Ktismatics

31 December 2006

Retrospective 2001: Home is a Woman

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:07 pm

Continuing my retrospective… In 2001 we decided to move to Europe. At the end of the year we were trying to sell our house. In Boulder people often attach a box containing house brochures to the “For Sale” sign in front of the house. The brochures, which prospective buyers take with them, summarize the house’s vital statistics: square feet, number of rooms, size of the yard, notable features, asking price. We put the house on the market the week after 9/11, and we were getting absolutely no action from househunters. After awhile I got bored, and in November I started writing house brochures that were a little different. I wrote a new one every week until the house sold in February. Here’s the last brochure in the sequence — we received and accepted an offer during the week this one was in the box in front of our house. The lovely and talented Anne Doyle took the photo…

Home is a Woman-2

Home is a Woman

Men look at houses like women look at men. Women look at houses like men look at women.”

Someone – a man, actually – made this observation while touring our home. I thought I knew what he meant. Now I’m not so sure.

In Odysseus’s entrance hall was a tall pillar. Beside the pillar was a polished spear-stand bristling with spears: the spears of Odysseus. As his absence grew longer, other men lost their memories and their fears. They played games with their javelins in the courtyard of Odysseus’s home. They ate his food and drank his wine. They wooed Penelope, wise and faithful wife, lovely and inaccessible. Who would mount the high staircase to her chambers?

In Freud’s dream imagery, home can be either a man or a woman. Then again, for Freud everything is either a man or a woman. The walls are man, but the door is woman. Granite is man; wood, woman. All the rooms are woman. The stairway? Don’t go there. I wonder what Freud’s house was like.

House-shopping is an act of promiscuity. The houses, lined up along the streets, entice you with all the arts of seduction. They tart themselves up for you; they’re clean, pretty, sweet-smelling for you; they wait for you to come in. You are flattered but worldly: you know that their charms come at a price. For the dilettante, the shopping is the best part. After awhile the houses can spot the “lookie-loos” a mile off. But the houses can’t help themselves: they smile, they flirt, they get their hopes up. When the night is over they take off their makeup and turn out the lights. All the houses have hearts of gold.

There are different ways of having a relationship with a home. There is serial monogamy: move on every few years. There is polygamy: a house in Boulder, another in Telluride, a third in the islands. The houses stay put. The houses always hope you’ll stay with them forever. The houses gather in neighborhoods to comfort each other. But they’re jealous of each other: they compare, they imitate, they talk behind each other’s backs.

“Homely”: familiar, inviting, simple, and therefore ugly; desired and therefore despised. Nostalgia is homesickness: the pain of returning home yet never arriving, the longing backward look, the yearning for what you once had and what you can never have again. Whether we want to or not, we all fall in love with our mothers.

 

30 December 2006

Retrospective 2000

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:39 pm

 

Keeping up with this blog has played hell with my journal-writing. The end of the year being upon us, I thought I’d go back to my old journals and see what I was thinking about at the end of the year. These are journal entries, not meant for public consumption. But since there’s not much public visiting this blog, I don’t think I’ll be exposing myself too dramatically.

At the end of 2000 I was thinking about starting a kind of psychological service, called the Salon Postisme, for people who wanted to get different…

 

12/27/00

Difference is always fighting against overdetermination. It isn’t always clear whether difference can be achieved, or even imagined.

The clientele would probably include the following kinds of people:

· Want a change but don’t know what it is.

· Already different but feeling uncomfortable.

· Already pursuing difference and frustrated in making it happen.

· Want to do difference but afraid.

· Interpersonal difficulties in difference versus togetherness.

· Planning a sabbatical.

· Planning retirement.

My job: to help people identify, pursue and maintain difference. Establish a personal relationship that supports differentiation. I cannot know these people’s hearts, but I can interact in a way that:

· Is not paranoia-inducing – not judgmental, not coercive to sameness,

· Is not alienating – takes the client seriously, understands,

· Is influenced by the difference that is in the client.

At the same time, I want to promote a broader agenda of difference. This can include deconstruction, strands, operators, orientations, moods, discourses, desires.

 

I never started the Salon Postisme, though I thought about it for a long time. In fact, I still think about it. The main character in each of my two novels is a Proprietor of a fictional version of the Salon. Is there a need for such a service? Would anyone come? Even if it was free?

 

28 December 2006

The Mythic Truth of the Self-Referential Creator

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 12:26 pm

 

There’s another way in which the term “true myth” might be construed. Maybe it’s a variant on one of the other five interpretations I outlined previously, but maybe not. It’s the self-referential myth.

We think of self-referentiality as a hallmark of late-modern and postmodern art. The term is “metafiction”: fiction whose subject matter is the writing of fiction. Sometimes the self-referentiality is straightforward: Fellini’s is a chaotically-structured film about a filmmaker chaotically making a film. Sometimes the self-referentiality is embedded in a different context that can be interpreted metaphorically. In Blow-Up, Antonioni tells the story of a photographer whose obsessive concentration on image cannot reveal to him what the image means – is this a metaphor for the postmodern crisis of meaning, or for Antonioni’s personal crisis as a filmmaker? More recent films also come to mind: Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Kore-Eda’s After Life, Almódovar’s Bad Education, Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy.

Tristram Shandy? A mid-eighteenth-century novel written by a provincial Anglican priest in his spare time is the subject of postmodern self-referential filmmaking? Yes, and it makes sense, because the novel is itself a work of metafiction, a novel about writing a novel. Now go back a hundred fifty years earlier to Don Quixote and you encounter another oddly self-referential work, this one by a Spaniard poised at the transition not from modern to postmodern but from medieval to modern. Shakespeare, who died the same day as Cervantes, was another self-referentialist, writing plays within plays, the dramatized playwrights and actors consciously reflecting on their craft. These “metaplays” seem to offer commentary on the larger plays in which their embedded, but they also offer glimpses behind the theatrical illusion to the illusionist, to Shakespeare himself.

When you’re listening to a tale you’re engaged in the tale itself; the storyteller’s job is to tell it well without getting in the way. The illusion of fiction is that the story exists independent of the storyteller. When the storyteller intrudes the illusion is disrupted and the story becomes revealed for what it “really” is: an artifice, a work of creation. The storyteller isn’t just the conduit through which the story passes; the storyteller is the creator of the story.

Say you’re reading a novel. It’s got setting, characters, motivations, relationships, drama, meaning. It’s also got a narrator: sometimes one of the characters tells the tale, but usually it’s an anonymous uninvolved observer speaking in the third person. You might think of the narrator as the author, who has privileged access to the secret lives and inner thoughts of the characters in the story. But “in reality” the author doesn’t just see and hear everything; she creates everything.

Once you get behind the illusion to the artifice you might decide that the main character in the story is “really” the author, or that perhaps all the characters represent some facet of the author. If one of the characters in the story is a writer, or if some of the action involves the writing of a story, you would have an even stronger basis for assuming that the author is writing self-referentially. What if the main character of the story is a creator? In the story the creator is responsible for everything else that happens in the story: the physical setting, the main characters, the dramatic conflicts, and so on. Might we not, if we were to step behind the illusion, begin to suspect that the creator in this story is “really” the storyteller herself — that the narrator is telling her own story? Wouldn’t that make this hypothetical creation story a “true myth”: a metaphorical narrative that truthfully depicts the storyteller’s omnipotence as creator of an entire mythic universe?

 

27 December 2006

The Seven Scrolls

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 2:21 pm

 

“Take it,” the young man insisted as he thrust the scroll toward me. “It is the story of how the world began.”

Not without reluctance did I accept what was being offered. “How did you come to know this story?”

A zealous seeker after truth, the young man had asked the prophet to tell him of the beginning of all things. I see the future, the prophet had told him, but not the past. The young man asked the scribe. You may read what has been written, the scribe said as he gestured toward the pyramids of scrolls that covered the tables, but there is none who knows. The young man asked the priest, who warned him sternly of the evils that had befallen others who had asked this question. But the question had already taken possession of the young man’s soul.

He undertook a rigorous asceticism, eating nothing but the buds of a certain shrub that grew uncertainly near the mouths of the caves, training himself in the disciplines of silence, offering neither encouragement nor resistance to the question that grew and grew until at last it had absorbed him inside itself. Having studied the signs in the sky he knew with precision the day his enlightenment would arrive. No one saw him leave the village. Three days later the weaver would find him lying by the well. It was two days before he recovered his senses, six before he could speak. On the fourteenth day he asked that a quill and scroll be brought him.

Lightly did I hold the scroll before me. “It is the one,” the young man affirmed, and without another word he walked up the lane toward the mountains.

Many years later and half a world away I met another man. With downcast eyes he muttered something in an accent I had heard only once before in all my wanderings. He had to repeat himself twice before I could understand him: “This is the story of the how the world began.”

He too had begun his quest by asking others; he too found no satisfaction. Instead of seeking mystical enlightenment, the man undertook years of exploration into the nature of things. He collected rocks and sand, leaves and fruits, skins and eggs. He studied the movement of the streams and the clouds and the stars. He counted things, carefully listing his tallies in many volumes. The merest glance at his collections left no doubt that his travels had taken him where even I had never been. Though he had written extensively, he had shown his writings to no one. Now, in this one thin scroll, he presented to me the essence of his accumulated understanding.

* * * *

The old man tapped his pipe on the heel of his boot, dislodging a plug of half-burned leaves that flared like a shooting star as he kicked them vaguely toward the fireplace. “The third reasoned her way to the beginning of the world. The fourth asked the wisest among his people what they believed; the fifth asked the most simple. The sixth was a teller of tales who, having perfected her craft, turned her hand and her imagination toward the beginning of all beginnings.” Reaching beneath the table the old man pulled forth his rucksack, scarred like its bearer by the years and the miles but still serviceable. He swept his arm across the table, the sodden crumbs barely reaching the littered floor before the dogs could snap them up. One by one the old man extracted six scrolls from the heavy sack and placed them side by side on the tabletop. Though yellowed and creased, the scrolls seemed intact. It was evident to those seated nearest the fire that the seal on each scroll remained unbroken. “The seventh,” he said firmly but without elaboration as again he reached into the rucksack, “is my own.”

“You mean to say…” exclaimed the Trappist. The old man shrugged.

“Why haven’t you?” demanded the Antipodean.

“Not curious,” the Westerner speculated.

“Incurably. Insatiably.” But now it was the others who spoke and not the old man. “Which should we read first?” “Which is most likely true?” Only the dogs paid heed to the two burly scullions who bore the steaming cauldron in from the kitchen, so distracted were the theologians by the seven scrolls…

 

(What should happen next, do you think?)

 

25 December 2006

The Richest Man in Town

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 4:32 pm

 

I owe everything to George Bailey.

– the first line of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) by Frank Kapra

The last time I watched It’s a Wonderful Life it made me want to jump off a bridge.

We’d just about run out of ideas for illegal downloads that might be fun for the whole family. The gap between kid and adult fare has widened considerably in recent years, and most of the older titles have never taken up residence on enough hard drives for the shareware to grab hold of. Apparently It’s a Wonderful Life can muster enough mythic power to make the jump across the technological gap.

When you know a movie really well it starts to transcend linearity. When you know how the story is going to turn out and how it’s going to get from here to there, every scene becomes suffused with eschatological plenitude. This is how myths take shape: through endless repetition the beginning doesn’t just point to an inevitable end: the beginning includes the end.

A snowy village scene is accompanied by a triumphantly orchestrated rendering of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” “You Are Now in Bedford Falls” reads the road sign; then another sign takes its place: “Gower Drugs.” Then, in voice-over, the first line is spoken. We who have spent a lot of time in Bedford Falls recognize this voice right away, and we know just what the words mean.

What was it about for me this last time? George Bailey closes his eyes, places his hand ceremonially on some sort of machine: “I wish I had a million dollars,” he says, then ritually he pulls the lever. “Hot dog!” His favorite sounds? Train whistles, boat horns… signals that announce the beginning of a heroic voyage. Of course he never sees the world, never even attempts the defining deed, never makes his million dollars. Instead he… inherits the family business, sells low-interest mortgages for starter homes that’ll keep everybody else from moving away too, gets married and has three nice kids, remodels the big mansion at the edge of town.

The first line sets the movie’s distinctly economic tone. It’s all about money: money borrowed and lent, money invested and spent, money lost and found. Has George made a good investment of his own life? Clarence, George’s guardian angel, sets up an alternative-past scenario to show just how low Bedford Falls would have fallen if good old George Bailey hadn’t been there to write all those mortgages for the locals. Make no mistake: the kid brother who went to war did return a hero; the old buddy who started a business did make a fortune. But George is richer than them all, because no man is poor who has friends. Because it turns out that everybody in town loves George, and they all bail him out financially when that greedy bastard Mr. Potter, his lone competitor in the local marketplace and the only other really interesting character in the movie, rips off the bank deposit from kindhearted but addled Uncle Billy.

So I’m watching this movie again, knowing how everything fits together in the larger scheme, knowing that every outstanding account will eventually be balanced, that every loan will be repaid at a fair rate of interest, that even the hapless Clarence will finally earn his wings, and I feel the gloom descend. Where’s the story about the guy who has the nice successful business but who, when he hears the Glory Train blow its whistle, sells off the house, packs up the family and hops aboard, only to find that the train has been rerouted to some obscure destination that doesn’t even appear on the schedule? And what if the world wouldn’t have been a worse place – what if it wouldn’t have been any different at all? And what if the old friends don’t need to borrow anything from you because it turns out you’ve got nothing they want, and they won’t bail you out because it turns out they’ve got nothing you need? If somebody made that movie would anybody have the stomach to watch it – anybody besides me, that is?

 

23 December 2006

Ivan, Are You Okay?

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:42 am

Ivan’s comments mysteriously disappeared from a Jesus Creed post about Richard Dawkins. Ivan, if you’re still out there, what happened to you?

22 December 2006

Richard Parker Has Stayed With Me

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 3:48 pm

 

“My suffering left me sad and gloomy.”

– Yann Martell, Life of Pi, 2003

Like Ishmael and Lord Jim, Pi is the survivor of an ambiguously legendary shipwreck. Pi is short for Piscine, which is French for swimming pool, which is a pretty tame name for a mythic seafarer. But the tiger…

People have asked me how the tiger in my novel Life of Pi came to be called Richard Parker. I didn’t just pull the name out of a hat. In fact, Richard Parker’s name is the result of a triple coincidence.

In 1884, the Mignonette , a yacht, set sail from Southampton, England, for Australia. She had a crew of four. In the South Atlantic, the seas were heavy. Wave after wave struck the vessel. Suddenly, she broke apart and sank. Captain, mate, hand, and cabin boy managed to scramble aboard a dinghy – but without water or provisions except for two cans of turnips. After 19 days adrift, starving and desperate, the captain killed the cabin boy, who was unconscious and had no dependents, and the three remaining survivors ate him. The cabin boy’s name was Richard Parker. His fate, in itself, is not particularly noteworthy. Cannibalism on the high seas was surprisingly common at the time. The reason Richard Parker–or, more accurately, “the case of the Mignonette “–has gone down in history, at least in knowledgeable legal circles, is that upon their return to England, the survivors (they were rescued shortly after killing R.P. by a Swedish ship) were tried for murder, a first. Up till then, murder committed under duress, because of severe necessity, was informally accepted as justifiable. But with the Mignonette, the powers-that-be decided to examine the question more closely. The case went all the way to the Lords and set a legal precedent. The captain was found guilty of murder. To this day, the only excuse for murder remains self-defense, and any British legal team that tries to argue otherwise will get a lecture from the judge about the Mignonette. Murder committed in extreme circumstances for the sake of sustaining life remains illegal (though those who commit it usually get light sentences). That’s one Richard Parker.

Fifty years earlier, in 1837, Edgar Allan Poe published his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. It was a commission that quickly lost Poe’s interest. He finished it with a mix of reluctance and slapdash hurry that is not a recipe for great literature. Pym is a sloppy work that would have vanished without a trace if weren’t for its author’s fame. In the story, the ship upon which Pym and a friend set sail from Nantucket overturns in a storm. Survivors cling to the hull. After several days, hunger and despair push Pym and his friend to eat a third man. His name is Richard Parker. Remember, Poe wrote Pym 50 years before the sinking of the Mignonette.

And then there was the Francis Speight, a ship that foundered in 1846. There were deaths and cannibalism aboard. One of the victims was a Richard Parker.

So many victimized Richard Parkers had to mean something. My tiger found his name. He’s a victim, too – or is he?

My wife and I made the acquaintance of a fairly successful novelist who writes what might be called “survivalist fiction.” He’s a mountain climber, and he writes tales about disasters of one sort or another. Though he’s made a name for himself in this somewhat pulpy genre, he didn’t seem happy. I wish I’d written Life of Pi, he told us over coffee (repeatedly looking over his shoulder like he suspected somebody was spying on him). It’s the kind of book I could read with my kids. Well why don’t you? Because readers know my name; they know what to expect from me. How about a pen name, we suggested. You could become somebody else, write the books you really want to write, books you’re proud of. Because I don’t write that fast, he said. It takes too much of my time being me.

 

20 December 2006

Does Genesis 1 Qualify as “True Myth”?

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 3:36 pm

 

Last post I offered five interpretations of what a “true myth” might be. This time I’ll see how well Genesis 1 meets the criteria for each of these interpretations.

1. Genesis 1 fits within a literary genre of creation myths, but only Genesis 1 gets the story right.

Tolkein and Lewis espouse True Myth version #1 with respect to Jesus as the one true version of the prevalent myth of an incarnate God who dies and is resurrected. To claim that the Biblical version of the Creation myth “gets it right” would seem to require independent verification; i.e., that there is some definitive standard of truth against which myths can be evaluated and compared for accuracy. What should be the source of mythic verification? If it’s historical and empirical evidence, then the Genesis 1 story doesn’t stack up very well. If consensus within the Judeo-Christian tradition is the arbiter, then how can we know whether the collective opinion is accurate? If God confirms the truth of Genesis 1 via sensus divinitatus, then how are we to confirm that the source of this confirmation really is God? As far as I can determine, declaring Genesis 1 to be “true myth” by interpretation 1 just begs the question.

2. Genesis 1 is a myth that eventually proves to be verifiable as truth.

Interpretation 2 is really part of interpretation 1, which I just evaluated and rejected as inadequate. #2 more explicitly demands empirical confirmation, which is perhaps the least persuasive argument in support of the accuracy of Genesis 1.

3. Genesis 1 is a myth whose truth is to be found in the moral and metaphysical lessons it teaches.

The moral of a story is what a story means. Stories, even fictional ones, make sense of the world by making sense of the truths of the world. The events in The Lord of the Rings aren’t true of our world; the characters don’t exist here. Within the story, the characters and events fit together in a meaningful way – evil can be seductive; you can delude yourself into thinking you’re saving the world when you’re really on a power trip; and so on. These lessons might generally hold true in our world as well, but it’s necessary to evaluate whether the lesson applies to particular instances. This chocolate chip cookie that attracts me: is it an instance of evil seduction, or not? The Newtonian theory of gravity is true not as a tangible fact in the world but as an interpretive schema for making sense of a whole host of facts. Similarly, a moral or metaphysical lesson derived from a story is true not factually but interpretively; it’s a schema for making sense of certain kinds of facts. But a robust, generally-applicable moral derived from a story doesn’t make the facts of the story any truer. Evil can be seductive, and not just in Middle Earth, but that doesn’t mean that the One Ring exists in our world.

What kinds of lessons are being taught in Genesis 1? “Frodo Baggins saved the world” isn’t a general truth; it’s a broad statement of fact about the mythical world of Middle Earth, but it’s not true at all in our world. Similarly, “God created the heavens and the earth” isn’t a general lesson taught by Genesis 1. It’s a broad statement of fact in the mythical world of Genesis 1, not a broad interpretation of facts that are true in our world. The mythical truths aren’t facts; the truths are interpretations that apply to facts both in the mythical world and in our everyday world.

“Let there be light,” says elohim; and there was light – let’s say this verse from the Creation narrative illustrates the creative power of language. And it’s true: language often is powerful in our world. But just because the lesson derived from the myth is true doesn’t mean that the facts in the mythic story are true. Elohim may never have said these words; light may not have come about through an act of elohimic creation; elohim might not exist in our world. Genesis 1 might be a “true myth” in the sense of offering generally true lessons and interpretations that we can apply to our world. But interpretive truth isn’t the same thing as factual truth. The interpretive truths derived from the creation of the mythic universe in Genesis 1 might have no implications whatever about how our particular universe came into existence.

In conclusion regarding “True Myth” version #3, the Genesis 1 story might contain lessons, morals, and interpretations that are true of actual events in our world. The task of the exegete is to identify the lessons embedded in the text; the task of the person living in the world is to evaluate life situations in light of the lessons derived from Genesis 1. But the factual events of the mythical world of Genesis 1 shouldn’t be expected to bear any more relationship to the events of the world we live in than do the factual events of Middle Earth.

4. Genesis 1 is a myth written by God.

Perhaps God really did write Genesis 1, either directly or through inspiration. If so it would lend weight to the lessons the story conveys. But as in #3, even a really profound and robust lesson doesn’t make the details of the story factually true. So True Myth #4 is a kind of intensified version of #3.

5. Genesis 1 is part of an all-encompassing myth created by God that includes not just the Biblical text but also the “real world.”

Karl Barth and Hans Frei espouse this position with respect to the “Jesus Myth.” There is no need for believers to confirm the historic facts of Jesus’ life because the reality of Christ’s resurrection defines the truth of history itself. Empirical-historical reality isn’t the standard against which True Myth is evaluated; rather, the mythic reality is a standard that transcends or contains or gives shape to the material reality of facts and dates. The mythic truth receives its guarantee by the reality of the risen Christ, who in essence has absorbed the everyday world into his own mythic world. To apply True Myth version #5 to Genesis 1 it would be necessary to assert that Christ’s mythic reality extends all the way back through the Old Testament. The historical facts and empirical data aren’t important; what’s important is to live inside the mythic reality that includes the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and so on all the way through the New Testament. Christ and the disciples seem to do just that, embedding themselves and their culture inside the Biblical reality rather than the other way around.

The challenge isn’t to verify the facts of the Genesis 1 story against the evidence. Genesis 1 is true by definition, as confirmed by the reality of the risen Christ who lives inside a Biblical reality that includes Genesis 1. The believer’s task is to understand the larger Biblical reality and to live with the risen Christ inside that overarching mythic truth. If material evidence seems to belie the textual evidence of Genesis 1, presumably your first recourse is to re-evaluate the material evidence in light of the text. True Myth #5 is a kind of holistic inerrancy position: the Bible describes a whole reality that isn’t to be picked apart and evaluated verse by verse.

I find it hard to evaluate True Myth #5. I can imagine what it might be like to live inside a mythic reality, where everything makes sense relative to the facts of the mythic world rather than those of the everyday material world. Once you make that plunge then mythic truth takes care of itself, because all truths, including empirical and historical ones, are subsumed in the overarching mythic reality. If you can find yourself entering inside this whole Biblical reality, there’s no point of contact with people on the outside. What’s real and true for you is just different from what’s real and true for me. There is no basis for an independent evaluation of version #5 from the outside. Either you accept it and live it, or you don’t.

 

So, does anyone agree or disagree with this assessment of Genesis 1 as “true myth”? Where does that leave us?

 

18 December 2006

Genesis 1 as “True Myth” – 5 Interpretations

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 3:56 pm

 

It’s been said that evolutionary atheists and evangelical creationists alike read the Genesis creation story with a crude literal-mindedness that fails to acknowledge the literary riches embedded in the text. Instead of interpreting it as the factual exposition of historical events, the reader should regard the creation narrative as a “true myth.” What could it possibly mean to say that Genesis 1 is a “true myth”? Here are the possibilities I can think of:

1. Genesis 1 fits within a literary genre of creation myths, but only Genesis 1 gets the story right.

Many cultures have myths about gods who created the universe. These myths are types: approximations to a truth that is revealed in its fullness in the Jewish Scripture. Presumably the reader can distinguish the True Myth from the other myths that get it only partially right. A True Myth that still contains elements that aren’t factually true presumably points toward its own future fulfillment in a “true” True Myth.

2. Genesis 1 is a myth that eventually proves to be verifiable as truth.

The writer of Genesis 1 didn’t know how the universe began; he wrote a story to serve as a placeholder for the truth. However, the author’s imagination was moved in the right direction by the Holy Spirit. When the empirical facts about the origin of the universe finally become known, they will confirm the mythic narrative. Until all the data are in, the Holy Spirit testifies to the reader’s spirit that the narrative is factually true even if empirical evidence is absent or seemingly conflicts with the story as written.

3. Genesis 1 is a myth whose truth is to be found in the moral and metaphysical lessons it teaches.

A Biblical myth should be interpreted as an allegory or parable. The writer of Genesis 1 tells a story to illustrate a general truth; e.g., that God can do anything, that everything depends on God, that man is similar to God, etc. The details of an allegory are largely metaphorical; they are important to the extent that they illustrate, dramatically and poetically, the “moral of the story.” The author may have chosen the mythic form in order to enhance the emotional and imaginative impact of the message on the reader. If the writer doesn’t explicitly distinguish the moral truth of the story from the allegorical details, then presumably it’s up to the reader to make the distinction. It also becomes necessary to interpret what the myth is a metaphor for. For example, Jesus’ parable of the sower isn’t really about sowing seeds; it’s about the Kingdom of God. If Genesis 1 is a kind of parable then maybe it isn’t really about creating the universe. Also, if the writer doesn’t explicitly state whether a text is to be interpreted literally or mythically, then presumably it’s up to the reader to decide.

4. Genesis 1 is a myth written by God.

The Creation story isn’t meant to be taken as factually true. It’s true in the same way that a short story is true: it contains elements of character and setting and story that hang together inside the story itself, but the story has no factual reference to the “real world.” God is the storyteller of Genesis 1. The story doesn’t purport to explain how he “really” created the universe; it’s a story intended for our edification rather than our scientific enlightenment. The story is “true” in the sense that those who read it enter into a sort of literary communion with the Author who is the source of all truth. Meanwhile, what “really” happened in the beginning remains unrevealed.

5. Genesis 1 is part of an all-encompassing myth created by God that includes not just the Biblical text but also the “real world.”

Genesis 1 isn’t to be interpreted in light of the real world; rather, the real world is to be interpreted in light of Genesis 1 and the rest of the revealed Canon. We live our lives inside a mythic reality outlined in the Scriptures. Our experiences can be interpreted only in light of the ongoing Judeo-Christian saga in which we too are characters. Empirical evidence is irrelevant because the divine saga and its truths are self-contained. Or, more strongly, even empirical evidence can be understood only within the interpretive context established by the myth.

 

Are there more interpretations of what “true myth” might mean? Do any of these interpretive frameworks seem particularly strong?

 

17 December 2006

A Chaos of Heterogeneous Words

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 8:33 pm

 

In London, in early June of the year 1929, the rare book dealer Joseph Cartaphilus, of Smyrna, offered the princess de Lucinge the six quarto minor volumes (1715-1720) of Pope’s Iliad.

– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Immortal,” 1949

An emaciated, grimy man with gray eyes and gray beard and singularly vague features, Cartaphilus would be dead by October of that year. The princess would later discover, inserted between the leaves of the last volume, a manuscript purportedly written during Diocletian’s reign in the Immortal’s own hand. He tells of organizing an expedition in search of the legendary River beyond the Ganges that bestows immortality on those who drink of its waters; of his abandonment in the desert and his subsequent capture by unseen enemies; of awakening at the foot of a mountain beside which ran a noiseless, impure stream, clogged by sand and rubble; of the mute serpent-eating Troglodytes who lived in shallow holes dug in the arid banks; of the dazzling City perched on the stream’s nether shore, a City perfect in its artifice and older than the world itself. The writer wandered the labyrinthine symmetries of a vast and magnificent structure: This Palace is the work of the gods, he thought at first; then, realizing that the City had been deserted ages ago, The gods that built this place have died; finally, as in terror and repulsion he explored its endless and complex futilities, The gods that built this place were mad.

The dismayed explorer encamped with the Troglodytes. One, whom he named Argos, proved wholly indifferent to any sort of language. On the night it rained, the hole-dweller looked into the sky and moaned. Argos! the traveler cried out.

Then, with gentle wonder, as though discovering something lost and forgotten for many years, Argos stammered out these words: Argos, Ulysses’ dog. And then, without looking at me, This dog is lying on the dungheap. We accept reality so readily – perhaps because we sense that nothing is real. I asked Argos how much of the Odyssey he knew. He found using Greek difficult; I had to repeat the question. Very little, he replied. Less than the merest rhapsode. It has been eleven hundred years since last I wrote it.

The Troglodytes were the Immortals; Argos was Homer; the clogged stream was the River. The Immortals had destroyed their City nearly a thousand years before.

Out of the shattered remains of the City’s ruin they had built on the same spot the incoherent city I had wandered through – that parody or antithesis of City which is also a temple to the irrational gods that rule the world and to those gods about whom we know nothing save that they do not resemble man.

Having drunk from the River, the traveler had become like one of them. He came to know what Solomon knew: when there is nothing new under the sun, then immortality is reduced to futility.

There is nothing remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death. What is divine, terrible, and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal.

Eventually the Immortal would come to believe that only a mortal life is worth living, its value defined precisely by its precarious contingency. If this River exists, reasoned the Immmortal, then somewhere too its opposite must exist. And so he began his second quest.

For sixteen hundred years the Immmortal wandered the earth. In October 1921 he found himself headed for Bombay aboard the Patna, that rusty yet seemingly unsinkable steamer that Lord Jim had so disgracefully abandoned twenty-some years before. The hulk ran aground on the Eritrean coast of the Red Sea; the Immortal disembarked, tasted the clear water of a spring, scratched his hand on a thorn tree, watched as the drop of blood slowly took shape. He had found the other river; he was once again like other men.

Remarkable? So much so that even the writer doubted the veracity of his own manuscript, seeing in it the commingled memories of not one but two men: the traveler who, having become the Immortal, would at last reclaim his mortality, and Homer. The traveler, now become a dealer in rare books, no longer remembered the events in his own narrative. Could Homer have written the Odyssey again, this time with a different hero whose divergent pursuits would inevitably lead to the selfsame fate? Perhaps Homer, the narrator of myth, is the only Immortal. As the end approaches, wrote Cartaphilus at the end of his manuscript, there are no longer any images from memory – there are only words.

After careful scrutiny by textual and source critics, the manuscript attributed to Cartaphilus the Immortal was dismissed as apocryphal.

 

15 December 2006

Forgotten, Unforgiven, and Excessively Romantic

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 4:58 pm

 

He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.

– Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, 1900

The bulge in the thin hull would burst at any moment. The pilgrims, oblivious, slept, eight hundred of them: could their mystic dreams have brought them any closer to Paradise than their real peril? It was too late, and the lifeboats too few. Silently lowering two boats, the officers slipped away into the night.

The officers failed to recognize that Allah held the Patna in the palm of his hand. How could they have known, when they told of her capsizing, that the inevitable had through some miracle been averted, that days later the drifting hulk would still be afloat, its passengers still alive to tell the tale to their rescuers?

Of the would-be Ishmaels only Jim did not disappear; only Jim stood trial.

They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything! …He spoke slowly; he remembered swiftly and with extreme vividness; he could have reproduced like an echo the moaning of the engineer for the better information of these men who wanted facts. After his first feeling of revolt he had come round to the view that only a meticulous precision of statement would bring out the true horror behind the appalling face of things. The facts those men were so eager to know had been visible, tangible, open to the senses, occupying their place in space and time, requiring for their existence a fourteen-hundred-ton steamer and twenty-seven minutes by the watch; they made a whole that had features, shades of expression, a complicated aspect that could be remembered by the eye, and something else besides, something invisible, a directing spirit of perdition that dwelt within, like a malevolent soul in a detestable body. He was anxious to make this clear. This had not been a common affair, everything in it had been of the utmost importance, and fortunately he remembered everything. He wanted to go on talking for truth’s sake, perhaps for his own sake also; and while his utterance was deliberate, his mind positively flew round and round the serried circle of facts that had surged up all about him to cut him off from the rest of his kind: it was like a creature that, finding itself imprisoned within an enclosure of high stakes, dashes round and round, distracted in the night, trying to find a weak spot, a crevice, a place to scale, some opening through which it may squeeze itself and escape.

Believing themselves to be the only survivors, the officers constructed a myth about the sinking of the Patna. Myth drowns in facts, brutish things that offer no salvation to drowning heroes. Later Jim would recreate himself in the interior, a profligate world where only facts do not grow. A lone European knew Jim’s fate; only the one could bear witness to the legend of Lord Jim:

And later on, many times, in distant parts of the world, Marlow showed himself willing to remember Jim, to remember him at length, in detail and audibly. Perhaps it would be after dinner, on a verandah draped in motionless foliage and crowned with flowers, in the deep dusk speckled by fiery cigar-ends. The elongated bulk of each cane-chair harboured a silent listener. Now and then a small red glow would move abruptly, and expanding light up the fingers of a languid hand, part of a face in profound repose, or flash a crimson gleam into a pair of pensive eyes overshadowed by a fragment of an unruffled forehead; and with the very first word uttered Marlow’s body, extended at rest in the seat, would become very still, as though his spirit had winged its way back into the lapse of time and were speaking through his lips from the past.

 

14 December 2006

Mythical Truth, Mythical Reality

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 4:21 pm

Statements make linguistic references to particular worlds. Cumulatively, statements can be used to construe the meaning of the world, transforming it into a reality. The construction of meaning is an iterative process: extract relevant pieces of information from or about the world, assemble the information into a schema for making sense of the world, use subsequent pieces of information to expand and modify the constructed schema. Various kinds of meaningful schemata can be constructed: scientific, ethical, aesthetic, etc. A reality consists of a world made meaningful by means of a particular schema. Through application of multiple schemata the same world can be multiply real; e.g., an apple can have meaning as food, as the representative of a particular species of plant, as an object in a still life, as an object pulled to the earth by gravity, as an object of temptation in the Garden of Eden, etc.

A philosopher or an artist or a scientist can create a meaningful schema and use it to make sense of the everyday world, thereby turning the world into a reality. A storyteller can create an entire reality by creating both a fictional world and also a schema for making sense of that world. A storyteller can also create a fictional world and make sense of it with an existing schema: allegory works this way. It’s also possible to make sense of the everyday world by means of a schema derived from a fictional reality: this is the idea of life imitating art.

What about myth? A myth isn’t exactly a work of fiction, because the myth presumably refers to the everyday world. But neither is it just the application of a meaningful mental schema to the everyday world. Myths typically consist of fictional characters and events that are superimposed on the everyday world: supernatural beings living among us, stories about interactions between these beings and humans, and so on. These fictional imports are embedded within the system of meanings that structure everyday reality. But mythic reality is a kind of ghostly half-reality: myths help make sense of everyday reality, but the mythic beings and events have no existence in the everyday world.

Myths aren’t just invented for the heck of it: they typically serve as proxy sources of meaning, accounting for the otherwise-unaccounted-for. It’s hard to know whether the original propagators of a myth believe it themselves, or whether they’re just making something up until a better explanation comes along. Myths only work as long as people don’t think of them as myths; that is, as long as people believe that the mythic beings actually exist and the mythic events actually happened. But belief dies slowly even after myths are exposed as having only fictional existence: witness the continued widespread belief in Saddam’s WMDs and ties with al-Qaida.

What would a “true myth” be? In a prior post I proposed that a statement is “true” if it refers to something that exists in a particular world. “There’s a fly in my soup” is false in my present everyday reality, but it’s true in my imagination. Based on this definition, a mythical being or event that has no existence in the everyday world is not true of that world. If, on the other hand, a mythical event or being – something invented as a placeholder for the as-yet-inexplicable – turns out to exist in fact, then the myth proves to be “true.” So if somebody establishes the existence of Nessie, then his status is upgraded from mythic being to actual being. I think that about exhausts the possibilities for “true myth.”

I think the idea of “true myth” confounds raw existence with meaning. A myth might, for example, be invoked to support prohibition against seeking personal vengeance. The prohibition might be sustainable as a permanent ethical-legal principle even after the myth is abandoned. The myth may have served as a temporary catalyst for establishing a continuing principle of everyday ethical reality, but that doesn’t make the myth “true.” The myth served as a temporary foundation for meaning until a better one could be found to replace it.

I’ve got a couple more “First Lines” posts dealing with truth versus myth in fictional realities. After that, probably Monday, I’ll apply these ideas about myth to the Genesis 1 creation story.

 

13 December 2006

Moby Dick: Truth or Myth?

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 2:58 pm

The last chapter of Moby Dick ends with the sinking of the Pequod. The three masts subside, their lookouts still manned by the three harpooneers.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

The end? Not quite. There’s an Epilogue, one page long. It begins with a quote:

“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” – Job

Job. The narrator begins his story by telling of a day when the sons of God came to present themselves to Yahweh, and Satan came also among them. And Yahweh said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered Yahweh, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. Yahweh gives Satan his permission to destroy everything Job has, just to see whether Job will curse Yahweh. Immediately four messengers come to Job, each one recounting a separate catastrophe. “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee,” each of the messengers concludes his story. Is this a true story about Job? No one alive can vouchsafe the messengers’ stories. And who bore witness to the conversation between Yahweh and Satan?

The Epilogue of Moby Dick continues:

The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? – Because one did survive the wreck.

The Epilogue reminds us that we’ve been reading a story told by Ishmael, an otherwise-undistinguished crewmember of the ill-fated Pequod. It seems that Queequeg’s coffin, empty and sealed, shot up from the vortex of the wreckage. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main – until another passing whaler plucked him from the sea.

Is Ishmael’s story true? He only is escaped alone to tell the tale. Maybe he was telling a fish story. Maybe, by embellishing the mundane facts of a pointless accident, Ishmael created a legend. But we have no reason to doubt his word, do we? As it happens, we do.

About halfway through the book Ishmael notes a passing encounter with the Town-Ho, a whaling ship that had recently sighted Moby Dick near the Cape of Good Hope. He then describes in much greater detail an earlier event on the Town-Ho involving a leak, a mutiny, and a certain wondrous, inverted visitation of one of those so-called judgments of God which at times are said to overtake some men. The instrument of God’s judgment, it turns out, was Moby Dick himself. Only three former crewmen of the Town-Ho lived to tell the tale, one of whom told it to Tashtego, who recounted it among his shipmates aboard the Pequod.

Ishmael doesn’t integrate the Town-Ho’s story into the rest of the narrative; he brackets the tale in quotations to preserve the style in which I once narrated it at Lima, to a lounging circle of my Spanish friends, one saint’s eve, smoking upon the gilt-titled piazza of the Golden Inn. Ishmael even quotes his Spanish friends’ occasional interruptions of this prior telling. Ishmael brings the story to its dramatic, and improbable, conclusion:

“Where Steelkilt now is, gentlemen, none know; but upon the island of Nantucket, the widow of Radney still turns to the sea which refuses to give up its dead; still in dreams sees the awful white whale that destroyed him…

“‘Are you through?’ said Don Sebastian quietly.

“I am, Don.

“‘Then I entreat you, tell me if to the best of your own conviction, this your story is in substance really true? It is so passing wonderful! Did you get it from an unquestionable source? Bear with me if I seem to press.”

Ishmael calls for someone to bring him a copy of “the Evangelists” on which he can swear his honesty. No, says Don Sebastian, but there’s a priest nearby. Bring the priest also, Ishmael tells him. A man comes, tall and solemn – here is the priest, says Don Sebastian. Ishmael places his hand on the Holy Book:

“‘So help me, Heaven, and on my honor, the story I have told ye, gentlemen, is in substance and its great items, true. I know it to be true; it happened on this ball; I trod the ship; I knew the crew; I have seen and talked with Steelkilt since the death of Radney.’”

But wait. Didn’t Ishmael say that the Pequod’s crew heard the story from Tashtego, who allegedly heard it from an eyewitness? And when would he have met the crew if only three of them survived? Maybe Ishmael had heard the tale before, on one of his prior voyages. But no: at the beginning of the book Ishmael said that he’d never been on a whaling ship before…

 

12 December 2006

The “Real” Meaning of a Text

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 4:02 pm

Prior posts have zeroed in on what a spoken or written statement means. There’s…

  1. linguistic meaning, as determined by the internal structure of the language and its vocabulary, grammar and syntax. There’s…
  2. referential or semantic meaning: what the words and phrases point to in the world. Then there’s…
  3. contextual meaning: the particular world in which the statement makes sense.

“There’s a fly in my soup” is a linguistically meaningful, well-formed English sentence. It’s meaningful referentially – we know what a fly is, what soup is, etc. As I sit typing this sentence, the fly-in-soup statement makes no sense: I have a cup of coffee in front of me but no soup, etc. I can, however, imagine a world in which I do have a bowl of soup: in that context the sentence is meaningful.

“Moby Dick is a great white whale.” This sentence has threefold meaning in the context of Melville’s fictional world. But that isn’t the end of it. What does Moby Dick mean? This isn’t a question about the meaning of the sentence: it asks about the meaning of the sentence’s subject: the sentence refers to Moby Dick, but what is Moby Dick about? This is a fourth kind of meaning, what might be called:

4. real meaning: the significance of the statement in making sense of the world to which the statement refers.

Moby Dick is a great white whale in Melville’s novel of the same name. Really, Moby Dick is the object of Ahab’s monomaniacal quest and his executioner, and so on.

It could be argued that, while Moby Dick himself has real meaning, the specific sentences referring to him don’t. But I think that’s wrong. Sure, I can construct an image of Moby Dick that’s independent of any particular sentence about him. However, I have no experience of Moby Dick independent of the book: my mental image is derived entirely from the sentences that Melville wrote about him (and doubtless also from sentences that other people wrote after having read Melville’s book). The reality of Moby Dick emerges from the sentences about him in the book, but his reality isn’t reducible to the sum of all the sentences. My image of him is grounded in the sentences of the text, but I also interpret the real meaning of any particular sentence based on a mental image of Moby Dick that’s separate from the sentences in the text.

Ishmael, the narrator, tells me that a sperm whale is longer than a whaling boat, that a whale can capsize a boat, that a whale can eat a man in a single bite. Ishmael tells me that Ahab had his leg bitten off by a whale, and not just any whale – it was Moby Dick. Ishmael gives me example after example illustrating the uncanny horror of white things. From the sentences of the book I assemble an image of Moby Dick: his raw physicality, the motive force he provides to the story, his near-mythic status as an object of awe and terror. When at last the Pequod arrives at its fated and fatal confrontation, the great white whale is enormous, imbued with layer upon layer of meaning that establishes the reality of that confrontation.

One of the curious things about Moby Dick is how it drifts along on currents and gets caught in eddies that distract the reader from the book’s dramatic development. There are chapters about boats and riggings, paintings of whaling scenes, the whale oil rendering process; Chapter 64 is entitled “The Whale As a Dish.” In Chapter 31, “Cetology,” Ishmael presents a taxonomic scheme for describing and categorizing every known type of whale. This chapter establishes the scientific reality of Moby Dick as representative of the largest and most formidable species of whale. Clearly we’re meant to take this chapter seriously, inasmuch as Melville includes several footnotes that he attributes explicitly not to Ishmael but to “H. Melville.” Why are Ishmael’s and Melville’s obsessions with cetology important to the present discussion? Because real meaning isn’t limited to narrative or metaphysical meaning; it can also be scientific. A scientific taxonomy is a mental construct for making sense of the specifics. The scientific reality of a taxonomic system, like the reality of a fictional character, is built up from specific instances, but it isn’t reducible to the sum of the instances. And by the way, the book’s emphasis on the sheer physicality of the whale keeps the reader from jumping with both feet into a mythic reading of the text… which will be the subject of the next post, I hope.

11 December 2006

A Sort of Secret Society About Nothing

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 4:22 pm

 

That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.

– Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart, 1938

It’s the kind of book that belongs on those musty shelves: the generic blue cover distinguished only by a subtly embossed “EB,” the yellowed sticker carefully pasted on the front:

English-American Library
Founded in 1863
10,000 Volumes on Open Shelves
12, Rue de France, Nice

We’ve paid our deposit authorizing us to check out two books at a time – or four paperbacks, if we like. The Belgian lady behind the desk chatters amiably with another visitor as she pulls our card from the file, jots down the title and the date, and places it back in the box. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, who sought refuge here from the English winter, once served as patrons of this library. Men speaking variously-inflected English discuss World War Two back by the newspapers as I head out the door and up the steps into the warmth of another perfect afternoon on the Mediterranean.

Around chapter three I began thinking that I’d read something like this before; later, that maybe I’d started it once but never finished. Only near the end, when a devastated Portia seeks refuge with Major Brutt in the attic bleakness of the Karachi Hotel (of a style at once portentous and brittle) did I realize that I’d actually read the entire book before, and not all that long ago.

In his elegiac review Jonathan Yardley remembers The Death of the Heart: “I first read it in the 1950s, when I was a teenager, far too young and callow to appreciate it, much less understand it.” Could that have been why the book hadn’t made much impression on me the first time? But I was fifty, not fifteen. Have I lost that much innocence in these past few years? Perhaps.

It’s an icy, brittle world that with a few deft taps Bowen reduces to jagged shards. She puts the jeweler’s hammer in the hand of St. Quentin, that prototypical upper-class “old family friend” of English novels who, as it happens, is himself a famous novelist. After administering, assassin-like, the petit coup that will shear these lives apart, St. Quentin cries loudly to the dazed Portia:

‘These lacunae in people!’

‘What did you say?’

‘You don’t ask what made me do that – you don’t even ask yourself.’

She said, ‘You are very kind.’

‘The most unlikely things one does, the most utterly out of character, arouse no curiosity, even in one’s friends. One can suffer a convulsion of one’s entire nature, and, unless it makes some noise, no one notices. It’s not just that we are incurious; we completely lack any sense of each other’s existences. Even you, with that loving nature you have – In a small way I have just ratted on Anna, I have done something she’d never forgive me for, and you, Portia, you don’t even ask me why. Consciously, and as far as I can see quite gratuitously, I have started what may make a frightful breach. In me, this is utterly out of character. I’m not a mischievous man; I haven’t got time; I’m not interested enough. You’re not even listening, are you?’

‘I’m sorry, I – ’

What a precise, sad, funny, devastating book this is – on second reading.

 

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