More fresh words this week. This comes from the book i am just finishing, and should be self- explanatory. It is taken from a wider section on the notion of associative mythology, a term from Daniel Deardorff, that seems to point towards this kind of thinking. I will place a larger section on the www.associativemythology.com website in the next few days. More soon, just out the door clutching a mug of italian coffee, and with news of a great magazine about to be launched......
From the Comparative to the Associative
Myth in the way i am thinking about it is a form of echo location coming from the earth itself.
In the animal world, when a wild call collides with another being, it sends a subtle echo back to the caller, giving even an almost blind creature a sense of what is in their surrounding field. I think the earth has always done something similar.
It transmits certain pulses, certain coded information, certain images, dreams, and thoughts, and then sits back, like the toothed whale, or the shrew, or the megachiropteran bat, or the owl, to see what echo’s return from its messaging. Occasionally a hunter, or a wandering ecstatic, or a woman alone in garden at dusk will experience one of these sonorous emerging’s. These pulses tell us something about how to live.
Tribal cultures have been far more advanced at honouring this messaging, and gradually crafting art around it till it becomes a two-ways-looking form of mytho-natural beauty that creates deep relationship between humans and the animals, minerals, rowans and willows. This mystical morse code is the true underlying pattern of any myth deserving of the name. It is the sound of the earth and its inhabitants, thinking about itself.
When the call hits the red tailed hawk, wandering magus or whatever is tuned to receive it, it sends an echo back to the source of the messaging; it confirms relationship, and in some way edifies that source. These pulses can get picked up when fasting on the mountain top, in the temple during a silent retreat, whilst grieving for an old love by a deep lake. It is very mysterious, and requires a certain aliveness to pick it up. It’s not fashionable to admit it, but the kind of rapid multi-tasking that modernity celebrates is a direct hindrance to receiving it. Any healthy culture has celebrated and expressed these transmissions with rituals, storytelling, slow emerging mythologies, crafty art.
When this form of echo location is lost, we fall out of myth. We fall out of relationship. We start to get an atrophy of image, thinned out allegories that are a fallen, Barthian, attempt to promote and control ideas of the state. The hallucination of empire emerges.
The subtle ears that receive the earth’s pulse keep it lively, add some of their own animal-flavour to the transmission, allow a constant re-visioning to take place. By their spontaneity, Oral telling’s especially, cannot help but assist that constant re-seeing of an eternal image. In doing so, it doesn’t become religion, it doesn’t try unduly hard to anchor its deepest meanings in historical time and space. There is great hope in this.
So to follow a wild mythology involves a lot of listening, a stilling, to get connected to this ancient form of calling. It is a love story really. Some old lover is gently trying to call us home. When confronted with panicked ideas about ecological ‘narratives for now’ – I suggest that this awareness is paramount. We need bush soul.
(the book continues with a review of three modern thinkers ideas about what a myth is - here is one from my old sparring partner Roland Barthes)
The meaning of the myth has its own value, it belongs to a history, that of the Lion or that of the Negro (examples of objects): in the meaning, a signification is already built, and could well be self-sufficient if myth did not take hold of it and did not turn it suddenly into an empty, parasitical form. The meaning is already complete, it postulates a kind of knowledge, a past, a memory, a comparative order of facts, ideas, decisions. When it becomes form, the meaning leaves its contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evaporates, only the letter remains.
(Barthes 1957 :117)
Barthes is clearly not sentimental, and rather than relegating myth to ancient history, views it as alive and well, suggesting manipulation and vivid damage when its influence is detected. Rather than myth as an expression of insights into consciousness, he places it in the centre of modernity, of advertising. Myth takes the personal meaning of an object and places its signification over it, almost as a form of possession. He views the moment when myth claims an image as the movement from ‘meaning’ to ‘form’ - it has become something else, and he implies a terrific loss in this.
So that's a long way from my own thinking, and for me speaks to the absence of myth in a culture, not its presence.
I would like to give a different image
Myth as Eco-System:
Within the valley of story exists clusters of oak trees, thin but lively streams, brightly splashed jungle birds. It is a mythography - meaning that the story cannot be apprehended entirely from one angle - if you only speak of the oak, then what about those birds? What is all that divine sounding about? To get nearer to this charged polyphony you need to get dreamt by the place, by the story. You need blistered feet, cooled by the mud of the waterhole, eyes reddened by an all night vigil in the ancestor burial chambers, mouth full of language wrought sweet by the pear wrestled from the trees low boughs of emerald leaf. You need to get into it.
In this time of climatic movement, of being close to receiving the terrible legacy of empire thinking, then old ways of approaching myth, entirely human-centered ways of approaching myth, just don’t cut it. We need to forget old and get ancient. If we approach myth in this old way, then in some way we confirm the idiocy of consumption. We still keep the forest out.
We are moving from the comparative to the associative. From doggedly and exclusively comparing one myth to another, and expanding into a much wider framework - poetry, biology, theatre, animal-lore, anecdote, the arts, ritual. Holistic is paramount, and the swiftness of its associations bring a kind of linguistic or oral wildness into the frame. From the point of view of a working storyteller, this is something that arises naturally when working with a group of students on their own reactions to a story. They all enter a different points with a collision of angles but are all held tight within the muscle of the wider story. Associative mythology in this sense allows polyphony as well as harmony. That is very important. It is a container for paradox.
A paradox is something that appears self-contradictory, a thing that at some time, or from some point of view, appears to be what it is not…our ability to accept this ambiguity is also fundamental to our recognition and signification of change.
(Napier 1986 :1)
It is a tricky discipline because it is not a labour of assurance or platitudes, it places story as primary, as being, rather than relegated entirely to allegory or illustration. It trails rather than traps. We live, whether we like it or not, in an environment of
overstimulation and odd amalgamations of influences coming together.
This IS the era of the Bricoleur. The one that grabs something from here, something from there, and crafts something new from it. But as we have experienced, much of what we experience has little nourishment in it, little soul. We have the commons of the imagination but not always the slow ground this book has pursued to give it grounding.
Associative mythology honours the intensity of these times - not a Zeus time, a Goddess time, but a Trickster moment, by also making rapid openings between disciplines. In this it also relates to the ghazal form in Islamic poetry. It is an attempt to find the God behind the mood – to re-find the sacred to the spirit of this era. And the one that carries messages at lightning quick speed? Well, that’s the god of the storytellers, the trickster Hermes. When something is brilliant, nourishing, full of colour, then Hermes is present. Far from a tranced out, consensual Barthian harmony of impressionable masses, we entertain polyphonic, awake, contrary image, but all held firm within the wider arch of the story. A place like this has room for the crafty intelligence of the Wren, or a hot eyed old woman who knows she can flip into the gingery coat of a fox anytime she wants.
For those seeking an opiated society then this all makes life a great deal more complicated. The difference is a relishing of that complexity. Associative mythology recognizes that certain complications inflame a latent imagination – the Gloria Duplex of the Renaissance.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2012