If Our Myths Have Failed Us...
An excerpt from
An Idiot’s Momentum – How the Mishandling of Myth Has Left Us Oblivious to God & Ourselves in a Nation at War
by Gary Rosenthal
If our myths have failed us, if we have been living in an age when the myths haven’t been working, perhaps it is because we have failed to understand myths; failed to recognize a myth when we see one, or to recognize what their real referent is. If our myths have failed us, perhaps it is also because we have continued to view them from a particular point of view that precludes a more integral understanding – the same failure of understanding that we have often brought to the word “God.” And this failure is no different than the confusion we experience in knowing ourselves – a confusion that leaves us dissociated from what has been termed “The Great Matter.”
In one way or another myths are about The Great Matter. They can speak to what we really are, while pointing ever away from what we have taken ourselves to be until now. They may also thus concern what stands in the way of coming to know ourselves, and living a true life. They are a way of speaking about what everything is made of, and from whence it all comes. This what is not found in our table of the elements, unless we read it with special glasses.
Myths are these special glasses, which might provide a view into our deeper nature, but they may also reflect how we lose the way, how we get lost and subsequently found. Wisely read, myths are like collective dreams that provide orientation as we navigate our way in a mysterious universe. They reveal powers – as well as obstructions – that seem to come from another world.
Myths are like breadcrumbs left by our ancestors that we might follow on our way to a metaphoric home that lies at the center of an equally metaphoric universe, a homeland akin to Jerusalem – only this homeland and the security that is experienced there is found on no map from Rand McNally – and thus why we need myth, for the orientation they provide may not be readily found anywhere else.
Myths occur in a liminal space, connecting two realms, such as time and eternity, then and now, the left and right hemispheres of the brain, or different tiers of consciousness. In this way they are portals, openings… like the entrance of caves, or the shape of our wounds. We enter a myth at our own peril, though failing to properly engage with a myth brings another kind of peril – the kind, when usefully read, the myth might save us from.
Like life itself, in myths we encounter the unexpected, the unexplainable, and much that seems “unreal” from our normal point of view. Myths can thus serve to shift the assemblage point, the customary position of our perceptual stance. The purpose here is to take you from where you have been for so long, to where you need to go – or to experience where you have always been, but seeing it now with new eyes.
Myths contain living metaphors, which may be differently understood depending upon the nature of the time, our stage of consciousness, or the life situation of those for whom the myth was originally told. These metaphors are like hooks that might grab you, ways for you to enter the story. Like Sufi stories or Zen koans, myths are booby-trapped stories for you to enter. They are constructed to set something off in you.
But for myths to work their magic and help reorient us to the mystery which is life itself, we need to look at them in a new way – not like an engineer trying to figure out how something works, and not like a pamphleteer or a true believer who has finally found the meaning of life, as if that could be encapsulated, now and forever. We have tried to read myths in this way – but also condescendingly, as if they are but a quaint piece of folklore having nothing to do with our own contemporary lives – and both of these approaches have gotten us into trouble.
The symbolic metaphors that are found in myths cannot be concretized, once and for all. Or at least, they shouldn’t be – for as we have seen earlier in this book, the concretization of the symbol has also gotten us into trouble. The symbol, for it to remain alive, needs to open out, needs to be able to find new meaning, a meaning that is ever shifting, and thus capable of reflecting the time in which we actually live – which also is ever-shifting. Like a great work of art, a myth may thus say something to us at one moment in our lives, and say something else at another juncture. This is what keeps a myth fresh and useful to us. As Jung once reminded us, a symbol is always pointing toward something else, a something that is fundamentally unknown and mysterious. Perhaps like God. Perhaps like ourselves.
Poets have always been the guardian-translators of myth, and so we need to bring something of a poetic sensibility to our involvement with myth, an enlargement in the capacity to think metaphorically. It is this heightened capacity for metaphoric thinking that has allowed the poetic tradition to remain relatively free from the literalism and “mythic dissociation” that has often plagued our religious traditions – and why, as a counterpoint, I have referenced it so often in the writing of this book. (The mythic dissociation that has often plagued our religious traditions is also why Joseph Campbell’s favorite definition of religion was “a misinterpretation of mythology.”) But first I think, a good way to read a myth is to become completely reference-less, forgetting everything you have ever known. Whereas Coleridge spoke of a “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which characterizes poetic faith,” here I am suggesting instead, a willing suspension of belief – which can lead to another kind of faith.
Like the nature of faith, reading a myth is not an entirely rational enterprise. It is a willingness to enter a conversation that might alter your perspective, something that will mess with you, that will speak to your imagination, allowing you to face things – including yourself – in a new way. Art, or any deep inner work – including “therapy” – is similarly not merely a rational activity, but something that should shift your perceptual mechanism, allowing you to face things – including yourself – in a new way.
Like a vital relationship, a good way to know a myth is to live with one for a long time, allowing it to seep into you, and to recognize its metaphors as they appear in your own daily life. In this way a myth is not concretized or frozen in time – like a relic placed in a museum, or as something removed from its native context, like an animal placed in a zoo. The native context of myth is the human soul itself. And so a better way to read a myth is such that it becomes a visionary matrix, a lens through which we can see things we may have never seen before.
Though the monotheistic traditions have deviated from the following perspective – at least when it comes to the Deity that figures in their myths – like a dream, a good way to enter a myth is to identify with every element in the story, as if each of its images is reflecting a facet of yourself.
Like an old love, sometimes a myth will disappear for a while, having seemed to lose its spark. But they can come back and be timely again – if not come back with a vengeance. Like the famous dead, myths murmur from the names of our streets, and as well from candy bars, automobiles, and the dreams we have at night. Even where we sit right now, supposedly awake, is mythic ground. Like bottles of wine and like ourselves, myths are alive. We live right smack dab in the middle of myths – and don’t even know it.
In my work as a therapist, for nearly three decades I have found myself treating myths that show up as symptoms, and one myth in particular that has now become symptomatic in the world all around us. This is the myth of Narcissus and Echo.
This is a myth about being confused – about oneself, about one’s own deeper nature. It is a myth about not being able to love, a myth having to do with a certain kind of arrogance. It is a myth that echoes in lonely landscapes, a myth about devaluing or being devalued. And as with Jesus (or Mohammed), this is the story of a man who in some way never had a father. Though unlike the stories which animate monotheism, the myth of Narcissus begins with a rape, a sexual act, as does the myth to which this myth is related – the myth of Persephone and Pluto.
The myth of Narcissus and Echo is also the story of a woman who has lost her voice. It’s a myth of curses, of what comes back to haunt us, a myth that can be read on many levels – intra-psychically, interpersonally, geo-politically. It’s a myth of being affected by powers seemingly beyond one’s control – and the impact this has upon knowing ourselves, and those to whom we relate.
Though it is a facet that has been almost universally overlooked, the story of Narcissus is also a myth about transformation, a myth whose central image concerns a depth vision, a vision so powerful it led to Narcissus’s death. The nature of this vision – and this metaphoric death – has great importance for each and every one of us now living in an age of narcissism.
For here we are offered clues for how we might transform the perspective of the ego – our own, often unseen narcissism – and in so doing, lock eyebrows with the wise ancestors of all mystical religion.