Myth and the Human Condition: Merleau-Ponty and Tolkien (Part 1)

I will be doing a two part series on myth. This first post will focus on myth and the human condition and refer to French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the British novelist J.R.R. Tolkien. The second post will focus on myth and religion and refer to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

IMG_2347Maurice Merleau-Ponty discusses the purpose of myth in his Phenomenology of Perception:

[M]yth is a projection of existence and an expression of the human condition. But understanding the myth does not mean believing in it, and if all myths are true, this is insofar as they can be put back into a phenomenology of spirit that indicates their function in the emergence of self-consciousness and that ultimately grounds their proper sense upon the sense they have for the philosopher.[1]

There is truth in myth, Merleau-Ponty argues, but it is not found in establishing the historical validity of the myth. A myth is true when it illustrates something true about the human condition, when it represents the true spirit of the human consciousness seeking to understand the world. He often uses the word “magical” in describing how a human puts together the facts or sensations of the world to establish a cohesive whole. There is a magical or mythical element to the way we are in touch with the world.

Tolkien, author of the great mythical stories found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, also believes in the truth of myths. Before his creation of middle earth, Tolkien is first famous for his work on the myth of Beowolf. In a lecture on Beowulf, Tolkien gives an analogy of a man who built a tower from old stone only for it later to be mocked and torn down. But, before it was destroyed, the man who built it had been able to climb the tower and “look out upon the sea.”[2] (See the picture above of the beautiful sea at Muriwai Beach on the North Island of New Zealand.) Tolkien relates this to Beowulf, who built a tower, his poem, only for it later to be criticized so severely. And yet, the building of the tower was not in vain as the man was still able to look out at the sea.

This is the benefit of the myth: the opportunity to look upon something great. Those who write myths are part of pointing us toward something great. Tolkien writes in his poem, “Mythopoeia”: “Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme, of things not found within recorded time.”[3]

The blessing of “looking out upon the sea” is like the blessing of looking upon truth. Myth reveals parts of our world to us and the way humans interact with the world. Tolkien believes that the best myths and fairy stories will provide the reader with euchatastrophe, unexpected joy. This will all the more take place when we encounter the greatest true myth, the incarnation of Christ. For Tolkien, the God-becoming-man myth is the key to understanding the human condition; this myth is where, according to Tolkien, “Legend and History have met and fused.”[4] When the man looks out at sea, Tolkien may be imagining him facing this incredible, infinite Truth of redemption. He may be thinking of the Psalmist who writes how such truth is greater than the ocean and deeper than the sea.[5]

Although Merleau-Ponty would not see redemption as part of the truth of myth, he, along with Tolkien, believe in the mythical element in the human condition. From his approach, Merleau-Ponty finds that pure objective thought does not account for the real way that humans live in the world. For example, humans live in what he calls a “mythical space.”[6]. This is why we can physically be in one place but that place “not necessarily [be] the landscape of our life.” He continues, “I can ‘be elsewhere’ while remaining here and if I am kept far from what I love, I feel far from the center of real life.”[7]. Homesickness, for example, is a way for us to be dwelling in the mythical space of our home while being physically somewhere else. Anyone who has been in love or has observed someone in love has seen that while that person may be in one location, perhaps even doing something enjoyable, he or she is not fully engaged because of the desire to be with his or her lover. Even dreams, as Merleau-Ponty points out, demonstrate the way that humans have a connection to the mythical. We escape to the myth in our sleep.

These mythical elements of the human experience are not peripheral, but integral to the very way we interact with the world. We approach objects, not as mere appearances, but as actual essences, because we believe, somehow, that there is a sense or meaning to all things. The world of myth invades are world of perception. Merleau-Ponty writes, “The myth fits the essence into the appearance; the mythical phenomenon is not a representation, but a genuine presence.”[8]. We experience objects as having a mythical presence, react according to that presence, and create our lived space in this world.

In summary, Tolkien finds mythical element in the human condition because it reveals our pursuit of truth. Ultimately, our love for myth, he argues, will drive us toward the highest form of truth, a religious form of truth. (We will find a similar notion, although not in accordance with the Christian religion, when we turn to Nietzsche’s notion of myth in the next post.) In a different way, Merleau-Ponty finds the mythical element in the human condition to explain the way we interact with the world. We are not mechanical, calculating robots but experience places and people according to mythical relationships. Both are revealing the integral part myth plays in the human.

  1. [1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London: Routledge, 2012), 306
  2. [2] J.R.R. Tolkien, a lecture to the British Academy in 1936 in Essays, pp. 7-8, quoted in T.A. Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 162.
  3. [3] Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” in Tree and Leaf, including the Poem Mythopoeia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988), 144, quoted in Bradley Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2003), xxi.
  4. [4] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, 109, quoted in Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, 40.
  5. [5] See Psalm 36:5-7: “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep . . . How priceless is your unfailing love!”
  6. [6] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 298
  7. [7] Ibid., 299.
  8. [8] Ibid., 303.

Taking Off My Subjective Weight

There is power in knowing one’s self, being one’s self, perfecting one’s self, and loving one’s self. It can be argued that without a strong self-identity, life loses much of its meaning, joy and fulfillment. For example, how can you relate with the other without first relating to yourself? Some knowledge of self is necessary in building relationships because a relationship must include a connection between one self and another.

With that said, however, the burden of my own individual subjectivity can become very heavy.[1] Who am I? I am a person limited by my body, my thoughts, and my abilities. I have my own personal history and my own personal thought patterns which are forever upon me and can never be changed. I carry around this inevitable me-ness in this particular time and space and it enters into every circumstance and encounter that I have in my life.

As humans, we look for ways to relieve our subjective weight. Sometimes we try things that appear to give us relief, and actually do temporarily, only to have the weight come back, heavier than before. Escaping to the world of fantasy, where we allow our minds to participate in actions and thoughts which we usually regard as vile and undignified, temporarily relieves our subjective weight. But, upon coming back to the world of reality, we are faced with the shame and guilt for entertaining such images and thoughts. On another level, we may take part in a mob where we move beyond our insignificant selves to become one with others around us. Acting as one, heinous crimes have been committed by those elated with feelings of freedom and unity.

Nietzsche argues that art is a way, or I should say, the way, to take off our subjective weight. In The Birth of Tragedy, he makes a distinction between two types of art: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian art represents the ordered, beautiful and calculated art. The Dionysian, on the other hand, is art which comes from frenzy, laughter, and natural life. He argues that Dionysian art is shown through the presence of the chorus in an Ancient Greek tragedy. In the environment of the chorus, the Dionysian aesthetic is exemplified: the members of the chorus as well as anyone who joins them are able to rise to a new level of artistic experience. Nietzsche writes:

This process of the tragic chorus is the dramatic proto-phenomenon: to see oneself transformed before one’s own eyes and to begin to act as if one had actually entered into another body, another character. [2]

Through participation in the dramatic proto-phenomenon, one is able to move beyond one’s self into another. Nietzsche contrasts this with the Apollonian:

[In the Apollonian] the virgins who proceed solemnly to the temple of Apollo, laurel branches in their hands, singing a processional hymn, remain what they are and retain their civic names: the dithyrambic chorus [Dionysian chorus] is a chorus of transformed characters whose civic past and social status have been totally forgotten: they have become timeless servants of their god who live outside the spheres of society.[3]

Unlike the ordered, calm procession of the worshippers of Apollo, the worshippers of Dionysius have reached such a state of transformation that they have left behind their past and their social status. They have given themselves completely to the worship of this god. In this act, the individuals become united as one, and their identity becomes the identity of the group. Dropping their subjective weight, they can taste the freedom that comes from rising above the self.[4]

I think that many will resonate with this above description, because we too desire to have freedom from ourselves. We could argue that there is something in the human condition which pushes us toward aesthetic experiences: we long to rise above ourselves and feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Whether it is engaging in a piece of music, encountering an epic story in a movie or book, losing one’s self in a painting or acting as a character in a play, art allows us to take part in this beautiful act of freedom.

Notice, however, that while Nietzsche is writing about art, he uses the example of worship. Worship is then an aesthetic experience where we creatively adore someone above ourselves. A theist would argue that worshipping an immanent god, such as Dionysius, only provides a temporary release from our subjectivity, and that the worship of a transcendent God is needed for true subjective relief.[5] Such worship, however, cannot be on one’s own. As Nietzsche reminds us, taking off the weight of subjectivity must be done with others, acting as a united whole, where I lose my identity in a timeless communal act of worship.[6]

  1. [1] I would like to thank Phillip Rosemann for suggesting this terminology.
  2. [2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), Section 8, p. 64.
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] In Greek mythology, sometimes Dionysian worship did result in heinous crimes similar to the behavior of a mob, mentioned above. In one myth, Pentheus’s mother, due to her frenzied state of Dionysian worship, unknowingly participated in dismembering her own son.
  5. [5] However, it should be noted that Dionysius has characteristics of a Christ-like figure who suffers, dies and resurrects.
  6. [6] See also my post on the human need to worship: Is the “Need to Worship” Part of the Human Condition?