Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Brain's Need for Myth

While I've been busy with end-of-term grading, trying to squeeze in work on my novel, the Barking Dog has been feeling neglected. I often hear him as I rush from place to place, from one obligation to another--especially at the end of the day sipping a glass of wine at Stogie Joe's when I'm too tired to do more than write a few words in my journal. Hope for a snatch of conversation before trundling home to bed.

Be patient; we're waiting for inspiration, I tell him. Inspiration. A word that can't be trotted out-of-doors naked these days without a fig leaf of irony, else one risks arrest for indecent exposure.

The Dog understands none of this. What he wants is satisfaction, not rationalizations.

I was thinking about this as I read the Demon Haunted World post on Think Buddha. I found myself making connections... as close as I get to 'inspiration,' imaginary connections between unrelated elements--like seeing figures of the immortals in the stars.

We don't--that is--those of us who think of ourselves as enlightened rational beings, believe the world is haunted by demons and supernatural forces, and yet--our brains are so configured that we are apt to see at the end of the block at twilight--in that shape we cannot yet discern--such things as we know full well have no place in nature, and though quickly dismissed--even before, on closing the distance between us--these strange forms resolve themselves itself into: mailbox, stump of a tree, overturned recycling bin, we realize that we have not evolved beyond that state that led our kind to make of airy nothingness a local habitation and a place, to conceive of a universe haunted by gods and demons.

The common opposition of reason and emotion is far too simple--we understand this. No need to explain. One of the elements we should add to fill out this perceived polarity, I thought, as I read that post on Think Buddha--is a need to believe in the projections of our minds, a powerful drive that we can't repress, which reason cannot entirely satisfy; nor can we give up the claims of reason, of empirical understanding. Later... over the second or third glass of wine, I thought of Buffy. And this new series--what is it called--the Mormon chaste teenage vampire series? And Jane Austin's resurrection as a zombie... these are not, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, explorations of the limits of reason and science--they are not meant to be believed, not meant to be taken at face value--not even in the popular misrepresentation of Coleridge's "suspension of disbelief." No, they come wrapped in a body-stocking sized fig leaf of irony. Then what are they about?

If not myth. Our need for myth. And that in our age--as Georges Bataille told us--our only encompassing myth, is the absence of myth.

The other day I read the previously untranslated story, "The Daughter's of the Moon, from Italo Calvino's Cosmicomic series (New Yorker. Feb. 23, 2009), and there it was again. The conventional opening to these stories, the "scientific" preface... which reads here more like the introduction to a myth than anything else, and Calvino's 'Qfwfq,' his narrator for every story in this series... who a few paragraphs later morphs into a collective "we," responding to the same need as Buffy ?

With more, or less success?

Where this left me was wondering about how literature, art--serves these irrational, or meta-rational needs, without subverting reason and our objective mastery of the physical world. I don't think I can spell this out at this point, but I see something relevant to the recent literary disputes about establishment realism and ... whatever you want to call its several challengers. One of the more interesting... and for me, disturbing thoughts... had to do with the assumed reasons for the success of ELF--the primacy of the market and all that.

Maybe, I wondered... does Buffy give us here a hint of another factor? Does ELF reaffirm the "Demon haunted world"... by pretending rationality while subverting it, by satisfying a reader's irrational need for a coherent mythos of "reality," which is itself a denial of any notion of mindful, self-critical rational grasp of the Real?

I always thought Shakespeare would have liked Buffy... really--how different in kind (suspending other aesthetic criteria for the moment).. is The Tempest? A work that fully engages our brain's need for a richly configured mythos... yet never lets us believe that any of it is other than the creation of our own minds? Here is a rope I would hang Pynchon from... but not Delillo... who avoids a rationality that so eviscerates the capacity to engage and respond in a way that satisfies our brain's hunger for the lost "demon haunted world" that it would (as I think happens when I read Pynchon) elevates rational critical response to such a necessity (if you are to understand it at all ) that it become a repressive force, and by neccesity, aesthetically limiting.

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