The Mythic Experience
Paul F. McDonald - June 26 2002
"People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life.
In my review of the latest Star Wars film, I wrote that the word "myth" had taken on something of a faddish quality. It is something that people mention without really knowing what it is, like dropping names of people you've never actually met at a party. Movie critics, in particular, are infamous for batting it back and forth among themselves in relation to Star Wars, but then they always fail to interpret it as such. Perhaps they are unwilling to do so - perhaps they are even incapable of doing so. Yet because of the enormous popularity of George Lucas' saga coupled with the famous PBS series "The Power of Myth," which featured Bill Moyers interviewing the renowned scholar Joseph Campbell, the word is being flung all over the lexicon, and this is giving rise to all sorts of misconceptions regarding it.
Of course, it's always been a somewhat tricky subject.
Myth has come to be known as a great many things to a great many people. Before Campbell got a hold of it, people used the word "myth" to almost exclusively refer to stories from ancient Greece and Rome. Naturally, they had come to be regarded as falsehoods, at best primitive attempts at providing answers for the mysteries of the universe. After Campbell, they took on much greater significance, and became metaphorical expressions of the experience of human life in the universe - at least this is the case among the more literate academics and theologians. For the public at large, the message was garbled up, dumbed down, and more or less spun into little more than eloquent banality.
It seems that for your average Star Wars fan and your average critic, myth is viewed from a rather simplistic, rudimentary mindset. Some have sort of a vague idea of archetypes, those ideas and images which have announced themselves to the human psyche again and again down through the ages, both old and new at the same time. Others might make references to the hero's journey, and feel that all a story has to do to qualify as a myth is basically follow a sequence of established events in which a hero rises and falls, and overcomes a number of predictable trials and tribulations. This is all well and good, but it's not even half the story.
What prompts an essay like this one is when all manner of professional journalists and internet fanboys take the formulas listed above in-and-of-themselves, and begin stating subtlely and not-so-subtlely that all this mythic talk is essentially a lot of pretentiousness, or more often a kind of critical back-pedaling that betrays a certain amount of desperation. A lot of fans of films like Star Wars and television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer can be incredibly apologetic, because even though they enjoy myths like them, they feel as if they shouldn't. Critics latch onto this and ride it for all it's worth. A recent article featured at Salon, the well-known online magazine, attacked Lucas and Star Wars and the mythic aura surrounding both, claiming that all of this analysis and rummaging around for allusions was basically nonsense. It was really spin control, they argued, with Lucas and Bill Moyers trying to give the series much more significance and profoundity than it ever deserved, and the "hidden depth" so many claimed to have found buried under all the wookies and lightsabers was either completely unintentional, or hokey gimmicks sloppily hard-wired to the story to make it appear to be something other than just a stupid sci-fi movie with bad dialogue and lousy acting.
Such assumptions actually speak enormous volumes on the perception of all things mythological. They provide a great point of departure for discussing and outlining many basic problems that have confronted people for untold centuries. For some time now, many have had a vague feeling of uneasiness about their lives and their place in the cosmos, born no doubt out of the huge social, religious, scientific, and technological upheavals of the last hundred years or so. It is a kind of metaphysical itch, and the traditional ways are not doing a very good job of scratching it. So let's begin by stating that the argument the detractors of myth are putting forward lays testament to the fact that our usual way of evaluating metaphysical dilemmas - both the religious and artistic - are about as upside down as they could possibly be. The rest of this essay will be about proving how and why.
One of the principal arguments this thesis relies on is that experience is the primary substance on which the analytical is built, not the other way around. This has far-reaching implications when applied to myth, and even moreso when applied to its literal counterpart, life. Campbell went back to this idea of experience over and over again. His idea that the reason myths resonated so deeply in cultures and individuals alike was that they were carefully constructed metaphors for life itself. It was his most revolutionary idea and, one hopes, his most influential. The similarity found in mythic stories the world over - stories of virgin births, dead and resurrecting heroes, universal floods, creations and apocalypses - were grounds to assume that all these things pointed not at actual, outer events, but rather to deep inward mysteries and insights. It also brought to light the idea that human beings may have much more in common than anyone ever dreamed of or imagined.
Yet recall that when Moyers asked him in the PBS series why people should be interested in myths, Campbell replied that there was no reason whatsoever. One should turn to them only if they were "caught by [them] somehow," not because someone comes on television and instructs them to do so. This emphasis on experience conversely led to enormous popularity for Campbell, and he noted that he could not write about myths unless they were moving him in some very deep, profound way. This is not to say he was not a serious scholar - certainly he was, and one only has to reference his four volume series The Masks of God to understand that. But what it does say is that experience is primary. My own writing about Star Wars, Buffy, and other things has tried to be that same combination of analytical and subjective, academic and experiential. Without some bit of wayward inspiration, essays like this could never be written.
This is critical to understand, for the experience is the underlying reason for delving into anything from an academic point of view. When one doesn't have this, it is very noticeable. So, one does not try to spin myth out of a simple sci-fi movie series because it doesn't move them - one spins myth out of such a movie series precisely because it does move them, and this is simply one of the few ways of interpreting and making sense of the experience. I remarked in my own review of Attack of the Clones that Lucas continues to take us to a galaxy far, far away, yet one that nevertheless manages to be closer to us than we are to ourselves, and I meant it. How else to explain visiting alien worlds that seem familiar? When all is said and done, Star Wars has very little exposition for a completely new universe, but audiences recognize most everything in it instantly. And this includes children too, for some of whom seeing the Millenium Falcon blasting into hyperspace for the first time was an experience of near apocalyptic intensity. There has to be a reason why myths resonate within us, and do so as no other pop culture phenomenons have ever managed to. Such things cannot be fabricated, especially when they are not enforced from above, but embraced from below.
The different parts of this essay will deal with all manners of issues, beginning with the importance of symbolism and reference, and all of their implications for how we experience reality. Next will be an analysis of the religious experience, what sort of kinship it shares with the aesthetic one, and why. Finally, modern myths will be discussed and put in a larger cultural framework, and we will wonder at how much they will - and already do - inform our inner and outer realities. This is all meant to form a unifed theory that will hopefull bring together art and religion, myth and metaphor, and reality and imagination, in a unique and comprehensive way.
- Language and Life -
If you're reading this, you probably have some time on your hands. Not a lot, perhaps, but at least enough so that you probably have a DVD player, and have maybe popped in a film at some point and listened to the filmmaker commentary. It's a very interesting special feature, a track that allows directors, producers, and even actors to talk their audience through a film, pointing out behind the scenes info, on set bloopers, and so on.
Or at least, it can be interesting. But suppose for the sake of this discussion that there was a person who thought that the DVD commentary on the film was the film. Just imagine what kind of an experience that would be. There they are, trying to watch the movie, and all the time, there's this sort of annoying voice in the background narrating everything that is going on. But the thing is, they don't want the narration. They can't concentrate on the story, the music keeps cutting in and out, they can't hear half the dialogue, etc. And this sort of thing goes on throughout the entire movie. When the credits finally rolled and the voice went away, no doubt one would feel altogether cheated out of the real movie experience they should have had.
This finally brings us to Alan Watts, a writer and lecturer whom I often describe as doing for Eastern philosophy what Campbell did for mythology. By that I mean somone who took a field that had the reputation of being archaic, inaccessible, irrelevant, or even esoteric, and with a combination of wit and scholarship transformed said field into something charming, timely, interesting, and indispensable to everyday life. Working with an enormous volume of Asian ideas and thinking, Watts eventually realized that we watch almost all of our DVD commentaries with the genuine belief that they are the films themselves. In other words, the audio tracks in our minds have become so self-conscious, we do not live in life at all - we live in a commentary on life.
The interesting thing is, we are so close to it, we do not realize it at all. Right now, your self-conscious commentary that we let run almost perpetually is perhaps trying to bring your attention away from the words you are reading. Your thoughts may already be drifting, slowly being carried away on that stream of ramblings that make up self-consciousness. Because really, that's all it is. It's that sort of hypnotic chit-chat that's forever swirling around in the back of your head. It can be useful, but mostly it's just thinking about thinking about thinking. In a way, a lot of the Asian disciplines and practices - such as meditation and the paradoxical sayings of Zen - are about nothing else but getting that commentary track in your skull turned off.
This is very important for the discussion here, because it greatly informs the way we experience things. Self-consciousness has become so acute that it might best be realized that it and ego are at root the same phenomenon. Many religious traditions in their mystical forms are so adamant about losing or at least letting go of the ego because it constantly interferes with experience. This does relate to religious experience, as will be discussed later, but also to all kinds of experiences, which is vital to understand now. The point is that we are often so busy thinking about life we forget to actually live it.
Our social reality is exclusively shaped by words and ideas rather than experiences. The whole of law, economics, politics, and government is nothing but this, and while it does provide stability and a common framework, all social strife and national warfare arise from the inability to recognize that words are not life. All such things only exist as a concept inside the self-conscious human mind, but we too often fail to remember it. Life isn't a fixed concept, it's an ongoing process, yet institutions dictate it must be treated as a concept. Hence a lot of the marriages -and other institutions - that looked great on paper fall through the floor when confronted with day to day reality.
So our personal lives are obviously affected too by that DVD commentary that doesn't know it's a commentary. Most of our self-images are negative, yet they aren't real. All those nagging little insecure thoughts are all part of a construct that is based on a defunct interpretation of life. Still, most of our lives are spent in pursuit of these ultimately literary abstractions, abstractions like "the good life," "family values," even "success." It would be fine if such things were tangible, but to be tangible something has to be fixed, and "the good life" can become a very bad one remarkably fast. Yet still we plod on, having no where else to go, and being too complicated to enjoy where we already are.
There's a very famous example that Alan Watts often liked to give that most people can relate to. He said to imagine our surprise and disappointment if we happened to turn to our significant other one day and asked for a kiss, and they replied by handing us a piece of paper with the words "a kiss" written on it. What we really wanted was the reality, the sensual experience of lips being pressed together. So this is a new spin on what we've been talking about. Not only can we never succeed in achieving our abstract goals, even if we could, we then wouldn't want them! This is the complete opposite of all this existential worry about whether or not life has a meaning. One might need meaning in a world where significant others only pass notes amongst themselves with the words "a kiss" written on them, but when two people are actually kissing for the first time, there is no worry about whether or not there's meaning behind it. And when it's over, no one has to go to the library and start reading volumes of material about kissing. You just intuitively understand what's happened to you.
So what is meaning? Meaning comes when something can be written down or expressed verbally. That's the realm of the intellectual world. It needs to be pinned down and readily defined. Yet life is much too fluid a thing to ever be easily defined. Doing so is like damming a river - stopping it's flow is to stop it from being what it is. To want life to have meaning is to want it to be something other than life. So the lack of meaning in modern life is not really that big of a problem. Quite frankly, we've had meaning coming at us from every angle for some time, and it hasn't solved a thing.
This brings us to religion, the one thing that people down through the ages have been told to look to for meaning. Yet organized religion has left many in quite a double-bind, and as a result, it has been increasingly a difficult thing to take seriously in this era. The main problem is that it is concerned almost exclusively with self-consciousness. That is the only thing it recognizes or appeals to, yet every increase in self-consciousness is an increase in pain. So the ego can only be placated with crude textual literalism and fantastic promises of immortality. Even religion has become a system of "getting and spending," all of its concerns material despite the outward gloss of spirituality (and sometimes not even that). All that is left is frenzied attempts to keep people in line with a series of rewards and punishments based on scriptures few read and fewer understand.
Yet religion has been with us so long it seems one has to say something for it. What is needed is a turning away from words and belief as words, and a turning inward to a genuine experience. In this lies the appeal of many Asian forms of religions, though religions so unlike our Occidental ones they can scarcely be called religions at all. But it is for this reason that they are being recognized as getting straight at the heart of the matter, and can even provide a means of illuminating our own traditions. When he was an Anglican priest, Alan Watts wrote a superb book along these lines called Behold the Spirit, which could do nothing less than revolutionize the Christian experience.
What separates religious-philosophies like Zen Buddhism and Taoism from all the rest is that their authority rests not on dogma and conceptions, but rather on direct experience. In this sense, they are philosophies of life despite their religious flavor, though the two are not incompatible, as we will see. But each contain all sorts of delightful safeguards against literalism and dogma. Lao Tzu writes that the Tao that can be told is not the real Tao in the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching. And as his disciple Chuang Tzu later puts it, once the ideas are internalized, the words are forgotten. The same attitude is found in the Japanese counterpart of Chinese Taoism, Zen. Far from revering the Buddha and thus setting him up as someone to be emulated but not really identified with (as precisely has been done with Christ), a lot of Zen masters are quite blasphemous, some even spitting on the ground in disgust and so on whenever his name is mentioned. There is no abstraction going on here. All of the Zen koans are meant not only to shock one out of linear thinking, but also to prove words aren't reality. As a well-known one gleefully states, "Empty-handed I go, and behold the spade is in my hands." When the meaning of this finally sets in, reality is greeted in its purest form.
Many of our bolder Western theologians have therefore suggested that perhaps in Zen the essence of all religious experience is to be found, despite the seeming incongruity of the outward forms.
This is of course key to the understanding of myth, but for now it needs to be stated that mysticism in the genuine sense is the realization of what Goethe proclaimed at the end of Faust - namely, that all that is transitory, and all that can be taught, communicated, and thought about, is but reference. And this strays from the religious certainly, even as the situation for both is comparable. Yes, the Bible is symbolic, but so is your wrist-watch. And along these lines, if one believes that the time on their watch is absolute in itself, and then they travel to another country and refuse to honor the new time zone, they can find themselves in all sorts of trouble. Likewise, one cannot live in the twenty-first century pretending that they spiritually live in the sixth century BC. In both cases, a certain amount of flexibility is needed. So in this sense, all things are like the traditional Buddhist imagery of the finger pointing at the moon, and the consequent mistaking of the finger for the moon itself.
- The Joys of Symbolism -
The commonality of the mystical experience needs to be noted again before continuing. This is certainly going to be a great generalization of a very complex phenomenon, but that is the only way to talk about it here. For a more extensive analysis, one can always read William James' The Variety of Religious Experiences, which is quite interesting, and is truly the first synthesis of religion and psychology. For our purposes now, it only need be said that the mystical experience has repeated itself in all cultures and in all times, and that it is characterized by the fact that it is a response of the total human being, that it is the most intense experience of which one feels themselves capable of having, and it is completely beyond words and description. It is called conversion in the West and enlightenment in the East, but what remains the same is that it is always regarded as an ineffable, non-rational experience. The question is why this is so.
I have noted the immense social discontent with organized religion that has been growing in Western society for some time, and I myself once remarked that religion is all talk. This wasn't the slander it might seem - I was speaking quite literally. There is no form in which manufactured, neatly-packaged middle class religion does not involve language. Everyone is either preaching, praying, reading, arguing, and so on, that no one ever shuts up. It's bad enough that one has to deal with this in secular life, but in religious circles it is intolerable. God says in the Bible to be still, and know that I am God, but fundamentalists are too busy running around trying to convince people that evolution didn't happen and not to read Hary Potter books to be still for any substantial amount of time.
This continuous talking is incompatible with the inward experience that the mystics have talked about. Televangelism is a far cry from the "dark cloud of unknowing" that St. John of the Cross spoke of. And this, I think, is the problem. Certainly, technology and science have taken their toll on the religious side of things, but the spiritual dilemmas of today stem from more than someone disproving Biblical literalism. The problem is so severe because the literal - the outward - is all that religion operates on. Inherited beliefs have become worthless to many because they never understood them to begin with. According to Joseph Campbell, the disparity between belief and experience has been the primary theological disaster of modern civilization. As Lord Byron once put it, this is merely "living in worship of an echo." We've got the once-potent symbols but don't know what to do with them, and thus we are spiritually stuck, like a spider in his own web.
This disconnect between the inner and the outer all derives from a basic failure to integrate self-consciousness with something useful. Institutional religion is all grounded in the literal and historical, and operates on the honestly believed absurdity that stories must be taken this way if they are to have any significance. Obviously, all one has to do is sit down with a large audience the opening night of the latest Star Wars episode to know this is laughably false. Though many reformers inside the Christian church are calling for reform - the most notable being John Shelby Spong - most believers are still trapped in the joyless literal mindset of Nicodemus from the Gospels, who thought one had to literally crawl back up into the mother's womb in order to be "born again."
It is fortunate that others like Campbell and Watts feel that it is past time to set aside the and actually taste the food again.
One of the main bringers of Zen to the West was D.T. Suzuki, and he described satori, or enlightenment, as being much like everyday reality - only one is walking two inches off the ground. This is interesting, because one has the sacred brought into close relations with the profane. This is brought out even more clearly in the Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, a classic of Zen by a master named Hui-neng. Yet all religions have had their world-hating saints, and since we all have to live in the world, this has never been a good thing. To recognize that wherever you are is the promised land is a new kind of attitude, at least for the West. One of the problems we have is that are conception of the divine is so concretely personified. This of course led Freud to believe that religion was just psychological projection, particularly with the emphasis on an almighty father. But that is not the kind of thing being discussed here.
If one can recognize symbols as such, and move away from outdated imagery, than it can become realized that the so-called supernatural is not necessarily supernatural at all. What the term "transcendent" really means is simply being free of labels and categories - in other words, the self-conscious intellect. Now we're getting somewhere, namely, back to where we were all along. Campbell wrote in his classic The Hero With a Thousand Faces that the last leg of the hero journey was about realizing that the "ordinary world" left behind and the "special world" traveled to were in fact the same place. So is it with religious experience. The spiritual world is this one, only this one wiped clean of all its divisions and categories. It is the non-conceptual, non-verbal reality, which is why so many have said it is ineffable. It is basically experience experienced directly, without self-consciousness getting in the way. It is not only part of the natural order, it may very well be the natural order. So there's no need to hate the flesh or lapse into those age-old mind/body dualisms.
The seminal message of both Campbell and Watts is that this is it. As Watts writes in The Wisdom of Insecurity, when one is experiencing the colors, sounds, smells, tastes, forms, and weights of this world free from number and rule, label and definition, one is "beholding the God which traditional doctrines call the boundless, formless, infinite, eternal, undivided, unmoved, and unchanging reality - the Absolute behind the relative, the Meaning behind thoughts and words." He also brings up the idea of maya, which is thought to be the veil hiding the reality of God, or the Self, in Indian mythology. But he notes that the verbal root is ma, which means "to measure," so maya is the illusion of division and separation, the world as it looks when the essence of things is buried under the concepts about them. This is the point that all mature religious teachings inevitably have to come to. As Christ said, "The kingdom of the father is within you," and as the Mahayana Buddhists finally realized, this wheel of suffering called samsara was ultimately just a mask for the peaceful bliss of nirvana. So "ultimate reality" becomes walking the dog, and enlightenment is in making a cup of coffee. It's there, but not when we say anything about it.
If this is so, then this is precisely what Campbell proclaimed about myth, and the two compliment one another perfectly. Myth is not something that has happened in the past or is going to happen in the future, but it is something that is happening now. The hero's journey is nothing other than life itself, but as it is experienced, not as it is reflected upon. The importance of myth comes out when one realizes how it can be used to harmonize the inner and the outer worlds. It dramatizes the game of life, and in doing so elevates it, dignifies it, and weaves it into the very fabric of the cosmos itself. The inner mysteries are dressed up but still recognized, so much so that when one opens to the mystery of life against their epic backdrop, it no longer taunts them for an answer, but rather invites them to join the dance. Indeed, if the proper harmony is struck, they realize they are the dance.
Of course, interpretation is always going to be a problem. After all, nothing sounds stranger to modern ears than poetry, and myth is its mother. This is why so many people have problems with religion, and so many critics find it nearly impossible to read Star Wars. Poetry is its own language, and to read it as prose would be like having a book written in Russian, and then trying to read it as if it were in French, with all the inevitable frustration that would cause. Yet as we have seen, it is not a transcending of life, nor an escape from it. In all actuality, it is the fulfillment of it. But to one who has not had any such comparable experience, trying to describe it becomes as futile as trying to describe the Atlantic Ocean to one who has never even seen a puddle.
- Sounding the Depths -
Myth might be thought of as that place where art and religion meet, shake hands, and become one.
The pitfalls of each are very apparent. As it says in the Indian Upanishads, this is the "path of the razor's edge." What is meant by that is that it is so easy to mistake the symbol for the thing being symbolized. This is not to discount words and language and symbols. This is just to say that a map is useful only if one actually plans to take a trip at some point. The metaphysical dilemma faced by the modern human being can be visualized in the story of a man living in Wisconsin. Say this man wants to take a trip to Florida, so he buys himself a road map. When he gets home, he carefully lays it down on the floor, walks over to the Southern part of the country as represented on it, and then genuinely believes himself to be standing in the state of Florida. It looks funny if you visualize it, but it's not uncommon by any stretch of the imagination.
In relation to all this, there has likewise been an endless amount of confusion regarding inspiration, particularly in religion. We are told that even when heaven and earth pass away, God's Word won't. This has led to some curious theological back-pedaling, because the emphasis just doesn't work. It makes no sense to elevate the words and noises and scratch marks on paper we use to describe reality above reality itself, yet that is what we have done. This is all over our secular life as well, hence the modern obsession with records and filing. Reality, meanwhile, has been buried somewhere under mounds of paperwork.
It is important to point out that inspiration is not the words and ideas it produces. In fact, there is an excellent quote from one of the scripts of Buffy written by its creator, Joss Whedon, that clarifies this:
Talking about communication, talking about language. Not the same thing. It's about the way a child can recognize and produce phonemes that don't occur in it's native language. It's about inspiration, not the idea but the moment before the idea, when it's total, when it blossoms in your mind and connects to everything, before the coherent thought that gives it shape, that locks it in and cuts it off from the universal. When you can articulate it, it becomes smaller. It's about thoughts and experiences that we don't have a word for.So we have the reality of inspiration as a living thing, as an experience. The rest is just talk. I recall Percy Bysshe Shelley writing in his wonderful "Defense of Poetry" that the greatest poems ever written were but pale shadows of the original visions that inspired them. It is quite telling that we now have to live off of nothing but words, and words completely divorced from their informing inspiration.
When this happens, the conflict between science and religion kicks into high gear. It is ironic that two systems which have very little to do with each other in the end should be fighting over the same turf. This can best be explained by the realization that literalism is the most prominent form of idolatry today, and though it is highly acceptable or even enforced, it's still idolatry. It forces religion into competition with science because it's end result is to transform religion into a kind of bizarre, hybrid form of science. It becomes not mystical, but descriptive. It becomes the daylight world of filing and analysis, not the deep dream language used by spiritual visionaries. It becomes its opposite in point of fact, yet another face of maya, the illusion of things described rather than things as they are.
It seems worth pointing out that this is not meant to discredit science any more than it is meant to discredit religion - it is merely noting what happens when the two are confused. The problems start when religion tries to pose as all the things that it is not, nor doesn't need to be. Things such as history, science, and the like. If religion is history, there is no reason why the French Revolution or the Italian Renaissance couldn't be a religion. If religion is science, there is no reason why it should have any problems with the findings of naturalists. Science has actually been very helpful in proving that the spiritual is not the outer world of names and dates, but the inner one of experience and realization. There is no need to cry against the findings of science, or complain with Keats that it has somehow "unweaved the rainbow." But what is needed is the awareness that science is what the universe is when exclusively defined by looking through the lens of self-consciousness. When this has been forgotten, the poets are right to raise a word of warning. Science can tell us our place in the universe, but not how to experience that place. One of the many unmitigated disasters of modern education is that the poetic has been reduced to little more than a footnote against mathematics and science, and an inconsequential one at that. But when they become the end-all and be-all of experience, the much hyped "wonders of science" leave most modern people feeling nothing but alienated and alone. Yet instead of balancing out the equation, the spiritual leaders emulate it.
And with this intense self-consciousness, religion becomes completely enamored with morality. Indeed, whenever science is questioned by religion in regards to things like cloning, scientists immediately hasten to assure everyone that they are ethical. But religion is not moralistic when it is experiential. It may sound moralistic without the experience, but that is not it's real ground. The belief that one should "love thy neighbor as thyself" is worthless without the corresponding experience that - on some very real level - your neighbor is yourself. When religion loses it's primary mystical basis, it has no choice but to devolve into the ethical, and of course, stripped of its insights, the ethical then never works.
Myth is so very important then, in that it can bring experience back to the playing table, but likewise describe it at the same time. And it does so by being the field on which art and religion meet. So the question now becomes - is the religious experience fundamentally separated from the aesthetic one?
In academic circles, it has been believed for some time that art can go a long way in filling that gaping metaphysical hole left in the absence of a rich, potent, experiential religion. I would say a certain kind of art can genuinely do this. This may sound strange, for most representations of religious experience are of a fantastic nature. But I am not saying that once one sees a new Star Wars film, they will then stagger around in a trance and start seeing visions of St. Lucas all over the place. To be frank, very few religious experiences of any kind fall into that sort of thing. Very few come with visual phenomenon, and fewer still have any auditory component.
No, what is most common in religious experience is simply feelings and sensations, though ones of enormous power. One of the best discussions of this kind of phenomenon is by the great Christian thinker Rudolf Otto. In his most famous book, The Idea of the Holy, he coins the phrase "the numinous," and goes into great detail talking about religious feeling. The numinous deals with feelings of the strange, the uncanny, and also the deeper, life-altering experiences of the awesome and the sublime. The main thesis of the book was that before religion came to be "morality touched with emotion," it was the emotion itself.
So from here on in, it is most appropriate to employ the word "religious" when referring to a mode of experience that is utterly distinct from our everyday one, even though ultimately it is that experience in its purest form. This is the point at which the crossover between religion and art begins to take place, where the mystical and the aesthetic finally can be united. The British thinker Colin Wilson writes of this very thing in Poetry and Mysticism. Poetry is the most religious language around, for - like in the scriptures - it manages to turn one outward and inward almost simoultaneously. Wilson too speaks of the dangers of self-consciousness, which he defines as narrow-mindedness. In contrast to this, "The poet is a man whose vision sometimes expands beyond the usual human limit,and is startled by how enormous and beautiful the universe is." Everyday thinking is thus a worm's eye view of the world, but when this kind of "affirmation experience" comes, it is transformed into what it should have been originally - a bird's eye view. This is the good news of the mystics and poets alike, and each use words to go beyond words.
Along these lines, Campbell's literary hero James Joyce wrote about aesthetic arrest, developing the idea with a little help from Aquinas and Aristotle. The end result of art is to bring about this kind of mystical state, where feelings of awe lead to a kind of stasis, at which point the rapture of time mingles with the stillness of eternity. It brings an end to self-conscious division, and the usual duality of subject and object is eradicated. One doesn't just experience the art, one becomes the experience. Much like when falling in love, there is a point that the person becomes love. It is just "one thing," hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, and you are swimming in it. This is not a manifestation of any kind of critical faculty - this is when the critical faculty is altogether destroyed. The current is too strong and dynamic for such a wire, and only much later, when one turns to communicate it, does the faculty need to be rebuilt.
If there is such a thing as religious experience, this is most certainly "it."
- The Myth Becoming -
It is easy to recognize how important such an experience is, but on the other hand, how rare it is when we actually have it. The self-consciousness of the modern human being almost completely blocks it out. No one has time to penetrate to the very essence of the poetic, so all this creative potential lies dormant. In The Lost Dimension in Religion, the brilliant Christian existentialist Paul Tillich outlined the situation in very precise terms:
Our daily life in office and home, in cars and airplanes, at parties and conferences, while reading magazines and watching television, while looking at advertisements and hearing radio, are in themselves continuous examples of a life which has lost the dimension of depth. It runs ahead, every moment is filled with something which must be done or said or planned. But no one can experience depth without stopping and becoming aware of himself. Only if he has moments in which he does not care about what comes next can he experience the meaning of this moment here and now.What is interesting is that even when people do take the time to sit down and experience myth, they often find themselves unable to do so. In no small way, the reception of the new Star Wars prequels are adequate examples of this. The critics evaluate them with the sixteen years of self-consciousness that has built up between the release of the two trilogies. As a result, many are so busy watching them they completely fail to actually see them. And then we get articles like the one from Salon that was mentioned in the introduction. We have lost that dimension of depth, of being able to penetrate deeply into experience, for a myth experienced self-consciously is not experienced at all.
At the other end of the spectrum, it is a difficult, exhaustive enterprise to craft a myth. Campbell discusses some of the inherent problems in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. "How render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark? How represent on a two dimensional surface a three dimensional image, or in a three dimensional image a multi-dimensional meaning?" he asks, adding, "As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes." This is the myth rejected, and it happens so often, there's even an archetype for it. We see again and again heroes who fail to recognize the magic sword or the elixir of life, and how the passage from the forest to the village turns the gold into fairy dust.
There is a yet another problem in all this, and lies in my very thesis itself. If myth is first and foremost experiential, and experience is obviously subjective, how to judge and define what is truly mythic? In Creative Mythology, Campbell noted that with all the old authoritarian myths disintegrating around us, it would now be for the individual to craft his own myth, and others to be drawn to it freely and uncoerced. This could be a potential problem for the academic side, laying the groundwork for a possible mythological free-for-all., where claims made are not claims experienced. Yet the potential is also there for a creative outpouring unparalleled in human history, provided one is able to separate the wheat from the chaff. On a very real level, it seems this is already beginning to happen, and that will be the last thing discussed.
Despite its aberrant forms, including its collapses into literalism or authoritarian doctrine, myth is still a very human thing. Maybe the most human thing. It is the basic desire of human beings to give their place in the universe an image and a name, to bring into expression the most sublime experiences of which our species is capable. Communication is a fine impulse, even when one goes to communicate, and finds that words simply won't suffice. The only genuine way to understand the religious is to experience it directly. It is about evoking what Campbell called "a transformation of consciousness." Talk about such things is always limiting, and usually defensive. This is why the classic mystic response has always been a closing of the lips.
Yet when it comes time to inevitably break the silence and share in the mysteries discovered there, one turns to myth. But the question still remains what a myth is, and what it isn't. The best direction in which to begin would be to say that it is that which moves people toward some recognition of the experience of being alive. This is not to say that everything that evokes an emotional response and is popular is a myth. Titanic was a nice movie that made a lot of money, but it would hardly qualify as a myth. It has been argued otherwise. Christopher Vogler once used Campbell's ideas of the hero's journey and wrote a book outlining both how they could be used in screenplays, as well as how they already have been. Though this basic story-telling structure is operative in many places, I do not think that every movie using it even remotely qualifies as myth.
If I may narrow the playing field a bit, we can turn to Campbell's own poetically-charged definition. He wrote that myths have to deal with "the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millenia," and "have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage," and so on. This is the starting point then for trying to critically identify the myths that are with us today.
First and foremost, the story being told needs to be expressed in metaphor. It needs to point beyond itself, beyond the everyday and the domestic. Sure, Seinfeld is a popular and funny show, but no one is going to erect a civilization around it (probably). It's very hard to provide a transubstantiation of the common with the same things that make up the common. As Campbell once said, "Naturalism is the death of art." In line with this, a myth needs to transcend the local sphere. The only myths that are worth anything today are the ones that deal not with this people or this culture, but with what it means to be a human being. Adolf Bastian, the Berlin ethnologist with whom Campbell's work really began, noted that myth has two prominent expressions. One is the ethnic, or the local, provincial side, and the other is the elementary, or the side which breaks through all sides and is properly universal in its application. The elementary is what is needed here. Likewise, a myth needs to give some form to Otto's "numinous," an element that brings with it feelings of the awesome and sublime. Finally, a myth needs to have a type of hero's journey that has some kind of pedagogical inflection, whether it be carrying young children on the journey to adolescence, or middle-aged men through the mid-life crisis. When all these things are in concert, then you begin to hit on something very special.
It is also worth noting that while allusions to other myths and stories are important, reference to them does not constitute a myth. An allusion to The Odyssey does not give the work itself the stature of Homer. It does imply thoughtfulness, but not automatic greatness. Aside from this, many would argue that also the simple depiction of good and evil is grounds for declaring something mythic. But while myth does deal with the relationship of polarities, of light and dark and this and that, it has to transcend the mere ethical. As Campbell remarked about Star Wars in "The Power of Myth," "It's not a simple morality play, it has to do with the powers of life as they are either fulfilled or broken or suppressed through the action of man." This is an important distinction.
Fantasy and science fiction should have provided fertile grounds for the shaping of modern myths, though they did not immediately live up to that potential. Most science fiction began as pulp like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and fantasy, even The Lord of the Rings, was largely inaccessible and irrelevant because of its continuous use of symbolism that, in the end, pointed nowhere. Things like StarTrek rarely went beyond black-and-white allegories if they ever went beyond the surface trappings at all, and there was always some didactic message where the end result was making a social statement. It did not have to do with "the powers of life." New series' like The X-Files have not done much better. That series, in particular, was mired in literalism, where the show wanted one to really believe all this speculation about UFOs and conspiracies was possible. It had more to do with explaining things scientifically than with inner realization and growth. It wanted one to believe that this could happen, but that's not myth. Myth is something that is happening.
This leaves us with the few television shows, movies, and books which seem to constitute a mythic experience for me and a lot of other people. They best follow the points I established earlier, but first and foremost they constitute the experience. In varying degrees, I know each are myths by virtue of Emily Dickinson's idea on what made a poem a poem. She wrote that when it felt as if the top of her head had been taken off, she knew that was poetry. In no small measure, each of these myths have left me anxiously feeling the top of my head at one time or another.
The first two are incomparable to anything else, and by that I mean their world-wide popularity is unparalleled in popular culture. One is Star Wars, and the other is the Harry Potter books. It is interesting that while the first is very cognizant of being a myth, the latter is more or less oblivious.
In discussing the Harry Potter phenomenon, the only genuine place I can begin is with an article I once read. It compared the intensity of the playground discussions regarded the books to the level of Talmudic discourse in Judaism. It's a fascinating comparison, and obviously relevant here. What is most interesting about all this is that writer JK Rowling doesn't appear to know what she's creating, at least in the mythic sense. She merely imagined the boy wizard while sitting in a stalled train staring at cows, and the story just poured out of her imagination from there. It is amazing to think of it, but she really did successfully carve out a proper mythogenetic zone for herself at Nicholson's Cafe, which is where she wrote many of the initial adventures for Harry. It does follow the hero's journey perfectly, but what's more important here is the response, and it has been phenomenal. It is simply incredible to think of children happily reading 700 page books with glee in this, our video game age. I recall on Nightline, they covered several Barnes and Nobles the night of the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It was like a virtual celebration, with children playing games and dressed in costumes, completely excited about the release of a book, blissfully unaware of their participation in a myth.
The flip side of this is the alarmist reaction it has been met with by certain fundamentalists groups who apparently really believe there are people alive who can turn them into frogs and so forth. One of the most infamous of these had a story ran about them in USA Today. A pastor James Brocke was holding a book-burning with Harry as the main guest of honor. Though the event had more detractors present than supporters, Brocke remained set in his convictions. "Harry Potter is the devil," he said, adding, "And he's ruining people's lives." Well, this begs two questions. One is how someone could possibly become so enamored with the tales of a fictional wizard that they completely lay waste to their entire existence. The second is why a church that should be so secure is so aggressively insecure. This is the sort of thing that people are finding increasingly deplorable about fundamentalist religion. Of course, certainly the epic stories of the Bible could more than compete with Rowling's creation, provided they are made real and relevant by a competent clergy. But as it stands now, Christianity cannot compete with this simply because it refuses to do so, and if the church will not provide a living myth for the people, they will get it elsewhere. This should be a condemnation of fundamentalism, not Rowling. Whatever her intentions, her function has been a religious one, at least in terms of this essay. It is unfortunate that the world-transforming power of Christianity has been so lost that all that is left of it in such a situation is finger-pointing and threats of hell.
Along this lines, it is quite telling that on the day I was organizing this section, it was brought to my attention that the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that over 250,000 citizens claimed Star Wars as their religion. That means that there are currently more people in Australia calling themselves Jedi than people calling themselves Baptists, Lutherans, and Mormons. Sure, such things are partly tongue embedded in cheek, but only partly. George Lucas - much to his credit - has already said that he would "hate to find ourselves in a completely secular world where entertainment is passing for some kind of religious experience." It's wonderful that he said that, but nevertheless, that is largely what we have.
If one can manage to shut off that DVD commentary in the head, one can certainly sense a profoundity to the new Star Wars prequels. Whatever may be thought of The Phantom Menace in the end, many have rallied around Attack of the Clones in fanboy ecstasy, claiming that it is on the level of the original trilogy, and even surpasses it in some cases. Still, the opening night of The Phantom Menace was an absolutely incredible experience. Sitting in a theater after sixteen years of anticipations was incredibly moving, and this was plainly evident as fans were cheering, shaking, waving lightsabers, and even crying before the movie even started. As one fan exclaimed on The Phantom Menace DVD documentary, "I haven't felt this way since 1977."
As for the latest film, it evoked an even stronger response for me. When one is sitting in a darkened theater, and watching Anakin on Tatooine getting on a speeder to go search for his mother with John Williams' classic music swelling in the background, they are undeniably part of that collective chill that goes through the audience. Likewise, the roaring energy of the crowd is a thing to behold when Yoda gets ready to fight Count Dooku. And bearing witness to the marriage of Anakin and Amidala at the end, with the implication that this union will produce Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, is nothing short of sublime. It's like seeing one's own childhood being born right in front of their eyes. At moments like these, myth is the fartherest thing from anyone's mind. All is made known then, and nothing requires an apology or explanation.
There are a few other modern myths that bring with them a blissful execution. While not as popular as what has been discussed before, certainly Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer qualifies as a myth. This series about a California girl who battles vampires could have been a complete disaster, but it is so relatable, forming the first ever mythology concerning modern adolescence. There are many parts in it that have hit religious power, such as the image of Buffy's sacrifice of herself during the 100th episode, The Gift. Likewise, at the end of the most recent finale, Grave, one could not find anywhere a more potent example of the belief that one should love their enemies, made all the more sweeping and poignant by the Prayer of St. Francis that is sung in the background. It is amusing that a self-proclaimed atheist like Joss could bring together such a stunning representation of religious sensibility.
There are a few other stand-outs that are worth mentioning. On the film front, The Matrix is an adequately told myth, exploring many themes both classical and modern. Also there is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was an excellent martial arts film that really gave form to Taoist philosophy in a real way. The one fantasy book trilogy that really brought out the essence of what it means to be a human being is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. These three books do a wonderful job of bringing some of the myth formulated by William Blake to life, but also fabulously deconstruct the book of Genesis and put it back together again. There is also a great scene in which the dead are freed from a prison camp, and Pullman does a flawless job of properly mythologizing science, as well as it's understanding of what happens when we die.
While there are no doubt others, this are the ones that have really hit home for me, and provided a world of experience I never would have had without them. They are the kinds of art that make one realize the point of it all, rather than the meaning of it all. One leaves them with a sense that their humanity has somehow been expanded, and that their depths have been explored a bit more thoroughly.
- The Universe Transformed -
In bringing all this to a conclusion, some words from Goethe are very much in order:
The highest to which man can attain is wonder; and if the prime phenomenon makes him wonder, let him be content; nothing higher can it give him, and nothing further should he seek for behind it; here is the limit.This contentment of wonder is what this essay rests on. If nothing higher can be given or reached, then one does well to settle into the mystery of it all, the universe as it is, rather than the universe after it has been metaphysically probed and prodded to death. As I said earlier, in some sense, when we seek meaning, we seek the obliteration of experience. But when the mind has finally been stilled and self-consciousness has exhausted itself, that is when we arrive at the reality that is not rigid concepts, but flowing experience. That's when we get past all the descriptions, and taste life in its purest form, with all its bliss and horror alike.
So we have come to the realization that infinity is nothing but the proper experience of space, albeit space without the rulers and tape measures. Likewise, that eternity is nothing but the proper experience of time, though time removed from the perpetual tick-tocking of clocks. We begin to understand that transcendence is that point at which language and concepts gradually fade away into the radiance of undifferentiated experience. We see that the religious is the feelings and sensations evoked by this transcendent reality, and that the artistic is those feelings given form in visuals or narratives. Lastly, the mythic experience is when the two are rightfully joined and harmonized.
Such an experience cannot be disqualified, because it stifles the very words that seek to do so. It is not something that needs to be believed in, or even could properly be believed in. It should bring about the realization that it is but social convention to label and divide, and that just as the myth experienced is "one thing," so is it with the entire universe, with each of us inseparable from its process and flow. With the experience that each of us is a function of the entire universe in the same manner that a wave is a function of the whole ocean, we are lured out of the isolating labryinth of perplexing self-consciousness, and into the wholeness of mystic action and cosmic participation.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Princeton University Press, 1947.