I took an interest in this kind of thing as an undergraduate and in my first year of graduate school; I read something (can’t remember now what it was) that recommended Suzanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key, which led me to Ernst Cassirer’s Language and Myth; and in one of my graduate courses we read Paul Ricoeur’s The Symbolism of Evil. There were a great army of scholars in those days exploring the relations among myth, ritual, symbol, metaphor. But I soon learned that it was not really appropriate to invoke this kind of scholarship in my papers. Nobody said anything explicit, of course — that’s rarely how it works — but it became clear to me that what we might call, borrowing a turn of phrase from Mark Greif, the “discourse of myth” was simply not part of the current critical conversation. It was the kind of thing that people used to talk about back in the day, but no longer revelant. And being a relatively bright young man, I got the message and adjusted my interests accordingly.
But now, in my extreme old age, I am wondering whether I missed something important by setting aside those early interests of mine. Some of those long-neglected figures (LNFs) now strike me as making valuable contributions to topics that we just don’t discuss any more, or discuss only superficially. And, tellingly, I started thinking about those LNFs again when I realized that they had had a major influence on writers and scholars whom I think especially provocative and insightful — Thomas Pynchon, Walker Percy, Ursula LeGuin, Walter Ong — and on many others whom I may not admire as unreservedly but who have made a major contribution to our current intellectual culture: Marshall McLuhan, for instance.
So I’m going to be spending some time in the next few months with those LDFs. I don’t expect that I’ll be able to read them as their first readers did — the linguistic turn and the historicist turn of later Theory have shaped my thinking too deeply for that — but I think if we add their insights to those of later thinkers we could come up with a stronger understanding of certain phenomena that few scholars seem to be thinking about these days. Let me return, then, to the passage from Kolakowski’s The Presence of Myth that I quoted without comment in that previous post:
Metaphysical questions and beliefs reveal an aspect of human existence not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs, namely, that aspect that refers intentionally to nonempirical unconditioned reality. The presence of this intention does not guarantee the existence of the referents. It is only evidence of a need, alive in culture, that that to which the intention refers should be present. But this presence cannot in principle be the object of proof, because the proof-making ability is itself a power of the analytical mind, technologically oriented, which does not extend beyond its tasks. The idea of proof, introduced into metaphysics, arises from a confusion of two different sources of energy active in man’s conscious relation to the world: the technological and the mythical.
Recent humanistic scholarship has been generally skeptical of any claims for the existence of any “nonempirical unconditioned reality” — indeed, so skeptical that it has been largely unable to comprehend what those claims even are, as David Bentley Hart has lucidly explained in his best book, The Experience of God. When you can only see such claims as the thinnest of coverings for the libido dominandi, you disable yourself from investigating their logic, their metaphorical structure, the way they go about their business of interpreting the world. Your understanding will be confined not just to instrumental accounting, but to highly limited forms of instrumental accounting. Any genuinely useful interpretation of “man’s conscious relation to the world” will take full account of both the technological and the mythical, in all their complex interanimations, and not merely reduce the latter to the former.