Friday 2 January 2009

Karen Armstrong on Myth

The Greek word mythos means story, so it is close to the idea of fiction. Myth is a kind of societal distillate of human struggles with life. It stands in contrast with logos, meaning rationality.

In A short history of myth (see micro-review in our Books on the Psychology of Fiction, by clicking here) Armstrong argues that myth always reflects the precariousness of human existence, and has followed the great movements of prehistory and history. The earliest myths, she argues, derive from hunter-gatherer societies in which men would go out and face danger to hunt wild animals, which they would bring back as food to the society in which they lived. Their myths are those of the hero. The agrarian revolution, in which people started to farm, was accompanied by new myths: of how the world was created. The coming of cities produced further myths in which, for the first time, struggles arose between gods and humans: the Mesopotamian and Biblical story of the Flood is an example. Then, argues Armstrong, we entered what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age in which new myths were created of human interdependence, with the principle that was first enunciated by Confucius: "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you." Although the mythical systems of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, were enormously influential, from this time forward, mythos was starting to fade, to be displaced by logos, the ordering of society according to rational systems, and increasingly dependent on technologies not just of food production (agriculture) and housing (cities), but of transport, communication, and warfare. In the West, from the Renaissance and Enlightenment onwards, the fading of mythos and the rise of logos became almost complete.

Armstrong's own life has a somewhat mythological structure. Her autobiography is The spiral staircase: My climb out of darkness, and in it she describes how at the age of 17 she became a novitiate Roman Catholic nun in a teaching order that followed the rules of the Jesuits. Having passed through the stages to become a nun, she was sent by her order to Oxford to do a degree in English. Seven years after she joined the order she left it while she was still an undergraduate, realizing that she had never been able to pray. Later she embarked on a DPhil on the poet Tennyson. She was devastated by having her thesis rejected by an external examiner who was known from the beginning to be hostile to both her thesis topic and the methods she employed. She felt the failure as a reiteration of her failure as a nun. From adolescence onwards she suffered losses of consciousness and of memory that she and others assumed were hysterical or panic attacks. Only in her 30s were they diagnosed as symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy. Although she now had a diagnosis and drugs to control her seizures, her periods of illness worsened and, because of them, she was fired from the school in which she taught. These are among the darknesses out of which she climbed.

Armstrong has become a writer recognized throughout the world for her books on religion in which, almost uniquely, she enables the reader to enter into the deeper ideas of the world's religions but without the guff. She says that religion is not about believing things. "It’s about doing things that change you ... an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way you will be transformed ... myths of the hero [such as those of Buddha or Jesus] are not meant to give us historical information ... Their purpose is to compel us to act in such a way as to bring out our own heroic potential” (2004, p. 270). Religion, at its root, says Armstrong, is about achieving compassion for others, entering mentally into their situation.

All myth, says Armstrong, is about a plane of being which is different from the quotidian world, but which interpenetrates it and gives it meaning. To understand it, one must enter this parallel plane. If one stands outside it, it seems incomprehensible, even absurd. A short history of myth includes a discussion of fiction, which Armstrong sees as having properties similar to those of myth. One can enter a fictional world by identification. Here is what Armstrong says:
... the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from that of their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional world is not "real" and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling (p. 147).
Karen Armstrong (2004). The spiral staircase: My climb out of darkness. New York: Knopf.

Karen Armstrong (2005). A short history of myth. Edinburgh: Canongate, reissued by Vintage Canada.


scot in exile said...

It is one of my favourite books but I do think her conclusion about the role of literature is possibly too optimistic. As wonderful and occasionally transformative as fiction is, can it ever be as pervasive as myth? And is the solitary nature of reading not enough as a ritual to help the individual and society?

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Scot in Exile: I agree myth can be pervasive, and very powerful. Sometimes horribly so. One of the things I like about fictional literature is that although it can have transformative effects, they are small. If its effects were large (in the way that myth's effects can be) I think literature would be altogether a more malign business. The smallness of the effects mean that literature can, as Armstrong says, be compared with meditation, and that it can be a part of projects directed by the self, rather than projects in which the self is taken over.

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