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.
Maurice 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.
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.” (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.”
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.” 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.
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.”. 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.”. 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.”. 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.