Posts Tagged ‘literature’

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Joan Didion: Exercising Narrative Rights

June 5, 2011

joan Didion

C-Span Interview with Joan Didion

In a 1996 C-SPAN Book TV interview, Joan Didion speaks about her body of written work. Incredibly the interview lasts for three hours and includes a huge space for viewers to call in and ask her questions. (As a side note, it is incredible to see such a large amount of time, audience participation, and interest in writing being dedicated by a network. What does this say about the change in audience participation and attention spans?) In this clip, Didion speaks specifically about her first experience of being published and her first encounter with the American political process.

Publishing her first novel at the age of 28, Didion is asked about her first experiences with writing, publishing and rejection. Considering the continuity of her writing career, the interviewer is surprised that Didion had ever been rejected at all. Didion’s response is to articulate that the experience of being rejected is inseparable from the experience of writing, and that somehow the writer gets through it. At the end of the clip, Didion is asked if she likes speaking about her writing. She responds that she does not mind speaking about what she has already written, however she does not talk about what she is currently working on, or thinking about.

Though this is only a brief clip, two points about Didion’s writing process are made clear. Firstly, that the experience of rejection (whether literally or psychologically) is apart of writing. Rejection is an active part of presenting creative work to an audience. Secondly, the process of actively writing is private and that there is a clear boundary between what will be shared and what be kept private. Clearly, a boundary is being established to protect her writing process from being overwhelmed by the projected expectations of others. The line between the individual and the group enables the potential for new perspective.

The second theme of the discussion focuses on the American political process. Having not encountered this process until being assigned a reporting job, Didion reminisces that the experience was jarring. Why? Because “the narrative is already in place.” The dialogue that takes place within conventions, tours, debates, and candidate speeches has a known goal, effect, and script. There are no surprises, which in itself, is the surprise.

Who is the author of the American political process? Is it a narrative defined by the needs of the people? An institution?  In an additional interview taken earlier in Didion’s career, she states that one of the reasons she likes to write is that she is “in control of this tiny, tiny world.” Does the predictability of the American political narrative provide a sense of control through its consistency? The issues vary little, and the polarity between the Democrats and Republicans is only becoming more streamlined. The narrative is less and less a debate and more and more a binary divide, yes or no.

The challenge of the writer is to establish engagement with his or her audience. Engagement may come from new content, different forms, or extraordinary craft. The goal is to create an experience that the reader can interact with, feel, or find new perspective from. Conversely, the narrative structure of American politics does not change either form or content. Which leads us to question if engagement is part of the plan. And if not, then what purpose is being met?

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Fairy Tales: Critical Theory and Archetypal Interpretation

August 28, 2009

The question of how to read a text has been asked and argued by theorists since the first work was offered to an audience for interpretation. Questions of what should be considered separable and inseparable from the review of the text are many, the stronger of which have developed into schools of critical theory. The initial debate in reading a text is over the precedence of form versus content. Though Aristotle began this debate, it became publicly popular in the 20th century because of the cultural critic Susan Sontag. Taking a firm stance, Sontag argued for the supremacy of form, and then, over a decade later, changed her position and wrote discourse supporting the primacy of content. Beyond Sotnag’s writing, scholars throughout the world have found legitimate and convincing rationale for either approach. The crux of each perspective argues that through understanding the form, or by going in-depth into the content, the text will naturally open itself to a relevant interpretation. Beyond form and content, additional schools of criticism have emerged throughout the last century. T.S. Eliot headed the movement for New Criticism, in which the meaning of the text is found by staying with the text. Stanley Fish has argued for Reader Response, where the reader’s process of engagement decides the hermeneutic route of understanding. Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis introduced a new way of understanding textual relationships through the differentiation of Self and Other. The move toward Psychoanalytic interpretation lay the foundation for specialized interpretation, as is found in Cultural, Deconstruction and Feminist criticism.  These are only a sample of the different types of interpretive methods that have entered the formal conversation regarding textual interpretation. These conversations obtain new meaning as they are reassessed in regard to Jungian analysis and the interpretation of Fairy Tales. By reviewing von Franz’ interpretive method of Fairy Tales within the textual context of critical theory, we may then compare the strategic methods of interpretation that are introduced by Marie-Louise von Franz in her Introduction to the Interpretation of Fairy Tales and further explored by Professor Walter Odajnyk in his article “The Archetypal Interpretation of Fairy Tales: Bluebeard.” Through understanding the variations in critical theory, we may begin to recognize form and content of interpretation as it relates to psychology and healing potential.

Marie-Louise von Franz’ method of interpreting Fairy Tales is outlined in Chapter Three of her book, Introduction to the Interpretation of Fairy Tales. This is a multi-faceted endeavor and begins by conducting a structural analysis of the fairy tale by observing the time, place, and setting. Next, the characters are identified and counted at the different stages of the story.  Questions such as the following are asked: How many total characters are there? Are they male, female, animal, or other? What is lacking? If the story begins:

‘The king had three sons” one notices that there are four characters, but the mother is lacking. The story may end with one of the sons, his bride, his brother’s bride and another bride—that is, four characters again but in a different set-up. Having seen that the mother is lacking at the beginning and there are three women at the end, one would suspect that the whole story is about redeeming the female principle. (111)

Any unbalance between the number of characters or gender is significant to the interpretation and understanding of the archetypal conflict taking place. Third, a symbolic analysis is begun. This involves looking up and amplifying the symbols within the tale. Preceding this process, psychological analysis processes the information and attempts to translate the story into psychological terms. This does not mean that the tale is translated to promote a psychological agenda or to amplify psychological ideas (Freudian or Jungian), rather the goal of this step is to reiterate psychologically what takes place within the context of the fairy tale.  Finally, personal and archetypal analysis may be attempted. This involves in-depth knowledge of the self and the cultural community in which the fairy tale is active. To verify that the interpretation is authentic and functional takes experience and intuition.

In comparing von Franz’ method with other critical strategies of interpretation, we find that it is a fusion. However, a chief similarity is observed in relation to New Criticism. The importance of staying with the text, or staying with the image to be guided to interpretation is significant. Second, von Franz is working with a psychological model. This means that a vocabulary is introduced in order to amplify dynamics inherent in the material. It is important to note that one of the challenges of using psychological theory in relationship to text is that often a text can be used as a case study to support the foundation of theories. When done thoroughly, von Franz’ theory rejects usurpation of content for the service of theory. The key difference is that it is an interpretation, not a diagnosis.   Cultural and structural perspectives may also be brought into the discussion and analysis.

At this point, it is important to distinguish between the different types of text. While critical theory has opened up the canon to embrace texts from diverse authorship and from innumerable types of media, von Franz’ method focuses exclusively on Fairy Tales. She argues, “Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes. Therefore their value for the scientific investigation of the unconscious exceeds that of all other material” (1). Here, it is stressed that von Franz sees her strategy as a scientific method that is researched, observed, interpreted, and reassessed. While critical theory has been known to assert a similar function in structuralism, it is not always the goal. Typically, theorists strive to achieve new strategies of engagement and understanding and are welcomed to them by the endless flexibility of form and content. In focusing solely on fairy tales, von Franz has changed the conversation by isolating the form and content of the text to a set number of variations. The isolated environment is essential for the success of experimentation. When the text is opened up to infinite abstractions, it is difficult to observe the innately abstract nature of the unconscious. Similarly to dreams, fairy tales enable a specific context and allow the unconscious to be observed.

Another important distinction is raised in Walter Odajnyk’s article, “The Archetypal Interpretation of Fairy Tales: Bluebeard.”  In the introduction Odajnyk distinguishes between the “personalistic approach” and “archetypal interpretation.” Instead of representing human beings and their neuroses, fairy tales personify archetypes, which in turn are the language of the unconscious. The characters in a fairy tale behave “stereotypically and appear to have hardly any inner psychic life […] We may conclude, von Franz writes, that the characters in fairy tales represent archetypes, not human beings, and that the stories address transpersonal difficulties, developments, and dangers and not neurotic complications of an individual” (10). This statement is continued to assert that in the personalistic approach there is no healing potential. In archetypal interpretations the possibility of healing comes from recognizing the archetypal interactions that are unbalanced and then witnessing their realignment. Unconscious elements become conscious and the complex is understood within an attainable context. Just as von Franz narrows the scope of content and form to a contained continuum, so do fairy tales make the unconscious accessible.

In his article, Odajnyk argues “The ‘personalistic approach’ has become the dominant form of fairy-tale interpretation among Jungians and non-Jungians alike” (11). Why is the personalistic approach dominant and how does it nullify the healing potential? One way of observing these questions is to look at the experience of children engaging in fairy tales in comparison to adults and critical theory. As noted above, the challenge of critical theory is to enable engagement with a text. This engagement should lead to some revelation that relates to human experience. Through archetypal interpretation the psyche is engaged and the individual and (in the case of fairy tales) the community have a healing experience. In observing adults, it is difficult to distinguish what is archetypal engagement and what is critical processing, because everything is being processed by a mature intellect. In reading fairy tales, an adult may either interpret a fairy tale in relation to a critical theory, personal identification, or, ideally, an archetypal interpretation. However, a child does not have the context for critical theory, or the developed ego for complex identification. Therefore, the clarity and appeal of archetypes is made more visible. Though a child is not typically in need of the type of healing that an adult may need, the fairy tale serves as a method of emotional and psychological instruction. A recognition of unbalance between binaries such as good and evil, positive and negative, feminine and masculine, and light and dark is made. For the child, an early education in archetypal structures facilitates adult interpretations and healing. This education begins with simple imagist representations that are depicted in cartoon form, such as Pokemon and many Disney films, and then extends to more complex fantasy genre, such as the wizard tales of Harry Potter (J. K. Rowling, 1997), the vampire narratives of Twilight (Stephenie Meyer, 2005), and the numerous stories navigated through video games.

The archetypal nature of fairy tales makes them appealing to children and adults, and transcends cultural boundaries. Fairy tales may be engaged as a means of education, entertainment, and healing. However, they may also be activated within a critical context to explore theoretical and interpretive methods of perception. Personalistic approaches enable creative re-visionings and engagement in a variety of critical theorizing. However, it is important to distinguish between the projection of personal or cultural experience and the archetypal representation of the Self and World that may be recognized by engaging in archetypal interpretation.

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Existentialism and Post-Modernism: Value in Lingering

July 30, 2009

Exhaustion, deconstruction, existential uncertainty–these are some of the qualities associated with post-modernism. Even the name suggests passing from a known state into ambiguity. In “Myth and postmodernist philosophy,” William Doty defines the challenges of postmodernism and mythology, while also provoking the complexity of interaction between the two perspectives as they engage in a conversation with the philosophical tradition. Specifically, these interactions are defined by Doty’s article, synthesized by the question of the role of narrative in philosophy, and actualized by Albert Camus’ 1942 essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, and Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Maker,” published in 1960.

The goal of post-modernism is to inspire; devastation is a complement. Rising out of the ruins of two world wars and countless other crime against humanity, the challenge of postmodernism was to create new meaning where everything smelled of desolation and death. The philosophy of existentialism and the theory of deconstruction were responses to worldly circumstances. If there is no god, only the individual, how does one create purpose? Likewise, in deconstruction the challenge is to explore the unknown space between signifer and signified ,and to warn “against the assumption that we can master or control either the primordial or the future” (149). As in life, the origin is illusive, and the center shifts with approach. How does one live in a world where nothing is certain? How does one create when the foundation keeps shaking? In the postscript Doty quotes Umberto Eco’s statement of the intent of postmodernism:

The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently. (154)

The aim of the postmodern perspective is to look at the world and put the existing pieces together in a way that creates a third plain of understanding. However, the point of postmodernism is not found in the resolution, but in engagement.

Of mythology, Doty engages in the question of “How we treat the past” (144). Like postmodernism, mythology is also a response to interdisciplinary questions. Doty quotes Lawrence Hatab as he poses semiotic questions regarding the nature of myth:

If language is the key to meaning, we must listen to the language of a mythical age to gather its meaning. We will try to let myth show itself through postmythical terminology. We will try to let myth show itself through its language. (146)

Responding to the relationship between myth and language, Doty expands on the idea of making the abstract importance of myth apparent through language, by stating that the function of myth is to make the everyday spectacular:

Myth, […], is a sort of science of the abstract become concrete, a symbolic language useful for designating meanings within the everyday that are initially discerned in the realms of particularly heightened (or sacred/religious) experiences.  (146)

In this statement, the goal of mythology is to elevate the mundane to the special; to abstract extraordinary meaning from what was thought to be impenetrable. While postmodernism has similar ambitions, the difference is origin. Postmodernism is free to be explored throughout a variety of forms, and gains potency through intertextual negotiations.  Mythology is developed through creation stories that preface the psychological, cultural, and religious situations that unfold. These creation stories create a meta-world; stories of creation about creation. Within these situations, it is possible to focus on a variety of personal, social, and religious qualities depending on the needs of the audience and intention of the storyteller. Mythology establishes a parallel world to reveal the purpose of the world we live in.

Though distinct in their origins, mythology and postmodernism have a natural interaction. The context of mythology creates a foundation for a variety of perspectives to be emphasized. Many postmodern tales enter into mythic dialogues with the intention of providing insight into the conflicts between individual psychology and culture during the 20th century. Through the interactions between postmodernism and mythology it is possible to stimulate clichéd recitation into becoming an active engagement of text, psychology, and culture. Exhaustion, deconstruction, and existential uncertainty are symptoms that reflect an active, explorative engagement with the material. Both mythology and postmodernism were established to respond to questions of existence. Mythology established a creative forum to play out possibilities; postmodernism focused on the process of creativity itself.

One of the most important aspects in comparing mythology to philosophy is to understand the rhetorical devices the bridge the gap between creativity, and rational reflection. In literary criticism, Aristotle initiated the debate of the importance of form and content around 335 B.C. In The Poetics, Aristotle “propose[s] to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kings, noting the essential quality of each; to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever else falls within the same inquiry” (Aristotle 19). Clearly Aristotle put the emphasis on form over content. In the first century A.D. Longinus reversed the order, emphasizing content over form: “the greatest poets and writers of prose have attained the first place and have clothed their fame with immortality. For it is not a persuasion but to ecstasy that passages of extraordinary genius carry the hearer” (Longinus 48). Longinus is interested in the divine-like essence, “the sublime,” which is the content of great artwork. Both sides of the form | content argument are of equal importance and have been reiterated throughout the centuries; both are critical to understanding the intentions of a narrative. In Myth and Philosophy Lawrence Hatab outlines the evolution and interaction between the two approaches to reality. The intention of both mythology and philosophy is to understand the world, however mythology focuses on creating metaphors and parallel realities, while philosophy is defined by rigorous methodology expressed through strict formulations. In his chapter “The Advent of Philosophy” he defines the role of the first philosophers in outlining the original relationship between mythology and philosophy:

Although philosophy represented a departure from mythical disclosure, the relationship between early philosophy and myth is far from black and white. As we have seen, many philosophical developments grew out of a mythical background; the mythical tradition itself gradually cultivated views of the world and human selfhood, which were preconditions for philosophical inquiry; and many of the first philosophers developed images and themes that clearly had mythical origins. In fact, as we will see, some philosophers simply conceptualized certain fundamental themes of Greek mythical culture. In other words, although philosophy introduced methodological or formal innovations which displaced the specific narrations of myth, nevertheless in many respects early philosophy shows a thematic continuity with mythical disclosure, at least with regard to the underlying meaning of a mythical world. (Hatab 164)

Both Mythology and Philosophy share “an enduring interest in the divine as well as a perpetuation of the related notion that humanity runs up against a certain limit” (164). Hatab separates the two in how they relate to the “distinction between thought and experience” (165). Mythology is the experience of the abstract as the embodiment of the sacred; philosophy focuses on empirical evidence as it reflects the boundaries of the universe and the possibilities of God. Both philosophy and mythology are necessary to in the development of consciousness and the self, providing a narrative method of reflection, either critically or creatively. Hatab explains, “The immediate, existential response to life’s radical changes does not permit an abstract notion of a unified self” (43). The narrative provides a space for the abstract and concrete truths to be revealed. “For instance, myth would not account for the death of a person through biological laws but through a narration telling why this man died at this particular time” (31). Likewise, philosophy would incorporate the biological laws into an understanding of universal laws, and create a critical narrative explaining the death of the man at such and such time. The narrative operates in a form to accomplish the demands of consciousness and the desires of the unconscious.

The traditions of narrative as rhetorical device influenced by both form and content began to deconstruct as existential philosophy and the post-modern creative period emerged in the 20th century. As a philosophy, existentialism “stressed the absurdity of human existence and the human freedom to make choices” (Terizan lecture). Founded in the 19th century thinking of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, authors such as Sartre and Camus stretched the boundaries of the role of the individual, society, and the universe. Sartre outlines Existential philosophy in his 1957 essay “Existentialism” stating “existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men” (Sartre 17). Sartre’s late interpretation of Existentialism equates the search for the divine as the development of the self; at once alienating the individual in the universe and evoking ultimate responsibility. A result of world wars and destruction, a primary concern of Existentialism was how to generate meaning. If one man is responsible for existence of all men and the world is a disaster, what is the purpose of living? In the 1955 preface to “The Myth of Sisyphus” written by Albert Camus, he states that the “fundamental subject” of his essay reasons the following:

[I]t is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face. The answer, underlying and appearing through the paradoxes, which cover it, is this: even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate. Written fifteen years ago, in 1940, amid the French and European disaster, this book declares that even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism. (Camus Preface)

As a response to Sartre’s statement that man is responsible for creating purpose in his own existence, Camus focuses on the alternative to existence: nihilism. Existentialism encompasses extremes; Man is a sublime creative power, and Man has no purpose in the universe.

Camus philosophical examination of the dialectic of meaning and nihilism follows the narrative pattern of his philosophical father, Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Birth of Tragedy. Both Camus and Nietzsche rely on mythological narratives to examine philosophical meaning. Nietzsche opens his argument with the following statement:

We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics, once we perceive not merely by logical inference, but with the immediate certainty of vision, that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality—just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations. The terms Dionysian and Apollonian we borrow from the Greeks, who disclose to the discerning mid the profound mysteries of their view of art, not, to be sure, in concepts, but in the intensely clear figures of their gods. (Nietzsche 33).

In this quote, Nietzsche establishes a psychological paradigm between the mythological figures of Dionysus and Apollo. The mythic symbolism that was established by the Greeks is re-activated as Nietzsche explores two worlds of thought: the rational illuminated world of Apollo, and the desire driven creative intoxication of Dionysus. Like the first philosophers, Nietzsche relies on mythic themes to conceptualize a cultural relationship with the universe. Earlier Hatab was referred to as stating that, “early philosophy shows a thematic continuity with mythical disclosure, at least with regard to the underlying meaning of a mythical world.” (Hatab 164) In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche returns to the methodology of the first philosophers as they strive to synthesize the mythical structures embodied by the culture and the empirical evidence of the lived world.

The fusion between mythology and philosophy is critical in existential thinking because both are narratives that provide models for reflection and the generating of meaning. Because of this relationship, it is understandable why Camus parallels Nietzsche and the First Philosophers as he analysis the value of suicide as an option to existence in “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Camus begins by retelling the tale of Sisyphus, changing the narrative structure to reflect the philosophical questions he is preparing to encounter:

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. (Camus 119)

Camus-as-Narrator immediately raises a philosophical question, what is the purpose of life? Clearly it is not “futile and hopeless labor.” Camus continues to explain that Sisyphus is being punished for multiple crimes, but essentially for stealing the secrets of the gods. Sisyphus’ life, death, and punishment are summarized as being the experiences of an “absurd hero”.

He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. (120)

Camus is arguing that while Sisyphus’ life was governed by the pursuit of divine knowledge and the passions of existence, his punishment is intended to embody the opposite, total futility. Sisyphus is absurd because the purpose of his life is negated by his punishment in death. Camus states that “myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them” (120), by negating Sisyphus’ heroic actions the Gods attempt to annihilate his existence. Camus attempts to redeam Sisyphus from a nihilistic fate by re-mythologizing Sisyphus not as a prisoner of fate, but as a conscious participant. Sisyphus becomes conscious of his suffering and fate as he watches his bolder return roll out of his control and return to the bottom of the slope.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moment when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. (121)

Through the depiction of Sisyphus as a hero who is both condemned and redeemed by his consciousness, he provides a philosophical foundation to argue against suicide. In undertaking a conversation that evaluates the merits of annihilating oneself in response to the absurdity of experience, Camus projects new mythical meaning onto the tale of Sisyphus. Camus discovers meaning for his existence by establishing the value of consciousness, thereby creating meaning for all men. World War provided the empirical evidence to argue that existence is absurd, leading to the evaluation of nihilism and the choice of the individual to exist. When the lived-in world fails to provide a rational model for continuing existence, mythology may be accessed as the rational philosophical evidence needed to sustain purpose. If man can imagine a world that has meaning, than there is a reason to continue living.

Post-modernism is the creative response to an existential crisis. While the roots of post-modernism may be traced throughout literary history, it is predominantly identified as the critical period after WWII. Like Camus’ essay on Sisyphus, post-modernism strove to access and generate fresh understanding to mythological form and content. The deconstruction of classical formulas in structure, perception, and audience acts as a device to stimulate active participation. Like Sisyphus, post-modern salvation is obtained through consciousness. However, there is a fundamental difference between Existentialism and Post-Modernism. Existentialism focuses on absurdity as a path toward nihilism; Post-Modernism views absurdity as a stimulant of creativity. Jorge Luis Borges, the muse of post-modern narrative explorations, encounters the intentions of the creator in a very different way from Camus in his short story “The Maker.” In only a handful of paragraphs, Borges describes the relationship between the creator and the universe. The perspective of the narrator is that of the “Maker” as he describes his relationship with the lived world. This is an immediate contrast with Camus, who focused on the Gods as the inflicting punishment on man. Instead, Borges describes the “Maker” as being seduced by the sensuality of existence.

He had never lingered among the pleasures of memory. Impressions, momentary and vivid, would wash over him: a potter’s vermilion glaze; the sky-vault filled with stars that were also gods; the moon, from which a lion had fallen; the smoothness of marble under his sensitive, slow fingertips; the taste of wild boar meat, which he liked to tear at with brusque, white bites; a Phoenician word; the black shadow cast by a spear on the yellow sand; the nearness of the sea or women; heavy wine, its harsh edge tempered by honey—these things could flood the entire circuit of his soul. (Borges 292)

The voice of the narrator is at once the voice of God and the voice of man. The combination of abstract and physical living is overwhelming as Borges lists the “pleasures of memory.” Just as the reader is sucked into the decadence of existence, one must wonder why the story begins with the statement that “He had never lingered” within these memories. The first response is to see this statement as a rejection of the sensuous, however as the prose continue the opposite occurs. Just as the experience of living was described in the first paragraph, the second describes the departure of the Maker from the world and his experience of loss:

Gradually, the splendid universe began drawing away from him; a stubborn fog blurred the lines of his hand; the night lost its peopling stars, the earth became uncertain under his feet. Everything grew distant, and indistinct. When he learned that he was going blind, he cried out. […] Now (he felt) I will not be able to see the sky filled with mythological dread or this face that the years will transfigure. Days and nights passed over this despair of his flesh, but one morning he awoke, looked (with calm now) at the blurred things that lay about him, and felt, inexplicably, the way one might feel upon recognizing a melody or a voice, that all this had happened to him before and that he had faced it with fear but also with joy and hopefulness and curiosity. Then he descended into his memory […]. (292-293)

The experience of life and the experience of the otherworld are united by an understanding of mythology. Mythology inhabits both realms: what is experienced and what is remembered. Meaning in both realms of existence is a product of mythological making. “The Maker” is both God as he makes existence conscious and man as he mythologizes experience. By fictionalizing this process Borges creates a post-modern   re-conceptualization of reality. Both Borges and Camus asked similar questions and find answers by following mythology into consciousness. However, the form of these accomplishments differs. Camus applies philosophical methodology to mythological content to argue a philosophy supportive of existence; Borges creates a new mythological perspective as a model of the creative process. Instead of arguing against annihilation, “The Maker” explores the content of existence in a new form, one of creative possibility.

Existential philosophical concerns and post-modern creativity are highly influential in how the contemporary world interacts with philosophy and mythology. It is uncertain how these questions will evolve into new critical forms in the future. However, what is certain is that the process of consciousness as provided for by these two disciplines will be in high demand. Thus far, many re-visionings of the boundaries between form and content, myth and logic, and the concrete and abstract have provided models for the dialectical process to be engaged. The question is not whether the conversation will be continued, but rather, in what incarnation will the narrative be propelled forward and whether the future will be perceived as a burden or a curiosity.

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Narrative and Myth: Exploring Identity through Mythopoesis

June 1, 2009

Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything

and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

The reshaping of a myth into a contemporary form is one of the great challenges of 20th century literature. The modernist poet and critic, T.S. Eliot wrote about the mythical method, which gave form and called on the archetypal power of the classics to serve as platforms for new works of art and thought. However, it is impossible in discussing the re-visioning of myth from the modern to post-modern literary periods, it is impossible not to speak of identity. Myth provides a context for man’s identity to be explored. In the 20th century, globalization, technology, capitalism, and world wars deconstructed what was previously conceived to be true and beautiful. Born at the turn of the century in Argentina, Jorge Luis Borges lived and wrote about many of the identity struggles that faced the soul of the world. Working in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, Borges’ used a variety of form to explore pervading questions. Specifically, in his short work “Borges and I,” he explores the relationship between literary narrative and myth.

In Interpretation of Fairy Tales Marie Louise Von Franz summaries Jung’s concept of the Self. “The unknown fact is what Jung calls the Self, which is the psychic totality of an individual and also, paradoxically, the regulating center of the collective unconscious. Every individual and every nation has its own modes of experiencing the psychic reality” (2). To know the self in the world has been the primary challenge of philosophers, artists, writers, and religious thought for thousands of years. Many of the creative challenges of the 20th century have dealt with seeing the horrors of the Self, the split of identity, and the challenge to continue on. A visual example is found in the Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica. In this painting the mythic structures unite with modern horrors through cubist techniques. Likewise, many artist strove to develop a mythic vocabulary to voice concern, horror, and hope for the human condition. “Borges and I” is an example of  how mythology, narrative, and existential questions combined to develop into a mythopoetic vision. Specifically, this is achieved through the narrative structure, mythological personage, and psychological questions being explored.

“Borges and I” is archived within Borges’ poetry. However, the form of the short work is not written in meter, nor does it call on any familiar poetic cues. However, the writing is short, and more importantly, it reads with the feel of poetry. The narrative has a feeling of spontaneity that is often over burdened by prose. The lightness of text, is matched by meditative musings. Though I am reading this piece in translation, one of the most effective narrative strategies is Borges use of clauses. For example, “I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary.” If this sentence was reformatted using line breaks in addition to the punctuation it could easily be recognized as a poem. However, the combination of poetic voice with narrative flow allows the reader to enter into the stream of perception without the boundary of form that poetry so often utilizes. Borges’ break with traditional narrative serves the mythological objective to reassemble a vision of the world by mixing form and content.

The mythological references of “Borges and I” are engaged through the author/subject relationship. In the text Borges is personified, or inscribed with mythic power beyond that of the Borges who exists in day-to-day life. “The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.” These opening lines, distance the narrator by through the use of “one.” In addition, it is made clear that Borges is active, while the narrator is passive. The contrast between active and passive may be likened to the idea of “soft and hard” world mythology. Events could happen when the world was soft, before it became hard and fate was decided.  Another example is when the narrator explains how he is being consumed by Borges, “Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.” The implication of this statement is that if Borges did not have some greater mythological power, than there he would not be able to consume the narrator. If Borges were just perverse, then there would be no great attraction. Finally, the narrator shares a time when he tried to escape from Borges, “Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things.” This is a very important statement in that it connects mythology to the intention of Borges. As with the pages of the book, the narrator explores the different possibilities of mythic identity, but instead discovers that Borges is authoring even the presumed escape. Borges extends to mythic proportions and the idea of authorship to divinity is suggested.

The true power of this piece is realized through the psychological suggestions surrounding authorship. The reader understand that the author, Jorge Luis Borges, is writing a piece entitled “Borges and I.” One would presume that the poem will be about an assumed narrator learning about the author. While this is true on some levels, what makes this piece existentially interesting is that it is the Self encountering Self. Specifically, it is Borges expedition into himself as an active author, and passive human being. The “perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things” is rationalized by being the creative genius that motivates Borges writing. In Jungian terms, “Borges and I” is the Self encountering it’s shadow. For the narrator, the character Borges personifies many characteristics that he feels to be dark, consuming, and manipulative. In many ways, it is clear that the narrative voice could wish for another existence stating that his life “is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.” As the author Borges personifies himself as the wishful musings of himself as a man consumed by his writing, thus providing a model for how the self must learn to negotiate the different facets of identity.

As Jorge Luis Borges strives to navigate the different facets of himself through narrative and mythic portrayal, a final twist is given to the story. For the reader, this final detail elevates the work from being an identity project into mythopoesis. As we have established, the premise of the poem is in two parts of Borges meeting each other, the writer and the man. But, the final sentence changes this relationship. “I do not know which of us has written this page.”  Here the narrator is discovered to also be a writer and the entire piece is thrown end over end. The mythic agency of author is no longer clear-cut and the layers of self-authorship can no longer be explored rationally, and enters into a realm of existential intuition. The challenge of 20th century creative perspective is achieved through the destabilization of intellectual rationale. As with the world, the reader can not presume to assert control over the author, nor can the author assume to have agency over the text. Myth, narrative, and mythopoesis must work together to create an organic experience independent of what has previously been imagined.

© 2009 Cerena Ceaser

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Cerenity Now!

October 10, 2008

In one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, Frank, George’s father, is advised to say “serenity now” aloud every time his blood pressure is in danger of going up, but he yells it instead.  I’m interested in the fusion of individual and cultural psychology as they are revealed within art, politics, and literature. When Frank hollers “Serenity Now!” he is at his bursting point. Similarly, I am interested in the process of exchange that takes place between what is unconscious and what is realized. An eclectic exploration of revelations, creativity and questions.