FIND in
<--prev V30 next-->

From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" <ddanehy@siebel.com>
Subject: (urth) Mystery/Metaphysics/Mythopoesis/Metaphor/Modernity
Date: Wed, 22 Aug 2001 09:53:44 

"If God chooses to be mythopoeic -- and is the sky itself not a
myth? -- then can we refuse to be mythopathic?" -- CSL


Dan Parmenter emerged from the Cave, observed the True Reality, 
and returned to tell those who dwell among the shadows that:

> Nigel Price wrote:
> > So: the physical world as a reflection of divine reality, myths 
> > as the recurring patterns whereby the physical world reflects 
> > that greater reality,and myths as symbollic statements of enduring
> > psychological truths.
> The way you phrased this immediately reminded me of Tolkien's idea
> of sub-creation: any myth-creation, by virtue of being an act of
> creation, must and will reflect divine reality.  

It would be more accurate to add a few select adjectives to this 
summary: "any true myth-creation, by virtue of being a true act of
creation, must and will reflect divine reality." For as sure as 
eggs is eggs (aching men's feet), there are false acts of myth-
creation and sub-creation, against which JRRT registered the 
occasional protest (among those against whose allegedly false 
myth-making he protested we might note Walt Disney and William 

> In fact I think Tolkien goes on record to say that reading and
> writing mythology is a surer way to discover the truth about the
> world than philosophical speculation.

Actually, I'm pretty sure it was Lewis who said this. But the
real working-out of the idea would, I think, be Dorothy Sayers's
magnificent book _The Mind of the Maker_.

> As you say, myths deal with archetypes of human thought and
> behavior.

I think this an oversimplification. Myths deal with archetypes,
whose "existence" we know primarily through their "manifestation"
in human thought and behavior. The quotation marks are intended
as a reminder/indicator of the over/underdetermined nature of the
"meaning" of the two words thus set apart: that is, they indicate
to us and remind us that the sentence so marked neither affirms 
nor denies the "existence" of these archetypes in any form _other_
than what we perceive in human thought/behavior; of course, if 
they do not, then the word "manifestation" is -- manifestly -- 

But to talk meaningfully about them, it seems-to-me necesary to 
(at least) hold open a space for the _possibility_ that they _do_ 
in fact possess some "independent" "existence" other than in these 
"manifestations" -- even if that "existence" is no more than some 
kind of universal (or at least wide-spread) patterns in 
(deeper-than-surface-thought-and-behavior) human brains/minds 
which is not, but which manifests itself in, these thoughts and/or

> If in fact the world and human nature are created as a function
> of some divine principle, then a myth that accurately portrays
> those archetypes, that mimics the physical and psychological
> world, will be (a) interesting for a long period of time to a lot
> of people and (b) contain true insight into the more enduring
> causes of the universe.

And a weaker, non-religoius form of this is also possible and useful:
"If a myth accurately portrays [i.e., matches in some way we can
consciously or, especially, unconsciously, recognize] the deeper
patterns universally or broadly present in the structure of human
brains/minds, then that myth will mimic the physical-psychological
world of humans in a way that will (a) be interesting for a significant
period of time to a lot of humans and (b) contain true insight into 
the more enduring causes of human behavior and personality." 

In fact, I hold to the stronger form, but I think the weaker form 
may be more appropriate as a basis for discussion in an audience 
which doesn't generally hold the antecedent of the stronger form
to be true or even possibly true.

> And because the myth-maker in essence seizes upon the divine, 
> creative principle in order to create the myth he (or she, 
> more likely) has no choice but to sub-create a world that is 
> like in nature to the greater creation.  

Again, a weaker (or at least non-religion-based) form: "The myth-maker 
is limited to what the physical structure of a human brain-mind can 
imagine. The human brain-mind is in turn limited by its formation,
its devleopment, and its training, all of which take place in the
single known physical universe, all of which which places restraint
on what it _can_ imagine. Furthermore, the (would-be) myth-maker, in 
order to create a myth which will appeal to large numbers of humans, 
and so succeed _as_ a myth, is constrained not only by his own 
imagination, but by the imaginations of those to whom he seeks to 
communicate the myth, and by the means (language, drawing, etc.) by
which he seeks to communicate it. The result of all of this is that
any truly successful myth will have some minimum basic level of
congruity or similarity to the (actual) (physical) universe."

> I wouldn't elaborate on this except that it seems like Tolkien's
> aesthetic has gotten short shrift in the archives, and since we
> know that Wolfe read a lot of Tolkien's friend and intellectual
> disciple--certainly in this area--C.S. Lewis, this is undoubtedly
> a source to take into consideration.

I think it too much to consider Lewis Tolkien's "intellectual
disciple," even in this area. More than Tolkien, I would suggest
Charles Williams as a source of Lewis' myth-making "style," and
_far_ more than either, George MacDonald. (Whose "myths" I, 
personally, find nigh-unreadable, but...)

> And too it seems to have special bearing on Wolfe's detective
> fiction. I too think the detective story is a modern mythology--
> though I would argue, Nutria, that it's a Modern mythology that
> only realized an explicit Christian element under Chesterton's
> tutelage.  

... if even there. Indeed, almost exactly to the extent that the 
Fr. Brown stories are Christian, they work _against_ the basic 
metaphysic of the detective story, which is rationalistic and
materialistic. When Fr. Brown uses the logic he's been taught in
the seminary to solve the mystery, that's just a character quirk;
but when he's able to solve the mystery, or bring the criminal
to "repentance," through applied Christian belief, the devoted
mystery reader (quite rightly) feels that there is something not
quite right here. Chesterton has violated the protocols, the 
readerly expectations, of the mystery. _Not_, I hasten to say,
"undermined" or "subverted" -- both of these are legitimate moves
-- but simply and blatantly transgressed against them.

The Fr. Brown stories are excellent stories.

But some of them are lousy mysteries.

> It's a mythology unique to modernity in particular, I think,
> because the most important element is the "decypherability" of
> the crime.  Usually by the tools of Reason, and Reason,
> personally exercised reason--whether you are a layman with your
> own Bible, a (Baconian) scientist, a voter, a consumer--is the
> raison d'etre of modernity.  

Shhh! Don't tell Aristotle. He thought it was the raison d'etre
of (classical) philosophy. 

Reason and what I have to call Unreason (but I mean it in a 
broader sense, as I do Reason -- one with neither an intrinsically
good nor an intrinsically bad connotation) have existed in a 
kind of seesawing balance/imbalance since human thought began,
or, certainly, since it began to be recorded. Another word for
"Unreason" in this context would be "Passion," but in the modern,
not the classical, sense -- being moved by powerful emotion: 
the true Romanticism. Most "philosophies" seem to insist on the
primacy of one over the other, as do most "religions." In fact,
Reason is barren without Passion, and Passion is hideously 
destructive without Reason (Passion without Reason produces the
Third Reich; Reason without Passion produces Mutually Assured
Destruction.) -- but even combining the two fails to guarantee
results. Each must be trained to act as a check upon the other.

(Damn, I'm talking like some kind of newage guru here -- and I 
_don't_ mean to. It's not as if I'd achieved the kind of balance 
I'm talking about! But I want to defuse the dangerous idea that
there is anything particularly modern, or modernistic, about 

> And of course as we got increasingly gloomy about Reason the myth
> took new forms: Kafka, for instance, turned the tale on its head
> with _The Trial_, gave us guilt with no crime and thus no solution.

... intended, of course, as a metaphor for the entire "human 
condition;" it is a religion-free description of the phenomenon
traditionally called "original sin." K cannot be saved until he
acknowledges that he is guilty, even without having understood his 
crime; but having acknowledged it, there is no salvation for him but 
execution. A grim (and surprisingly theologically accurate) picture 
of the "fallen and unredeemed human" in Christian terms.

> But while Wolfe seems to like Kafka (_There Are Doors_ -- people
> objected to the unbelievability of C-5 or whatever the alternative
> universe was called -- made a lot more sense to me as a Kafkaesque
> fairy-tale and something of a rebuttal to _The Castle_) 

Also, "Westwind" and -- oh, hell: the story about the sentient 
septic germs? -- have always seemed very K-esque to me also. 
And "The Detective of Dreams" is almost a perfect inverse-Kafka 

> I don't think he shares Kafka's gloominess.  The detectives,
> professional and amateur, have problems that they solve, usually
> with a combination of reason and metaphysics, and so of course
> Wolfe is trying to tell us that our own universe is similarly
> tractable.  

I think a better word would be "negotiable." (Like terrain, not
like money.) Wolfe seems to hold forth the idea that the Universe
is, in principle, fully capable of intellectual comprehension -- 
even if we, in practice, are not capable of fully comprehending 
it; that it _is_ negotiable, and our failures to negotiate it are
due to our limits and not to its fundamental irrationality; that 
the universe is, in fact, surd.

> But the real genius of his sub-creation is that he doesn't only
> *tell* us that but presents us, his readers, with our own puzzles
> to work out, giving us -- as Nigel pointed out earlier -- exactly
> as much information as we need to do so.

Sometimes I think he overestimates readers' ability to work it out,
or, perhaps, their patience to do so. Certainly he knows that the
difficulty of his texts exceeds the patience of _some_ (probably
many, maybe most) readers to play his games out to the end. And it
seems clear that he's quite comfortable with this.

But really, he's just taken one of the basic aesthetic principles 
of modern(ist[ic]) prose to a kind of terminal point. Strunk said 
it best. "Rule 17: Omit needless words." Compare some texts of the 
last few centuries and see how writers gradually become terser and 
terser, and Wolfe, for all his occasional gorgeousnesses, emerges 
as a paragon of verbal economy. His basic principle would seem to
be: "Never give any information that isn't needed for the whole 
effect of the story, and never repeat anything unless there is a 
sound reason for it to be repeated -- and emphasis, in and of 
itself, is _not_ a reason for repetition."

> Is this a Platonic exercise?  With my limited experience with
> Plato I am inclined to say no--Plato, for instance, thought poets
> and their shady (shadowy?) lyricisms should be banished from the
> Republic. 

His attitude in the Laws, a more "realistic" approach than the
Republic (which is, after all, "idealistic") is more moderate; and
in one dialogue -- whose title I'm blanking on -- he has Socrates
quite clearly conclude that poets -- actually, not poets but the
performers of poetry -- speak for (indeed, speak under possession 
of) the gods. (This dialog is, if not _the_ source, then certainly 
_a_ source, for the modern word "inspiration" as relates to an 
artist's impulse to create.)

> I suppose it all depends on whether Wolfe thinks his stories are
> good, qua ipso, or merely tools to describe some higher reality 
> -- whether that be our own "real" world or something higher still.  
> I certainly think the stories good in their own right.

I would deny this opposition as unnecessary and artificial. Whether
the stories are good as stories is one question; whether they are
tools to describe some higher reality is another. (And whether being
effective tools for the description of a higher reality does or would 
make them better stories is a third.)


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

<--prev V30 next-->