Saturday, March 15, 2014


Once more, that useful Wiktionary definiton of "myth:"

a person or thing held in excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration based on popular legend
I've connected the idea of an "essentialist" defintion of myth-- one that can extend across the whole of art, religion and literature-- with this state of "awe or admiration."  But the definition by itself is vague.  As individuals we're all aware of physical experiences (like food) or emotional ties (as with family) that can make us "happy."  But how do we explain the emotion of being awestruck, which is often much less focused on immediate gratification?

Joseph Campbell, borrowing from ethology, explained mankind's capacity for awe with the concept of the "supernormal stimulus."  In PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY he writes:

A suggestive analogy is to be seen in the case of the grayling moth, which prefers darker mates to those actually offered by its present species. For if human art can offer to a moth the supernormal sign stimulus to which it responds more eagerly than to the normal offerings of life, it can surely supply supernormal stimuli, also to the IRMs [Innate Releasing Mechanisms] of man and not only spontaneously, in dream and nightmare, but even more brilliantly in the contrived folktales, fairy tales, mythological landscapes, over- and underworlds, temples and cathedrals, pagodas and gardens, dragons, angels, gods, and guardians of popular and religious art. It is true, of course, that the culturally developed formulations of these wonders have required in many cases centuries, even milleniums, to complete. But it is true also . . . that there is a kind of support for the reception of such images in the deja vu of the partially self-shaped and self-shaping mind.
Here Campbell is attempting to ground mankind's tendencies to "mythify" experience as an instinctive faculty.  The idea is certainly preferable to the tendency of positivist intellectuals to dismiss myth and fantasy as delusions.  However, it's hard to speak of myth as purely instinctual in nature, given that it results from mankind attempting to move beyond the range of affects that are normally pleasurable, such as eating good foods or consorting with one's family.  Even many of ethology's examples of animals transcending their instinctive programming result from experiments conceived by man, a symbol-using animal species, and performed upon creatures who do not (so far as we can tell) live within a symbolic universe.

On top of that, Campbell's list is a disorganized hodgepodge.  Are all "pagodas and gardens" capable of exciting the supernormal stimulus, or do only some of them qualify as "wonders?"  If it's only some rather than all, then what sets the special pagodas and gardens apart from the others?

Campbell is perhaps on more solid ground speaking of specific mythological creations like "mythological landscapes," dragons, angels, and gods.  But of course one can object that not every single human responds to these "sign stimuli."  Even within polytheistic cultures like that of Greece, it should go without saying that a worshipper of Dionysus did not necessarily esteem Dionysus' opposite number Apollo.

So though instinctive drives may play a role, we're clearly dealing with a phenomenon which may be grounded in subconscious impulses but which has been channeled by conscious symbolic manipulation.  I'm reminded of Jung's careful distinction in PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES, where he notes that although the archetypes of the collective unconscious may be considered *homogeneous,* in that they can appear in any human culture, the conscious minds of all humans are *heterogeneous,* meaning that they can transform the archetypes into endless culturally determined variations-- none of which are automatically able to inspire every single subject with awe or admiration.  Campbell, it seems, was not quite so careful in considering how the emotions associated with myth are promulgated.

More to come.

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