A Dialogue on Myth

Adam Pearson: Literally, I must reject heaven, hell, and reincarnation. Metaphorically, I can accept heaven, hell, and reincarnation.

Brett Graham Fawcett: You could wring (and people have wrung) symbolism out of damn near everything.

Adam Pearson: Very true, and I have no problem with that at all.

Brett Graham Fawcett: For example, werewolves I’ve heard described as a mythic projection of our Jungian shadow; since I believe everyone has a dark side, does that mean I metaphorically believe in werewolves? I know a lot of parasitic psychic freeloaders; does this mean I metaphorically believe in vampires? After a certain point it becomes hard to see what *can’t* be accepted “metaphorically” and the angel of the death of a thousand qualifications rides roughshod through language, scythe a-swingin’.

Adam Pearson: It means you can accept one metaphorical usage of the image of the werewolf. It does not mean that you “believe in,” that is ascribe any ontological reality to, werewolves as traditionally envisaged. The same holds for your vampire example. Accepting something as an image or a metaphor simply means admitting its symbolic and descriptive power for expressing and speaking to human experience.

Brett Graham Fawcett: So what myths don’t you metaphorically believe in?

Adam Pearson: None that I have studied thus far. I think they all contain powerful symbols and messages for human life that speak to our common human experiences moving from the dependence of childhood to the independence of adulthood, sexual maturity, preparing for death, dealing with loss, etc.

The fact that I do not require myths to be literally true opens me up to reading them all with a mind that is receptive to their figurative resonances and symbolic interpretations.

Brett Graham Fawcett: Let me ask you then about Narcissus. Freud took this story to be an admonition against what he (and we) subsequently dubbed “narcissism”, egotism, self-obsession, whatever you want to call it. Marshall McLuhan, noting the etymological connection between the name Narcissus and the Greek for “numbness”, said Freud got it wrong and the myth was actually a warning against mistaking an extension of man for something other than man, or as something other than for the service of man (and in his cultural studies McLuhan was trying to appreciate the role of media as “extensions of man” and therefore prevent us from being numbed, as Narcissus was).

Now both of these interpretations can’t be right. My question is: Does it matter to you whether Freud or McLuhan is more accurate in the way they interpret this myth? And if it doesn’t matter, or neither is right or wrong, it’s only how we interpret the myth, then doesn’t this make mythology basically a Rorschach blot that doesn’t import information to us but just serves to have our own morality or philosophy projected onto them?

Adam Pearson: Now, Brett, if you are asking what is the historically correct interpretation that the Greeks would have actually subscribed to in the formulation of these myths, then I would reply with my own question: what standard of evidence can we use to adjudicate the question of historical authoritativeness for Ancient Greek myths? That is, on whatevidential basis can we judge whether McLuhan or Freud was more closer to what the original formulators of the myth hand in mind or whether neither of them got it right?

There is no singular source in Ancient Greek literature as far as I am aware that purports to be a definite exegesis of the meaning of Greek myth. All we have are isolated and conflicting interpretations by various Greek authors. Examining these can tell us something about how the Ancient Greeks made meaning out of this myth, but as we do not know who formulated it originally or what their authorial intent was, determining what is the “real” intended meaning of the myth becomes a very difficult, perhaps impossible task.

I am a student of literature and work with texts that lack authoritative final meanings so I am comfortable with regarding myths, like literary texts, as polysigns; that is, signs that embody multiple, sometimes conflicting meanings. Perhaps both McLuhan and Freud were right, that is, perhaps their interpretations corresponded to meanings that the formulators of the myth of Narcissus had in mind. I don’t know. My position is that of the humble interpreter and the humble human being making meaning for his life. I am not a classicist. So, my interest is in interpreting meanings and interpretations of meanings rather than in attempting to make a final judgment on what the “final correct meaning” of the myth truly is.

Certainly, myths serve many functions. They lay out cultural norms and traditions in allegorical form, they sometimes lay out the basis for religious rituals, they express elementary or archetypal ideals, they tell the stories of gods and goddesses, heroes and supernatural beings, they provide symbolic avenues for reaching the transcendent, they shed light on human inner states, etc. etc. I am content to play in this diverse playground of meanings and functions and to leave the “final meaning” (if there is one) free floating, un-pinned down.

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