Monday, September 23, 2013

Myth become fact

CS Lewis observed that the myths of all primitive religions are expressions of an innate desire for the transcendent God to make contact with mankind in order to assauge our sins and guilts. From this position, it is easy to view Christianity as just another religion, and its central tenets, such as the Virgin birth, the resurrection and Jesus’s divinity, as further examples of myth. In particular, they could be seen as emblematic of myth surrounding the dying god, which appears in a great number of ancient mythologies. The Virgin birth and the resurrection could thus be understood as symbols of the peristaltic flow of life, birth and rebirth, regeneration, renewal across generations. This view came to prominence, of course, with J.G. Frazer’s anthropological research at the turn of the nineteenth century, and has been developed further in more recent times by Joseph Campbell et al.

Lewis, however, argues that, “as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact”. Thus, the old myth of the dying god is given historical provenance when we move from “Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where” to the historically verifiable crucifixion of Christ. He goes on: “By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle”. It is “the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact”. Thus, for Lewis, Christianity appears to be the “true” religion, standing at the pinnacle of human development. This was a view that Eric Voegelin understandably grew uncomfortable with in his later career, causing a profound change in his thinking in Volume 5 of his magnum opus, Order and History. For Cormac McCarthy, too, there appears to be a consistent wrestling with myth and the notion of “myth become fact”.

In McCarthy, we certainly see a reflection of the straining for contact with the transcendent God. The litany of characters who debate God’s existence in McCarthy’s oeuvre clearly reveals this, as do the heretic in The Crossing and the range of eschatologically-minded prophets who people McCarthy’s universe. God, of course, never appears, and this creates the tension which drives McCarthy’s fiction. Far from accepting Lewis’s conception of “myth become fact”, McCarthy continues to wrestle with the notion that there is no Christian certainty and the notion of contact with the transcendent God is no more than a chimera. The catharsis that comes with acceptance of the myth and surrender to the fact becomes impossible; the resulting existential tension is all the greater because of the sense of despair, or disappointment, or failure that ensues.

Thus, McCarthy appears to be caught between regarding with awe the mystery of religion and remaining sceptical about the very possibility of that mystery. He wants to believe the myth that Lewis believes. He is on record as saying so: Garry Wallace paraphrases him thus: “He went on to say that he thinks the mystical experience is a direct apprehension of reality, unmediated by symbol, and he ended with the thought that our inability to see spiritual truth is the greater mystery.” But his fiction consistently shows that he comes across a barrier which appears insurmountable. Thus, he appears to be trying to write his own myth, in order to make it work.

To be honest, the idea that God deliberately used existing primitive myths to seed the minds of humanity in order to make them accept the “truth” of the incarnation is wholly unconvincing. Jesus may genuinely have existed – the evidence is persuasive – but to assume that the myths surrounding him must also therefore be true is a logical non-seqiteur. To look at the myths as articulated by, say, Joseph Campbell, creation myths and stories of sin and redemption and so on, and to acknowledge the mythical nature of these stories, and then to look at precisely the same myths in a Christian context and claim that these myths must be “true” because Jesus was real seems na├»ve. It is almost impossible, now, to separate myth from reality in the American West of the 1850s, only 170 years ago, far less what occurred two millennia distant. The texts consistently tell us the stories are “true”, but one must not forget the role of propaganda in propagating myths.


Jim H. said...

A "myth" is an explanatory story or system to help us ignorants understand what we don't. In this sense, even something like a 14-dimensional string theory could be considered a myth.

Some myths are differentiable because we know the criteria for their falsifiabilty: what evidence would it take to render the big bang theory false?

Not sure what real-life evidence it would take to falsify the Christ myth surrounding the life of the historical Jesus.

Some myths help us explain things about ourselves to ourselves in comforting, Romantic ways that make them acceptable or at least bearable. The horrors of the conquering and settling American West, e.g., requires heroism, Manifest Destiny, etc. McCarthy seems to be saying, as you so rightly point out, God was not in it.

Tom Conoboy said...

I'm fascinated by myths. You're right, their purpose is to give reality to that which we can't comprehend. But as Eliade and others show, there are so many myths, from so many cultures, that basically do the same thing - creation myths etc - there must be some innate human need for them. For that reason, true myth must have some sort of spiritual (in the broad sense) meaning.

And then, as you point out, there are mythologies which are invented by humans to make things palatable. Those are very different sorts of myths. Too many critics of McCarthy, in my opinion, conflate these.

McCarthy doesn't. Which is why God is not in Blood Meridian.