Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


Myth and Modernity

What are the myths of today? Can we escape them?

Modern myth from IAI

Joanna Kavenna won the Orange First Novel prize for her debut novel, Inglorious, in 2007. Her other works include The Ice Museum and The Birth of Love. Her journalism has appeared in the London Review of Books, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Here she speaks about the difference between ancient and modern myths, and how they often serve to highlight the surprising similarities of shared experience.

What are present-day myths, and how do they differ from the myths of older times?

Well, to take one kind of myth as an example, there's the hero’s journey: it’s one of these Ur myths, a very recurring myth. Joseph Campbell wrote about it as the monomyth: in other words, the kind of myth that is in almost everything. So you could say that the hero's journey is an ancient myth.

You could start by saying it comes through classical works, as far back as the epic of Gilgamesh, one of the most ancient myths that we have, from Sumeria. The basic idea is that the hero leaves the confines of their safe village, the place that they know, and they go out into the great world where they meet friends and foes. They fight battles and they suffer hardships and they gain revelations, and at the end they get a kind of prize, some sort of reward before going back to the village with their new-found knowledge.

It's a recurring myth. You see it in the Odyssey, you see it in the grail legends, you see it in Jesus in the wilderness; there’s this perpetual reiteration, but it's not only an ancient myth because you see it in all of our contemporary culture as well.

Take Star Wars. It has exactly the same structure: Luke grows up in a boring place and longs to escape, and finally he does leave and has adventures and eventually gains the prize of becoming a Jedi. This narrative crops up everywhere and the reason it does is because it is perpetual, and this is why myth is so interesting, because it derives from real experience.

We all follow a similar narrative. We're all born into a family and we understand that we're safe in a particular environment, or at least most of us are, and then we leave the family and go out into the wider world. So it is a completely perennial human experience. That's how I understand a myth. It's a story that doesn't purport to be true, but is very reflective of a general experience, and in a way that's why it's survived and reformed in so many ways.

Some have argued that the myths of the modern world include things like progress, or perhaps the myth of human rights. Would you say that these are myths in the same sense? Do they deserve the same consideration or is it just a linguistic trick?

I suppose in the context of myths of progress, you could have a myth of the self, or the idea that you create from something that’s fairly intangible an overarching story to explain it.

And I think that’s fine as long you don’t get stuck in literalism. In a way, any myth is fine within reason so long as it does not purport to be the literal fact. That’s when you get into real trouble, because you get people fighting wars over these originally mythical constructions, things that were meant to be symbolic and not absolutely precise and eternal in relation to people.

Our experience is very unknowable and very vague. A myth has that within it, that sort of unknowability and that vagueness. If you lasso a myth with general facts and this notion that you can confine and prove and realise, then I think you get into terrible trouble with negative impacts in the real world. That's where you go horribly wrong. But it's an error of perception, I think, not an error of myth.

So do we have to approach the world with two mindsets, one that can accommodate the myth and one that cannot?

I think we have to not be adamantine about things that are extremely tenuous. Take another extraordinary idea, the initiation myth, which runs throughout many myths – Osiris, Jesus – where the hero suffers a horrible trial by death or near death, before vanishing from the world for a certain amount of time. In the ancient Egyptian epoch, it was usually three days.

This is what happened in the pyramids. People went into the pyramids for three days, going into initiation – encountering death and other worst fears – before coming out again. It's an extremely resonant myth, one which I think we can all learn from, but it you are completely adamantine, saying, “Jesus was definitely there for three days and I'm prepared to fight a war and kill anyone who disagrees with me,” that's when problems begin.

Would you say that myths are a necessary crutch to human existence or are they just a useful and interesting addition?

Myths are so perennial and recurring. I can't think of a single civilisation that we could produce as an example that doesn’t have what I would call myth. Even pseudo-secular and rational civilisations still have a myth of the self as tangible, unchanging and realisable.

Myth is just such an ingrained part of human existence. I think its been proven to recur, this odd thing we do where we craft narrative. We start it when we’re children; we develop these fables about what’s around us, these stories to try and assimilate unwieldy experience into something retainable. It’s a way of trying to put yourself in the story in some way. Otherwise it’s just carnage, existential carnage. So, it's difficult to avoid them.

Am I right in saying that part of what you are suggesting is that we can only see ourselves in the third person if we mythologise the path that we’ve taken, or what’s happening to us?

That's an interesting point. To use the hero’s journey again, by referencing experience that is very subjective – going through life; spending a day in a massive city, encountering friends as foes in an urban setting – yet nevertheless experienced by many, myths tend to synthesise elements of experience which are oddly resonant with all of us.

That's why people like Jung get into concepts of collective unconscious; because of these odd, repeated resonances across myths and symbols. Jung then starts to elaborate this idea that it's because we all have, at one level, the same being, the same experience. But you don't necessarily have to go that far. You can just say that we’re all put in the same position on the Earth, in this unknowable universe, in our mortal frame. We all suffer the same consequences of time and age, and the same fears of mortality and of harm coming to those we love.

So the perennials are quite distinct. I think what myth is doing is drawing on the perennials, and as you say, saving the individual from this weird isolationist feeling that your experience is subjective and unique to you and can't really be communicated. There is a lot of experience that is subjective, but myths hint at the fact that there is much which is oddly resonant to everyone.

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binra 24 June 2014

Ha! I came here and found my comment no posted??? I was logged in. I looked at my copy of it and felt in hindsight it too dense so I opened to a fresh movement to communicate on 'the mythic self'.
That didn't post (session expired) but as I wrote it to share I share it here even though the original post now shows up.

- - -
I wrote an input to add on the nature of 'the mythic self'; a story based sense of identity and experience. I feel after writing it that it is too much a different 'language' to serve here - because its basis is not expressing and supporting the 'perspective' of the mythic self.

The nature of myth is that it operates at a level of consciousness of which the 'personae' are unaware - for the attention is engaged in the drama that it was chosen to facilitate.

In the sense that myth is often used - of other or previous cultural stories and self-definitions - there is the sense of being in the 'real world' looking at other people's illusions, errors and superstitions - or that of our forebears. But is this actually so - or are we simply 'looking out' through a different set of filters and distortions - and self-justifying and self-reinforcing the 'reality' we have accepted as our current model.
For as we define our self in relation to anything - and indeed everything, we create a model that then gives us a real experience that operates on many levels simultaneously - because Consciousness is not merely the persona, but the props and creative background that sets the scene and even the capacity to forget its own nature - so as to in a sense turn the Lights down and serve a particular focus.
Using drama as a metaphor for a particular expression of consciousness is a pointer or sketch to draw attention within one's current appreciation to - as it were - turn up the Light a little so as to illuminate more than what the spotlight and scripted storyline were presenting as one's world or reality.
The use of the mind to create myth is in exploring the story of self IN world and there are only so many dramatic archetypes - yet they can be lived out in billions of unique ways.
The Self or Consciousness that the world and its self are experienced IN and OF is invisible to the persona.
There are myths or stories of awakening - such as that of Jesus - which penetrate the dream as an undoing and transcending of the myth of a separating, disconnected, conflicting consciousness.
There are also many myths that reflect in symbol and story, the nature of the mechanisms and devices of such apparent separation and the experience that it engenders.
The scientific myth is a kind of anti-magic. A special kind of magic that isn't magic because it rises from the ashes of all such irrational childishness and futility as a model of externally verifiable 'facts' to which the human imagination is excluded. But if we cannot imagine it, we cannot see it. So there is simply a tacit agreement to exclude Consciousness as the nature and source of our experience and give that power to 'material reality' - and of course the 'rationality' that saves us from fearful slavery of confusion and ignorance so as to protect consciousness from the raw transformative participation also known as Life.
I feel that the Shift of consciousness that is occurring, will open perspective on the mythic nature of our persona - and thus reopen a fresh appreciation and expression of truly creative endeavor and relationship.
Waking up from a mesmeric mental identity to participance in and as the energetic of a direct appreciation.
Waking up to the Consciousness that we are - that is in a sense living us - living all things - right in this moment, in this place in this exactly experienced moment.
Observation as a within-ness or total participant is no less verifiable but is not reducible or translatable to the conceptual model and its articulation. To attempt to communicate in such 'outer terms' is futile for the message is lost in translation and the potential recipient is not listening where the message is shared.
But in a willingness and desire of true curiosity, the messages not only come through - but are relevant and resonant to the current theme of one's unfolding experience at a more embracing level than the persona mentality is aware of.
Infinite truth has no gap or degree or difference. What we take as our mind cannot and is not fitted to embrace it - for such mind is a limiting filtering mechanism of a design that serves the purpose we give it - because consciousness is an act of extension.

The myth of separation for Source is a basis for playing in the dark. A prodigal waste of a living inheritance? Not within the Remembrance of Source as undoes all sense of separation.

All meanings we ascribe ourself and world are mythic - but the transparency of all meanings to One Meaning is Creation - which is not matter-stuff in nothingness for a ghost to make sense of, map out, define, control attempt to overcome and die in, but an all embracing expansion of All That IS - in infinitely rich reflection.
Every instant 'proves it' but not in a coercive way or to a coercively engaged attention. Only to a free willingness of acceptance does grace reveal the obvious and then as a revealed foundation and not as a struggling self-assertion.
If Science is willing to accept the 'myth of self' it can regain a true foundation as the Consciousness curiosity to behold truth. Our truly personal or intimate sense is uniquely signatured to its own joy. If one is not unfolding and extending one's joy in life - then the only truths available are joyless substitutes. But there is no substitute for the unique presence you are. Enjoy the power of illusions within the integrity of you and release the fascination of the illusion of power that undermines awareness of integrity... if you want.

binra 19 June 2014

As soon as there is self definition, there is a differentiation that generates or creates experience.
However, differentiation within a unified consciousness is more of a vibrational resonance - that cannot be directly translated into terms of a segregated consciousness, because it Is You, rather than something happening TO a someone presumed to be you.
The differentiation of a segregating intent is the basis of the story self. A self-construct that uses mythic or story continuities to assert its narrative as the central character framework that defines and filters a seemingly private experience.
The personality construct is a vehicle through which to experience the physical or externalized 'reality'. It operates as self definitions and beliefs, feelings and thoughts - with the experience reflecting this activity - much of which is unconscious or filtered out by the surface persona.
Choosing in a sense, to be defined by our own story rather than the energetic reception of That which is prior to the operation of a segregating prism, makes story the nature of our self and reality.
Drama of personae, cast amidst scenes and props that embody and reflect a will to power; a wish that things align THUS! - which then unfolds a multilevel Script of infinitely rich reflection - all of which reaffirm and uphold the 'identity' of the central character in a process of unfolding transformative changes.

The uncovering of the perspective beyond the drama is sometimes called self or Self-Realisation. The motive of the reintegration of Consciousness is that which stirs, wakes, reveals and uncovers the self and its world-reflective experience and identity - from a Unified Perspective that is essentially timeless.
Myth and stories reflecting the outgoing or segregating movement provide the dramatic frameworks for developing and growing themes and specific abilities; 'Man as a process of becoming'.
These are recognized or 'known again' as qualities of being.

Mutual reinforcement is the sharing of core beliefs and definitions such as to 'agree to focus on self-segregating consciousness'. In this sense our subjective sense is always already communicating itself as the presumption and assertion of a separated 'will'.
The symbol of Jesus is the idea that this 'will' can be discerned and truly accounted for, put aside and so make way for a Universal 'Will' which is not other than the undistorted communication of Being unto Itself. In this 'story' Man does not become the Light, but yields coercive distortion to the Light of an All Pervading Awareness. An awareness that the mythic 'self' forgets, usurps and denies in order to 'know itself' as judge or determiner of reality.

The mythic or symbolic aspects of our experience in the world can thus serve the discernment of the structures and devices by which such 'divide and rule' consciousness appears to replace 'Unify and extend'.

"Go forth and multiply" is not an option - but WHAT we each choose to extend and propagate will be the nature of our experience.

The reintegrative capacity of consciousness is the capacity to discern directly what is resonant and relevant to the current unfoldment of unique signature vibration. When we are aligned truly, all else is aligned to our clear appreciation and there is the capacity to move within an overall flow rather than assert a coercive will in ways that exacerbate struggle and pride.

Resonance is a different order of 'knowing' than rational construct. The knowing in the heart can guide and support rational activity instead of being usurped and enslaved or denied by it.