“Literature is the attempt to interpret in an ingenious way the myths we no longer understand… since we no longer know how to dream them”.
Deleuze wrote this in his book Desert Islands. I’ll repeat it many times in my life. It means something to me. I don’t know what to make of it, but it resonates.
I don’t know that we have a mythology. Maybe mythology is hidden behind the facades of billboard posters along the road, hung above strip malls and tobacco shops where statues of gods once stood. Maybe our myths are in nightclubs on Sunset Boulevard. Maybe they’re in our nations. Maybe they don’t exist?
Mythology is a worldview. A shared understanding from which our position in the universe has some sense. A worldview that has gives us common ‘meaning’ from which we make sense of the world together.
Between words, between the stories we tell lie assumptions about who we are. When we hear a story on the news we are supposed to feel certain way, share sentiments and with these views share in meaning.
These worldviews are implicitly like myths. But, they are not myths of the kind the world once knew. They are not explicit. They’re hidden ties that bind us to a world we can navigate. But they aren’t stories, there is no narrative. Nor are they beliefs that are explicit.
We’ve come to understand worldviews as memes. Memes that can be found in culture, in literature and in our common assumptions about whoo and what we are.
Literature (and art) is condensation in the air of culture, catching for a moment a thought, an aspect, a fragment of life. It can be the search for meaning, but it’s not the conveyance of it. Not in any general sense.
Myths are stories, stories that tell us who we are in the plural; where did we come from and what do we mean. Literature isn’t a belief that transcends us or comes before us; even when it ‘means’ something, even when it tells us something about ourselves it doesn’t encompass us. Mythology surrounds, past, present and future. Literature is singular and specific. The universe may have gotten bigger over the years, but in another sense it also got smaller.
“We no longer know how to dream them.” It is the allusion to the dream that is incisive. Dreams are of the netherworld, deep, drawing together all that is implicitly inside us. They are a rehearsal of meaning fueling our eyes as we wake to a tundra of thought; they precede the day like mythology precedes the moment.
In our dreams we find ourselves, we can draw latent truths about our lives. They remind us of our fears and when we listen, they guide and inform. Mythology also guides. Hidden in the stories are blueprints from which we can understand the world. They’re like dreams shared by many. Our dreams aren’t shared. Our dreams are a communion with one; ourselves.
Where we find meaning we feel it, but I can’t point at it. I can’t tell you what it is. Not unless I dress it in words. But, as soon as I do, as soon as I consolidate a worldview it becomes suspect, it assumes the posture of a proposition and propositions purport to give us facts.
In Process and Reality Alfred North Whitehead writes:
“Every science must devise its own instruments. The tool required [for philosophy] is language… But the language of literature breaks down precisely at the task of expressing in explicit form the larger generalities, the very generalities which metaphysics seeks to express”
By metaphysics Whitehead means
“a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.”
He later writes
“This doctrine of necessity in universality means that there is an essence to the universe … Speculative philosophy seeks this essence.”
In these statements the paradox of the problem is exposed succinctly. We have moved beyond a world in which myth or meaning can sustain themselves beyond pure subjectivity. In any search for rationality we will necessarily find a void; the propositions we express must be coherent with facts in the world.
Later Whitehead writes “it is merely credulous to accept verbal phrases as adequate statements of propositions”. By this he is saying that when we express generalities we are blind if we ignore the implicit statements that make up those generalities. Statements and the assumptions that compose them must cohere with the world of experience.
Objectively speaking facts are antimonies of all that is general unless we include the grammar of mathematics and the laws of physics. But these don’t ‘mean’ anything. They are structural. The world as we have come to understand it is haphazard, ad hoc and driven by syntax not semantics.
Beyond the self ‘meaning’ shared as a ground for all cannot exist when tested against the binomial ‘true’ or ‘false’ of logic. In our world meaning has a lower case ‘m’; it does not come with an expectation that there is truth.
However, with this, in a sense we are left significantly freer with a lower case ‘m’ than an explicit upper case ‘Meaning’. With the loss explicit myths and overt systems of belief we have something we can explore with greater reason; that something is our humanity.
In some sense the absence of meaning in a general sense frees us. No longer the design or object of a mind or contextualized by some other we can ask ‘what am I’, ‘Who am I’, ‘Why am I’? We are left with these questions without an essence from which to draw, this may be the paradox of meaning, but now our purpose is our own. On our own however, we will find little meaning.
But, it is not necessarily what is singular to one that is significant. When something means something to us as people we can look beyond ourselves, to others and find something else, that is humanity as it is in this moment. When we find a shared understanding of our lives and the world we have found a common ground from which we can determine something of the significance of our experience.
Humanity and its place in the world has always been at center-stage of cultural questions. And this is where literature steps in. With literature we can find broader forms of truth; we can find something of ourselves in others.
In so doing we can find a personal kind of truth. A truth which can have significantly more meaning and ultimately more depth. The irony, I hope, will be that in this exploration we find that the significances of our stories betray a common ground for all of us, in some sense a platform for a language that is significantly human and with that a structure that can contain those experiences that are significant to us.