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?




  1. True. One of the most insightful mechanisms we use is projection. I think one of Freud’s best tools. Often you see that feelings, thoughts and actions even, are projected on others; even Plato and his projection, Socrates. But I have to argue that although it is very frequently the case, it is not always true or relevant.
    Although I fail to come up with counterexamples now.


    Comment by Odile — 30 December 2006 @ 9:51 pm

  2. I agree. My project here is trying to figure out what believers in God mean when they refer to parts of the Bible as “true myth.” Their intention is to preserve God as creator of the material universe without accepting the Biblical creation story as “literal” truth. As you say, projection is one possibility. Maybe some combination: presumably Socrates was a real human being, but he might not have borne much resemblance to Plato’s description of him.


    Comment by ktismatics — 31 December 2006 @ 6:47 am

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