Beyond Myth?

Jean-François Champollion was the son of a bookseller, who by his teenage years knew Greek and Latin, and some Herbrew, Abraic, Syriac, Chaldean, Chinese, Persian, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Sanskrit. At 16, he presented a paper providing a clue to the Hieroglyphic script, based on his suggestion that Coptic was an ancient Egyptian language.
Literary critic Guy Davenport called Claude Lévi-Strauss "The Champollion of Table Manners" in an essay on the latter's The Origin of Table Manners. Davenport considers Lévi-Strauss, "the most dilligent interpreter of our time", "a reader of riddles and a rediscoverer of the primacy of human behaviour in our knowledge of the world". And the knowledge Davenport focuses on? "'It remains to be seen,' Lévi-Strauss writes at the end of this intricate study of primitive civility, 'whether man's victory over his powerlessness, when carried to a state out of all proportion to the objectives with which he was satisfied during the previous millennia of his history, will not lead back to unreason.' That is, have we moved irrevocably beyond the ethics encoded in archaic myths; and if so, where are we?"
Apparently, a similar point was also raised by Antonio Rosmini in Theodicy, of which I learned from Brandon's summary of a passage about how moral progress is not inevitable, particularly if new generations do not build on what has been learned from preceding ones. Lévi-Strauss' "out of all proportion" here means too much abstraction of concrete, particular expressions of virtue - if I may be permitted to rephrase a summary. If these expressions get lost, they have to be learned all over again, the hard way, by trial and error.
An example of particular messages that may be transmitted are those Davenport says may come to us through the power of myth: "how to marry, how to eat, how to be brave". He posits that when myth loses this power, "it becomes a narrative that does not know how to resolve itself. Everything, says the contemporary novel, comes to a bad end ... We are no wiser than man has ever been about our helplessness in nature. Our fate with love, death, despair, doubt, wealth ... is no different ... it is unanswerable to ask if we have remained human ... Our past is forgotten. We can forget it again."




Human existence is a riddle, which may be encoded in myth. To be beyond myth is to attempt to surpass the need to come to terms with humanity. Gadamer writes about this attempt at transcending conditionedness in Truth and Method, affirming that the focus on subjectivity is a distorting mirror and that history does not belong to us, we belong to it (278, there is no such thing as a point outside history from which the identity of a problem can be conceived). Also, the "overcoming of all prejudices ... will itself prove to be a prejudice." The way around this is to acknowledge one's own particularity, i.e., to know that one has a horizon: learning to look beyond what is close at hand by seeing it better, not by looking away from it (303-4). In a passage that I think beautifully explains the relevance of historical texts, he writes:
When our historical consciousness transposes itself into historical horizons, this does not entail passing into alien world unconnected in any way with our own; instead, they together constitute the one great horizon that moves from within and that, beyond the frontiers of the present, embraces the historical depths of our self-consciousness. ... Our own past and that other past toward which our historical consciousness is directed help to shape this moving horizon out of which human life always lives and which determines it as heritage and tradition.
The emphasis here being on collaboration, as man is always subject - to history. To discount or deny this subjectivity is actually to forget how to speak. To discount the story as Forster did is to deny the answers that are attempted in narrative (he called it primitive: "The more we look at the story, the less we shall find to admire ... Neanderthal man listened to stories…"). Gadamer writes, "It is not that the understanding is subsequently put into words; rather, the way understanding occurs ... is the coming-into-language of the thing itself." (370-1)
Stories and myths are this birth place, and there are myths that are as sophisticated as dialectics.




One anthology of stories on human comport that does not presume to rise above the conditions when it was written, that rather speaks to them, is Valerius Maximus' first century Memorable Deeds and Sayings, which I learned about most through Henry John Walker's introduction to his translation: "It is his very refusal to perform a historical critique of Roman ideals that makes Valerius Maxiimus such a valuable historical source for the worldview of the Romans." Indeed, Walker notes that Maximus does not claim to present an accurate description of the past (which Walker's footnotes reveal) but to provide moral guidance for their inner lives. Walker quotes Maximus' preface: "What person in his right mind would hope that he could record the course of Roman and foreign history, which has been treated by previous writers in an elegant style, and do so either with greater attention to detail or with more striking eloquence?"
We learn from Walker's footnotes that the liberties Maximus takes are quite amusing, for example, he calls Aristotle "thirsting for glory", allowing his "student" Theodectes to publish his work on rhetoric as his own, later revoking this honour - when really, Theodectes was his predecessor, and Aristotle had written a summary of his work, later referring to this summary. Perhaps this is an example of what Walker defines in the beginning as the Roman "fairness" in citing "foreigners" where they were great, yet at the same time, often portraying the same as being boastful, compulsive liars, and corruptly decadent. And as such, a portrait of the Roman world is achieved.
This may demonstrate Gadamer's point of the use of not looking away from - if not looking beyond.




This week I was musing over the number of guidebooks for behaviour that I know of from the ancient world (nb. dilettante that I am). Memorable Deeds and Sayings was one such guidebook, but another that I learned of from Lendering's AHM (which I'd like to plug) is second century Aulus Gellius' Attic Nights. It begins similarly to Maximus' work in its modest claims. In an entertaining passage on the titles of other books, he explains that his is "merely from the time and place of my winter's vigils; I thus fall as far short of all other writers in the dignity too even of my title, as I do in care and in elegance of style." He explains that his work is to furnish "a quick and easy short-cut" and "lead active and alert minds to a desire for independent learning ... or would save those who are already fully occupied with the other duties of life from an ignorance of words and things which is assuredly shameful and boorish."
Indeed, it was once boorish to be without knowledge of tradition.
But as I was typing all these things down, prepared to add to a list of books on behaviour works like the Enchiridion, it occurred to me that all of these books bear a stoic bent. Which may be just coincidence as this list is random and not reflective of a knowledge of the field - but does raise the question of who is concerned with "the riddles of mankind" and the objectives of his quondam ethics (for, ethics are often the part left unsaid in modern narrative: the unsaid being one of the features of modern prose).
What one derides as priggishness another calls the economy of action, according to which freedom, like the horizon around a person, comes with limits, e.g. the concessions a ruler must make to retain power - to return to the message that Champollion deciphered. Though it sounds like an old story, the only reason I can think of why we would find "less to admire" in it the more we look at it is if we were tired of the human experience and horizons; of having a place and speaking from it.



Book in background: Amy Butler's Midwest Modern
brush: fall foliage by Creature Comfrots.

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