Myths, Imaginaries, and Closure

The archdruid has an excellent post today about how frequently he runs into people who seem to want the apocalypse to come (and we’re not talking about the rapture ready crowd): they seem to assume that whatever happens, whatever happens afterward will necessarily be better.

He dissects this shortsightedness very elegantly, in a way that resembles Castoriadis’ work on imaginary closures (claustration). Noting that these apocalypse-fans usually base their hopes and fears in their belief in science (n.b., the archdruid is no enemy of science, and has written a few very scientific articles which are increasingly widely read and cited by ‘real scientists’), and oppose their beliefs to those of ‘primitives’ who belief in ‘myth.’ One brief quote to wet your whistle:

Only from within the myth of progress – the belief that all human existence follows a single line of advance leading straight from the caves to today’s industrial societies, and beyond them to the stars – does it make sense to treat the belief systems of the past as inadequate attempts to do what we do better. The notion that other mythologies might have other purposes, and accomplish them better than ours does, is practically unthinkable these days. Yet many traditional belief systems have done a fine job of enabling the people who hold them to live their lives in harmony with their environment for millennia, while modern industrial cultures have proven hopelessly inept at this basic and necessary task.

Now of course there are plenty of people nowadays who use arguments such as this last to stand the myth of progress on its head, and insist that these traditional cultures are more advanced than ours. As I see it, though, the predicament we are facing demands something subtler. Rather than swapping one narrative for its mirror image, it may be time to step back and look at our mythic narratives as narratives, rather than imposing them by force on the world around us.

This backward step has a useful if uncomfortable effect: it reveals the awkward fact that the cultural narratives we use to make sense of the world today, however new they look, are generally rehashes of myths that have been around for a very long time. The anthropologist Misia Landau pointed out some years ago, for example, that contemporary scientific accounts of the rise of Homo sapiens from its prehuman ancestors are simply rehashed hero myths that follow Joseph Campbell’s famous typology of the hero’s journey, point for point. In the same way, those like Ray Kurzweil who argue that the perfect human society is to be found in a hypertechnological future, just as much as those who argue that the perfect human society is to be found in a return to the hunter-gatherer past, are simply projecting the myth of paradise onto one or another of the very few locations a secular worldview offers for it.

Another friend of mine put it more briefly in a recent meeting: “The end of the world’s been coming since I was a young man. Still waiting.”


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