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.



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