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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
~~ Analyzing the Mythic Tales ~~
Myth is like a culture dreaming itself. It’s not only the first literature, it’s the first “fantastic” literature. Mythic tales are so richly populated with people and places and events that sometimes seem so surreal they boggle the imagination. Where are these places? Who are these people? Do they seem like you and me? How do you understand their struggles? Are their struggles in any way related to your own?
Narrowly viewed, myth is sometimes referred to as “dead religion.” But personally, I can’t think of anything more mistaken or narrow-minded than to call these stories “dead.” Yes, they are our earliest form of narrative, and a distinctive form, but they are far from dead.
What makes the myth a distinctive form of narrative? It’s not just any narrative or story, it’s a “God” story. This definition loosens as we begin to talk about modern kinds of myth, like the mythic American dream, for example. But in the beginning (and that’s where we’re going), myth is a particular kind of story—a “god story.”
On the surface the story may seem outlandish and impossible, but we know now it’s not meant to be understood literally, just as we don’t always “read” our dreams literally. Although in its inception it may have been believed to be literally true, it is not believed to be literally true any longer; rather it’s accepted as expressing metaphoric truth. Think of myth as a metaphoric, symbolic language, like the language of dreams. It may not be literally or historically accurate and precise, but it is metaphorically, symbolically, psychologically true. In myth, one thing is expressed in terms of another—usually so that the abstract becomes vivid and concrete: knowledge is fire; the state of innocence we experience as young children becomes a garden in which everything is carefully arranged and every need is taken care of; having sex is eating a forbidden fruit; being born into a new consciousness is like passing through a narrow cave; wisdom is an Old Man. Myth communicates metaphorically in this way. If we don’t believe there was an actual “Old Man” who went about creating the hills and the animals and all the plants and the trees, we may still believe in an ineffable “cosmic wisdom” which had its hand in the process.
Joseph Campbell, a leading scholar in the fields of mythology and comparative religion, explains that myth has four basic functions: metaphysical/mystical, cosmological, sociological, and pedagogical. Its metaphysical function is to awaken us to the mystery and wonder of creation, to open our minds and our senses to an awareness of the mystical “ground of being,” the source of all phenomena. Its cosmological function is to describe the “shape” of the cosmos, the universe, our total world, so that the cosmos and all contained within it become vivid and alive for us, infused with meaning and significance; every corner, every rock, hill, stone, and flower has its place and its meaning in the cosmological scheme which the myth provides. The sociological function is to pass down “the law,” the moral and ethical codes for people of that culture to follow, and which help define that culture and its prevailing social structure. Its pedagogical function is to lead us through particular rites of passage that define the various significant stages of our lives—from dependency to maturity to old age, and finally, to our deaths, the final passage. The rites of passage bring us into harmony with the “ground of being” (a term often used by Joseph Campbell to refer to an unnamed, unspecified universal mystical power) and allow us to make the journey from one stage to another with a sense of comfort and purpose.
One way to study the mythic tales is to analyze how the tale meets one or more of these functions that Campbell identifies for us. Another way to study the mythic tales is to approach them as narratives and to use the same interpretive tools you’d use to help you explore any narrative: by analyzing plot (conflict), character, theme, point of view, symbolism and ambiguity. Furthermore, we could analyze the many ways these stories meet the criteria of “imaginary worlds.”
The fantastic elements in the Adam and Eve story abound. The surrealism begins early with the depiction of “God,” a formless, disembodied abstraction, a “spirit,” a “voice” which speaks the world into existence, and which is only barely recognizable to us. The voice of God begins the act of creation by saying “Let there be light.” And as soon as light appears, everything else can follow. What is light? Why is light the primal act of creation?
I’m picturing the cartoon light bulb suddenly appearing in the void (an idea!)... not a particular idea, but an idea-making energy-pops into the world. The appearance of light in the churning cosmic void is miraculous, the foundational miracle of creation. It’s also symbolic, it seems to me, of the appearance of consciousness. You’re not a pre-programmed amoeba, you’re an intelligent primate infused with mysterious light, with ideas, with consciousness. From consciousness flows language and from language flows thought, and from thought we become aware of our own awareness, we become conscious of our consciousness. The human condition. God, though formless, becomes very recognizable as soon as “light” is created. Once we have consciousness, all the rest can follow: heaven and earth, land and sea, fish and fowl, and “every living creature that moveth” (Gensis 1:21). And THEN man.
God makes Adam in “our image, after our likeness” and then gives him “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26). This is such an important point, that it is immediately repeated in 1:27 and 1:28. Man is to be like God upon the earth. His place is at the “crown of creation,” superior to the other creatures—their ruler, their subduer. This all seems very good (a phrase repeated several times), to God and to us. And it has been our culture’s way of viewing itself, its relationship to nature, ever since. We are placed in nature, our home is here, but we are also above nature. How strikingly different this view is compared to the view expressed in the Blackfoot Genesis tale, or Native American mythology generally. Nothing speaks more eloquently to that difference than Chief Seattle’s famous letter, which he wrote in reply to the U.S. government request to purchase tribal lands. You can go online and read that letter pretty easily.
Furthermore, this position we’re in raises so many questions for us, even today. If we are in God’s image, does that mean God looks like us or does that mean we look like God? How can it be possible? Can God look like 6 billion people simultaneously, not to mention the billions that were alive before us? It seems impossible. Which image of God is the right one? Does God have dark skin or pale skin? Black hair or blonde hair? A long nose or a short one? What does it really mean, then, to say that we are “in God’s image”? Does it mean we have a God-like nature? How can that be, since we are so imperfect? Is God implying itself to be imperfect, too? Maybe originally our nature was God-like, but since being disobedient and placed in exile from the Garden of Eden, our natures have become more “human,” less god-like? It’s not immediately evident exactly what it means to be “in God’s image.” It’s an ambiguous line, inviting interpretation. Maybe it means we are what God imagines he would be, if he had form. We are an idea that took form in God’s incredibly creative imagination.
Another kind of fantastic element found in the Adam and Eve story is the familiar character of the talking animal, in this case, a talking serpent. He seems to be the “evil” one in the story, the tempter, the trickster. Yet, he also seems to represent something more than just “evil.” We could say he’s an emblem, a signifier, a metaphor for our free will. The serpent may not actually speak to us here in our world, but what does speak to us is our incredible range of possibilities. Of all God’s creatures, we seem to be the ones least limited by hard-wiring; rather than being limited by instinct, we are free. If the serpent represents that “disobedient” (free) aspect of our own minds, if it’s really a projection of our own free will, you can ask, “what kind of a will is it?” We think of the serpent as “evil”—is free will an evil thing? Is it a “will to power” (Nietzsche’s phrase)? Is it our restless will to take risks, and therefore our will to grow?
Who are Adam and Eve in the Garden? They are children, God’s “children.” Like (lucky) children, they have all of their needs met and are fully protected, they have a sense of immortality, very little understanding of death; they are ignorant of evil and not responsible for “knowing” anything. They are completely dependent. Their only responsibility is “obedience.” But their obedience is not blind; it’s not a pre-programmed instinct. They are “in the image of God,” like no other creature in the Garden. What separates them from the rest of the creatures God created seems to be their will. They have a choice: to be obedient or not to be obedient. The serpent is their growing awareness of this choice.
Why does growth introduce death? There are a couple of ways to think about this. Perhaps it’s because growth is a progression, and this entering into a progression enters us into the field of time, our time. No more eternity. The fulfillment of growth is death. This idea seems simple but it’s actually very profound, because the kind of mental growth that Adam and Eve undertake by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is a growth by leaps and bounds. If they have the knowledge of good and evil, they become “like gods,” in that they now must exercise judgment, they must be WISE. It will be they who decide what is good and what is evil, and, in effect, who will live and who will die. These matters will rest in their hands now, not God’s. In the Garden, God alone has had this power. The responsibility is enormous. If they arrive at the conclusion that everything which is good for man is “good” and everything which is not good for man is “evil,” then they will feel quite justified in eliminating any competitor that stands in their way. (This is the theme of the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.) The result of that will be the destruction of “nature” (which is evil, and which humanity has “conquered”) and by extension, the eventual the destruction of humanity itself. A very sad story!
In Paradise, in the Garden, we see Adam and Eve in their youth, in a state of blissful ignorance. They are animal like, and yet not animal like. God has made them in “his image.” As I said earlier, it’s not immediately obvious what this means. But if it means that we have minds like Gods, then we are bound to grow from this youthful state. And an adult is surely something completely different from a child, just as we want to say a human being is something completely different from a crocodile, or even a chimpanzee. An adult has freedom and independence. A human being has freedom from instinct. Would it have been better NOT to grow, not to emerge from the Garden, not to distinguish ourselves from the rest of creation?
That’s surely a loaded philosophical question! The great resonance of the Genesis story is that it expresses the great blessing and the great tragedy of our free will, that troublesome mind of ours, with its god-like powers of independence and judgment.
Freedom is a blessing, isn’t it? Isn’t freedom at the very heart of the adventure? Isn’t tasting the apple, the thrill of the risk, the feeling of growth, the excitement of knowledge and new experience-aren’t these freedoms the very soul of life? Eve, who first tasted the apple, is named “life.”
On the other hand, it’s this cursed free will that has made us disobedient (to God? to the natural law?) and this has enraged God, who has kicked us out of the Garden and out of eternity, sent us headlong into the field of time. We betrayed the very thing that gave us life with our messy disobedience. We’ve been pushed through the gate, born into the world we have now, a world we create ourselves.
Quite apart from the Biblical Genesis, the Blackfoot Genesis tale provides its own version of how the world came to be and what humanity's destiny might be in this world. It communicates an entirely different set of cultural values, as you would expect. What might be striking is the many ways in which the two stories overlap, the ways in which, though oceans and millennium apart, they are in fact somewhat similar.
Both stories use "REVERSALS" (as defined by Rabkin in the introduction to Fantastic Worlds). In Genesis, for instance, man "gives birth" to woman, a reversal of what you would expect. In the Blackfoot story, the "Old Man" (although he is the creator, the god) is imperfect; he has to repeatedly fix and adjust his work, whereas you might expect him to get everything perfect on the first try.
In both the biblical Genesis and the Blackfoot Genesis:
As you might expect, the stories are also strikingly different, too. In several significant ways, they are fundamentally opposed to one another.
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