Monday, December 6, 2021

this one could use about fifty bibliographic footnotes, but for now, here goes

In an M.A. thesis I was never able to turn into something publishable, I remarked that Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God was a flawed effort at encompassing the whole field of mythology that needed to be corrected in very fundamental ways but not discarded in its entirety. Reading some survey texts written for a general audience (and I get more general all the time as the decades pass since my doctorate), I am recalling some of the passages in volume one, Primitive Mythology, a title that already suggests some of its difficulties. But its grounding of the impulse towards emotionally committed storytelling in basic human characteristics and the even more basic biological characteristics that underpin them seems like a reasonable starting place for reframing without reductionism.

As a much-derided twentieth-century thinker once wrote, when physics explains the nature of light, nobody expects that as a result there will be no longer be any light.

In fact, we probably need to think more about the relationship between our hard-wired tendency to jump to conclusions and our childhood penchant for making things up that we know aren’t true, alongside things that we wish were true but right now are not, and things that we think explain the full truth of things (but really don’t).

Reality stays constructed that way in the grown-up world, and the greatest dilemma of human societies may be the way in which that tendency to construct stories is exploited and expanded for purposes of social domination on the one hand, and individual gratification on the other. Few people grasp the reasons why they not only distort their own perceptions of the world around them, they fail to see the consequences of those distortions. Even when they are grasped, nobody ever grasps them fully. The best mystical traditions were devoted to uncovering those distortions, even though most of what is called mystical is as blindly unaware of its distortions as the hardest-nosed rationalism, which is almost always devoted to excluding as much of reality as it can manage.

A science of the imagination really ought to be possible that would be devoted to eliminating the most commonplace and curable distortions, while heightening the awareness of the inevitability of distortions and their useful emotional functions, and trying to cultivate more satisfactory versions of them. As it is at present, the human ability to imagine things that do not reflect the world as it ordinarily is has too often been divided up into unpleasantly sterile categories: on one hand, fantasies that placate the starved demands of the inner child that has never left us (and usually do so with embarrassing simplifications); on another, hypotheses for future social and/or technological scenarios that take into account all the factors except those unfulfilled infantile needs; and as a corollary of the latter, fantasies of all sorts that are regularly taken for the hard facts about how things are and how things have to be.

These differently distorted visions of the world can’t be cured by the ordinarily recommended methods. I gave examples of these in an earlier draft of this, but then decided to put my concluding paragraph into practice.

The best of the world’s mystics really were trying to break apart the ossified structures that had become tools for self-destruction of the species, and to replace them with connective forms of awareness that would be both supple and rigorous. But of course they didn’t use those terms, and the frameworks they used were shaped by the cultures in which they lived, even as they sought to reshape those cultures. And their practical insights were turned into superstitious repetitions of meaningless practices almost as soon as they had been articulated.

And what, exactly, lay beyond the margins of their merely practical insights is something that is barely open to exploration, much less comprehension. But they taught us that it is our job to explore it and comprehend it. Some of them said that that task is the only reason that we are here, though that assertion always was open to contestation and/or interpretation. The contestation and/or interpretation sometimes led to bloodshed, which is the way we humans like to resolve our disagreements a large part of the time.

We have more pieces of the human puzzle available to us today than ever before in this present cycle of civilization (and probably than in all the previous cycles, but we’ll never be sure) but the pieces need to be put together in a different order, or put together in the first place. And all the flaws and predilections of our mammalian inheritance combine with our inventive capacities to make things up that make us feel better or lend us a competitive advantage, creating prevailing forces that make that happy outcome unlikely to happen.

One place to start might be by cultivating an awareness of people’s many triggering mechanisms, and framing discussions in terms that will not set off antipathy right from the start. But almost nobody seems to know how to do this, even though the tools with which to learn how to do it are readily available.