Monday, March 20, 2017

Another Fine Myth

Ian Welsh usually blogs about contemporary politics and economics, and quite well.  Recently, though, he wrote a bizarre post about the myth of Balder (which I've always seen spelled "Baldur," but "Balder" is apparently a common variant) and the function of mythology that baffled me.  It seemed to reveal some very odd beliefs about myth on Welsh's part.

Welsh begins by recounting a version -- evidently his own, which differs in some details from ones I've seen -- of the Balder myth.  That may not be too important, because most ancient mythology doesn't have a canonical form.  Even in the Hebrew and Christian bibles, myths often appear in more than one version, and some of the differences affect their meaning.  It appears that the Balder myth, at least in the versions now available to us, is much more recent than Jewish, Christian or Greek mythology, so it may have been influenced by Christian or other mythology.  In any case, its motifs are familiar from other traditions: the invulnerable warrior killed by a wound in his Achilles heel, the grieving mother harrowing the Land of the Dead to try to bring the dead beloved back, etc.

Welsh then exhorts his readers, "Please consider the meaning of this story before continuing…"  He leaves a blank space in the post to give us time to reflect, and laments: "We live in a world where we have de-mythologized and, as such, we rarely consider the truth behind many myths or what they were trying to say."  That seems to me a totally absurd statement.  We -- I presume "we" refers to modern Euro-North-Americans -- still have plenty of myths.  Indeed, our entertainment industries mine Greek and Norse mythology for characters, stories, and themes, with great success.  The new versions may be "trying to say" different things than earlier versions were, but the earlier versions didn't have one "truth" in them, or one thing they were trying to say.  To repeat: there are no canonical versions of the Greek and Norse myths, and the different versions we have vary widely in their stories, meanings, and messages.

Even secularists have their myths, such as the heroic tale of the Darwinian defender Thomas H. Huxley bearding Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at Oxford in 1860.  According to the canonical version, Wilberforce asked Huxley rhetorically through which grandparent the latter was descended from an ape.  Huxley totally owned Wilberforce by his brilliant reply, which won the debate and saved the day for Science.  There were giants in the earth in those days!  I remember encountering this sacred story as a kid in the 1960s, but "Since at least the 1980s, historians have widely regarded the traditional account of that day as a myth or legend."  Even if it were historically acccurate, though, it would still be a myth in the sense that the Greek and Norse stories are -- a story meant to encapsulate and foster the values of the Darwinian community (among them, that the truth of a theory is established by combat and witty comebacks in debate).  Not only does it show that Evolution is true, it shows that opponents are superstitious pushovers, easily demolished by a true Gnostic (or agnostic, in Huxley's case).

And what is the precious meaning Welsh finds in the Balder myth?
Peace is the most precious and beloved of all things, and the most fragile. All it takes to kill peace, is one person who does not agree to keep the peace. And peace cannot be restored so long as even one person does not want it restored.

Obviously this is not quite true, but it nonetheless contains a great truth worth thinking on.
I don't think we need a medieval Norse myth to recognize this "great truth," and I wouldn't take for granted that these platitudes are encapsulated in the tale of Balder.  Was the world of the Norse gods a peaceful place before Balder died?  More important, the notion that war must inevitably follow from his death is false, and harmful.  It's always possible to make more choices.  Welsh's interpretation is a version of the game See What You Made Me Do: I get to decide what will be the consequences of your refusal to do as I tell you to do.  No matter how extreme, absurd, or harmful what I decide to do about your disobedience, I am not responsible -- it's all your doing.  (This game is popular among religious bigots.  A woman who goes out alone is Asking To Be Raped.  If she becomes pregnant, she must carry the child to term.  Contraception is not allowed, and a fortiori neither is abortion.  A woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock has chosen to be ostracized as a slut; if she or the child dies in childbirth, so much the better.  SWYMMD is also popular with parents: Because you disobeyed me, I can invent baroque punishments that bear no relation or proportion to the offense, but You Asked For It.)  Better still, I get to invent the consequences after you disobey, so you could not have known what they would be.  Peace is fragile, but it can be patched back together as often as necessary.  The trouble is less the fragility of peace than the determination of some people to wage war no matter what.

There's no reason I know of to suppose that ancient mythologies were ever consistent in the lessons they contained, or even that teaching lessons was the primary reason for telling them.  Even more, I don't trust anyone who claims to know what "the meaning" of any story, ancient or modern, is.  That's not how stories work.  Stories do often imply lessons, but if you want "great truths" encoded in narratives, look to Aesop's fables.  That these are considered a separate genre, and not as profound as epic or tragedy, indicates that teaching lessons is not the primary purpose of myth.

What surprised me most about Welsh's complaint is that such a smart person would embrace this basically fundamentalist approach to mythology: it is full of true wisdom if you interpret it rightly, but we have fallen away from the great spiritual values that men once held.  I don't think he would write such a post about the Bible, for example, or the Book of Mormon.  During the past Christmas season I got into a minor dustup on Facebook over a detail of the gospels.  I made a cynical but still valid interpretation of the story of Joseph and Mary's inability to find a place to stay in Bethlehem before Jesus' birth: I pointed out that, according to the gospels and later Christian theology, everything that happened in Jesus' life had to happen, to fulfill Old Testament prophecy.  If Jesus was born in a manger, it was because his heavenly father planned it that way from before the creation of the world.  I was informed, angrily, that if I studied some serious theology I'd know that such a simplistic, snarky interpretation was wrong.  But first, my interpretation was based on the theology of the gospel of Luke (where that story appears) and the rest of the New Testament: it was a higher understanding of those events according to the flesh.  I was just pointing to a factor, one of many, that liberal Christians prefer to ignore.  Second, and more important, you can make a more sophisticated interpretation of any text, from the Book of Mormon to Madonna's "Express Yourself," and a skillful exegete can interpret anything to mean just about anything he or she wants. This is what Walter Kaufmann called exegetical thinking, the fallacy of reading one's own ideas into a text and getting them back endowed with the text's authority.  My reading at least had the limited virtue of pointing to a real biblical theme.

There's no agreement among scholars about the nature or purpose of myth.  I wouldn't be surprised if Welsh has been influenced by the Jungian Joseph Campbell, who has been very popular as an exponent of myth as a fount of eternal wisdom; but there are other scholars who take other positions, and no one really knows who is right.  It doesn't help that the people whose myths Welsh extols didn't think of them in the way that modern scholarship does.  There's a fine controversial book by a French historian, Paul Veyne, called (in English translation) Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths? (Chicago, 1988).  As the anthropologist Jonathan Mair sums it up,
[Veyne's] answer to the eponymous question is ‘yes and no’—the ordinary Greek did not believe in myth in the same way that he believed in things he had experienced directly, but he still believed that the events recounted in myths were true. The different modes of truth were distinguished by different truth conditions.

Veyne neatly demonstrates the importance of understanding the plurality of modes of belief or ‘programmes of truth’ by contrasting the attitudes of the Greek in the street with those of classical historians such as Pausanias and Thucydides. The historians no less than hoi polloi believe the events described by myths were true, but their activity was motivated by a second-order imperative that insisted that there could only be one programme of truth. The aim of their practice was to apply reason, logos, in order to reconcile the apparent contradictions between mythos—myths about gods and heroes—and stories of the contemporary lives of ordinary people.
I'd bet that most people responded to myth in Greek antiquity or Norse culture more or less as people respond to today's myths (The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.).  The spectacle, the violence, the romance makes an impression first, and people then find morals and messages in the story.  Fan subcultures are devoted to celebrating, re-enacting, interpreting, and preserving the glorious traditions.  They 'read' their mythology differently than priests, philosophers and academics do, but with as much attention to "the truth [as they see it] behind many myths or what they were trying to say" as Welsh could wish.  Their readings aren't less valid than those of the professional theologians, but they aren't more valid either.