Myth & The Symbolic Attitude (Or “The Trappings of Orthodoxy”)

I'm trapped!

The last blog began with and emphasized the importance of “play” when discussing myth. The entry ended by linking myth to mystery. The present blog continues what might be considered an introduction to myth by describing one or two things that myth is not. I have already suggested that myth is not a lie. However, paradoxically, this does not mean that it is not a fiction:

“In a poem titled ‘a High-toned Old Christian Woman,’ Wallace Stevens asserted that he, the poet, and she, the theologue, are about the same process, the making of fictions. But the poet remains metaphysically and psychologically free in his awareness of the fictive nature of all knowledge and the provisionality of all perspectives, while she remains trapped in her idolatrous literalism. Such fictions are necessary, coming from facere in Latin, meaning ‘to make,’ for all constructs are things made. To fall in love with our own constructs and believe that they contain the mystery is blasphemous, for such reification seeks to colonize the mystery on behalf of ego’s dominion.” (88)

This quote is taken from James Hollis’s The Archetypal Imagination. He continues:

“This modern sensibility is required since depth psychology has taught us that each statement about reality is an implicit Rorschach of our own mind. What Blake called ‘reorganized innocence’ is necessary to spare us from the sin of literalism, which is an unintended insult to the autonomy and complexity of mystery.” (89)

In other words, myth is a fictional construct and it is not meant to be taken literally (at which point it is no longer myth but dogma). [What depth psychology has to say about possible transcendent and immanent sources of myth no doubt will be discussed in future blogs along with some of their religious &/or metaphysical implications].

Here, Hollis speaks of myths, or necessary fictions, as those constructs that keep us free of the sin of literalism, give us room to breathe (or in the spirit of the last blog, room to play); at the same time they keep us connected on some level to the mystery represented in such capitalized words as Creation and Creator and such big questions as “Who am I?” “Where do I come from?” “Why am I here?” “Where am I going?” et cetera.

The “modern sensibility” of Hollis’s second quote, then, is not a literalistic one. What it is, from a depth psychological way of seeing things, is a symbolic approach or attitude.

Professor and psychotherapist Don Fredericksen draws much the same comparison in his discussion of semiotic versus symbolic approaches (in this case to filmic images). In a nutshell, semiotics argues that an image, or sign, represents one and only one thing, and that one thing is knowable. Thus semiotics, in this example, commits the sin of literalism:

“The limiting character of the semiotic attitude involves a clear hubris of – and often a fear by – the rational and the conscious mind toward the irrational and the unconscious mind. Throughout his life Jung warned against this hubris, without ever denying the absolute necessity of reason and consciousness in one’s striving for self-realization. For Jung, the point is not to identify with either the conscious or the unconscious mind, but to forge and keep a living tie between them. To this end a symbolic attitude is crucial, because symbols rising from the deep layers of the unconscious are precisely that tie made manifest.” (“Jung/Sign/Symbol/Film” 28).

It might be a good exercise to re-read the above quote while substituting the word “literalistic” for “semiotic.” The difference between semiotics and/or the literal on the one hand and the symbolic on the other will to a certain degree underscore most if not all of the blogs at Mythfire. Hopefully in time the difference will be made more apparent.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that embracing a literal approach is like confusing a menu with the meal. If you believe that the menu (say mythological or religious stories) is literally true, representing only historical events not interpretable in any other way, you miss out on both the rich symbolic meaning behind the images and myths as well as an authentic relationship with the ultimate mystery. Or as Campbell said, you confuse the menu with the meal and end up eating cardboard.

Put differently, if the trappings of any orthodox religion, i.e. rites, sacred scriptures, stories, images, figures, leaders, etc., are taken as reflecting or having the one and only “right opinion” (Gk orthodoxos) – then all other opinions or symbolic readings are out of the question. In Hollis’s words, we are, like Wallace Stevens’ theologue, “trapped in…idolatrous literalism.”

This way of literalistic (or fundamentalist) thinking and this type of idolatry, of course, need not be strictly limited to orthodox / organized religion. Nor, finally, are all examples of organized religion guilty of “the sin of literalism” to the same degree.


This entry was posted in Fundamentalism/Literalism, Imagination, Myth, Play, Symbols. Bookmark the permalink.

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