Thursday, July 09, 2009

Gods and men

Henry Bamford Parkes begins his 1960 monograph, Gods and Men, with the following, striking claim:

This book is written in the conviction that the vitality of any society depends on the continued affirmation of mythical symbolisms created by the collective imagination for the ordering of experience, and that a pure rationalism can result only in social disintegration.


Karen Armstrong, in her Short History of Myth, picks up the same sort of point, when she differentiates between mythos and logos, and says that mythos is the way to the sacred. What she suggests, I suppose, is that a surfeit of logos leads to a kind of spiritual constipation, the end result of which will be Parkes' 'social disintegration'.

An interesting theory, except it is unprovable, because it is resting on a false premise. There is no such thing as pure rationalism. We are beginning to see a worrying backlash at the moment against rationalist thought, as though the Enlightenment were some sort of impediment to progress because it de-emphasised the supernatural. In so doing, it is becoming customary to speak of rationalism, or science, or empirical study, in a pejorative sense. We are so beholden to the holy fact, they say, that we have lost all sense of ourselves and our souls. This is the excuse they use or ushering that old sky-god back in through the back door.

But this is not so. A state of pure rationality has never existed anywhere. I believe in science as a way of ordering our society, but there is still a place for beauty, for art, for culture, which is where the mythos now resides. God is a work of art.

1 comment:

Carlos said...

Hi Tom,

Yes, indeed. The poetics of creation came into being around the same time that a poetics of inspiration faded. As the muses died, the artist as creator-god sprang to life.

In this regard I think studying authors who wrestle with the themes of life/death, God/man, spirit/matter, order/disorder, good/evil, beauty/ugliness, etc. are important, now more than ever. Before such themes were commentaries on the existing framework of belief of a given culture. In the contemporary Western dialogue, they ARE the central discussion (with Tradition at some remove), so hopefully there is some meat to them thar bones... .

I agree with your critique that there is no pure rationality, but I also think that putting science and the arts up as the god-horizon is tenuous ground. I think the bifurcation in our views explains why you see Nietzsche's as a beautiful vision, and I see him as a beautiful mirage.

In critique of my own thoughts, I guess you are looking at the highest common denominator of man, and there is something noble in setting one's sights there. I like to think that am looking at the middle rung, where I believe most of us do our walking and talking.

That said, again, I believe as you that Armstrong's opposition of Mythos to Logos simply perpetuates a somewhat false dichotomy in the history of letters and philosophy. There is a reason in faith; there is a faith in reason. Both modalities allow us to take the next step up the stairs, and believe there will be another there to catch our footfall.

As to Parkes's opening salvo and in relation to a Voegelin who might agree, I'd say that there is no way back to an unadulterated mythological belief; you can't put the toothpaste fairy back in the tube.

The work to be done, in my estimation, is one akin to the Homeric efforts of taking ungodly gods and questionable heroes and making stories that speak to the broader culture about how life in the new millennium is. The analogy is inapposite perhaps, but whatever the work to be done… I agree that it is the artists who will do it. (It’s too bad so few are listening.) But then, I think that is the point: stories that truly speak to the public imagination are few and far between. And in the end, we artists will not like the stories so told.

The artist as creator-god is an egoist, and each of us will always find fault in whatever ‘myths’ are accepted by the larger culture. It is a blasphemy! in our universe, the way McCarthy’s The Road makes us both cringe.

I hope you're well. Kind regards-