Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: myth (page 1 of 1)

Soyinka and the mythical method

I have an essay in the new issue of Harper’s called “Yesterday’s Men: The Death of the Mythical Method.” It traces the interest in myth and myth-making from Giambattista Vico to George Lucas, tries to explain why myth has ceased to be an appealing and useful category to our intelligentsia, and asks whether there might be a case for restoring it to a place in our conceptual toolbox. 

I do think such a case can be made, and while I do not in this essay make that case in any formal way, I conclude by pointing to the example of Wole Soyinka, who (I’ve been saying this for decades) just may be our greatest living writer. If you don’t know anything about Soyinka, here’s an introductory essay I wrote about him more than twenty years ago. 

I’d love to make a few converts to Soyinka. If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend two of the plays in the first volume of his Collected Plays: The Strong Breed and The Swamp Dwellers. Then move on to his greatest play, and one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, Death and the King’s Horseman

Soyinka has also written several volumes of memoirs, the best of which are the first two: Aké: The Years of Childhood and Ìsarà: A Voyage around “Essay” — “Essay” being the nickname of Soyinka’s father, S. A. Soyinka. The former is still in print and easy to find; the latter has been ignored, which is a great shame. They are wonderfully rich, evocative, and perceptive accounts of childhood, and a window into a certain class of Nigerian Christians around the time of the Second World War. (The passages in Aké about the widespread fear that Hitler would invade Nigeria are very funny. In fact, you will find yourself smiling often as you read these memoirs.) 

The next level of difficulty would be his more ambitious plays (A Dance of the Forests and — I discuss this one in my essay — his Yoruba/Christian/Greek version of Euripides’s Bacchae), and then his remarkable novel The Interpreters

Also, here are some photographs of the Soyinka family I put up for one of my classes and have yet to annotate. The third photo is of the formidable Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, whose women’s march for tax relief is the climactic scene of Aké — she was a pioneering Nigerian feminist and activist, Soyinka’s great-aunt, and the mother of the great Fela Kuti. Which means the one of the greatest African singer-songwriters and one of the greatest living writers are cousins. 

Finally, here are some photos I took in 1991 when I visited the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove in the heart of Yorubaland. 

the archetypal future

mythical method

Next month I have an essay coming out in Harper’s called “Yesterday’s Men: The Death of the Mythical Method.” In it I look at the rise — a rise that started a looong time ago — of myth as the central category of discourse among poets, novelists, and humanities scholars; and then I look at the rapid decline of that category and its replacement by others. (Spoiler: the replacement categories are, mainly, overtly political.) Then, near the end, I ask whether “the mythical method” — a line I borrow from T. S. Eliot — has any literary future. 

But along the way I also talk about the places where the language of myth and archetype still survives, and even thrives: in movies, for instance, and in many forms of what academics call “genre fiction.” A form of discourse, a vocabulary, a set of terms and images, might be passé in the academy without having lost its power elsewhere. (A fact that academics try not to notice.)  

And here’s another implication of my essay, one which I have only since writing it become aware of: If, as celebrants from Vico to Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell have said, myths and archetypes are deeply and pervasively embedded in all our cultural productions — and pause for a moment to reflect on the enormous significance of this — then, per necessitatem, they are also deeply embedded in our large language models. Which means, first, that GAI endeavors will be thoroughly shaped by those myths and archetypes; and second, that if human beings are able to create artificial general intelligence, if the Singularity really does happen, then it will be foundationally constituted by those very myths and archetypes

Had you thought of that possibility? I hadn’t … until I read Robin Sloan’s delightful soon-forthcoming novel Moonbound, whose own spectacular narrative is generated by the double thought that (a) human beings are creatures made of myths and (b) whatever succeeds us twelve thousand years from now — however strange to us, and whether biological or digital or both — will be made of the same myths.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it. I’m having a nice long toke even as I write. 

P.S. If you want to get a little deeper in the weeds re: AI and myths, read this characteristically smart post by Samuel Arbesman

on Wagner


As part of my ongoing project to understand myth and mythmaking in the modern era I have been sitting down to a full encounter with Wagner’s Ring cycle — which I’ve never before listened to completely and in sequence. I’m doing this by listening to the legendary Georg Solti Decca recording and following along with the excellent Penguin Classics bilingual edition of the libretto. I have some reservations about John Deathridge’s translation, but fortunately my German is (barely) good enough that I can make it through without only occasional consultations of the English version. (I’ve got the beautiful hardcover edition, which I think may have been printed only in the U.K.) 

I’m not finished yet but I have gotten far enough along to say with some confidence that Wagner’s celebrants who think him a nearly incomparable genius are absolutely correct, and Wagner’s detractors who think him unforgivably self-indulgent are also correct. And I’ve also come to some conclusions about why both of these things are true. (Probably many other people have come to the same conclusions, but I have read very little Wagner criticism, with one major exception noted below.) 

Again, I am not fluent in German but anyone with even minimal competence in the language can see how brilliant a poet Wagner is, and especially how skillfully he employs alliteration and assonance to create his effects — and with a remarkable economy of language. Nietzsche’s inclination to compare Wagner as poet only with Goethe is remarkable but not utterly extravagant.

But in a way Wagner’s greatness as a poet is a problem — or perhaps I should say that it became a problem when he made the fateful decision to write the entire libretto before composing a single note of music. Why was that decision so fateful? Because Wagner knew he was a great poet. He knew that he had written magnificent poetry and he didn’t want to sacrifice any of it once he got to the stage of musical composition

That isn’t that big of a problem in Das Rheingold, which in fact moves with remarkable fluidity and pace: it has almost none of the longeurs that the later dramas in the cycle suffer from. The difficulties kick in with the first act of Die Walküre. If you haven’t heard this work … well, imagine something like the Prologue to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, except instead of lasting six minutes it lasts more than an hour. More than an hour of pure exposition, in which characters — well, mainly one character, Siegmund, tells us his entire history. C. S. Lewis (famously) wrote that the final books of Paradise Lost, in which the archangel Michael tells Adam of the future of humanity, is an “untransmuted lump of futurity”; likewise, the first act of Die Walküre is an untransmuted lump of historicity, with only occasional orchestral coloration to enliven matters. 

Wagner trusts overmuch in the power of his own verse, or is simply overly attached to it — which is a reminder that often it’s good to divide the labor of the librettist and the poet. When Auden was writing his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, he did so hoping that his friend Benjamin Britten would set it to music. But when he gave to Britten the magnificent fugal chorus on Caesar he had written, Britten couldn’t help laughing. He told Auden that if he wanted an actual fugue to be written, and a figure that would set a single scene in an oratorio with many scenes, then he should have written three lines, not seventy. So Auden kept the poem as written and gave up on the idea of having it set to music. By contrast, Wagner never had anyone to remind him of the necessary constraints; so he ignored them. 

And there’s another problem as well. Recently I read Walter Murch’s famous meditation on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye, and was taken by his articulation of one of his chief rules: “You want to do only what is necessary to engage the imagination of the audience — suggestion is always more effective than exposition.” It’s interesting that Wagner understands this principle so well in his music, which often is rich and deep with suggestion, without understanding it at all in his writing. Exposition often dominates. I think his addiction to detailed exposition has something to do with his belief in himself as a sage and a mythographer. 

I may have more to say as I move through this extraordinary work of art — though maybe not, because the experience is tiring. Right now I feel about it much as Virginia Woolf felt about Joyce’s Ulysses, which she called “a memorable catastrophe — immense in daring, terrific in disaster.” But it fascinates me as a myth, especially as a humanist myth — a myth about the ending of the gods and what Bonhoeffer would later call the “coming of age” of humanity. I think that is why Roger Scruton — a man convinced of the absolute necessity of religion to humans but without any firm faith in Christianity — loves the Ring cycle so much. His book about it is magnificent, I think, but also somewhat depressing, because as a Christian I certainly don’t think that a humanist myth has the power to sustain us. But Wagner put an enormous charge into his effort to make it do so. 

Christmas gifts

In introducing the writings of George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis made a fascinating point which can only be quoted at length:

What [MacDonald] does best is fantasy — fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man. The critical problem with which we are confronted is whether this art — the art of myth-making — is a species of the literary art. The objection to so classifying it is that the Myth does not essentially exist in words at all. We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version — whose words — are we thinking when we say this?

For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of anyone’s words. No poet, as far as I know or can remember, has told this story supremely well. I am not thinking of any particular version of it. If the story is anywhere embodied in words, that is almost an accident. What really delights and nourishes me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish me if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all — say by a mime, or a film. And I find this to be true of all such stories. […] 

Most myths were made in prehistoric times, and, I suppose, not consciously made by individuals at all. But every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius — a Kafka or a Novalis — who can make such a story. MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know. But I do not know how to classify such genius. To call it literary genius seems unsatisfactory since it can coexist with great inferiority in the art of words… . Nor can it be fitted into any of the other arts. It begins to look as if there were an art, or a gift, which criticism has largely ignored.

Lewis is prompted to this reflection in part by the fact that MacDonald was not a very good stylist — his prose is often clunky or awkward. But the myths he made were to Lewis extraordinarily powerful. I think that Lewis is right not only about Macdonald but also in his more general point, and that the phenomenon deserves more reflection that it has received. 

I may come back to this intriguing idea some day, but I only mention it now because it gives me license to tell briefly, in my own words, one of MacDonald’s stories, “The Gifts of the Child Christ.”

The story centers on a six-year-old girl named Sophy — “or, as she called herself by a transposition of consonant sounds common with children, Phosy.” Phosy’s mother died giving birth to her and her father has recently remarried. He had been in various ways disappointed with his first wife and now he is well on his way to becoming disappointed with his second wife; and he neglects Phosy because she reminds him too much of the wife whom he had lost, and who had not made him happy.

Phosy’s stepmother is pregnant and that means that Phosy is ignored even more than usual; but she doesn’t seem to expect anything else. When at church with her parents she hears a preacher telling the congregation that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth,” Phosy wants the Lord to love her and therefore prays that he will chasten her, for this will prove His love. She is too young and too innocent to realize that her life is already a kind of chastening, though one she does not deserve. Phosy becomes obsessed as Christmas draws near with the idea that on that day Jesus will be born — Jesus is somehow born anew each year on Christmas day, she thinks, and she hopes that when he comes again this year he will bring her the gift she so earnestly desires. 

So she’s anxious as the day draws near, and her parents are also anxious, but for a different reason: her stepmother’s pregnancy is coming to term. On Christmas morning the stepmother gives birth to Phosy’s little brother, and in all of the stress and anxiety — and, as it turns out, tragedy — of the event, Phosy is completely forgotten. So she dresses herself and comes downstairs and wanders into a spare room of the house … and she sees lying there, alone and still, a beautiful baby boy. It is, she knows, the baby Jesus, come to give her the gift of Himself, and, she devoutly hopes, his chastening also. So she takes the little boy in her arms: he’s perfectly beautiful, but he is also, she realizes, very cold. And so she holds him close to herself to give him her warmth — and it is in this position that her father finds her. And for the first time Phosy weeps. She weeps because there was no one to care for the baby Jesus when he came, and so he died.

It is an extraordinary image that George MacDonald has conjured here, for this is of course a Pieta. It is Mary bearing the body of her dead son, conveyed to us through a small English girl bearing the body of her dead baby brother. Here superimposed on Christmas Day, that most innocently festive of days, is the immense tragedy of Good Friday.

But we do call it Good Friday, do we not? 

When Phosy’s father sees her holding her infant brother he sees something in Phosy that he has never noticed before: he discerns the depth and the intensity of her compassion. And he has already been altered in his attitude toward his wife by seeing her grief at the loss of her child. Throughout this story he has only thought of the women in his life as either meeting or failing to meet — though in fact always failing to meet — his expectations; but when he sees his wife and daughter so wounded, their tenderness of heart draws out his own, and a great work of healing begins in this damaged family, a family damaged above all by the absence of paternal love.

“Such were the gifts the Christ-child brought to one household that Christmas,” says MacDonald. “And the days of the mourning of that household were ended.” A knitting up of their raveled fabric begins, and the extraordinary thing is that the chief instrument of that mending is death: the death of Jesus as a man on a cross, or the death of Jesus as an infant in Victorian London, it is one Sacrifice. This is what Charles Williams pointed to when he wrote that the Christian way is “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.” 

In his beautiful book Unapologetic Francis Spufford has Jesus say, “Far more can be mended than you know.” And this is what “The Gifts of the Child Christ” tells us also. George MacDonald made for himself a personal motto — an anagram of his name, imperfectly spelled because in this world things that are mended still show the signs of their frayed or broken state. Mended but not yet perfected are the things and the people of this world, at their very best. MacDonald’s motto was:  

The richest of Christmas blessings to you all.  

Mann’s Joseph: 7

Last post in a series. Previous installments: 

Joseph, the next-to-youngest son of Jacob, rises in his father’s estimation and love, but then is cast down into a pit. He is lifted out of the pit, but then sold into slavery, taken to the underworld of Egypt. He is slave to a rich and powerful man named Potiphar (or, as Mann sometimes calls him, Peteprê), but then is falsely accused of sexual assault by Potiphar’s wife and cast into prison. But then, unexpectedly, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, later to become Aktenaten, calls Joseph to him: he is in great need of one who can rightly interpret dreams. (“Behold,” his brothers had said, years earlier, “this dreamer cometh.”) And so Joseph rises once more, to become the teacher of the Pharaoh, the vizier of all Egypt, and, eventually, the provider for his family, whom, despite the years of separation, he has never ceased to remember and to love. 

Thomas Mann in his home in Pacific Palisades

Thomas Mann wrote most of this fourth book, Joseph the Provider, in southern California, having done some planning and preliminary drafting while still in Princeton, where he had lived from 1938 to early 1941. In his house near the ocean, he lived the life of an exiled Prince of Literature — and in a matter befitting royalty, he gave audiences: for instance, he once served tea and conversation to “an embarrassed, fervid, literature-intoxicated child” — the 14-year-old Susan Sontag. And, thousands of miles from home, he wrote the story of a stranger in a strange land — a clever and victorious one. 

During the years of World War II, a large and disorderly community of refugees assembled itself in the Los Angeles area, primarily in Pacific Palisades — a kind of emigré civilization unto itself. There were novelists (Mann, his elder brother Heinrich, Franz Werfel, Aldous Huxley), composers (Arnold Schönberg and Igor Stravinsky), philosophers (Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno), film directors (Fritz Lang and Max Ophüls), dramatists (Bertolt Brecht and Lion Feuchtwanger). They were mostly friendly with and grateful for one another — though one had to be careful to make sure that Schönberg and Stravinsky were never in the same room — and some of them stayed for the rest of their lives in California, though others returned to Europe when they fell under the indiscriminately hateful eye of the House Un-American Activities Committee and its associated organs. (Several books have been written about this little world of exiles, but you may read a skillful brief overview by Alex Ross here.) 

For decades the brothers Mann had persisted in a slightly ridiculous practice: Every five years they booked a hall somewhere and invited an audience to come listen to each of them read a speech addressed to the other. These events combined sibling rivalry, mutual respect, and sheer pomposity — one German friend called them “ceremonial evaluations of each other” — but how could such an event possibly be staged in Pacific Palisades? 

Enter Salka Viertel, whose comical attempts to get Schönberg a job composing a Hollywood film score I wrote about here. As far as I can tell, almost every Jew and anti-Nazi who escaped Europe during the war years was told to head for Los Angeles and get in touch with Salka Viertel. She was (in addition to her paid work as a screenwriter) a hostess, a therapist, a travel agent, an employment service, an introducer — and the maker of flourless chocolate cakes so extraordinary that Thomas Mann once showed up at a wedding of a couple he did not even know because he heard that Salka was baking a cake for the reception.

Of course Salka hosted the soirée for the brothers Mann. 

Salka Viertel and her friend Greta Garbo

She invited forty-five people, somehow squeezed them into her small house (bringing a ping-pong table inside to make a second dining table helped), and got a friend to make the dinner while she presided as mistress of ceremonies. A few others showed up, purportedly to help serve, but in fact just to hang out in the kitchen and listen to the goings-on. As Donna Rifkind notes in her fine book on Salka Viertel, “Every person in the house that night was an émigré.” 

Writing decades later, Viertel primarily remembered the comical aspects of the evening. After Thomas gave “a magnificent tribute to the older brother, and acknowledgment of Heinrich’s prophetic political wisdom, his far-sighted warnings to their unhappy country, and a superb evaluation of his literary stature,” Viertel — not then knowing the brothers’ long practice — was surprised to see Heinrich stand up: “First, he thanked me for the evening then, turning to his brother, paid him high praise for his continuous fight against fascism. To that he added a meticulous literary analysis of Thomas Mann’s oeuvre in its relevance to the Third Reich.” (In fact, Heinrich toasted Viertel’s hospitality at the end of his speech, and a gracious toast it was too.)  

But more than this was said. Near the end of his speech, Thomas declared, 

Our Germans believe too strongly in crude success, in force, in war. They believe that all they had to do was create iron facts, before which humanity would surely bow down. It will not bow down before them, because it cannot. Be one’s thoughts of humanity ever so bitter and dubious — there is, with all the wretchedness, a divine spark in it, the spark of the intellect and the good. It cannot accept the final triumph of evil, of lies and force — it simply cannot live with it. The world, the one resulting from the victory of Hitler, would indeed be not only a world of universal slavery, but also a world of absolute cynicism, a world that flew in the face of every belief in the good, in the higher qualities within human beings, a world that belonged utterly to evil, a world submissive to evil. There is no such world; that would not be tolerated. The revolt of humanity against a Hitlerian world of the complete negation of what is best in human beings — this revolt is the most certain of certainties; it will be an elemental revolt, before which “iron facts” will splinter like tinder. 

And near the end of his speech, Heinrich said, 

We must preserve the hope of growing older than virulent hatred and sensation, which is the source of its own ghostly mischief. And, not to forget a wholesome measure of doubt: “When the world drags itself out of one mud hole, it falls into another; moral centuries follow centuries of barbarism. Barbarism is soon swept away; soon it comes again: a continual succession of day and night.” This was said in a century of morality — by Voltaire, and the age was moral only with him. 

It was an early May evening in Pacific Palisades, and the view from the end of the block disclosed the beach and, beyond, the sun setting over the Pacific. Flowers were everywhere in bloom. And, Saska Viertel tells us, as the brothers Mann spoke their words of defiance and hope, the refugees hiding in her tiny kitchen wept. 

That is the context in which the final volume of Mann’s tetralogy — what he called “this invention of God, this beautiful story” — was written. 


All this may help to explain something that otherwise might seem odd: the almost complete disappearance from the story of all the metaphysical and mythological games that I have been tracing through each of the posts in this series. What we get instead is something simpler: a story of lost years redeemed, of enemies (including the enemies inside each of us) thwarted, and of the power of reconciliation. 

One of the most extraordinary moments in the whole tetralogy comes when Joseph’s brothers beat him and throw him into a pit, and what’s extraordinary about it is Joseph’s reaction: For he realizes that they have only treated him this way because he had been very mean to them — belittling, arrogant, taunting. In the pit he begins to know himself. 

This is not to say that the brothers are faultless. They are in many respects a nasty collective piece of work. They are needlessly cruel to their enemies and only slightly less cruel to members of their family. They scheme and deceive. And even after Joseph has done everything for them, they can’t escape their suspicious natures, they can’t stop scheming, they can’t stop fearing that Joseph might not be so much better than them after all. You can read the story here

And here is the speech that Mann gives to his hero at the very end of the tetralogy, “this invention of God”: 

“But brothers, dear old brothers,” he replied, bowing to them with arms spread wide, “what are you saying! You speak exactly as if you feared me and wanted me to forgive you. Am I as God? In the land below, it is said, I am as Pharaoh, and though he is called god, he is but a dear, poor thing. But in asking for my forgiveness, you have not, it appears, really understood the whole story we are in. I do not scold you for that. One can very easily be in a story without understanding it. Perhaps it was meant to be that way, and I have only myself to blame for always understanding too well the game that was being played. Did you not hear it from our father’s lips as he gave me my blessing, that in my case it has always been merely a playful game and an echo? And in his departing words to you did he even mention the nasty thing that happened between you and me? No, he said nothing of it, for he was also part of the game, of God’s playful game. Under his protection I had to rouse you, by my brazen immaturity, to do evil, but God indeed turned it to good, so that I fed many people and matured a little myself besides. But if it is a question of pardon among us human beings, then I am the one who should beg it of you, for you had to play the evildoers so that everything might turn out this way. And now I am supposed to make use of Pharaoh’s power, merely because it is mine, to revenge myself on you for three days of chastisement in a well, and again turn to evil what God has turned to good? Don’t make me laugh! For a man who, contrary to all justice and reason, uses power simply because he has it — one can only laugh at him. If not today, then sometime in the future — and it is the future we shall hold to.” 

Mann’s Joseph: 6

Herodotus (II.42) informs his readers that “the name by which the Egyptians know Zeus is Amun.” Egyptian religion underwent constant change, and varied from place to place, but in general Amun is indeed, like Zeus, the King of the Gods, and already by Herodotus’s time had been fused with the sun-god Ra, who in turn was sometimes fused with another sun- or sky-god, Horus. All very complicated.

Though Horus is quite Apollo-like (or vice versa), some scholars refer to Horus as a sky god rather than a sun god because it is Aun-Ra who is linked more closely with the sun: his kingship over the gods comes increasingly to be associated with the dominance and power of the sun — and then, in the next phase — the one inaugurated by Akhenaten, the subject of a previous post — any such personifications seem unnecessary and indeed irrelevant. He builds temples open to the sky so the sun can be felt and worshipped simultaneously. Akhenaten’s religion is a literalizing movement, a rejection of all likenesses (metaphors, similes, personifications, all the apparatus of mythical storytelling). 

In Joseph and His Brothers, Joseph and his people are set in opposition to Egypt, which is simultaneously the land of sun-worshippers and — as we saw in the most recent post in this series — a kind of underworld. The children of Israel dwell in the highlands, and think of things other than the sun. After the Prelude, the first chapter-as-such of the story is called “Ishtar.” Why? Because the Akkadian goddess Ishtar (or Inanna) is identified with the planet Venus, and that is what Joseph, gazing on the evening sky, is contemplating.

(Interestingly, Ishtar/Inanna is said to have been taken to, and then to have escaped from, the underworld, in stories that are closely linked to those of Osiris, Orpheus, and, if Mann is allowed to have his way, Joseph. Echo after echo after echo.) 

Now, the Semitic version of Ishtar is Astarte, and under that name (or something close to it) she was worshipped by Canaanites, by Phoenicians, by Carthaginians, and, yes, by Egyptians. In the Hebrew Bible she is sometimes called Ashtoreth. Many centuries after Joseph, King Solomon would marry foreign women, with bad results:  

He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom [in other translations Molek or Moloch] the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. 

Again, that happens much later. Still, worth noting. 

As if things are not complicated enough, I have to add one more point: Mann repeatedly associates Abraham with the moon, calls him “the moon-wanderer,” sees his children as inheriting that from him. (In an especially incomprehensible passage [p. 104] he speaks of Jacob as a man of the full moon and Esau as “a man of the dark moon, and thus a man of the sun, a man of the underworld” — huh? Moon, sun, and underworld all at once?) When Joseph and Jacob have their first conversation, in the darkening evening, Mann comments that “the sun’s clarity is one thing and the moon’s another, for the latter had indeed ruled most marvelously over that more than useful discourse. Things look different by moonlight than by the bright of day, and its clarity may indeed have seemed the true clarity to those minds in that time and place” (93, at the outset of the chapter called “Moon Grammar”). So: those in the highlands are linked with the bodies of the night sky, in opposition to the sun-worshippers of that underworld called Egypt. 

How to make sense of this — well, of some of this? Perhaps by looking at a long passage from page 100: 

Yet not even in a dream could the people of El-Elyon attribute their interconnection to a unity and purity of blood. Something Babylonian-Sumerian — and so not exclusively Semitic — had passed through Arabian desert stock; further elements from Gerar, from the land of the Muzri, from Egypt itself, had been blended in, as in the person of the slave Hagar, who was found worthy of sharing the bed with the great head of the tribe himself and whose son, then, married an Egyptian; and it was so universally known that one hardly needed to waste words on how sorely vexed Rebekah must have been by Esau’s Hittite wives — daughters from a tribe that likewise did not call Shem its primal father, but that at some point came from somewhere in Asia Minor, pressing into Syria from the Ural-Altaic region. Many a branch was cast off early on. It is certain that the primal Abraham sired more children after the death of Sarai, and in particular — not being particular himself — with Keturah, a Canaanite woman, though he had not wanted his son Isaak to wed a Canaanite. Of Keturah’s sons, one was named Midian, whose descendants lived out their lives south of the Seir mountains of Edom — Esau’s region —  bordering on the Arabian desert, much like Ismael’s children this side of Egypt; for Yitzchak, the true son, had been the sole heir, while the children of concubines had been bought off with gifts and pushed off to the east, where they lost any feeling for El-Elyon — if they ever had clung to Him — and served their own gods. But it was divine matters, the inherited task of thinking about God, that formed the spiritual bond that, whatever its motley makeup in terms of blood, held this clan together, who among all the Hebrews — be it the sons of Moab, Ammon, or Edom — ascribed that name to themselves in a special and narrow sense, especially insofar as they had now begun, at the very period into which we have entered, to restrict it and link it with another name, that of Israel. 

Whew. The essential point here being that when Joseph is meditating on the night sky he is also meditating on the gods of the gentes — the gods of the Akkadians and Sumerians and Canaanites and Phoenicians. He is thinking from within his own complex ethnicity. Abraham may have “invented God,” but these various gods of the peoples north and east of the fields where the children of Israel wander are part of Joseph’s inheritance also. 

Mann is very interested in triangles and triangulation throughout this tetralogy — perhaps a subject for another post — and I think we can see here the beginnings of something that will be developed throughout this long tale: Joseph — the Thoth/Hermes of this story, the mediator and messenger — as triangulator. He stands at the center of a triangle: 


Everyone knows that navigation depends on triangulation; Mann wants to show us how that works in matters of thought and belief. For many years he had hoped to be his country’s Joseph, perhaps even the Joseph of Europe: the navigator, the interpreter, the guide. (The three sides of his triangle are, I think, Culture, Civilization, and Art.) He describes his self-chosen vocation (sometimes with sly indirectness) in his 1918 book Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, about which Chris Beha has written eloquently here. But circumstances denied him that role, a situation which he finally faced in late 1936, in a famous letter denouncing the Nazi regime, especially its antisemitism. 

Soon thereafter Mann made his way to the United States — first to Princeton and then to California — where he wrote the final volume of his tetralogy, Joseph the Provider. He was a nonpolitical man no longer, and perhaps it was easier for him to accept the end of his role as navigator and interpreter because he was able to write the conclusion to his great tale of the ultimate avatar of Thoth/Hermes, the first cross-cultural guide, the advocate for a civilization based on forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Mann’s Joseph: 5

One of the most fascinating, and to me surprising, elements of Joseph and His Brothers is the way Mann leans into the simplest of mythical themes: descent and ascent. Down and up.

He does this in part because the biblical narrative virtually demands it. Joseph’s family, as we have already noted, are herdsmen and people of the hills. The habitable portion of ancient Egypt, by contrast, is a long river valley. Therefore, one always goes down to Egypt. You hear this phrase over and over again in Genesis: 

Gen.26:2 “And the LORD appeared unto him, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of.” 

Gen.37:25 “And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.” 

Gen.39:1 “And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmaelites, which had brought him down thither.” 

Gen.46:3 “And he said, I am God, the God of thy father: fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation:

Num. 20:15 “Our fathers went down into Egypt, and we have dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians vexed us, and our fathers.” 

By contrast, one always goes up to Jerusalem: 

1 Kings 12:28 “Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” 

Luke 18:31 “Then he took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished.” 

But this is not simply a matter of topographical measurement. Though the literal elevation of Jerusalem is around 2500 feet, many places in Israel stand higher — yet even from them, to go to Jerusalem is to go up:

Isaiah 2:3 “And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” 

And if Jerusalem is spiritually the highest place, then Egypt is spiritually the lowest place, and this is not because of its elevation but because of its fascination with death and the underworld — its cult of Osiris. 

In the introduction his famous and almost unimaginably influential translation of what he called the Egyptian Book of the Dead, E. A. Wallis Budge writes of the mysterious “new-comers from the East” who altered the primitive burial practices of the native Egyptians: 

The indigenous peoples readily saw the advantage of brickbuilt tombs and of the other improvements which were introduced by the newcomers, and gradually adopted them, especially as they tended to the preservation of the natural body, and were beneficial for the welfare of the soul; but the changes introduced by the new-comers were of a radical character, and the adoption of them by the indigenous peoples of Egypt indicates a complete change in what may be described as the fundamentals of their belief. In fact they abandoned not only the custom of dismembering and burning the body, but the half savage views and beliefs which led them to do such things also, and little by little they put in their place the doctrine of the resurrection of man, which was in turn based upon the belief that the god-man and king Osiris had suffered death and mutilation, and had been embalmed, and that his sisters Isis and Nephthys had provided him with a series of amulets which protected him from all harm in the world beyond the grave, and had recited a series of magical formulae which gave him everlasting life; in other words, they embraced the most important of all the beliefs which are found in the Book of the Dead. The period of this change is, in the writer’s opinion, the period of the introduction into Egypt of many of the religious and funeral compositions which are now known by the name of “Book of the Dead.” 

So when Joseph — having been thrown down into a pit and then raised up out of the pit; his first descent and first rise — goes down into Egypt, he enters a world dominated by the Underworld, and by the god-king who rules it: one raised up as King of Egypt, then cast down into death, then raised up again as King of the Underworld.

The vertical oscillations of Osiris are then replicated by this stranger Joseph, who also rises and falls repeatedly: once he gets to Egypt, as a mere slave, he is raised up by Potiphar, and then cast down into prison, and then raised up by Akhenaten. The way up is the way down, and the way down may prove to be but a stage of one’s ascent. Osiris knows this, and Joseph learns it — it is what he knows that his herdsman father Jacob does not. 

In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, three movements are repeatedly described: going into the underworld, passing through it, and coming forth from it. Mann is obsessed by these movements, especially, though not only, as they are manifest in the life of Joseph. It is said that the god Thoth is the scribe of the underworld, though he does not remain there. He always passes through, as the messenger and mediator must. And one aspect or element of Joseph’s role as mediator is, through his influence on Akhenaten, to turn the minds of the Egyptians away from the underworld and towards the sun — even if this turn is merely one oscillation among many, even if, in the end, the sun itself cannot hold our attention forever. 

(Many centuries later, these lessons would be learned with great difficulty by a Galilean fisherman named Simon Peter. On the Mount of Transfiguration he declares: “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” But he cannot stay there. There are many more vertical oscillations to come, first for his Master, and then for him.) 

Mann’s Joseph: 4

Akhenaten Egypt Alexandria National Museum jpg

This is Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Akhenaten. In every surviving representation of him he is immediately recognizable; no one else looks like him. There is good reason to believe that he instructed his artists to portray him in a certain manner, a manner especially evident in full-length portrayals: 

Statue of Akhenaten Egyptian Museum al Qāhirah CG EGY 46992837435

He always bears the same features: a high-cheekboned face with slanting eyes and full lips; a narrow waist; a bit of a pot-belly; wide, feminine hips; full thighs and spindly calves. It’s hard to imagine why he asked to be portrayed in this way unless this is, to some degree anyway, what he actually looked like, but some scholars — for instance, Jacobs Van Dijk here — have noted that the artwork that survives from his reign portrays all people in a similar way, though no such mode of representation preceded this era. It is as though Akhenaten decreed himself the image of humanity. It can’t be accidental that he looks like a pregnant woman, like someone about to give birth to something. 

His wife, Nefertiti, gave birth to at least six daughters, but what he gave birth to was the most radical religious reformation ever undertaken: the elimination of the entire vast system of Egyptian worship and the replacement of every cult of every god with a single cult: that of the Aten, the disc (or globe) of the sun. The Egyptians already had a sun-god, of course, Ra, or Amun-Ra, who looked like this: 


Sometimes (after he was in some sense united with the sun-god Ra) he has a falcon’s head. But Aten looked like this: 


The refusal of human or animal imagery was very much the point, though I guess the Aten in a way has hands: like the Beatles, it has arms enough to hold you. 

Akhenaten of course doesn’t mean to suggest that this is what the only God actually looks like: it is merely a visual representation of universality. The idea that a god “looks like” anything, even metaphorically, is part of what he wants to overcome. The great Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie wrote of this new theology,

If this were a new religion, invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw in the correctness of this view of the energy of the solar system. How much Akhenaten understood, we cannot say, but he certainly bounded forward in his views and symbolism to a position which we cannot logically improve upon at the present day. Not a rag of superstition or of falsity can be found clinging to this new worship evolved out of the old Aton of Heliopolis, the sole Lord of the universe. 

On the other hand, a later Egyptologist, Sir Alan Gardiner, in his classic Egypt of the Pharaohs, has a terser description of Akhenaten: he calls him a “heretic.” 

The wonderful idea at the center of Joseph and His Brothers is this: Akhenaten is the Pharaoh who made Joseph his vizier. And thus the thematic tension between monotheism and polytheism is heightened — for, when these two men meet, who is more of a monotheist? 

Mann is of course neither the first nor the last to speculate on the possible relationship between Akhenaten’s monotheism and that of Israel. I am not sure, but I believe that the American archaeologist James Henry Breasted was the first scholar to note the relationship between Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to the Aten and (for instance) Psalm 104. Speculation has usually focused on the possible influence of Egypt on the Israelites, in part because the Israelites were a dependent and then an enslaved people, but also in part because the tradition of seeing Egypt as the source of religious ideas for the rest of the world goes all the way back to Herodotus (see the Histories, Book II ¶ 50ff). 

This is how Freud thought of the matter, in Moses and Monotheism, which presents us with Moses as an Egyptian adherent of Atenism. (It’s an incoherent book, alas — written as Freud was dying and little more than a confused riff on Breasted’s work.) This is also how C. S. Lewis thought of the matter. In his Reflections on the Psalms — written twenty years after Freud’s book, which Lewis may or may not have known — he wrote of Akhenaten’s revolution,

As we can see, it was a total failure. Akhenaten’s religion died with him. Nothing, apparently, came of it.

Unless of course, as is just possible, Judaism itself partly came of it. It is conceivable that ideas derived from Akhenaten’s system formed part of that Egyptian ‘Wisdom’ in which Moses was bred. There is nothing to disquiet us in such a possibility. Whatever was true in Akhenaten’s creed came to him, in some mode or other, as all truth comes to all men, from God. There is no reason why traditions descending from Akhenaten should not have been among the instruments which God used in making Himself known to Moses. But we have no evidence that this is what actually happened. Nor do we know how fit Akhenatenism would really have been to serve as an instrument for this purpose. 

Lewis’s thoughts on Akhenaten are interesting enough that I may have to return to them in another post. But for now I just want to note that his way of considering the relationship (which is also the archaeologists’ way) is not the only possibility. What if the flow of influence were reversed? What if one son of Israel, having risen to the position of Pharaoh’s vizier, had the eloquence and imagination to plant the monotheistic seed? — to plant it in fertile and ready ground, to be sure, but to plant it nonetheless. That is the possibility that Mann invites us to consider. 

And perhaps he reminds us also of another point, not a possibility but a reality. Akhenaten’s revolution failed utterly: his son Tutankhaten removed the Aten from his name and became Tutankhamun, affirming his loyalty to one of the gods his father had attempted to banish, Amun-Ra. Of course, ultimately all the gods of Egypt failed; but the children of Israel thrived, and despite countless setbacks, persecutions, and pogroms, despite living for centuries among people who have wanted and still want to destroy them altogether, still to this day worship the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

Mann’s Joseph: 3

This difference we have identified between Jacob and Joseph is essential to the story that will unfold, for whether Joseph is a better or worse theologian than his father, his habits of mind are essential to the calling he will assume, the vocation of saving his family.

Again in this opening chapter, Joseph reflects on his name and the important fact that it contains the word sepher (or sefer), which means book or scroll or document. “He loved composing with the stylus and was so skilled at it that he could have served as a junior scribe at some place where documents were collected” (68).

Later, after his brothers sell him into slavery and he finds himself in Egypt, working in the household of a rich and powerful man named Petephrê (Potiphar), he actually becomes a scribe, and Petephrê’s overseer, Mont-kaw, contemplates this boy:

And here Joseph stood before him, scroll in hand, and, for a slave, even a scribal slave, he spoke clever, rougishly subtle words — and that combination of ideas was unsettling. This young Bedouin and Asiatic did not have the head of an ibis on his shoulders, and was, needless to say, a human being, not a god, not Thoth of Khmunu. But he had intellectual connections with that god, and there was something ambiguous about him…. [651]

Again and again in the tetralogy Joseph is associated with the Egyptian god Thoth. Thoth was the god of writing, of communication; he was also a wise counselor and mediator, and a messenger. In a story Socrates tells in Plato’s Phaedrus, Thoth offers the gift of writing to one King Thamus, who rejects it. When the Greeks learned about Thoth they immediately recognized him as a version of Hermes, or rather — since they were often inclined to see themselves as inheritors of Egyptian wisdom — recognized Hermes as a version of Thoth. 

At several key points in the story Joseph encounters a nameless figure who is a guide — especially a guide to the Underworld that is Egypt — and a messenger. This is clearly Thoth/Hermes. Maybe I’ll write about him in a later post. But right now I am concerned with Joseph’s own Thothness: what he ultimately becomes is the go-between, the messenger, the mediator, who links his family — his radically monotheistic nomadic-shepherd family — with the great Egyptian empire, full of magnificent cities and temples and a near-infinity of gods. Only Joseph can mediate those two worlds.

For much of the book, I assumed that in telling Joseph’s story Mann was essentially writing a critique of monotheism, at least in its Israelite form; that he was teaching us that Joseph’s flexible and quasi-syncretic way is the better way. But eventually I was forced to reconsider that view.

Blake domesticated

The Vision of the Last Judgment

John Higgs’s William Blake vs the World is a real disappointment. Higgs writes vividly and is a fine storyteller, but like most people who write about Blake, he’s simply not willing to take Blake seriously. He wants to like Blake, and so he has to make him safe. The curators of the 2019 Blake Exhibition at the Tate Britain sought to diminish Blake to a merely political figure; Higgs wants to make him merely a proponent of “imagination.”

You can see the problems emerging in the first pages. Look, for instance, at these two sentences:

Blake himself recognised that the entities he saw weren’t ‘really there’ in the everyday sense. He knew that the people he was with did not see the things he saw.

Everything about this is confused. Of course Blake knew that others didn’t see what he saw — he talked about this all the time. Once he wrote to a friend, “What it will be Questioned When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” But Blake didn’t think that the “round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea” is really there and the “Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty” aren’t really there. Indeed he thought something close to the opposite.

Higgs over and over again contrasts Blake’s visions to the “objectively true.” Blake wouldn’t have used the word “objectively” — and in general no one should, because it’s an incoherent concept — but if he had, he would have said that his vision of the Heavenly Host is more objectively true, more real, than his friend’s perception of a round disk of fire. As he wrote in the Descriptive Catalogue for an exhibition of his works,

A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour, or a nothing: they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce.1I think this idea may underlie CSL’s conceit, in The Great Divorce, that the denizens of Hell are vaporous and translucent, while the Blessed are infinitely more substantial.

Higgs doesn’t recognize this at all; by the end of the book (p. 342) he has reduced Blake’s magnificent visions to an example of thinking with the right hemisphere of the brain. But Blake wasn’t a proponent of a properly balanced holistic psychology; he was a visionary and a prophet. All his life he saw a rich, complex, glorious but also terrifying spirit world that he believed to be infinitely more real than what the rest of us perceive with our five senses. And he believed this with an absolute and unshakable conviction. Any genuine encounter with Blake has to begin by grasping that point; but that’s precisely what almost no one who writes about him is willing to do.

the post-literate academy and this blog

The Post-Literate Academy – by Mary Harrington:

When it’s so difficult to imagine the academy as we know it surviving the demise of ‘deep literacy’, the prospect of a post-literate academy leaves me wondering: what will be the character of the ‘knowledge’ such an institution produces?

It’s too early to be sure, but my bet is that such ‘knowledge’ will be (indeed, already is) much more directly moral in character than the abstract, analytical, and (aspirationally at least) objectively factual ideal of ‘knowledge’ produced by the print-era university. I also think we can connect this to the profoundly religious flavour of the ‘no debate’ activism now commonplace on universities. In [an essay since paywalled], Eliza Mondegreen describes being on the receiving end of such ‘knowledge’ at a heavily protested at McGill University talk by human rights professer Robert Wintemute — a talk eventually shut down, seemingly with if not the support at least zero objection from university administrators. And it’s my contention that we should get used to it. [Here is a description of the event.] 

That is: I don’t wish to add to the usual chorus of tutting at student activist mobs here, as though these could be fixed with more ‘free speech’. On the contrary: it is my gloomy contention that the more post-literate academia becomes, the more such aggressive and intransigent mob morality will become not the exception but the norm. And there will be no fixing it, because ‘free speech’ was a print-era ideal, and that’s indisputably not where we are any more. 

I think this is right — it rhymes with my argument about the resurgence of what Kołakowski calls the “mythical core” of the social order. 

In some ways the trend Harrington describes here, however otherwise regrettable, is a corrective to a pinched, narrow, and wholly inadequate understanding of “rational” inquiry based on principles thought by such advocates to arise from the Enlightenment. (There were several Enlightenments, no one of which is wholly reconcilable with the others.) Consider this recent essay by Steven Pinker — or, for now, just one brief passage from it: 

Though each of us is blind to the flaws in our own thinking, we tend to be better at spotting the flaws in other people’s thinking, and that is a talent that institutions can put to use. An arena in which one person broaches a hypothesis and others can evaluate it makes us more rational collectively than any of us is individually. 

Examples of these rationality-promoting institutions include science, with its demands for empirical testing and peer review; democratic governance, with its checks and balances and freedom of speech and the press; journalism, with its demands for editing and fact-checking; and the judiciary, with its adversarial proceedings. 

This all sounds lovely, but the peer-review system is fundamentally broken; the only thing that any journalistic outlet does reliably well is to point to the ways that other journalistic outlets don’t edit or fact-check; many institutions of representative democracy (the U.S. Congress, the U.K. Parliament) have effectively abandoned their responsibilities; and the Federal judiciary is widely believed to be made up of politicians in robes.

Whether things are quite as bad as the linked stories indicate may be debated, but that the public doesn’t trust any of these institutions is unquestionable. That’s at least in part because the public knows the truth one of the great maxims of the Enlightenment (that movement that Pinker claims to be a spokesman for): “Of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” You don’t have to be a fully-paid-up member of the Critical Theory Brigade to suspect that appeals to disinterested rational inquiry are often thinly disguised schemes by certain people to retain institutional and cultural power. 

But then, so also are the campaigns of what I call Left Purity Culture. I don’t know how you would decide whether our institutions — and especially our academic institutions, which I’m especially concerned with in this post and elsewhere — are worse when they adopt (a) a simplistic model of rational truth-seeking or (b) a simplistic model of myth-driven advocacy for supposed social justice. I certainly can’t decide. But my task here, on this blog, seems to me the same either way. If you don’t know what that is, I’ve described it in the following posts: 

And these posts also explain why this blog’s motto is “More lighting of candles, less cursing the darkness”: While some self-appointed instruments of Justice are hard at work extinguishing the candles of culture and art, while self-appointed custodians of Reason are screaming their denunciations of the destroyers, it often seems to be that there aren’t enough people cupping their hands around the candles that remain to keep them lit. So that’s my job here. 

And it’s worth remembering another point. In two of those posts I quote a passage from one of Tom Stoppard’s plays commending a certain kind of trust: trust that those who come after us will pick up and carry further what we have left behind. Most of our institutions, and above all the great majority of our academic institutions, have rejected the very idea of cultural preservation and transmission. They are occupied and dominated by consumers and destroyers; and precisely the same is true of the shouting, slavering haters who call themselves conservatives. They conserve nothing; none of these people, putatively Left or putatively Right, preserve anything, nor do they build and repair.

But we have so, so many artists — writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, architects — who have left us a wonderful inheritance; and many who even today are adding to that inheritance. At the very least we have to be sure that that inheritance doesn’t stop with us. Perhaps our circumstances militate against greatness in art; but we can do our part to make greatness possible again when the times are less craven.  


Here’s a little offshoot of my work on Auden’s The Shield of Achilles.


This painting by Piero di Cosimo — see a larger version here — is called The Finding of Vulcan on the Island of Lemnos, but it wasn’t always called that. For a long time it was thought to represent the story of Hylas, the beautiful warrior and companion of Heracles who was abducted by nymphs. But, the great art historian Erwin Panofsky pointed out in his 1939 book Studies in Iconology, the image doesn’t really fit the story. Compare Piero’s painting with that of John William Waterhouse and you’ll see the difference: Waterhouse’s nymphs are clearly drawing Hylas into the water, in accordance with the myth, but Piero’s nymphs are doing something different: they’re helping a fallen youth get up from the ground. (Or, rather, one of them is: the others are looking on with curiosity, amusement, or concern, and talking about this odd stranger.) 

What’s going on here? To answer you have to go back to Homer: Iliad, Book I. There Hephaestus speaks to his mother Hera: 

You remember the last time I rushed to your defense? 
[Zeus] seized my foot, he hurled me off the tremendous threshold 
and all day long I dropped, I was dead weight and then, 
when the sun went down, down I plunged on Lemnos, 
little breath left in me. But the mortals there 
soon nursed a fallen immortal back to life. 

But “the mortals there” is not what Homer wrote; instead he wrote Σίντιες ἄνδρες, the “Sintian men.” The problem for later scholars is that nobody knows who the Sintian men were. Servius, a Latin grammarian and contemporary of Augustine of Hippo, wrote a learned commentary on Vergil in which he drew on that passage from Homer: Vulcano contigit, qui cum deformis esset et Iuno ei minime arrisisset, ab Iove est praecipitatus in insulam Lemnum. illic nutritus a Sintiis…. “Vulcan, because he was deformed and Juno did not smile on him, was hurled by Jove onto the island of Lemnos. There he was nurtured by the Sintii.”

This caused great confusion for scholars in the Renaissance for whom the word Sintii was meaningless. They therefore assumed, as learned philologists of that era were wont to assume, that some scribal error had occurred. Instead of nutritus a Sintiis Servius’s original text surely was nutritus absintiis, nurtured on wormwood. No, said others, it was nutritus ab simiis: He was nurtured by apes — and thus, we might say, a type of Tarzan. (Lord Greystoke, meet your ancestor Vulcan.) Boccaccio, in his enormously influential Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, accepted the Simian Hypothesis, and so evidence of it turns up in, for instance, an allegorical fresco, possibly by Cosmè Aura, in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara: 


See in the upper-left corner Vulcan’s forge, and, nearby, the apes pulling some kind of elaborate palanquin? 

But there was a third opinion — philologically the least convincing, surely, but artistically the most appealing: Servius’s text read nutritus ab nimphis — nurtured by nymphs. And that, Panofsky convincingly argued, is the reading Piero adopted. Those nymphs aren’t drawing Hylas into the water — there is no water — they’ve come running when they heard a big thump, or perhaps saw “Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,” and now they’re chattering away about this remarkable event as one of them helps the stunned but unharmed god to his feet. Poor little fellow. (He looks about two-thirds their size.) Some of the nymphs seem to find the whole thing funny, but in the end they’ll take good care of him. 

UPDATE: I’ve been corresponding with Adam Roberts about this and we’ve both been searching for the mysterious Sintians. The wonderful Sententiae Antiquae blog quotes from the Homeric scholia:

“[The Sintian men}: Philokhoros says that because they were Pelasgians they were called this because after they sailed to Brauron they kidnapped the women who were carrying baskets. For they call “harming” [to blaptein] sinesthai.

But Eratosthenes says that they have this name because they are wizards who discovered deadly drugs. Porphyry says that they were the first people to make weapons, the things which bring harm to men. Or, because they were the first to discover piracy.

This story of a god being raised by PIRATE WIZARDS sounds like the best idea for a fantasy novel I have ever heard.

myths and counter-myths

A while back I wrote a brief essay on the relevance of Emile Durkheim’s sociology to an understanding of our present social tensions. For the last year or two I’ve been reading a lot of sociology and anthropology from the first half of the 20th century, because, on the one hand, the social sciences had not at that time fallen under the sway of a compulsion to quantify: they were willing to think analytically about culture without needing calculations and charts. On the other hand, they also differentiated themselves from earlier humanistic thought in some interesting and useful ways.

One of the key such differentiations is the emphasis, in early sociology and anthropology, on the continuities of human experience. That is, though these thinkers were certainly highly aware of the dramatically different social practices that could be found in the cultures of the world, and researched those varying practices with great care and thoroughness, they nevertheless believed that there were certain permanent human impulses that make their way into every culture.

The most important conclusion to be drawn from that insight is that our belief in ourselves as modern persons, or rational persons, different from the primitives who preceded us and who still might persist in strange corners of the world, is an illusion. We are driven by the same needs as all others humans past and present.

I gestured at this point a few years ago in an essay I wrote called “Wokeness and Myth on Campus.” As I’ve said before, I don’t use the word “woke” any more, but I am still fascinated by Leszek Kołakowski’s idea that in every culture there is a technological core and a mythical core. As a culture develops it does not cease to engage with mythical experience, though the specific content of the myths may change and the ways we articulate our myths to ourselves may change. One of Kołakowski’s main points is that we have rarely understood the mythical core of our culture because we have a tendency to deny that we still experience the world mythically. The great value of these early sociologists and anthropologists is that they understood that we do indeed always experience the world mythically as well as rationally, and they try to unpack that.

So, back to Durkheim. In his early book The Division of Labor in Society, he makes a few points that are worth reflecting on. Let’s start with this: “The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own. It can be termed the collective or common consciousness” (63). This is one of Durkheim’s most famous ideas. He turns from this definition to a definition of crime or criminal action: “an act is criminal when it offends the strong, well defined states of the collective consciousness” (64). And he goes on to say on that same page that “we should not say that an act offends the common consciousness because it is criminal, but that it is criminal because it offends that consciousness. We do not condemn it because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we condemn it.… An act is socially evil because it is rejected by society.”

Now, all of this is related to the argument that Durkheim develops at length in a later book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, in which he says that religion is essentially a means of producing, sustaining, and extending social solidarity. And one of the primary social functions of crime (Durkheim always thinks functionally about these matters) is also to produce, sustain, and extend social solidarity. That is, one of the ways in which we define the collective consciousness is by pointing to acts that violate it, persons that transgress it. It is therefore necessary for social cohesion that we punish malefactors. That punishment is, as Durkheim says “an act of vengeance” (69), but the key purpose of such vengeance is a passionate confirmation of social solidarity.

It was this idea that Kai Erickson extended and confirmed in his book Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance. What Erickson wanted to show was that

the deviant act … creates a sense of mutuality among the people of a community by supplying a focus for group feeling. Like a war, a flood, or some other emergency, deviance makes people more alert to the interests they share in common and draws attention to those values which constitute the “collective conscience” of the community. Unless the rhythm of group life is punctuated by occasional moments of deviant behavior, presumably, social organization would be impossible. (4)

The whole purpose of Erickson’s book is to show in great detail how the Durkheimian understanding of deviance helps us to understand what happened in the Salem witch trials.

At the very end of his book, Erickson points out that in our thinking about crime and punishment Americans find themselves in positions similar to those of their ancestors:

Now, as then, we leave few return routes open to people who try to resume a normal social life after a period of time spent on the community’s boundaries, because most of us feel that anyone whose skids off into the more severe forms of aberrant expression is displaying a serious defect of character, a deep blemish which cannot easily be erased. We may learn to think of such people as “sick” rather than “reprobate,” but a single logic governs both of these labels, for they imply that nothing less than an important change of heart, a spiritual conversion or a clinical cure, can eliminate that inner seed which leads one to behave in a deviant fashion (204–05).

But are there “inner seeds” that cannot be extracted? I have often commented that our society today has many means of punishment but no means of restoration. And that has a lot to do with the essentialism with which so many people think about race and ethnicity, and even in some circumstances sex. There is a kind of taint to whiteness or maleness or cishetness that cannot be eradicated. So what possible avenue of restoration to the community might there be? None, I think. Instead, there can only be a perpetual enforcement of a perpetual shame — because that’s what confirms solidarity among those who want to be in solidarity with one another. Precisely the same thing happens in white separatist and nationalist environments; and indeed in several other subcultures that have an illusory sense of themselves as complete and whole. 

If we want to push back against such fragmentations of our social order, we need counter-myths. Even my project of Invitation and Repair probably requires me to articulate my ideas in ways that will be mythically compelling (in Kołakowski’s sense). Unfortunately, I don’t have those skills; but I know of some writers who do, and I’ll draw on them. 

news as religion

Matt Taibbi:

Surveys found a third of Republicans think the asymptomatic don’t transmit Covid-19, or that the disease kills fewer people than the flu or car crashes. But Democrats also test out atrociously, with 41% thinking Covid-19 patients end up hospitalized over half the time — the real number is 1%-5% — while also wildly overestimating dangers to children, the percentage of Covid deaths under the age of 65, the efficacy of masks, and other issues.

This is the result of narrative-driven coverage that focuses huge amounts of resources on the wrongness of the rival faith. Blue audiences love stories about the deathbed recantations of red-state Covid deniers, some of which are real, some more dubious. A typical Fox story, meanwhile, might involve a woman who passed out and crashed into a telephone pole while wearing a mask alone in her car. Tales of each other’s stupidity are the new national religion, and especially among erstwhile liberals, we take them more seriously than any religion has been taken in the smart set in a long, long time. 

I know I have been banging this drum for a long time — here, here, and in greatest detail here — but I think it’s better to consider these systems of beliefs as myths, as emerging from what Kołakowski calls “the mythical core of culture,” rather than religion. 

UPDATE: This from Sally Satel is relevant: 

An ambitious new study … by the Emory University researcher Thomas H. Costello and five colleagues … proposes a rigorous new measure of antidemocratic attitudes on the left. And, by drawing on a survey of 7,258 adults, Costello’s team firmly establishes that such attitudes exist on both sides of the American electorate. (One co-author on the paper, I should note, was Costello’s adviser, the late Scott Lilienfeld — with whom I wrote a 2013 book and numerous articles.) Intriguingly, the researchers found some common traits between left-wing and right-wing authoritarians, including a “preference for social uniformity, prejudice towards different others, willingness to wield group authority to coerce behavior, cognitive rigidity, aggression and punitiveness towards perceived enemies, outsized concern for hierarchy, and moral absolutism.” 

But before conservatives start up the “the left is worse” chorus, note this: 

I asked Costello whether left-wing and right-wing authoritarians exist in equal proportions. “It is hard to know the ratio,” he said, making clear that a subject’s receptivity to authoritarianism falls on a continuum, like other personality characteristics or even height, so using hard-and-fast categories (authoritarian versus nonauthoritarian) can be tricky. “Still, some preliminary work shows the ratio is about the same if you average across the globe,” he said. In the U.S., though, Costello hypothesizes that right-wing authoritarians outnumber left-wing ones by roughly three to one. Other researchers have concluded that the number of strident conservatives in the U.S. far exceeds the number of strident progressives and that American conservatives express more authoritarian attitudes than their counterparts in Britain, Australia, or Canada.

critique and myth

In a famous footnote to the Preface of his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant wrote,

Our age is the genuine age of criticism, to which everything must submit. Religion through its holiness and legislation through its majesty commonly seek to exempt themselves from it. But in this way they excite a just suspicion against themselves, and cannot lay claim to that unfeigned respect that reason grants only to that which has been able to withstand its free and public examination.

Kant’s purpose here is to announce the sovereignty of critique, its power as a universal solvent of all claims to legitimacy and truth, and indeed the Western intellectual world for the next two centuries largely endorsed that sovereignty and paid due fealty to it.

What rational critique does above all is the dispelling of myths, and what we are seeing in America right now, as I have suggested in this essay, is a powerful restoration or recrudescence — depending on how you assess it — of mythical thinking. This is occurring chiefly among (a) the white-populist Right and (b) the black-liberationist Left, along with its various encouragers and supporters in the media and the universities.

This “return of the repressed” leads to a question, or set of questions, concerning cause and another concerning consequence:

  1. Is the return of mythical thinking a result of the failure of critique or rather its success? That is, are those now taking their bearings from coherent and compelling myths about the order of the world people who have never been exposed to, never been initiated into, the power of critique? Or are they people, or the pupils of people, who have followed critique into the moral and emotional deserts it inevitably produces and then turned away, looking for oases? Another way to put the question: Does critique when successful create the conditions for its repudiation?
  2. Is the current return to myth an evanescent or a lasting phenomenon? Are we looking at a widespread repudiation of the liberal order — of which critique, and socio-political practices related to it, like proceduralism, are essential parts — or is this moment just a temporary flare-up of impatience and frustration sparked by people who spend far too much time online? A moral panic that has come but will soon go? Perhaps the social and political structures built by liberalism are strong enough to resist the current upheavals and, over the long term, retain their power.

UPDATE: A while back I wrote, “If you really want to come to grips with what’s happening on many college campuses today, and in social media countless times every day, put down thy Girard; take up thy Kołakowski.” So I took my own advice and re-read his great essay “The Idolatry of Politics,” originally delivered as the NEH’s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in 1986. It was later published in The New Republic, but I think that once-vital journal has deposited its entire history in the Memory Hole; fortunately I was able to find Kołakowski’s original typescript at the NEH website. Who says government is good for nothing?

The whole essay, which if you read actual codex books you can find in Modernity on Endless Trial, is brilliant and full of fascinating thoughts that I may well return to — it was Kołakowski who originally got me thinking about the diverse and subtle powers of myth to shape political life — but for now I want to call attention to one passage near the end of the essay. Again, remember that this was written in 1986:

In political decisions and attitudes people can appeal to the divine law, to the natural law and the theory of social contract, or to the feeling of historical continuity of which they are agents even if they revolt against it. It appears that we are about to lose all those three reference points; thus we either reduce politics to the technical rules of success or try to dissolve our existence in a mindless and fanatical devotion of one kind or another, or else we are escaping from life into drugs and other self-stunning devices. I believe that we can be cured but not painlessly.

These sentences have been proven true, in the following ways:

  1. Our culture has indeed lost the three “reference points” for thinking and acting politically, largely because of the complete abdication of social responsibility by our educational system.
  2. Some experiencing this loss have indeed taken refuge in finding “technical rules of success,” in flourishing-by-bureaucratic-regulation. The neoliberal core of the Democratic Party, and the elite universities that provide that core its ideas, take this view of the world.
  3. Others — the populist right and liberationist left I mention above — have found their compensations in “a mindless and fanatical devotion of one kind or another.”
  4. Still others, and maybe the largest number, “are escaping from life into drugs and other self-stunning devices,” the most effective of those devices being social media, television, and video games.

How can politics be done under these circumstances?

UPDATE 2: In response to a friend who asked, “Does the return of mythical thinking signify a natural recognition that something sacred must inform shared life? And can the proceduralism you long to sustain adequately honor a communal recognition of what is truly sacred?” I replied:

My answers are Yes and Definitely Not! But I would add that proceduralism is a means of reckoning with a plurality you can’t erase, not a means of honoring the sacred. Indeed, the idea that the political realm is supposed to be both the school and the panoptic enforcer of absolute values is the belief that binds Sohrab Amari and Ibram X. Kendi. They only differ on the details. 😉

I prefer a political order that is as ignorant of the sacred as it possibly can be. John Adams thought that only a virtuous people could thrive under our Constitution, but he did not think it the job of the government so constituted to make them virtuous.

And I agree 100% that critique is not what it claims to be. As MacIntyre says, it is the tradition that denounces tradition; as Gadamer says, it is constituted by a prejudice against prejudice. Its claims to be above all traditions and all prejudices constitute a self-glamorizing fiction. But my post isn’t about the fundamental character of critique, it only concerns the relationship between the reign of critique and the re-emergence of mythic thought. That said, I could have made it more clear in the post that I do not take critique at its own self-valuation, or even self-description; but many have, and their credulity has been immensely consequential for our social order.


Here’s a brief summary by Charles Taylor of a contrast that’s vital to his thinking: porous vs. buffered selves. The porous self is open to a wide range of forces, from the divine to the demonic; the buffered self is protected from those forces, understands them as definitively outside of it. The attraction of the porous self is that it offers a rich, multidimensional cosmos that’s full of life and saturated in meaning; but that cosmos also feels dangerous. One’s very being can become a site of contestation among powerful animate forces. The buffered self provides bulwarks against all that: it denies the existence of those forces or demotes them to delusions that can be eradicated through therapy or medication. But the world of the buffered self can feel lonely, empty, flat. “Is that all there is?”

The positive valence of porosity is fullness; its negative valence is terror.

The positive valence of bufferdness is protection; its negative valence is emptiness.

Taylor’s thesis is that over the past five hundred years Western culture has moved from a general condition of porosity to a general condition of bufferedness. That claim can be, and has been, contested: see this post on my old Text Patterns blog for an example. But I think he’s probably basically right. Taylor doesn’t see this movement occurring in a straight line; he discerns again and again dillusionment with the disenchanted world of the Modern Modern Order generating alternatives, from nature-worship to spiritualism; but he does see a general trend towards accepting a disenchanted world.

Even if that’s true, I am interested in the ways that individuals and cultures oscillate between the porous and the buffered condition. As terror grows, we seek protection; but as emptiness grows, we seek fullness. And I am, further, interested in the ways that people seek an escape from this oscillation, some structure of experience that claims to provide fullness without terror, protection without emptiness. That’s why, having in the past taught a course called The History of Disenchantment, I’m now teaching one called Beyond Disenchantment.

The story I’ve just sketched out is, I believe, proper context in which to read, as we just have, Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. The one thing needful for the person encountering Kurzweil’s book is to realize that, for all his technological talk, it’s not a narrative that arises from the “technological core” of society but rather from the “mythical core” — indeed, it is itself a myth, the myth by which Kurzweil himself hopes to live. Kurzweil’s myth promises the security, stability, safety of a self that’s uploaded to the cloud and multiply backed up, and the fullness that comes from the ability always to fulfill not only our sexual desires but our spiritual ones, located in the God module. No terror, no emptiness — so says the myth.

If you grasp this, you will understand why Meghan O’Gieblyn responded to the book the way she did:

I first read Kurzweil’s 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, in 2006, a few years after I dropped out of Bible school and stopped believing in God. […]

At Bible school, I had studied a branch of dispensational theology that divided all of history into successive stages by which God revealed his truth: the Dispensation of Innocence, the Dispensation of Conscience, the Dispensation of Government … We were told we were living in the Dispensation of Grace, the penultimate era, which precedes that glorious culmination, the Millennial Kingdom, when the clouds part and Christ returns and life is altered beyond comprehension. But I no longer believed in this future. More than the death of God, I was mourning the dissolution of this teleological narrative, which envisioned all of history as an arc bending assuredly toward a moment of final redemption. It was a loss that had fractured even my subjective experience of time. My hours had become non-hours. Days seemed to unravel and circle back on themselves. […]

It’s difficult to account for the totemic power I ascribed to the book. Its cover was made from some kind of metallic material that shimmered with unexpected colors when it caught the light. I carried it with me everywhere, tucked in the recesses of my backpack, though I was paranoid about being seen with it in public. It seemed to me a work of alchemy or a secret gospel. It’s strange, in retrospect, that I was not more skeptical of these promises. I’d grown up in the kind of millenarian sect of Christianity where pastors were always throwing out new dates for the Rapture. But Kurzweil’s prophecies seemed different because they were bolstered by science.

O’Gieblyn was “not more skeptical” of Kurzweil’s promises for one overriding reason: because they provided a mythological framework to replace the mythological framework that she had recently lost.

At the time, I would have insisted that my rituals of self-abuse — drinking, pills, the impulse to put my body in danger in ways I now know were deliberate — were merely efforts to escape; that I was contending, however clumsily, with the overwhelming despair at the absence of God. But at least one piece of that despair came from the knowledge that my body was no longer a sacred vessel; that it was not a temple of the holy spirit, formed in the image of God and intended to carry me into eternity; that my body was matter, and any harm I did to it was only aiding the unstoppable process of entropy for which it was destined. To confront this reality after believing otherwise is to experience perhaps the deepest sense of loss we are capable of as humans.

And “what makes the transhumanist movement so seductive,” especially to someone who has undergone that profound loss, “is that it promises to restore, through science, the transcendent hopes that science itself obliterated.” It is a myth against myth. When Kurzweil tells you that nanobots — he loves to talk about the infinite powers of nanobots — will do nondestructive scans of your brain and upload your identity to the cloud forever, such utterances are functionally identical to “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” And about as empirically justified.

So now on to a myth that is essentially the opposite of Kurzweil’s: The Dark Mountain Manifesto.

defilement and expulsion

A couple of years ago I wrote this:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

I’d like to pair that brief reflection with an essay I published around the same time, in which I made this claim: “For those who have been formed largely by the mythical core of human culture, disagreement and alternative points of view may well appear to them not as matters for rational adjudication but as defilement from which they must be cleansed.”

It is this sense of defilement that makes people want to cast out wrongdoers, to expel the contagion they carry. It seems increasingly common on the right to cast all this in Girardian terms — my friend Rod Dreher does this a lot — but that wouldn’t be quite right even if Girardian terms were valid, which they are not. (The nearly absolute uselessness of Girard’s thought is patiently and thoroughly demonstrated by Joshua Landy in this essay.) The scapegoat is by definition innocent; the malefactors our punitive society casts out are not, but their crimes are so small in comparison to their punishment that they seem like scapegoats.

But if we understand how the experience of defilement functions we will also understand its punishment. The University of Virginia has an honor code which punishes violators with the “single sanction” of expulsion: one either has honor or one does not. Similarly, the woke social order has a single sanction: either your presence does not defile me or it does, and in the latter case the response is and must be expulsion. This is what Phillip Adamo of Augsburg University learned when he used the n-word in class — or rather, quoted James Baldwin doing so. This he was removed from the class he was teaching and then suspended from all teaching, “pending the outcome of a formal review.” The separation of the source of defilement from the community must always be the first step, when one’s responses arise from what Kolakowski calls mythical core.

If you really want to come to grips with what’s happening on many college campuses today, and in social media countless times every day, put down thy Girard; take up thy Kolakowski.

“religious myths recycled as ersatz social science”

John Gray:

With the referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion, tolerance and personal freedom have advanced in Ireland – a latecomer to the liberal West. But there is no reason for thinking this a chapter in a universal story in which humanity is slowly being converted to these values. Theories that posit a long-term historical movement towards a liberal future are religious myths recycled as ersatz social science.

Despite everything, liberals cannot help thinking of history as a story of redemption. That is why they cannot help seeing Putin and Xi Jinping, Orbán and Salvini as reverting to the past. A future that contains hyper-modern tsars, technocratic emperors and intelligent demagogues is unthinkable. So facts are ignored or denied, and truth sacrificed for the sake of securing a consoling meaning in events. While post-truth populism has become one of the clichés of the age, a more defining feature of our time is the rise of post-truth liberalism.

It would be foolish to expect liberals to admit that their faith has been falsified. They would have to accept that they do not understand the present—an impossible demand, when they have seen themselves for so long as the intellectual vanguard of humankind. Whether secular or religious, myths are not refuted. Instead they fade and vanish from the scene, together with the people who embody them.  Gray’s point here converges nicely with my essay “Wokeness and Myth on Campus.”