The Return Of Myth
The Return of Myth
By Boris Nad
An excerpt from The Return of Myth by Boris Nad (June 2016, Manticore Press)
The contradictory processes of de-mythologization and re-mythologization were not unknown to ancient civilizations, in which the old myths are sometimes destroyed (de-mythologization) and replaced with new myths (re-mythologization). In other words, the processes of demythologization and re-mythologization are mutually dependent processes. They do not question the very basis of traditional mythical elements, they are maintaining them and keeping myth alive. Myth for us – except in special cases of extreme degradation and the secularization of tradition and culture – is not fiction for primitive people, superstition, or misunderstanding. Instead it is a very concise expression of the highest sacred truths and principles, which are “translated” to a specific language for worldly life, to as much of an extent as is practically possible. Myth is sacral truth described by popular language. Where the presumptions for its understanding are disappearing, the mythical content must be discarded to create a new one in its place.
The Dangerous Intuitions
Myth is, in traditional cultures, is a great antithesis as well, where, as it was shown in the main work of J.J. Bachofen, Mother Right: An Investigation of the Religious and Juridical Character of Matriarchy in the Ancient World, the two major and irreconcilable principles are confronted: uranic and chthonic, patriarchal and matriarchal, and this is projected to all modalities of state and social order, through to the arts and culture. With the advent of the Indo-Europeans, patriarchal invaders on the soil of the old matriarchal Europe, started the struggle of two opposite principles that are highlighted in Bachofen’s study. In the provided examples, the old matriarchal myths and cults turn patriarchal, through the parallel and alternating processes of de-mythologization and re-mythologization. Traces of this struggle are also found in some mythic themes, which can be understood as a very brief religious political history, the way Robert Graves interpreted them, in his book The Greek Myths. By way of contrast, in Greece, the process of demythologization which reaches its peak after Xenophanes (565-470), is complete and radical. This is not followed by any process of re-mythologization, it is a consequence of a total process of desacralization and profanization of the culture, which results in the extinguishing of the mythical and the awakening of a historical consciousness, when man stops seeing himself as mythical and begins to understand himself as a historical being instead. This is a phenomenon that has analogies with two moments in history: first, with a process of de-mythologization brought by early Christianity.
To the first Christian theologians, myth was the opposite of the Gospel, and Jesus was a historical figure, whose historicity the church fathers proved and defended to the unbelieving. This is contrasted by the process of re-mythologization of the Middle Ages, with a whole series of examples of revitalization of the ancient mythical content, often conflicting and irreconcilable, from the Graal myths and the myth of Friedrich the Second, through to eschatological myths in the epoch of the Crusades and various other myths. It is, without doubt, a much older re-actualization of mythic content and its “dangerous intuition”, which surpasses its causes and it serves as evidence of the presence of mythic forces in the historical world, which no process of de-mythologization is able to destroy or extinguish.
The Consumer Mythology. The Midnight of History
Another example of the radical process of de-mythologization is the de-mythologization that brings the epoch of enlightenment to its peak in the “technological universe”. It is the direct expression of the degradation and decline of modern man, who is no longer a mythical or historical being, but a mere “consumer” within the “consumerist and technocratic civilization” or simply a plug to the technological universe. The heroic impulse of man as a mythical, and historical being, was burnt out. Destructive forces of de-mythologization constantly clean and remove the mythical ingredients from the area of consumerist civilization and human memory in general, exterminating “dangerous intuitions” that are contained in them. Within the technological universe, which is only a final stage of the fall of (modern) man, the human horizon is finally closing, because here man has only one power and only one freedom: power to spend and freedom to buy and sell. This freedom and this power, testify the death of man (known by myth and history), because within the universe of technology and consumer civilization, anything that transcends this “animal of consumption” simply can not exist. “The Death of Art” spoken about by the historical avant-garde is simply a consequence of the death of man, first as a mythical being, then as a historical being. Of course, the process of de-mythologization can never be completed, for the simple reason that destruction does not touch the mythical forces. They continue to appear and return through history, whether under the guise of the “historical”, or as something that is opposed to history. This is also true for the one-dimensional universe of a technocratic utopia. As a result, in the consumer civilization, real mythical components are replaced by the mythical simulacrum: wild-growing sub-cultural ideologies and myths, or consumer mythology, whose heroes are comic book figures such as Superman. But the exhaustion of the long and destructive processes of de-mythologization does not mean a return to the mythical time.
We are standing at the midnight of history, the clock struck twelve, and we look ahead into the darkness where we see the contours of future things. This view is followed by fear and premonitions. Things we see, or think that we can see, still do not have a name, they are nameless. If we address them, we do not affect them accurately and they escape the noose of our governing. When we say peace it could be a war. Plans of happiness turn into murderous ones, often through the night. In brief: “Rough incursions, which in many places convert historical landscapes into elementary ones, hide subtle changes but of the more aggressive kind” (Ernst Jünger).
At the Dawn of History
At the Wall of Time by the German author Ernst Jünger conveys much about the transition of myth into history, and about the moment in which the mythical consciousness was replaced by the historic one. History, of course, does not exist as long as man: historical consciousness rejects as non-historic the vast spaces and epochs (“pre-history”), peoples, civilizations, and countries, because “a person, an event must have very specific characteristics that would make them historic”. The key to this transition, according to this author, is provided by the work of Herodotus, through which man “passes through a country illuminated by rays of dawn.” Before him (Herodotus) there was something else, the mythical night. That night, however, was not darkness. It was more of a dream, and it knew of a different way to connect people, and the events of historical consciousness, and its selective forces. This brings rays of dawn into Herodotus’ work. He stands on top of the mountain that separates day from night: not only are there two epochs, but also two types of epochs, the two types of light. In other words, it is the moment of transition from one mode of existence into something quite different, that we call history. This is the time of the shift of two cycles, which we can not identify with the change of historical epochs – the issue in question is the profound change in the existence of man. The sacral, in the manner of previous epochs retreats, ancient cults disappear, and into their place come religions, which soon afterwards become historical or anti-historical, even when they trigger events and historical plots.
The Crusades, called by the Western Church, deepened divisions and schisms, and eventually gave birth to the Reformation, which began with religious enthusiasm and the desire to return to “biblical beginnings”, only to end with an historical movement which opens the way to unhampered development of industry and technology – unconstrained by the norms of (Christian) tradition, and free from human hopes and desires.
The Grimace of Horror
The world of history, the outlines of which we can find in Homer, which were shaped by Thucydides, reached its zenith somewhere at the end of 19th and at the beginning of 20th century, with unclear boundaries in time and space. But there was a clear consciousness of its laws and regulations, which started to collapse, and the vast edifice of history became unstable, as a sign of penetration by hitherto unknown foreign forces. These forces have a titanic, elementary character, first seen in technical disasters, which affected hundreds of thousands of victims and then, in the cataclysmic events of 20th century, in the world wars and revolutions, where millions were killed and crippled. The release of nuclear energy, radiation, and the environmental destruction that enormous areas were exposed to, the daily toll in blood, whether it was sacrificed to “progress” in peacetime conditions, or as a direct consequence of military intervention and conflict, is something that emerges from the framework established by the historical world.
Of course, history does not end there, as expected, by Marx or by Fukuyama. What is more noticeable is the acceleration of historical time, which concentrates events and reduces the distance between the key turning points of history. What we are talking about are forces in operation that we call historical, and that the role of man in these events is fundamentally changed: he is no longer able to operate equally with the gods, or to follow them, to stand against them or to even subjugate them, as was represented by myth. He (man) is no longer an active participant in history, guided by the passions or his own will, as happens in a mature historical epoch. He becomes the plaything of something unknown, involved in events that surpass him, against his will and outside of his ideas. The expression of cheerful confidence is gradually replaced by a grimace of horror. Man, who until yesterday considered himself a sovereign and master, acknowledges his weakness. This means that man is shown as weak, or in the decisive hour has turned against his creator. Technological systems and social orders occupy this other side, his automatic schemes, which do not restrain but encourage destruction, and place man in the position of the sorcerer’s apprentice, who releases uncontrollable forces. Corruption, crime, violence, and terror, are the results not the causes. Political responses, regardless of color and sign, do not offer solutions, but instead increase disintegration. If he had not found himself in this time of panic, man might gain at least an awareness of his own decline.
All this was unthinkable in the ripe age of history because then, man was still ruled by himself, and thus history as well, therefore history could have no sense of direction other than the one given by man himself, his own deeds and thoughts. Each concept of the “meaning of history” is the concept of the beginning of man, while in the classical historical time man is not created. The question about the “meaning of history” was a meaningless question, and it is not found in classical writers, from Herodotus onward. The question about the “meaning of history”, which is always found outside of man, becomes possible only when the history and the focus moves out of man, either in the social sphere, or in the sphere of technological relations. Modern man is too late to reveal his own weakness, his breakdown does not accuse myth or history, but instead the weakness and cowardice of modern man. The world of “civilized values”, the historical world in general, which he himself had created, is showing itself as much weaker than we used to believe – structurally weak, spiritually, and ethically. At the first sign of alarm, he begins to shatter, exposing an internal readiness to capitulate modern man. This is the “midnight of history”, which will soon be replaced by something different, and that moment is marked by the spread of titanic forces, requiring the sacrifice of
Towards Post-History: The Awakening of Myth
History, should we repeat it again, does not last as long as man on Earth. But the consciousness of it occurs late in history, perhaps only at its end, when the boundaries of time and space are changing: on one side, by discovering the distant past of man, with lost civilizations, then the past of the planet and the universe, and on the other side, with the exploration of the cosmos, the depth of the ocean, or the interior of Earth itself, through the archaeological and geological layers, in an almost Verne like manner. New perspectives cause dizziness. Pre-history and post-history gain in importance only when history becomes a crumbling edifice. But turning man from history to something that he has not been able to determine yet or clearly perceive, is now reminiscent of the flight. In one way or another, the technological universe and the consumer civilization will come to an end, in the same way a classic historical epoch ends with technocracy and with a totalitarian order in its complete form, which arises neither from courage nor strength but from cowardice, weakness, and fear. It is impossible to say how long this will take. It is irrelevant whether this will happen due to an internal attrition, an overreach, or a disaster, or a combination of all these factors together. But in each of these cases, the collapse is a consequence of man’s inability to dwell within the historical world, and to rule it as a sovereign-supreme being. The return to myth, however, is not possible in terms of a return to the state of “pre-history.” Mythological forces remain present, as they were during the entire historical period, but they can not establish the previous state because they lack the necessary preconditions, the missing “substrate”, the fertile ground. Modern man is too weak for that, in the spiritual, psychological, and even “physiological” sense. Together with history, culture gradually disappears as well, along with it’s current meaning, which is basically just an instrument of social engineering. In a technocratic utopia (as opposed to the culture in the historical period), mass culture is just one of the ways to channel energy for the utopian fantasies and desires of the masses; the elite culture, which constantly wanders between conformism and negation, between skepticism and denial, between skepticism and irony, and back to conformism, essentially remains a tool of de-mythology (or the deconstruction of mythology) and the destruction of dangerous intuitions contained in myth, which allow for more or less seamless integration into the technological universe, with the illusion of free will. The appearance and the awakening of dangerous intuitions and sleeping archetypes, on the margins of the technocratic social mechanism, creates a situation of conflict, and leads to delays in its functioning. In the region beyond the technocratic utopia, culture will need to take a more traditional role than the one it has in the consumer civilization. The disintegration of the historical world in its late stage, which we are just witnessing, allows us to see something of it. For much of the historical period, culture is a privileged area of sacred and mythical powers. This is one of the ways in which mythical forces again penetrate into the world historically, realizing themselves in history, unlike the technological universe, where they usually manifest themselves through the uncontrolled elements of folk subcultures, and are often distorted to the unrecognizable simulacrum of the mythical, and not as credible expressions. They testify more about the eternal and unquenched need of man for mythical content, than they do represent a sign of their real presence. Culture in the post-technocratic era will be very closely related to the reestablishment of mythology, in terms of recognition and the awakening of true mythical content, marked by innovation and the revitalization of the ancient and traditional form, rather than, as hitherto, their exorcism. The meaning and purpose of the process of de-mythology, by contrast, must be limited to the one it had in traditional societies: the cleansing of degenerate “folklore” and mythical forms, and to let into their place those who credibly represent the tradition.
Translated by Zinka Brkic