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Dear and Gorgeous Nonsense: The Poetic Impulse in Myth

An abandoned house in Kolmanskop, Namibia, being overtaken by the Namib Desert. Photographed in 2006 by Damien du Toit. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia.

There is something about existence that has been puzzling to human beings, it seems to me, since the beginning of our species: a nagging intuition, an impression—an apprehension, really—that there is much more to life, that something is going on behind the material experience of the world as we understand it. Life is, in its cool objectivity, inherently baffling and stubbornly impenetrable. This quality of inscrutability may certainly inspire curiosity and delight, adventurousness and investigation, but the same impenetrability that inspires such optimism may awaken, in equal amounts, dread and fear.

Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (and, more recently, Emil Cioran and Eugene Thacker) have persistently questioned the perspective of optimism. To dismiss these philosophers as merely nihilistic is to misunderstand their deep connection to life, their magnificent empathy for vulnerability which gives rise to apprehensions about the “normal” sunny orientation to life, and questions conventional thoughts regarding how we “should” feel about it. They have created philosophies that, in important ways, seem to stand against philosophy itself, against epistemological certainty and unfailing optimism, and work to disconcert and disquiet the anthropocentrism that has characterized humanity’s view of the world—a view which has continually seemed to frustrate humanity’s attempts to live in harmony with the conditions of life. Conditions, by the way, that were established long, long before human beings were a presence in the world to bear witness to them, and are sufficiently dark that they must be seen through a poetic lens lest one lapse into complete despair. 

Cioran used to refer to himself as “un homme de fragment,” a fragmented man. Life is often a fragmenting force, and one of the principle means of our fragmentation is finding oneself torn between the beguiling charms of Plato’s metaphysical ideal forms which exist in an abstract imaginal  state, and the immediate experience of mind, matter, and consciousness, which we generally refer to as “real.” So, what does one make of this fragmentation, of having one’s mind simultaneously in the real while longing for the ideal? How does one refrain from waging war on life and manage to, as Nietzsche put it, affirm not only oneself, but all existence?

The natural impulse is to devote oneself to one and dismiss the other categorically, thereby avoiding the dissonance of having to entertain two competing psychic realities. Once we’ve dispelled one of these possibilities, we set about trying to perfect the real or, conversely, intensify our investment in, and longing for, the ideal. In The Mythic Dimension, Joseph Campbell notes that the function of art is not “annihilation [of one condition or the other], but celebration.” (275) We are better served by thinking yes/and rather than either/or, privileging the type of thinking reflected in “the true poetry of the poet,” rather than “the poetry overdone of the prophet, and the poetry done to death of the priest.” (Campbell, 26) 

The prophets and the priests tend towards literal, concrete interpretations of mythopoesis; they tend to use substantive language when speaking or writing about God and from that frequent and customary usage, they assume that every substantive idea or expression has an actual, substantial something behind it. Through this overdetermined presumption, they degrade a poetic notion to prosaic pronouncements and come to understand God as an actual thing or being, instead of a metaphor for some ineffable truth. The word god loses its metaphorical nature and is subsequently related to and relied upon as though God is a real entity. Campbell puts it this way:

For if it is true that “God is not like anything: hence no one can understand him by means of an image,”...then it must be conceded, as a basic principle of our natural history of the gods and heroes, that whenever a myth has been taken literally its sense has been perverted; but also, reciprocally, that whenever it has been dismissed as a mere priestly fraud or a sign of inferior intelligence, truth has slipped out the other door. (36)

Mythopoesis, true poetry, is the foundation of religious thought; regrettably, the poetry of religion is, as Campbell noted, “done to death” by the clergy and rendered unimaginative, uninspired, concretized dogma. The poetic impulse inspires what William James described as the potential for the “ontological wonder” and “cosmic emotion” conveyed by religion, and similarly, it lives in the heart of the first function of myth which, Campbell says, is to “waken and maintain in the individual an experience of awe, humility, and respect, in recognition of that ultimate mystery, transcending names and forms, ‘from which,’ as we read in the Upaniṣads, ‘words turn back.’” (Masks of God, Vol. IV: Creative Mythology, 830)

Poetry allows us to glimpse the ideal while still rooted in the real. It gives us the double vision we need to make sense of this terrifying and fascinating mystery of existence—mysterium tremendum et fascinans, as Rudolph Otto put it—and see in it an attitude of play, the divine play of spirit, the play of the élan vital, the dynamism of life itself. Nobility of spirit, the supremely aristocratic point of view, Campbell says, is “the ability to play, whether in heaven or on earth,” (The Mythic Dimension, 36) and always accompanying play are its daughters, laughter and delight. Play clarifies and unburdens; it lightens the load and often transforms judgement into appreciation. For example, Samuel Taylor Coleridge affectionately called Plato’s philosophy “dear, gorgeous nonsense,” and Lionel Trilling called Finnegans Wake“transcendent genial silliness…” that in its way, “keeps the world in its right course…” (The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews 1965-75, 33) 

Humans come and go. Of course we are mortal, of that there can be no pretending, and as such, we must perish. But play itself is immortal, constantly refreshing itself with new players, and one can sense how, if we stand with one foot in the real and one foot in the ideal—the posture of divine play—we may glimpse the transcendent truth. It’s understandable, isn’t it, that this two-footed standpoint, the double-vision that mythopoesis confers, allows us to revel and play in and among both of these realms? The poetry of myth is such that we can embrace the immanence of the transcendent, Platonic vision without sacrificing empirical reality, and with affectionate good humor say, I love this dear, gorgeous nonsense of life!


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