Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Human Need for Myth, Part 2

I never expected to be writing a sequel to my previous blog post (and it started out as a simple postscript!), but I guess it’s not surprising, since Karen Armstrong’s book stimulated a lot of thought. And it concerns a subject where my own thoughts are still developing, because I’m comfortable neither with religion (even Buddhism, or at least not quite), or with atheistic views which pose science as something which has made all myth obsolete. As a result, my views tend to shift about a bit. In my initial flush of enthusiasm for ‘A Short History of Myth’, I was apt to half-consciously put aside one of my irritations, which was Armstrong's apparent tendency to be prejudiced against science as the opposite of myth – a prejudice for mythos over logos. I think I did this because, with my own prejudice for science over religion, I was afraid I might not be responding objectively.

Towards the end of writing my piece, I began to be aware that Armstrong had missed something, in her passionate pleas for new myths to help enrich and protect the world we now live in. As I suggested in my paragraphs about the cosmos, the discoveries of science might not be incompatible with myth, and novels may not be the sole reduced form of mythos in our globalised society. Richard Dawkins, who in my least-favourite book of his (‘The God Delusion’), applies his tendency to literal-mindedness least appropriately, still makes some very good points; and one is that the real universe revealed by science is infinitely more wondrous and unimaginable than that depicted in any creation myth (though I have a deep fondness for Tolkien’s myth, in which the universe is ‘sung’ into existence by… what? … whom?). This may well be because myths are about us – they concern human problems, fears, needs and aspirations. And, in comparison with scientific revelations, religions (especially in their own literal-minded forms) are noticeable for their parochialism. Their concerns seem so small, so limited, so lacking in a sense of deep wonder. My suggestion is that scientific discovery has made this apparent, and that religions tend to be out-of-date myths. They simply don’t fit the scale, whether imagined literally or mythically, and this may be why for many people they’ve degenerated into childish literal beliefs or (at worst) fundamentalism. Our new myths, I think, need to be compatible with the true infinite that science describes so literally, but whose richness is capable of being applied to very human myths.

Our world is so often described as globalised, yet it feels so tragically fragmented – a almost-planetary culture hardly holding itself together, tiny parts of it fighting other tiny parts, a vicious empire trying to divide and conquer, nobody sure of what’s true anymore, and with many of those who think they are sure being the most frightening. ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…’ A big reason for this may be the absence of a unifying mythology to bring people together and express our problems, fears, needs and aspirations… It’s not difficult to see why Armstrong feels that without mythology, ‘we will not save our planet’.

And yet, the universe that Carl Sagan evoked so vividly that it almost had the resonance of myth, may contain the elements of a unifying mythology. I say mythology and not religion, which tends to solidify and become dogma, and probably is incompatible with science! Religion tends to stagnate or fragment into opposing (often minutely different) dogmas; but myths can constantly develop and evolve, just as folk tales do; and science, (if pursued diligently) modifies and develops its understanding constantly. ‘We are made of star stuff’ – what could be the germ of a more wonderful and unifying myth than that! Myths which emphasise both our unity and diversity (the Vulcan people in ‘Star Trek’ have a wonderful saying, ‘infinite diversity in infinite combinations’) might be just the kind to help to lift the human species out of its fragmented despair, its sleepwalking into destruction. The advantage of such myths would be that, far from being antithetical to the real universe which Copernicus and Kepler and Bruno and Galileo first began to reveal, they would actually be informed by the realities that we are all a part of – from the unimaginably vast cosmos to the incomprehensibly small universe of DNA, which really does unify everything on this planet, really is infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

Armstrong, I think, misses a trick – or rather, she misses the hope of a brighter future for mythos and for our planet. I think we can see glimpses of it in the explosion of new-age beliefs (such as the ones that permeate Facebook), which express the human sense of wonder and need for unity, but remain based on only fragmentary and flawed understandings of science. Another is the subtle change in human consciousness that was triggered by the Apollo lunar missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For the first time in the whole history of our planet, life forms from this planet left the cradle and stood on the surface of another world. When I think about this, it doesn’t really matter to me that the necessary money and technology was only ploughed into the ‘space race’ because of political rivalries and military tensions (which is why, once America had ‘won’ and proved its ‘superiority’, the money and political support stopped coming and the dreams of so many of us went back to being dreams again). It remains in some ways the most tremendous achievement of the human species, and is so full of mythic resonance that I get chills just thinking about it.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, the astronauts of Apollo 8 (how appropriate that the programme was named after a great mythical god!) orbited the Moon for the first time, and both photographed and filmed our own world rising above the lunar surface. It was broadcast live internationally, while astronaut Frank Borman read the opening lines of Genesis. Near four years later, the Apollo 17 crew photographed the whole earth as they returned from the moon. This photograph (reproduced above) has become one of the most famous and iconic ever. The image is dominated by the landmasses of Africa, Madagascar and Antarctica, surrounded by deep blue ocean and swirling white cloud. Around it is the deep, impenetrable, utter darkness of space. The photograph has almost become an iconic image for the environmental movement, and it’s not hard to see why.

By the end of the 1970s, two small automated spacecraft were visiting the biggest and most mysterious planets in our solar system, beginning with Jupiter and Saturn. By 1990, having fulfilled its task perfectly, Voyager 1 was high above the plane of the solar system, and about six billion kilometres from Earth. It was the furthest anything from our planet had ever travelled (and it will continue travelling, in theory, for ever, there not being much for it to collide with). At the request of Carl Sagan, NASA commanded the spacecraft to take an image of the sun and various planets in the solar system from this vast distance. In a small part of this photograph is the Earth, and thanks to its use as the theme of a book by Sagan, it's become known as the Pale Blue Dot.

The image is dominated by a scattered light ray caused by the close apparent distance of the sun to the earth from such a huge distance. In the centre of this ray is the Earth, so small that it takes up less than one pixel in the entire image of which this is a part. In his book ‘Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space’ (1997), Sagan commented on the meaning that this photograph had for him:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Here is the seed of a myth – probably very many myths. And although the apparent insignificance of our home as revealed by Voyager 1 in this image may frighten or disturb some people, it reveals truths which, at this moment in human history, have never been more urgent for us to realise. The futility of our fighting, the parochialism of so many of our concerns, the fragility of life (and probably the rareness of life), our apparent aloneness, and our responsibility to be the wise stewards of what is so far the only life we know in all this emptiness… If we were to heed these truths, and simultaneously awake to the wonders that exist on our planet and beyond, then we may not even need mythology (certainly not religion as we know it now) to help bring humanity together and help us live noble lives. It may be that the push forward into space that began half a century ago (and now appears to have stagnated) could lead us to a point where humans have outgrown the need for mythology – in at least some of its forms. Personally, I’m not so sure. For one thing, humans love to tell stories, and if as a species we ever wake up to the realities that Sagan reflected upon, then I’d expect those realities to inform many of our stories. But I do think that scientific discovery, far from being cold and clinical and concerned only with creating high technologies, provides a hopeful vision for the Earth’s future, if we can listen to it in the right way. And there’s so reason why mythologies far grander and more truthful – perhaps also more fragile and human - than anything of the kind we’ve imagined so far, might not be a part of that.

To help save us all, we probably do – as Armstrong says – need mythos and logos. This means that we need an ability to think mythically (therefore a deeper understanding of myth and its importance in human history), as well as a deeper and wider education about science. Sagan was always calling for the latter when he was alive, and Dawkins does the same now. But as the previous century showed, we need to be careful what kinds of myths we create.

As Karen Armstrong says, so many destructive myths took hold during the twentieth century, and they haven’t gone away now. It was a century of unparalleled technological and scientific development; yet it left the human need for myth in despair, and that need turned to myths of separateness rather than the celebration of unity in diversity that we could have had. A richer education would reveal to far more of us that myth is different from religious dogma, and that science is not limited to technology (which is actually more of a by-product of science). With these levels of understanding, new, far wider, more wonderful and more truthful myths might grow. And the human species might really have something to aspire to.

At the present point in human history, this doesn’t seem to me very likely. But there are seeds of hope. The question is whether or not they can grow and flourish in this climate.

No comments:

Post a Comment