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Friday, March 13, 2009

white mythology in the white magic

We get someplace, and then we wonder why we came here. And we look back and can’t remember our path. And our goal is just to get to the Castle. The Castle is just up the hill. It seems so simple. The parts of our plan are falling into place. But then we look around. Why does everybody look suspicious? Why do we feel like we have to keep talking? What do we want? What office do we hold? Who invited us here?

Why am I talking about myth and folklore in the context of happiness?

In an essay on the early enlightenment critique of myth first translated as To Bring Myth to an End in New German Critique, Hans Blumenberg poses the question of why the Enlightenment, defining itself in part as the war against superstition, did not bring myth to an end. Literally, why did the Greek myths survive as narratives that poets, artists, and even psychologists and historians are drawn to? Blumenberg cites Fontenelle, one of the key moderns in the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns that erupted over Perrault’s essay in 1688, because Fontenelle was so explicit in his attack on myth. He was puzzled by the continuing vitality of Greek myth in literature. Why were the poets still using Theseus, Ariadne, Orestes, Oedipus? Why did the circus never end?

“In his discussion of myth Fontenelle expressed the Enlightenment's amazement at the fact that the myths of the Greeks had still not disappeared from the world. Religion and reason had, it is true, weaned people from them, but poetry and painting had given them the means by which to survive. They had been able to make themselves indispensable to these arts. This statement is meant as a contribution to the history of human errors. Part of the program of the Cartesian school was to remove this category too, together with the totality of prejudices, from people's minds. The vigor of the myths must have seemed all the harder to understand since the explanation of the tenacity of prejudices which described them as keeping themselves alive by flattering man about his nature and his place in the universe, against all his better knowledge, did not fit the case of myth. Not only did Fontenelle see a relationship of exclusion between the new science of nature and the ancient myths; he also leaned toward the assumption that given an appropriate presentation, science could fill the vacancy that had arisen, in the system of needs, as a result of criticism of the myths. No doubt he considered something along the lines of his Entretiens sur la pluralite des mondes as the compensation for all the lost beauties of the tradition, in the destruction of which he had participated so suc- cessfully, in the year in which the conversations on the plurality of worlds appeared, with the Histoire des oracles (1686). The basic idea of 'reoccupation' had motivated Fontenelle's invention of the literary genre of the didactic conversation, for the Enlightenment - which did not consistently keep in view the ulterior purpose that he had meant the genre to serve.”

‘Re-occupation’ – a startling word. A military word, of course, one that immediately casts the other side – the side of myth – as the enemy of reason, occupying territory that reason must again advance into a seize – although the very notion of occupation makes it difficult to know if there was ever an original possessor of the land. We were this land’s before the land was ours – and we are trying as hard as possible to forget this fact. Or rather, myth.

As I’ve pointed out in a series of posts last year, the image of antiquity held during the 18th century was changing from that held previously, on back to 15th century Florence. If, among the constellation of humanist European intellectuals, there arose a sort of rule of thumb morality, secretly other-than-Christian, which could aptly be called neo-Stoicism, in the 18th century this belief lost its default position among the intelligentsia. Via Shaftesbury, Stoicism became a tool of ever deeper de-familiarization; and, as a serious set of propositions about pain and pleasure, became the object of La Mettrie’s mockery, the last laugh from the libertine culture.

But the downfall of a certain classical attitude coincided with the rise of a new interest in, a new attitude towards the classics. Antiquity became the site of a transaction that was happening on a worldwide scale, marked by the Encounter – with the savages of North America, the savages of Africa, the savages of Central Asia. The Encounter not only altered synchronically the terms in which the subject – the philosopher’s favorite costume to wear to the world wide party – understood itself, it altered the past. For what, after all kept the European from being a savage but a religion and a science that came from the deep Mediterranean past, Jerusalem and Athens? And yet, the Greek part of that past – with its nudity, its ferocious myths, its rituals – seemed, the more one looked at it, less like civilization and more like savagery. At this moment, myth began to lose its ornamental stature. Far from science taking the place of myth, myth began to appear as something more than the sum of the errors of which it was made.

I seem to be finding that the cutwork for the creation of ‘resistance’ to the great tradition – to the turn it takes as it embraces happiness as the emotional heuristic by which to understand the normal human personality and as the hinge that connects the governors and the governed – comes back to a series of trips. Trips, flights, the assumption of peripheral positions, holings up, going underground. And then there are those who want to be, who make themselves be central – like Goethe. And yet who find themselves irresistibly drawn to the erotically marginal. I like to think of Goethe traveling to Italy in 1783, planning it as an escape, telling no one, even – especially – his heavy handed muse, Diotima, Charlotte von Stein, to whom he addresses his notes on Italy (as though he had to allot her a place in his head even as he was escaping from her person), while – perhaps mythically – Potocki is traveling too – around the Ottoman empire.

As without, so within – and within the white magic, what are we going to find if not the White Mythology? Within the idea that backwards is equal to forwards, that the path up and the path down are one and the same – the Heraclitean compromise position on ontology, it is here that we find the altered antiquity of the moderns, myth for the modern man. But antiquity, classicism, myth, folklore also open up a space in which to contest the modern. That’s the double aspect of it.

Which is why I am presently following/reading – Sneaky pete, the amateur historian – in the heels of Goethe in Italy at the moment.

3 comments:

P.M.Lawrence said...

"Re-occupation’ – a startling word. A military word, of course...".

No, not until the Art of War shifted to make that practice a part of the usual military toolkit, somewhere around the mid-19th century. The Romans hardly ever occupied anywhere, in the sense of setting up a military presence that held down a subject people in an area. Rather, they set up puppet rulers as in Bithynia, or devastated and occasionally later colonised as in Carthage and Corinth, yes. However, they rarely occupied anything but bases, preferring hands off, arms length civil administration for practical reasons of cost and of not creating an OAS style centre for effective revolt - considerations which continued to apply until comparatively recently.

So, just when does that term date from, in these source materials?

roger said...

Well, Mr. Lawrence, maybe I was unclear. Blumenberg is using the term in 1984. Not quoting someone in 1688.

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