A Monster and a Line

In Myth and Society in Ancient Greece, "Myth and Literary History: Historical Philology," Vernant writes of the dangers of philology's having usurped study of classical mythology due to its positivist tendencies. Myth is reduced to chronological and typographical analysis that ultimately assimilates myth to history. Furthermore, mere literary analysis of myth, focusing on genre, function of literary type, personality of the writers using them, etc, obscures its specificity. A linear understanding is read into even the religion, robbed of its internal logic and instead seen as composite, syncretic, 'heteroclite' of individual portraits "as if in a dictionary, alphabetised". These portraits are explained by fusion processes among different elements of origin that may have come into contact. Vernant points out that the function of a god in practices, beliefs, myths, religious conscience, may diminish the relative importance of the problems of origins.
So, myth then assembles for these historians causal or etiological explanations; deposits history has left in the legends, and the "imaginary" which is their appellation for anything that does not correspond to event or in which they fail to find reflections of the real. In sum, "In the line of logic of a certain traditional philology, any attempt to decode Greek religion and mythology risks appearing as a desperate enterprise. How can one pretend to look for order in that which is, by nature, an incoherent free-for-all?" Paradox is inscribed from the beginning, in the opposition of logos and muthos. Vernant writes that the same civilization that gave us the virtues of clarity, intellectual rigour, lived, on the plane of religion and myth, in a sort of chaos.
Socrates addresses myth in Phaedrus: when he is asked by Phaedrus (229c) whether he believes in a river myth, he begins by saying that he "would not be extraordinary" if he "disbelieved, as the wise men do". These wise men, it follows from his account, furnish rational explanations (positivist?), which requires much cleverness and is unenviable because there are "multitudes of strange, inconceivable, portentous natures" that all need explaining. What is more, "to explain each in accordance with probability" requires "a great deal of leisure".




Socrates says he has no such leisure, because he barely understands the Delphic maxim to know thyself, so he ought not "investigate irrelevant things" (230). Regarding the monsters that may be attributed to fancy by the historians mentioned above, Socrates says, "I investigate ... myself, to know whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon or a gentler and simpler creature, to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature." It is possible at least in this example for the monster to be a referent in a heuristic metaphor.
Time and again I think of Gadamer's opening to The Beginning of Philosophy where he writes that where we set the beginning of things is relevant as this can even determine to some extent the outcome. I wonder if this can be compared to geometry, where a line is infinite unless it has the additional information related to the beginning or end point. That information contextualises the line, just as the chosen beginning does the following narrative. The positivist's line wishes for infinity (in its implicit suggestion that as time goes on, ever more will be known of the laws that may be discovered) but it tampers with beginnings.
The diversity of examples of a subject can diminish the relative importance of beginnings. One example is the relative importance of the myth to Socrates: less important than self-knowledge. Because maybe if we knew our own selves better, we would come to a better relationship to this line that may not have a beginning point that can be rationalised.



Brush: Ewansim Grunge at DeviantART.

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