a scientific worldview also opens up the possibility for new kinds of re-enchantment. We can still find miracles in the observable cosmos, especially in the most precious thing of all: the emergence of life itself. In this way, Dr. Manhattan represents a transhumanist perspective: once humans unravel the mysteries of how our own minds and bodies work, and thus transcend the very physiological limitations that shaped us, the challenge then lies in discovering a new life-affirming sense of wonder. Or what is the point?

Dan and Laurie a.k.a. Nite Owl and Silk Specter II

Dan and Laurie a.k.a. Nite Owl and Silk Specter II

For Dan and Laurie, the point is intimacy. While the other characters are on a Nietzschean quest to create superhuman values, Dan and Laurie turn to each other and take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith into the comfort of romantic love. The horrific aftermath of Ozzymandias’ genocidal plan makes Laurie find value not only in human life itself, as Dr. Manhattan helped her see, but in the beauty of the relationships those individuals can create. “Being alive is so damn sweet,” she tells Dan. “I want you to love me because we’re not dead.” Laurie and Dan’s new truth, their new purpose, is grounded in their commitment to each other, a self-sustaining source of order and meaning.

Now, lest one think he’s selling out his ironic ethos by embracing some lovey-dovey, hippified solution to the problem of nihlism, Moore undercuts the Kierkegaardian leap when Laurie says their love smells like “Nostalgia,” a reference to a perfume ad, so Moore is perhaps suggesting that the concept of romantic love is one more commodified myth we are persuaded to buy into, one more fiction we consume in hopes of filling the existential gaps before our time on this planet is up. But if Moore is as thoroughly postmodern as he appears to be, he’ll also acknowledge that ‘commidified myths’ and ‘consumable fictions’ are all we have, so why not buy into ‘love’?

Watchmen‘s deconstruction of superhero tropes twists the function of the text by interrogating its own readers. It asks: what are you really looking for in these panels? What patterns do you see in its words and images? Which ideas and values still resonate long after you’ve closed the book? This is how great art addresses the problem of nihilism, not by teaching us what life means, but by creatively representing the complexity of the issue and giving people the space to think and draw their own conclusions. Watchmen does what all good myths do: they tell stories that help us make sense of the world.

Beating the Bejesus Out of Yourself: Fight Club, Consumerism, and the Myth of Manhood

Posted in archetypes, Christianity, collective unconscious, Existentialism, Film, Jung, Metaphor, Movies, Myth, Mythology, nihilism, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, politics, Politics and Media, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, psychoanalysis, Psychology, Religion, religious, social psychology, terror with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2014 by Uroboros
Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, a man's man

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, a true ‘man’s man’

SPOILER WARNING: Watch the movie before you read this!

Fifteen years after its release, David Fincher’s film Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, is an excellent example of how modern storytellers can use a timeless mythological structure to explore contemporary social issues. The movie employs elements of the hero cycle to examine the social construction of gender identity as well as the existential emptiness that arises from a blind faith in consumerism and other secular alternatives to traditional religious values.

 At its twisted heart, this postmodern odyssey is what mythologist Joseph Campbell called the monomyth, a universal narrative rooted in the collective unconscious and symbolizing psychological development, a process Carl Jung referred to as individuation. From all appearances, the ambiguously named protagonist should be content: he’s a college graduate with a well-paying white-collar gig and a lovely condo full of nice Scandinavian furniture, but he is far from satisfied. His adventure begins when his home is destroyed by a mysterious explosion, and he moves in with his new friend, Tyler Durden. Tyler is too good to be true. Archetypal companion and mentor rolled into one, he assists the protagonist across the threshold and initiates a quest for a more authentic life, providing philosophical guidance along the way.

 

Helena Bonham Carter as Marla and Ed Norton as...?

Helena Bonham Carter as Marla and Edward Norton as…uh?

What the protagonist wants to avoid is Marla Singer, the primary female presence in his life. Marla’s assertive, self-assured style brings out the main character’s insecurities. Tyler helps him channel this anxious energy into hyper-masculine practices that give him a new sense of confidence and self-worth. As Tyler’s nihilistic beliefs and violent rituals, which form the basis of Fight Club, escalate into a domestic terrorist organization called Project Mayhem, the protagonist finally confronts Tyler and comes face-to-face with a stunning fact that he’s hidden from himself. Tyler is actually his own dissociated persona, a fabricated alter ego who embodies everything the protagonist believes he wants to be. In reality, his mentor-companion is a shadowy trickster, a product of his own fragmented unconscious. In terms of Campbell’s monomyth, this is the hero’s apotheosis—the climactic confrontation with his own inner demons—and his ability to overcome and integrate the Tyler persona makes him worthy of his ultimate boon: the chance to have a mature relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Marla isn’t the antagonist his twisted psyche perceived her to be. Instead, she is, in Jungian terms, the object of his anima projection, the feminine side of the male psyche. Now that he’s overcome his shadow, the protagonist has the potential to gain a higher degree of self-mastery and have more mature relationships. Of course, he realizes this as skyscrapers topple—cue the Pixies and roll the credits.

On a fundamental level, Fight Club is a story as old as human history itself: a heroic quest that is metaphorical of both psychological development and successful social integration. On a more immediate level, though, the film functions as meta-commentary on individualism and the problematic task of having to construct a meaningful identity in contemporary American culture. For most of its history, after all, this country has been dominated by patriarchal, Christian values. Fathers were expected to provide for their wives and children, ruling over them like domestic gods. Over the last century or so, those expectations have radically changed, and Fight Club constantly questions the psychosocial impact of this paradigm shift.

fight_club_quote_by_julianmadesomething-d6kp0fmLooking to cure his insomnia, the protagonist joins ‘Remaining Men Together,’ a support group for survivors of testicular cancer. Here, traditional notions of masculinity are inverted. These men openly share their feelings, weep, and hug. One member, Bob, has large breasts, an ironic side-effect of his steroid abuse. The surgery, which has anatomically emasculated them, symbolizes the effect feminism has had on the conventional definition of manhood. And then there’s Marla: her assertive personality clearly troubles the protagonist, which is why he invents a hyper-masculine alter ego in the first place. Through this persona, he voices an anti-feminist ideology: “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is what we need.” Tyler refers to himself and fellow Fight Club members as children—as “God’s unwanted children” and “the middle children of history.” According to his philosophy, empowered women have driven their men away, leaving their sons to be raised without proper male role models and thus little chance of becoming ‘real men.’

The film also critiques the idea that consumerism can offer an adequate solution. While riding a bus, the protagonist and Tyler discuss a Calvin Klein underwear ad featuring a young, muscular model. When the protagonist asks if the image is manly, Tyler replies, “Self-improvement is masturbation. Now self-destruction.” His theory implies that media representations of masculinity only intensify the problem. The superficial ideal is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, which actually serves corporate America’s agenda because men will keep buying more products in a futile attempt to fill the void. That is why Tyler preachers an anti-media, anti-consumerist position: “We were all raised to think we’d be celebrities and rock gods,” he says, “but we won’t, and we’re slowly waking up to that fact.”

Fight-Club-fight-club-quoteThe film’s examination of gender construction and consumerism ultimately converge on a deeper theme: the dramatic changes in America’s religious landscape. Until Marla’s arrives on the scene, the support groups provide a temporary cure for the protagonist’s insomnia, allowing him to find some degree of inner peace. It becomes clear, however, that the New Age pop-psychobabble is a superficial substitute for the existential stability traditional religious beliefs once provided. The meetings are actually held in churches, but rely on secularized language and practices, not scripture and liturgy. Nevertheless, Fincher suggests that piety still lingers in the background. At Remaining Men Together, when the protagonist is finally able to cry, choral music plays on the soundtrack, implying that, despite the secularized context, the weeping has a deeply spiritual quality, a connection reinforced by the main character’s use of evangelical terms to describe the experience. He says the groups make him feel “born again” and “resurrected.” The chemical burn scene connects this ambiguity and ambivalence back to the gender issue when Tyler says, “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that say about God?” Tyler’s answer: “God does not like you. In all probability, he hates you.”

In other words, God is dead: long live Fight Club! In Tyler we trust…

As Fight Club evolves into the extremism of Project Mayhem, the main target becomes the institutions that support consumerism. Like a gang of giddy juvenile delinquents, Project Mayhem terrorizes various consumer enterprises—auto dealerships, coffee shop franchises, etc.—before setting their sights on the institutions that ultimately feed and profit from the modern obsession with fabricated happiness: the banking and credit industry. By blowing up the banks and wiping out everyone’s credit history, Project Mayhem thinks it’s liberating people from the great oppressor, the false religion of consumerism.

Fight Club is about an alienated person’s strange, disturbing search for identity and existential purpose. It utilizes archetypal elements to reflect on what it means to be both a male and a spiritually-hungry consumer in postmodern America. In doing so, the film suggests that changes in the way gender and religious values are now constructed can have potentially destructive repercussions. While the reasons for these changes are valid and noble, e.g. gender equality and scientific progress, Fight Club reminds viewers to pay attention to what is happening to those who once benefited from gender inequality and Christian definitions of power: men. The film is a warning: paradigm shifts in identity and social norms can create gaping psychological holes that the Home Shopping Network cannot fill. In a culture where power relations are constantly changing, dark and violent ideas can fester inside insecure minds and erupt with horrific consequences.

Tyler and Marla together at last...

Tyler and Marla together at last…

Re-imagining Dragons: Gojira, Kami, and the Kaiju of Unintended Consequences

Posted in anxiety, Apocalypse, archetypes, armageddon, collective unconscious, emotion, Film, filmmaking, Horror, Monster, Monsters, Myth, Mythology, Pop culture, Religion, Science, Science fiction, social psychology, Speculative fiction, Technology, terror, war with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2014 by Uroboros
Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014)

It must have been an eerie moment when, half an hour after the sky lit up over Bikini Atoll, the flakes began to fall. The crew of a Japanese fishing boat called the Lucky Dragon had no idea the ashes swirling down around them were from Castle Bravo. The 15 megaton hydrogen bomb dropped on March 1, 1954 was the most powerful weapon ever tested by the US military. The blast exceeded its expected radius, and the dust the crew brushed off their heads and shoulders that day was contaminated. Upon returning to Japan, the whole crew was sick, and, seven months later, Aikichi Kuboyama, the boat’s chief radioman, died from the radiation. Less than a decade after the end of WWII, the Lucky Dragon incident reignited the post-Hiroshima traumatic stress still festering in the Japanese psyche, sparking an idea in the mind of filmmaker Ishiro Honda, an iconic character he described as “the A-bomb made flesh:” Gojira (a mash-up of the Japanese words for gorilla and whale), which in English, of course, became ‘Godzilla.’

Operation Bravo: H-Bomb Test

Operation Bravo: H-Bomb Test

In its groundbreaking 1954 cinematic debut, this scaly leviathan, roused and swollen by nuclear contamination, emerges from the sea and smashes its way through Tokyo, whipping its gargantuan tail and spitting radioative fire. The original black and white movie alternates between scenes of fatalistic dread and apocalyptic devastation that are so downbeat and dire one wonders why it was such a hit, spawning, not only an ever-growing brood of sequels, but a whole new film genre. What does it say that, so soon after WWII, Japanese moviegoers paid to witness the simulated destruction of Tokyo again and again? One wonders if it was just a mindless diversion—an escapist fantasy where, in a state of titilation and sublime awe, they could feast their eyes on images of mass destruction—or if something deeper, more cathartic was happening. Were audiences subconsciously cleansing the psychic stain of national traumas and tragedies?

Gojira (1954)

Gojira (1954)

During the postwar occupation, the United States prohibited Japanese filmmakers from depicting anything overtly militaristic, so the Kaiju (“strange creature”) genre became an indirect way for Japanese culture to cope with its collective A-bomb PTSD and critique the accelerating Cold War arms race. Behemoths like Gojira, Mothra, and King Ghidorah were perfect symbols not only for contemporary anxieties but also a repressed, pre-industrial past that must have still haunted Japan. Kaiju can be seen as cinematic incarnations of kami, powerful spirits who often represent natural forces. According to Shinto beliefs, countless kami permeate reality, emerging from a hidden, parallel dimension to intervene in human affairs when our polluting ways upset the natural order and flow of energy. The central concern in Shintoism is purity. Ritual cleanliness pleases the kami and thus increases the chances of a successful, fruitful life, hence Japanese culture’s preoccupation with cleanliness. Pollution, impurity, and contamination, however, incur the wrath of the kami.

Ryujin

Ryujin

From this perspective, Gojira is reminiscent of powerful sea kami like Ryūjin (or Ryōjin a.k.a. Ōwatatsumi), a wingless dragon with massive claws who symbolizes the power of the Pacific Ocean. Fishermen performed cleansing rituals to Ryūjin in hopes of bolstering their catch. In East Asian mythologies, dragons tend to represent the vitality and potency of nature, so here we see a clear psychosocial link between radioactive pollution and a scaly, fire-breathing beast bent on utter destruction. Gojira symbolizes natural forces that, once contaminated by modern humanity’s technological hubris and careless disregard for the environment, return in misanthropic forms to lay waste to the source of the pollution. The King of All Monsters represents modernization run amok—the law of unintended consequences writ large.

It will be interesting to see how Japanese audiences respond to post-Fukushima versions of Godzilla. How do you think Gareth Edwards’ reboot will do in Japan three years removed from another nuclear disaster? Will moviegoers turn out in droves to see the latest incarnation of this wrathful kami? Will Hollywood be able to help cleanse the psychic stain of this national tragedy?

Japanese Godzilla (2014) poster

Japanese Godzilla (2014) poster

For more discussion see:

http://web.archive.org/web/20050203181104/http://www.pennyblood.com/godzilla2.html

http://www.wnyc.org/story/the-making-of-godzilla-japans-favorite-mon-star/

http://www.npr.org/2014/05/02/308955584/the-making-of-godzilla-japans-favorite-mon-star

The Promethean Urge

Posted in Entertainment, Ethics, Film, Forbidden Fruit, God, Literature, Morality, Mythology, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Religion, Ridley Scott, Science, Science fiction, Technology with tags , , , on June 10, 2012 by Uroboros

When Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to man, his punishment is to be bound to a mountaintop for all eternity. Each day, an eagle eats his liver. Each night, the wounds heals, and the next day the torture begins again. The idea of breaking through boundaries is the key to the enduring power of the Promethean myth. Humans can’t help being curious about what’s really ‘out there’ beyond the veil of appearance—can’t help being tempted by the fruit of knowledge that grows there and the power it bestows.

When we part the veil and peer into the other side, though, are we gazing at something we were meant to see, or at a realm that is beyond human capacities and thus dangerous to behold? Quite often, people think ‘God’ is on the other side—that ‘He’ has drawn the line, and it is out of pride that we want to trespass and set up camp in ‘His’ space. As sinful, broken creatures, we simply don’t know when to quit. A human is, by definition, the kind of being who won’t, or possibly can’t, accept limitations on its nature. Since we were made in God’s image, we are invariably tempted to become what we behold that mirror image to be.

A survey of human history reveals that, despite our reservations, we have been playing ‘God’ right from the beginning. Restless creatures that we are, humans have always been asking questions, testing possibilities, and putting answers into practice. If we didn’t continually test the bounds and explore ‘God’s territory,’ we’d still be hunting and gathering—we’d still be following and praying to animals. Because we’ve indulged our Promethean urge, however, most humans don’t worship animals anymore. We keep them as pets. We clone them. With the power of genetics, we’re remaking life itself in our image. Modern civilization has re-framed the boundaries of its looking glass and is both enamored and terrified by what it sees. Undeniably, science and technology have enriched our lives—enhancing our ability to alleviate suffering, to travel previously unthinkable distances, and communicate with each other on a global scale—but we can also annihilate ourselves with the push of a button. We can create tools of mass salvation and destruction. The sci-fi authors and filmmakers I admire most tend to imply that the sin isn’t necessarily in wanting to explore unknown territories. Hubris isn’t an epistemological issue. It’s a moral one. The sin is in running away from the implications of what you find. It’s in disowning what you create in the process. Humanity does have to accept at least one limitation: we can’t have the fruit of forbidden knowledge and eat it too.

A Brief History of “Love”

Posted in Ancient Greek, Christianity, History, Love, Middle Ages, Mythology, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Renaissance, Roman History, Valentine's Day, Victorian with tags on February 14, 2012 by Uroboros

What’re you asking when you say ‘be my Valentine?’

Something to Think about amidst All the Flowers, Cards, and Candy

Like a lot of holidays rooted in ancient traditions, there are many legends surrounding St. Valentine and the origin of the holiday which bears his name. First of all, there is more than one candidate for the historical Valentine. The common denominator is martyrdom. In the third century AD, the Roman Empire openly persecuted Christianity, still a developing religion at the time. Christians were often forced to renounce their beliefs or die. Martyrs chose death. Valentine was most likely a high-ranking member of the Catholic Church who was martyred, an act which left a deep impression on his fellow Christians, so much so, they set a day aside to honor him.

That day was February 14th.

Although some people link Valentine’s Day to late winter Greco-Roman fertility rituals, those celebrations bear little resemblance to what modern Westerners tend to associate with February 14th. The day wasn’t associated with romantic love until the late Middle Ages when European culture celebrated concepts like “chivalry” and “courtly love.” It was in this context that we begin to see romantic love—intense passion and devotion between two people, soul mates—being expressed, especially by the troubadours, the traveling rock stars of their day, who went from court to court singing about the beauty and pain of being “in love.”

Remember, in those days, most marriages were arranged—a contract between two families who benefited economically from the nuptials—and sanctioned by the church. This was especially true for the nobility. The idea of two people falling deeply and passionately in love and devoting their lives to one another, regardless of social status or family background hasn’t always been the norm, and, in many cultures, still isn’t. In the age of the troubadours, it was radical—if not subversive.

By the time of the Renaissance, we see more and more love poems referencing St. Valentine’s Day. Renaissance culture was also fascinated with ancient Greek and Roman mythology. This is when Cupid with his arrow and bows became a Valentine’s Day icon. In ancient Rome, Cupid represented passionate desire—what the Greeks called eros—an attraction you didn’t choose or control. Of course, in the Christian world, especially with medieval Catholicism, free-will and choice were emphasized. In the modern context, this association speaks to the duality and tension at the heart of the modern concept of love: do we really choose to love someone? Or is it a feeling that sweeps us up—something we’re powerless to resist? The best love songs are always, at least in part, about the pain that comes with being in love. Can you choose not to love someone?

What are you actually asking when you ask somebody to be your valentine?         

By the nineteenth century, the Victorian Age, the holiday starts to look more like what we have today. With faster communication and transportation, as well as factory technology, a man could buy a Valentine’s Day card and mail it along with boxes of candy and flowers. While the sentiments from the age of romance and courtly love have remained, commercialism and technology have made their celebration and expression much more elaborate. 

The modern understanding of the holiday truly begins in the late Middle Ages, though. The idea of chivalry and courtly love hint at the key concept which would come to define the modern Western world: individual freedom. The modern West is founded on personal political and economic rights. Valentine’s Day reminds us of another aspect of freedom, one that makes political and economic comfort worth having in the first place: finding someone special to share it with.

For Jenn

The Science of Myth and the Myth of Science

Posted in anxiety, archetypes, barriers to critical thinking, Brain Science, collective unconscious, Consciousness, Creationism, critical thinking, emotion, God, History, humanities, irrational, Jung, Knowledge, limbic system, Maori, Myth, Mythology, Neurology, paranoia, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, psychoanalysis, Psychology, rational animal, Rationalization, rationalizing animal, reason, Religion, religious, Repression, resistance to critical thinking, Science, social psychology, terror, Terror Management Theory, theory, theory of mind, Uroboros, V.S. Ramachandran, William James with tags on February 3, 2012 by Uroboros

Years ago in a mythology course I taught, a student once came up to me after class with an annoyed look. We’d just covered the Maori creation myth, and something about it had gotten under his skin. According to the myth, father sky, Rangi, and mother earth, Papa, formed out of primordial chaos and tangled in a tight, erotic embrace. Their offspring decided to pry Rangi and Papa apart in order to escape and live on their own. With his ax, Tane, the forest god, finally separated Father Sky and Mother Earth, and in that space, life grew and flourished.

The broad strokes of this creation myth aren’t unique. Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, and Norse stories (just to name a few) relate life’s origins to the separation of giant primordial parents.

“How could people believe that?” the student asked, shaking his head. It wasn’t his perturbed incredulity that struck me. Often, students initially find stories from ancient cultures to be, well, weird. It was his condescension. For him, ‘myth’ meant not just ‘false,’ but ‘silly.’ In his defense, it’s what it means for most of us. When we want to sneer at strange, fantastical beliefs, we call them ‘myths.’

The term is synonymous with ‘false.’

‘Myth’ originally meant the exact opposite, though. The Ancient Greek root of mythos referred to life’s deepest truths, something discussed and contemplated with a sense of awe and reverence, not incredulity and disdain. Seen in this light, myths are the stories humans tell in order to explain the unknown and make sense of the world. My thesis is that humans are essentially myth-making creatures and will continue to be so—no matter how scientific our stories get.

Scowls form on some students’ faces when they hear a professor say that science is, on a certain level, still mythological. Scientists are still storytellers, though, trying to turn the unknown into the known. Ancient and modern storytellers have different ways of approaching the unknown—different notions about what counts as a valid explanation.

Today, people (tend to) prefer creation stories that fit the scientific paradigm that’s proved so successful in explaining and predicting natural phenomena. But in dismissing past explanations, we overlook some interesting similarities. Ancient and modern stories share what psychologist Carl Jung called archetypal patterns. Jung theorized that humans share underlying patterns of thought because we all inherit the same neurological equipment. The anatomical differences between an ancient human brain and, say, Darwin’s brain are negligible. Setting the obvious differences between the Maori story and Darwin’s theory aside for just a moment, there are archetypal similarities between these accounts.

Darwinism says life began in a kind of primordial soup where, over time, inorganic molecules organized into the first living cell, and then single-celled organisms eventually separated into multicellular organisms, and from that, thanks to genetic mutation and the pressure of natural selection, lifeforms diversified and flourished. The Big Bang has this underlying pattern too: a ‘primordial atom,’ containing all matter, exploded and separated into the cosmic forms we see today.

I think the key difference between ancient and modern creation stories is in the tendency to personify nature, or the lack there of. The modern scientific method tries remove the subjective factor from the equation. Once we stopped projecting our emotions upon ‘Mother Nature,’ we started telling different stories about how ‘she’ works.

Now scientists are investigating how myth-making itself works. Neurologists and evolutionary psychologists are exploring the biological basis of our ability to mythologize and the possible adaptive purposes informing our storytelling instinct. Let’s start by getting hypothetical and do a little ‘state of nature’ thought experiment. Imagine a prehistoric hunter startled by booming thunder. Now we know the meteorological explanation, but he doesn’t. He experiences what thunder feels like to him: anger. But who is angry?

The problem is addressed by the limbic system, the subcortical brain structure that initially processes emotion and memory. Potential dangers must be understood or anxiety will overwhelm the mind, rendering the hunter less able to cope and survive. The amygdala, the brain’s watchdog, primes the body for action—for fight or flight—while the hippocampus tries to associate feelings with memories in order to focus and better define both the stimuli and the appropriate response. This process is entirely unconscious—faster than the speed of consciousness.

The hippocampus recalls an experience of anger, perhaps one involving the hunter’s own father, and then the cerebral cortex, home of our higher cognitive capacities, gets involved. Somewhere in our cortical circuitry, probably in the angular gyrus, where neuroscientist VS Ramachandran says our metaphoric functions reside, storm images are cross-wired with paternal images. A myth is born: sky is father, earth is mother, and the cause-effect logic of storytelling in the brain’s left-hemisphere embellishes until the amygdala eases up, and the anxiety is relatively alleviated. At least the dread becomes more manageable. In neurochemical terms, the adrenaline and cortisol rush are balanced off and contained by dopamine, the calming effect of apparent knowledge, the pleasure of grasping what was once unknown.

From then on, thunder and lightning will be a little less terrifying. Now there is a story to help make sense of it. Storms are a sign of Father Sky’s anger. What do we do? We try to appease this force–to make amends. We honor the deity by singing and dancing. We sacrifice. Now we have myths and rituals. In short, we have a religion.

That’s why so many prehistoric people, who had no contact with one another, came to believe in primordial giants, and we are still not that far removed from this impulse. For example, why do we still name hurricanes? Sometimes, it’s just easier for us to handle nature if we make it a little more human. As neurologists point out, we are hardwired to pick up on patterns in the environment and attribute human-like qualities and intentions to them. Philosophers and psychologists call this penchant for projecting anthropomorphic agency a theory of mind. English teachers call it personification, an imaginative, poetic skill.

This is why dismissive, condescending attitudes toward myth-making frustrate me. The metaphoric-mythic instinct has been, and still is, a tremendous boon to our own self-understanding, without which science, as we know it, probably wouldn’t have evolved. I came to this conclusion while pondering a profound historical fact: no culture in human history ever made the intellectual leap to objective theories first. Human beings start to know the unknown by projecting what they’re already familiar with onto it.

It’s an a priori instinct. We can’t help it.

Modern science helps make us more conscious of this tendency. The scientific method gives us a way of testing our imaginative leaps—our deeply held intuitions about how the world works—so we can come up with more reliable and practical explanations. The mythological method, in turn, reminds us to be critical of any theory which claims to have achieved pure, unassailable objectivity—to have removed, once and for all, the tendency to unconsciously impose our own assumptions and biases on the interpretation of facts. The ability to do that is just as much a myth as the ‘myths’ such claims supposedly debunk. I’ll paraphrase William James here: The truth is always more complex and complicated than the theories which aim to capture it. Just study the history of modern science—the evolution of theories and paradigms over the last 350 years especially—to see evidence for the asymmetrical relationship between beliefs, justifications, and the ever-elusive Truth.

Laid-back, self-aware scientists have no problem admitting the limitations built into the empirical method itself: Scientific conclusions are implicitly provisional. A theory is true for now. The beauty and power of science hinges upon this point—the self-correcting mechanism, the openness to other possibilities. Otherwise, it’s no longer the scientific method at work. It’s politicized dogma peddling. It’s blind mythologizing.

The recent research into the neurology and psychology of myth-making is fascinating. It enhances our understanding of what a myth is: a story imbued with such emotional power and resonance that how it actually lines up with reality is often an afterthought. But what’s equally fascinating to me, is the mythologizing which still informs our science-making.

I think it’s, of course, dangerous to believe blindly in myths, to accredit stories without testing them against experience and empirical evidence. I also believe it’s dangerous to behold scientific theories as somehow above and beyond the mythological instinct. Like the interconnected swirl of the yin-yang, science and myth need each other, and that relationship should be as balanced and transparent as possible.

Uroboros. A universal symbol of balance and immortality.

Uroboros. A universal symbol of balance and immortality.

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