Tim Pendry's Reviews > Myth: A Very Short Introduction

Myth by Robert A. Segal
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This is a disappointing introduction to mythology. It is a rather plodding book that might be termed 'wikipedia plus' - that is, it is a longer general survey with more authority than you might find online but suffering from it being only one person's perspective, albeit one of the most scholarly in the field.

Ultimately it is a mere enumeration of Western intellectual responses to myth, forced into a straitjacket of being reviewed through the prism of the various disciplines created by the West for the West. The whole is partially built around an extremely weak and irritating attempt to test each set of theories against the Adonis myth. It lacks the narrative coherence of, for example, Glyn Daniels' excellent short history of archaeology.

The book has one, surely unintended, effect. This is the realisation that many jobsworth if brilliant thinkers, over the last two hundred or so years, have taken the limited material of the past - incomplete and whose precise context has long since been lost - and woven elaborate theories that take on a life of their own that seem to tell us little that is reliable about the human condition then or now. The spirit of Casaubon is in this book.

Most of these theories, after all is said and done, tell us more about the minds of dead white males in one rather peculiar if dominant culture than they do about myth itself - or the past in which the myth flourished.

The best that might be said is that myth has informed great literature and that many of these thinkers created myths about myth that have given indirect insights and much entertainment. They have helped to make mythology (biblical, classical, courtly) a fundament for our modern imaginative world from Oedipus and Parsival up to and including the products of Hollywood and the games industry.

The book had one positive effect. Once you have swept away the grandiloquent contributions of the Frazers and Campbells (artistically fruitful if not necessarily true) and the potty almost obsessional castles built on sand of the Freudians, then some thinkers have used myth (really, the human desire for narrative explanation) to create useful models or clues to the way we live now - and to what is core to our social being and individual aspirations rather than what is perhaps transient or unknowable.

If I read on in this field, it will be to go beyond it. The following thinkers leap out of the pages as fruitful starting points ...

1. Mircea Eliade who saw how mythic construction was a phenomenon of our time, an insight that could only come from someone immersed in the radical Right of the 1930s. No po-faced Marxist could possibly have had enough self-knowledge to understand that his scientific materialism owed more to magic than reason.

2. Carl Gustav Jung who, at the least, exposed how mythic themes recur over and over again in the deep unconscious of human minds from very different cultures. Whether you accept or not his notion of the 'collective unconscious', something is going on in the wiring of the brains that makes us humans peculiarly different from all other human life forms and contributes to our peculiar creativity and our danger to each other.

3. Claude Levi-Strauss who looked at the structures of thought in myth in a more systematic and 'rational' way than Jung perhaps but came up with more evidence of deep structures, especially in regard to the natural categorisation we use to manage our perceptions and make use of the world. These too seem to be wired into the human mind though no thinker, Levi-Strauss included, appears to have created a viable grand theory of the wired mind that works for all persons in all conditions.

4. Bronislaw Malinowski who, observing myth in the modern anthropological field in 'primitive' societies, saw more clearly than most their social function and helped us to extrapolate his observations to our own world.

5. George Sorel, the radical revolutionary syndicalist, who saw myth as a practical force that binds people to action, possibly violent and sacrificial, in total contrast to the denial of many socialists, even today, that their approach to revolution and reform had mythic, even religious, elements. Sorel, not Marx, is every bourgois liberal's true nightmare.

6. D.W.Winnicott, the British child psychologist, who identified myth as a form of play that extends into adulthood and, we would add, (based on the other thinkers outlined above) into society. We humans desperately need to play to be whole. Myth gives us a tool, whether suppressed as 'literature' or acted out in fantasy.

These six thinkers, far too cursorily dealt with in the book, all have in common that they considered, or allowed us to consider, the relationship of myth to the workings of our minds and our own society.

Eliade and Sorel raise questions from a conservative and a revolutionary perspective respectively about the role of the irrational in politics, forms of play where people can get killed.

Jung and Levi-Strauss looked at myth in our minds either as intuitive response or as pre-rational analysis of our relationship with others and the world.

Malinowski and Winnicot, less generalist and more specialists in their professions, see myth as a medium for social cohesion and for individual coping through playfulness.

All these strands can be tied together by jettisoning attempts to claim to 'know' the past (though interesting work is being done under the 'new animist' banner in anthropology) and taking these various insights, perhaps alongside other philosophical and neuro-scientific trends, considering how it is that the human mind operates more successfully along non-rational than rational lines.

For too long, the repressed culture of the 'dead white males' and our contractual, trading liberalisms have privileged reason. For the Catholic system of the late middle ages, the philosopher of record was Aquinas whose system was beautiful but based on a flawed assumption. The same might be said of Marxism's dependence on Hegelian idealism. Liberalism is based similarly on Kant's synthesis of the Enlightenment model.

All of these systems and others either presuppose something governing outside of the human condition (the environmentalists are falling into this trap as we write with their Gaia claptrap) or that some reasoning process or other is a truth rather than a tool (a model still maintained by some within analytical philosophy in the dying days of Western scientism).

The clues to one stage of human development often lie in the thinking of the previous one. The seeds of a better understanding of the human condition, involving science as much as intuitive reasoning, are in place and only need synthesis.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Maya (last edited Dec 12, 2009 11:30AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Maya Thanks for the wonderful review, this book seems to be an introduction to the theory of myth rather then about myths themselves. I've just started to read it myself. May I recommend The Construction of Modern Myth if you are looking for a more in depth look at the theories and where they came from as well as where they are today. The book is a bit bulky and the author is a bit of a tough read but it is a good book if you are already well versed in the theories themselves and the names behind them which seems to be the case from your review.

message 2: by Tim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tim Pendry Thank you - your recommendation is much appreciated.

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