The New Mythology is Demythology

The New Mythology is Demythology

     “Life as a whole appears as a fragment insofar as each particular piece of it is naturally only a splinter relative to its form as perfected in autonomous creativity. From this comes the further fact that we can speak of defective art in two entirely different senses. There is defective art, insofar as the work is indeed entirely formed for the sake of the artistic invention and remains within the strict bounds of autocratic artistic forms  – but does not satisfy that immanent demands of art, and is uninteresting, banal, and powerless. And there is defective art, when the work, though perhaps not showing the latter impairments, does not yet fully free its artistic forms from their existence as means to their existence as values in themselves has not yet taken place in absolute measure. This is the case where a tendential, anecdotal, sensually excitative interest resonates as one somehow decisive in the presentation. Here the work may be of great psychic and cultural significance, since for this it need not be bound to the conceptual purity of a particular category. However as art it remains imperfect as long as its formative elements still display something of that significance with which they fit in with the currents of life – however deeply and comprehensively they may have assimilated these currents.” (Simmel 2011:48 [1918] italics the text’s).

            Kristen-Seraphim is defective art. That is, the second of Simmel’s categories. It is so because it does not, and cannot, stand alone as a work of art or as an aesthetic object. Nor was this ever my intent. On the one hand, the conceptual impurity of the work – falling as it does across the fantasy, science fiction, adventure, quest saga, thriller and even romance genres – was only what was necessary, not for the sake of literature, certainly, but for the sake of what Simmel refers to as ‘psychic and cultural significance’, however great or nominal. And second, my sense has always been that adventure fiction can never be art. By definition, because even the idea of adventure itself is bound to content and does not elevate its form beyond itself. Long before I ever sought to become a writer I knew this given my own youthful reading, Enid Blyton, John Buchan, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan-Doyle, C.S. Forester, Jean le Carré, Arthur Clarke, H.G. Wells, Kurt Vonnegut and others. Excellent writers all, but not artists. Then again, matriculating a little later later to Balzac, Dickens, Lawrence, Twain, Stendhal, Cervantes and de Sade et al, I didn’t really understand why these guys were somehow better than their middle-brow cousins.

            I do now. After having completed a work which ran through five thousand pages, none of them literary – there may have been a few good paragraphs here and there – it is precisely Simmel’s distinction that may be applied. If the agency in one’s work is to address the world, then once again by definition it cannot be art. Yet the older and seemingly very dated wisdom ‘art for art’s sake’ is not quite what Simmel is getting at: “Art is our thanks to the world and to life. After both have fashioned the sensory and spiritual forms of our comprehension, we thank them for it as we create a world and a life with their help.” (ibid:164 [1920]). This realization helps immensely with the at first puzzling issue that is contained in great literary works as the discourse defines them. For they too, including all of the authors mentioned in my second list above, sought to address, redress, expose, explain or even resolve worldly problems and contents. Dickens, for example, is famous for it, but so is Lawrence. And when I had the privilege as an illiterate human scientist to teach Cervantes, Shakespeare, De Sade and others in a Great Books Canon program in the USA, I haltingly gained the understanding that while at once did the work hail squarely from within its historical epoch it also overleapt the ‘bounds’ of its respective period, and in so doing, enacted the incipience of what was to come. No more so than Cervantes, whose ‘errant’ hero invented the picaresque, a genre type that lives on today in popular culture protagonists such as Don Draper of Madmen. It would be a stretch, for example, to call Oedipus ‘picaresque’.

            It’s stock to have stand-up characters juxtaposed with dubious ones, a greying of the simpler design of hero and villain. Even the most ruthless of the heroines of Kristen-Seraphim, Seraphim herself, is in love with more than one other person, balancing out her narcissistic love for herself. More current is the idea of having standpoints; asking the question, ‘who is standing for what, where and when and why?’, and so on. Can this character be relied upon in this situation, under these conditions, in the company of these others versus those? The answer must be given situationally, and in this the work is a refraction of the world at large. In adventure fiction, the heroes are inevitably larger than life, as they exist in their own world, the one we have created with the help of the factical life of the world as it is, as Simmel stated. But this alone does not make them party to the aesthetic object. Their fictional lives, in other words, are no closer to art than are our own.

            Critics speak of the ‘identification factor’, suggesting that a good read allows a reader to identify with the hero or someone important within the narrative, at least some of the time. The response to this for those like myself who do not and likely cannot write literary art is to have many characters, some forty plus in Kristen-Seraphim, so that one can cover the bases regarding the widest plausible readership. Even so, the principals in any narrative must be polymythic enough to appeal to anyone who has lived just enough to understand that, as Goethe noted, ‘the devil is quite old’. Another formulaic trick is to extend the narrative over a goodly portion of the life course in order to chart the career of the characters through different phases of their own created existence. In this, the work takes on a life of its own, but it still does not approach art. But unlike in Gogol or Faulkner, for instance, we do not need to repeat indefinitely generational conflicts and lineage bigotries, cultural customs and the unending circuit of the peasant. Could it be that what once was art descends, given historical prejudice, into mere story, mere image, mere content, ‘mere’ history? The general argument runs that ‘once art always art’ but this is clearly not necessarily so, given the discursive careers of figures such as Vermeer and much of contemporary art from the impressionists onwards. And though it is no doubt correct to levy against philosophy and related work that it so seldom ascends the other way, becomes art in itself, one must resist the inevitable resentment that, as a social philosopher myself, for instance, one feels against the defining character of great art. But if the novelist has the daunting task of facing up to Middlemarch or Don Quixote, then writers like myself have the equally intense gaze of Thus Spake Zarathustra or Being and Time eyeing us and finding us more than wanting.

            What can one do in the face of such works, the work itself, world, life, and an understanding that art is once from the world and yet overcomes that very world to herald the new and to grasp the as-yet-unknowable, just as science is charged with doing the same to the as-yet-unknown? Simmel again:

     “…that one seeks to give his own life a value such that this value may be something subjective, without any real or ideal connection back to the Ego. This is the practical application of the purely spiritual fact that man can make himself into his own object. When we first regard ourselves objectively, we reach the bridge by which to extinguish the Ego altogether and to exist only for the object. The highest intensification of this is creativity. Here, the Ego has not only repressed and forgotten itself in order to exist in and live from the object, but it is metamorphosed into an object. Its powers have themselves become the object – it is now no longer Ego and yet has left nothing of itself behind. In creative achievement, spiritual objectivity has overcome its opposition to the subject – it has absorbed the subject into itself.” (ibid:172-3).

            The idea of a ‘legacy’ is the lesser part of this process. Minkowski (1933) has reminded us that to dwell within the ambit of the creative work, once concluded, is to kill both it and ourselves. One cuts off the future and with it the next world, the one that must come, for the old world now contains that which was once new to itself. ‘Moving on’ is the casual if not causal casualty of loss. Indeed, there must be art ‘out there’ that has as yet gone unrecognized, originating in any time period, coming from any culture. New worlds, in other words, are already extant even if their existence in the old world is as yet part of the radically unknowable. So one cannot truly refer to this or that work as ‘radical’ as well as being ’defective’ as art. Such works that address the world and have the fate of the world as their chief content are rather revolutionary, and not radical. The revolution in Kristen-Seraphim consists of the new mythology being in fact a demythology, which in itself can be radical only in the worldly sense. Not only do we find that the definition of fantasy departs from utility into principal – until now ‘fantasy’ has described means and not ends, for instance (the modus operandi of such adventure fiction never attains its own metaphysics, let alone threatens it; phantasmagorical means and characters alike are there merely to either defend or attack the good-evil spectrum) – and thus the ontotheology of the fantasy genre, from Lewis to Pullman, is overcome, we also find that the social order defended therein is itself dismantled. If metaphysics require of us radicality, then it is the lesser, revolutionary mode that is needed in the face of cultural institutions. Ideas cannot be killed in the same way. Demythology is the halfway house of revolution. Kristen-Seraphim brings home a new world and makes one at home within it, but it cannot claim to have utterly understood ‘nature’ or to have overleapt it. What it has accomplished is to have understood – and vanquished – the nature of morality as one literary genre has supplied it.

            The heroines and heroes of the new mythology are hardly upstanding in the usual sense. Their nobility is restive, their rest unquiet, their deaths equivocal and their resurrections awkward. They eventually triumph, but what is the true nature of their collective victory? “Who claims to recognize surely where the truth of my nature lies?” Simmel asks us. “Perhaps it becomes visible only in one single hour of my existence.” He is here speaking against the usual differences that are connoted by good and evil, and as Nietzsche before him, senses that our new world, and thus our new myths, must leave them behind: “This whole distinction is most problematic. The person is at one time thus and another otherwise, and only optimism or pessimism about our own value moves us to conclude merely from the more frequent appearance of a specific quality that one resides in principal in a different characterological or metaphysical layer than the other. That this possibility of life, to be really entirely good or really entirely bad, exists; that we are not inwardly divided into layers of different ethical-metaphysical depths of being so that one act falls unalterably into the fundamental, the other into the superficial – this is human freedom.” (ibid:132-133 [1918], italics mine).

            The new demythology is dedicated to human freedom in all of its uncertainty and aspiration, its doubts and its hopes. In book seven, the second Kristen reflects: “For life was not meant to be lived as such. Life not only wasn’t art, as many an artist himself had discovered over time, it also wasn’t meant to continuously be larger than itself, as many a politician and the like had discovered. No, life was meant only to be lived, but in that word ‘only’ lay the secret of the good life. ‘The demands of the day’, she quoted again.” Simmel interprets this proverb of Goethe’s to mean much more than whatever the material day brings to us. It ‘proceeds from the deepest inner life’  which tells us of the next step, and then the next, without revealing what is to come before this point (ibid:109). It is the ‘life of the Ought’, and in this all of us live like heroes. For the Ought is larger than our own life and directs if not our actions per se, then the obligatory nature of the meaning we understand from taking them. Early on in book six we find the same character given pause by her community’s potential complacencies: “The heroes themselves turn into those they destroyed because of their self-centered adoration of the unthought freedom of the present.” Like ourselves, the fictional characters are not always prepared to meet the demands of the day, either on the surface of the world or in the depths of being. Their own beings. Even so, one of the hallmarks of heroism is that when the bell is rung, they do respond because they know, if not the full meaning of their actions to come, horrifying as some of them turn out to be, where meaningfulness must be found in life. In book seven the first Michelle intones: “I can tell you this: we are here in Paris by happenstance, mimicking the great chain of non-being that has brought every one of us to live a human life. Deny that, in any way, shape, or form, and you are denying the basis of life itself, the essence of all life.” Just so, our birthright and our demise is of the moment, a demand of this day like any other. We neither ask to be born nor ask to die, Gadamer reminds us, and it is this combination, to which philosophers refer as being part of the essence of human finitude, that impels the heroic figure to impale herself upon the day, so that what is at hand can be taken into one’s human hands and given both form and meaning.

            If not, if we do not act heroically in spite of the fact that life can never be by itself either art or myth, we are left with musings alone, realizations that limit not only action but living as well. Life remains merely a dream, and as we read in book eight: “Not many people yet realized that the self who dreams is not the same self who then wakes and lives out the day, day after day. And in such dreams from which we do awaken – and indeed, there are those additional to the unconscious from which we never again emerge – what, perchance, remains of the days within which all dreams come to grief?” The heroes are, of course, about to find out, but what certifies their heroism is that they bear up the fear associated with ‘being the new’. This is also what takes them ‘beyond good and evil’ and into the truer, if still human, nature of freedom itself.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty-five books in ethics, religion, education, and aesthetics. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades in both the USA and Canada.