April 16, 2009

Mything Persons (3)

Myth is not only the native language of faith, it is the native language of language.

By that I mean that all language, however blunt or pointed, however plain or simple, consists of symbols, in which this is not that but stands for that. Who can forget the eloquent enactment of this in The Miracle Worker — the breakthrough into a new world of meaning, when Helen Keller finally grasped the concept of concepts and their signification — and gained entry to that human and humane world from which she had been isolated. And it is no accident that the first word she learned was water.

Language itself is then a kind of mythology in miniature, a world of symbols as rich and mysterious as that of nature, which Baudelaire described as a murmuring forest. The very act of saying that chair — this smudge of ink on a page, or flashing and impermanent illumination of patterned phosphors (or more likely, diodes), can stand for the thing I sit upon — or, if you are French, for the very substance of your body (a word made flesh indeed) — is a minor act of mythmaking.

Which brings me to the reminder that the world came to be through the Word, who was in the beginning — source and font not only of all that is, but of all the ways and means by which we grasp after reality with our minds. All of theology is finding words for God, as Bishop John Robinson reminded us, of finding the logos for theos. And that act is in itself a form of symbolic myth-making, for no word can contain the Word who is God.

I am also reminded of the Hebrew roots in all of this: that dabar means “thing” as much as “word” — and the power of God to create was manifest as God spoke the world into being.

Which brings me back to myth and magic: the favorite spell of the stage magician, abracadabra, is a corruption of the Hebrew, “I create as I speak.” As poets have long known, language can build a world in the imagination, but it can also constitute a world in reality, and make the real world a better or a worser place, enriched or impoverished as the case may be.

To think we can (or should or would want to) live without myths is a fable.

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG



June Butler said...

Today, one of the readings from the Lectionary is the "Dry bones" story in Ezekiel. As soon as I saw what the reading was, before I read it, I felt a frisson, because the symbols in the story are so very powerful. "Dry bones", "rattling", "breath", "life", "hope".

What a "dry bones" sort of life it would be without our myths.

Erika Baker said...

"The very act of saying that chair ... can stand for the thing I sit upon ... is a minor act of mythmaking"

And bilingual children grow up knowing very well that the word chair only points to the object but is not the same as the object.

But the fact that language and images are tied to cultures and moments in time does have inherent dangers.
I am reading an exploration of John's gospel in which the author comments that the first mention of "behold, the lamb of God" by no means pointed to the poor sacrificial lamb we anticipate when we read the opening chapters, but that it referred to the strong young lamb that confidently leads the herd. Not something we observe or understand much these days, but unless we do, we create our own myth that is quite removed from the original image.

That may be persmissible but we do at least need to be aware of it.

Fr Craig said...

Amen again, TH. I constantly find myself defending myths, such as the Genesis creations stories. I point out that everything we do in Church is symbolic and that myths teach profound truths much better then charts and tables. Hansel and Gretel stories are a classic example. In first communion classes I use the MacDonald's arches and the Nike 'swoosh' as lessons in symbolism - they grasp that quickly! Your example of words as symbols is even better. Thanks for this series.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, GM. There is a wonderful debate in the Talmud about whether the Valley of Dry Bones is a myth or historical event. It goes back and forth until one rabbi says, "It happened. My great grandfather was there, and these are his phylacteries!" That kind of ends the discussion...

Erika, so true. Language's strength is also its danger. As Scripture says of the Word -- it is a two edged sword and cuts both ways.

Craig, thanks again. I've long been fascinated by language -- was a language major in college -- and am constantly amazed at its power. Glad to be of help!

Counterlight said...

Then there is that act of bringing words into being which is art. Leonardo da Vinci claimed superiority for the artist over the poet because what the artist does is a shadow of what God does. The artist makes the word flesh in the image. As God summoned the world out of nothing, so the artist summons images out of the stuff of the earth.

I very much enjoyed your last 3 posts on myth.