Dom Mark Patrick Hederman OSB discusses the deafness of modern humanity to mythology
I suppose my appreciation of myth must come from not having been to school myself until I was nine years old. This allowed me time to experience the world as a child in the way a child naturally relates to it. Imagination is at its ripest in the first decade of our lives and is only because we are schooled to avoid it that our attention is turned in another direction.
Left to themselves, children engage with the world as a magic realm where anything is possible. Play is their medium of connection. Everything is grist to the mill; nothing is impossible. The world is my oyster and everywhere hides a pearl. Adults are afraid of this capacity. It could so easily lead to megalomania, useless daydreaming and illusionary fantasy. As soon as possible they try to stop this nonsense, get us grounded in reality, acquainted with the hard facts of life.
As a result, most people educated in the 20th Century are blind and deaf to mythology or symbolism, whether these are expressed in writing, in ritual, in ‘divine beauty’ as present in nature, or in the many-splendored language of art.
Western European civilisation has long ago swapped this aspect of its birth right for a more productive mentality. To offset such myopia, we must re-educate a world become blind and deaf to symbolism.
Our mentor could be that inspired teacher, Anne Sullivan who taught Hellen Keller, born blind, deaf and mute, to retrieve her sensibility, her full humanity, her personality, her spirituality.
Let me remind you of the story. Anne arrived at the house in tuscumbia, Alabama, to meet Helen Keller. After a month of Anne’s teaching, what the people of the time called a ‘miracle’ occurred. Helen had until then never fully understood the meaning of words.
Mythic intelligence is not something childish to be discarded as we grow up; it is an essential part of human understanding”
When Anne led her to the water pump on April 5, 1887, all that was about to change. Anne pumped the water over one of Helen’s hands. She finger-spelled the word water in Helen’s other hand. Something happened and the meaning of words became clear to Helen. Anne could immediately see in her face that Helen had finally understood.
Helen recounted the incident in the autobiography she later was able to write: “We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honey-suckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout.
“As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.”
The kind of understanding which blind, deaf and mute, Helen Keller received at the water pump, whereby she began to understand the meaning of words, can be transposed to explain another kind of initiation to the world of myth.
In such a context water, for instance, ceases to be merely the chemical formula H2O, or as defined in the Oxford Dictionary, “a colourless, transparent, odourless, liquid”. Another ‘truth’ about water emerges: that “it is an intrinsic part of most spiritual beliefs; that its uses and symbolism in religion are many and varied; that its spiritual and healing properties are seen in rites and rituals; and that its representations are as numerous as they are diverse.
“These different religious and cultural aspects of water reflect the vast array of civilizations that have made water the central element in their practices”. (Courtesy of UNESCO Water and World Views.)
Mythic intelligence is not something childish to be discarded as we grow up; it is an essential part of human understanding. The language of myth is specific; it carries a particular truth of its own.
Between the perfect circles, squares, and oblongs which the architect placed on the table as the design of my garden there is another reality which we all know and recognise: my garden itself as I stroll through it in the morning, seeing the colours, hearing the birds and smelling the flowers; but then there is the Garden of Eden, for instance. All three are different realities, requiring three different kinds of understanding, three different usages of my knowing self.
In the first case, the architect and I discuss abstract design, which requires geometrical and mathematical expression and precision; in the second I allow my senses to do the work of understanding as I look with my eyes, hear with my ears and smell with my nose. The Garden of Eden, on the other hand, brings into play my mythic intelligence.
For this, language has a different logic from the one we are used to in our everyday world. It is ‘the forgotten language,’ which became the title of a book by Eric Fromm. In this arena, space and time are no longer the ruling categories; intensity and association have as much right of way. “It is the one universal language the human race has ever developed; the same for all cultures and throughout history. It is a language with its own grammar and syntax…a language one must understand if one is to understand the meaning of myths, fairy tales and dreams.”
Language was there before us and language encircled and invaded us long before we were ever conscious of it or of anything else.
And so language itself, as it makes its way through us and uses our various faculties of self-expression, is a more fundamental expression of truth than the rational constructs that we might later invent for ourselves with our educated and cultivated mind-sets.
Suddenly we recognise that there are utterances that occur from our childhood and from our interiority that by-pass the normal channels of our highly regulated and scrutinised conversation. These more primitive and less tutored utterances can be more authentic and more full-blooded manifestations of ‘truth’. Poetry becomes the natural idiom of such pre-conceptual truth.
Ernst Cassirer in his study of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms explains how “the mythical intuition of space” occupies “a kind of middle position between the space of sense perception and the space of pure cognition, that is, geometry”. In fact, mathematical or geometrical, call it ‘metric’ space, cannot be derived from sensory space “in an unbroken logical sequence”. The space of perception, which is the space of vision, of touch, of smell, of taste, of hearing, is not the same as the space of pure mathematics.
In sensory space and in mythical space there is no such thing as ‘here’ and ‘there’ as terms in a general or universal relation. Before- behind, above-below, right-left, are all completely different, what is called ‘anisotropic’.
What Casirer demonstrates is that “mythical space” is closely related to the space of sensory perception and further away from the logical space of geometry. In the first two every point and every element has a tonality of its own and a “special distinguishing character” which cannot be described in general concepts but must be immediately experienced as it is, for what it is.
“In contrast to the homogeneity which prevails in the conceptual space of geometry every position and direction in mythical space is endowed as it were with a particular accent.”
Between me in the kitchen with the architect and me in the garden with all my senses ablaze, there is a middle posture that is ‘mythic understanding’. This form of consciousness, this kind of knowledge, has every right to exist, to be cultivated, promoted, and valorised, just as much as the mathematical and geometrical.
Mircea Eliade reminds us that ‘Mythos’ is not “a stage in the history of consciousness”, it is “a content in the structure of consciousness”.
The language of myth is “indigenous” to the psyche, says David Tacey, and no amount of modernisation will get rid of it. It is how the psyche speaks. There is a language of symbols which can help us to grapple with the unconscious. The middle ages were fluent in such dialect. We, mostly because of the educational systems we have put in place, no longer see the world as symbols.
Our world, like the island of Shakespeare’s Tempest, is a confusion of bewildering lights and sounds to Caliban, but to Prospero it is the source of “clear signals from a different order of experience”.
We have to decide for ourselves, therefore, whether “to turn tail on it all like howling Caliban or to develop new powers of attention and perception capable of orchestrating this mad music”.
The so-called ‘mad music’ of the ‘sights and sounds’ on our planet are directed towards a specific discernment centre in our understanding.
They require the attention of our ‘mytho-poetic’ intelligence. Such a compound adjective is ugly and off-putting, and if you can think of a simpler and more direct way of saying it so much the better.
For the moment it will have to do as a sobriquet or pseudonym for the reality being salvaged in these pages.
Anyone writing about divine realities, in the first century of the Christian era, would have used myth as their normal procedure, their preferred idiom.
Ancient literature, and the Gospels cannot be excluded from this category, strove to depict in myths and dramas, not the day-to- day realities of anybody’s life, but the eternal norms everywhere present in all life experience, the underlying structural grooves of created reality. Historical reporting, as we would understand it, was not regarded as appropriate for such sacred narratives.
Journalistic reporting of eye-witnessed events could never be revelatory or even interesting. What the evangelists were recording were not ordinary everyday happenings.
Their targets were signs and portents of something much larger: manifestations of the Mirabilia Dei, the wonderful workings of God in our world, which had happened before and would happen again, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Understanding such events and recording them accurately required more than a dictionary of ordinary language.
Ancient literature…strove to depict in myths and dramas, not the day-to- day realities of anybody’s life, but the eternal norms everywhere present in all life experience”
The appointed scribe had to have recourse to the venerable wardrobe where all such materials from the past were stored. They had to rummage around for suitable and cannily appropriate resonances with which to deck out the happening they saw before them.
These would help to connect the event with hidden lessons from the past, and associate it with other well-known and much loved interventions throughout history. The evangelists never intended to produce a bland eye-witness account of one particular person’s life and times.
They had a sacred story to tell which could only be recounted through metaphor and myth. In such an idiom this writing could also be a source of inspiration for all time, not simply an historical incident captured for a local audience.
We, in our culture, encounter this language as foreign or antiquated, something belonging to early childhood, which we should have left behind as we became adults. We are prepared to accept, for instance, that Jesus Christ spoke in parables; what we haven’t yet accepted is that anyone speaking about Jesus Christ also speaks in parables.
Anyone speaking to God or about God has to learn another language, a language of silence, symbolism, mystery or myth. Rather than de-mythologising Scripture to conform to our ways of knowing, we should be re-mythologising ourselves to encounter what is happening therein.