special-4--2007
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THE POWER OF MYTH

14 November 2007

Today's Special comes courtesy of Nicolle Lamerichs, who is a fellow comic drawer, graphic novelist, sequential artist, whatever you'd like to call it, at Openminded; the group I recently joined. She has taken a liking to the literary pretensions of the previous year and one can only smile knowingly and nod, of course. Many thanks! Well, onwards to the rant, because we have quite a bit to cover today.

'Now Jung has a wonderful saying somewhere. 'Religion is a defence against a religious experience'. Well, that means it has reduced the whole thing to concepts and ideas. And this short-circuits the transcendent experience. And the experience of deep mystery is what one has to regard as the ultimate religious experience. One has to go past the image of Jesus. The image of God becomes the final obstruction. Your god is your ultimate barrier.'

Friend Tom recently gave me a series of six hour-long interviews with Joseph Campbell, conducted in the late 1980s at the end of his life. The series was called 'The Power of Myths', which is a tremendously giddy title that simultaneously is absolutely pretentious, but manages to capture to depth of its contents with perfection. Joseph Campbell is, of course, a very charismatic man who wrote the influential 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces'; presenting a sturdy model to analyze ancient mythological tales and religious myths with. The interviews, held mostly at the Skywalker Ranch, home ground of his well-publicized 'best pupil' George Lucas (who went to smash his credibility as myth-maker with the amusing, but shallow, prequels to his Star Wars saga), are very impressive. Which is to say; they leave quite an impression. They have managed to bring a lot of nuance to my stance on religion.

The interesting thing is that it doesn't entail a sudden re-belief in any religion. Instead, it's an appreciation of the true meaning of religion, and all mythological superstition, as described so wonderfully lucidly by Campbell. He tells us that all religions are basically true, in that their stories and rituals are ways to beget a transcendent experience within yourself. Call it enlightenment. Campbell names it 'an expression of the divine'. Names are irrelevant; what it means is that you go through a transformation (your own 'hero's journey') from being a juvenile animal to an enlightened human. You shed off the dominance of animal instincts and motivations. But it is more than simple temperance; it is finding the 'god' within yourself. 'God' is of course also just a token name delineating a greater understanding of life and how the universe works. Not in terms of physics or science, but in what your position in life is, where you stand, how you look at things, how you are a part of the world. Where you suddenly see the beauty of life instead of just the mud and the motions. You overcome yourself.

How does religion and ritual help? Because, as Campbell says it, the vocabulary of rationality, our words of prose, are incapable of expressing this transcendent 'divinity'. We need poetry, a ritualized experience, to bring it about. Only wrapped in symbolism can the message be delivered if it is to have any impact on us. Now where it all goes wrong, and where my major gripe with religion comes from (and believe you me it's still there) is that the vast majority of believers, instead of understanding the reasons and hidden meanings of their religion, take the symbolism literally. They personify their god. They pray to him without realizing their prayers are meant to help themselves on the right path. They fail to understand that the portraying of Jesus Christ doesn't matter, if the meaning of his message of death and rebirth has entered themselves. They get angry when their prophet is ridiculed in Danish cartoons, whereas it is utterly irrelevant because the prophet himself doesn't matter; what matters is what the prophet is doing for them; their own voyage. Every religion is true if it helps its followers become enlightened. Every religion is also not holy, not the one truth, its dogmas of no consequence, its rules unimportant, not worth dying for, killing for, hurting for, bleeding for. The only thing that matters is your own personal voyage to transcendence. If an organised religion can help you achieve that, perfect. But please, enlighten yourself about its meaning before plunging headfirst into a ritual; believing in a father in heaven that is not there but only a symbol for your own journey through life. That is what the above quote was saying; religion is a wonderfully efficient means for transfiguring yourself, but it's also a double-edged sword: if you're not careful and you get too invested in the symbolism, it becomes a hindrance instead of a helpful tool. You'll need to combat and defeat your own god before seeing through to the truth, and depending on how saturated you are with it, this is a monumental or even impossible task. It is the ultimate fallacy of religion -becoming the final obstruction to your rise as an enlightened human being.

At the same time, a different problem arises for us modern, rational, scientific thinkers. We understand how important ritual can be, but at the same time we are too educated and sceptical to start believing in any religion. Part of the effectiveness of ritual is obviously that you should believe in what you're doing and what is chanted. We may be finding ourselves in a period of transience here. We'll have to discover a way we can reach the same measure of spiritual enlightenment (and it's funny how that no longer is a dirty word, now that it's cut off from the notions of religion), without the use of dogmatic and institutionalized faith. Now, I think you can achieve this in many different ways. I think we'll need to reach mastery of the delectable art of self-deception; on the one hand remaining critical, on the other indulging in certain rituals. But these rituals can be personalized; self-made; using symbolism from your own identity's idiom. Meditation can come in many different ways. Through deliberate discourse with your friends, for instance. Even Plato knew that already! And who knows? Even philosophizing intellectually can bring one to a higher plateau. The world is not quite doomed yet, and there will be plenty proof before the end that we can do without the dogmas of religion and its dead ends of symbolism-become-literal truths.

As long as we don't forget the importance of myths. Joseph Campbell makes that much clear, with both what he says and doesn't say. He's what Malcolm Gladwell would call a 'salesman', one whose ideas are contagious ('sticky') and told with such enthusiasm and joy that you easily go along with them. Is Campbell correct? He makes a very persuasive point. But no rational argument speaks so much for him as his own demeanour. At the end of his long life; here sits a man gesturing with great passion. He's constantly smiling, laughing, telling stories. It is obvious he's quite fulfilled and his many gleefully told, wondrous tales back this up. If leading the life he lived and believing what he did made him into such a balanced, philosophically successful person, I'll happily sign up. There is of course no stopping critical analysis of what I do and think, but I feel I've begotten once more a better understanding of how life and myth intertwine, and this is a pleasing realization.

Roderick.