July 20, 2013

Henry Geiger - Symbol And Myth (1974)

Henry Geiger (1908?-15 February 1989) was the editor, publisher, and chief writer of MANAS Journal which published from 1948-1988. Abraham Maslow called him “the only small ‘p’ philosopher America has produced in this century.”
MANAS was an eight-page philosophical weekly written, edited, and published by Henry Geiger from 1948 until December 1988. Each issue typically contained several short essays that reflected on the human condition, examining in particular environmental and ethical concerns from a global perspective. E. F. Schumacher's influential essay on Buddhist economics was published in the journal. 
Below is an excerpt from, "Symbol And Myth," by Henry Geiger. Source: MANAS Journal, Volume XXVII, No. 46. November 13, 1974. 
We live in an age when the external solutions for external problems no longer seem to work. Accordingly, there is a much greater interest in what are regarded as internal solutions for external problems—such measures as prayer and magic—than there has been for many years. Less sensationally, a new spirit of philosophic inquiry is in evidence, seeking understanding of the relation between the internal and the external; of the priorities, if any, which should order or relate these two areas of experience; and of the synthesis of meaning which may result from finding out the answers to such questions.

In this informal essay, no attempt will be made to be "systematic," for the reason that the questions raised cover too much territory— material for discussion is everywhere. We don't know enough to have "organized" knowledge on such questions. We plan, then, little more than a random sampling of the considerations involved.

Human thought about meaning spontaneously takes the form of symbols. They are the vital currency of speech in the dialogues we hold with ourselves and others. In his foreword to the New Directions edition of Camino Real, Tennessee Williams speaks of this in connection with his play:
I say that symbols are nothing but the natural speech of drama.

We all have in our conscious and unconscious minds a great vocabulary of images, and I think all human communication is based on these images as are our dreams, and a symbol in a play has only one legitimate purpose which is to say a thing more directly and simply and beautifully than it could be said in words.

I hate writing that is a parade of images for the sake of images; I hate it so much that I close a book in disgust when it keeps on saying one thing is like another; I even get disgusted with poems that make nothing but comparisons between one thing and another. But I repeat that symbols, when used respectfully, are the purest language of plays. Sometimes it would take page after tedious page of exposition to put across an idea that can be said with an object or a gesture on the lighted stage.
Since no man's experience is exactly like another man's, how can there be accurate communication through symbols? Well, all men's experiences are something like those of others, so that we understand one another pretty well through the use of imagery or symbols. Then there are myths or mythic forms of symbols which generalize the typical modes of human feeling. These myths are enriching, not reducing, abstractions. They provoke associations of ideas, with the result that the sense of meaning increases with the spreading resonances of the myth. We grow through octaves of meaning. We have only to recall the terms Promethean, Dionysian, Apollonian to recognize how indispensable to us is this wonderful cipher of motive and feeling. The figure of Sisyphus, crouched in tension against his rock, enables us to recognize an endlessly repeated aspect of common human experience—his plight is hopeless but he will not give up. Add the figure of Prometheus, chained to his rock, enduring with only occasional outcry a pain which also seems endless, in punishment by Zeus—
For that to men he bare too fond a mind . . .
and a more inclusive generalization of the human condition appears, uniting the bitter confinements of life with an independent, altruistic daring which risks, then makes, and then endures confinement—out of courage gained from the vision of liberation in some far-off age or day.

Such words may help our understanding a little, but the impact remains with the preternatural mythic figures themselves, through which we generate in ourselves the feelings for which they stand. The gods, surely, are psychological projections of the classic forms of human selfhood; yet the gods are not only imaginative creations, since they have human embodiment in heroes who realize in their lives the content of the highest human longing, and who go through, with both actual and symbolic symmetry, the ordeals of achievement. It is not inaccurate to say that the hero is a living generalization of the human spirit. In philosophy we call this transcendence—a conception we "know" only by subjective experience, but partially feel in effective illustration.

The hero may be a rare exception, yet in dream or vision he is Everyman. The myth of the Hero accomplishes its purpose without disposing of such paradoxes. The paradox is dissolved by the feeling we induce in ourselves through identification with the myth. Vision is the germ of human greatness.

Ortega wrote well on this in Meditations on Quixote. First he notes: "The men of Homer belong to the same world as their desires"—which illuminates Plato's opposition to the poets. Then he says:
In Don Quixote we have, on the other hand, a man who wishes to reform reality. But is he not a piece of that reality? Does he not live off it, is he not a consequence of it? How is it possible for that which does not exist—a projected adventure—to govern and alter harsh reality? Perhaps it is not possible, but it is a fact that there are men who decide not to be satisfied with reality. Such men aim at altering the course of things; they refuse to repeat the gestures that custom, tradition, or biological instincts force them to make. These men we call heroes, because to be a hero means to be one out of many, to be oneself. If we refuse to have our actions determined by heredity or environment it is because we seek to base the origin of our actions on ourselves and only on ourselves. The hero's will is not that of his ancestors nor of his society, but his own. This will to be oneself is heroism.

I do not think that there is any more profound originality than this "practical," active originality of the hero. His life is a perpetual resistance to what is habitual and customary. Each movement he makes has first had to overcome custom and invent a new kind of gesture. Such a life is a perpetual suffering, a constant tearing oneself away from that part of oneself which is given over to habit and is a prisoner of matter.
Can the hero be " objectivized" and made the model of human behavior? No; for the hero is first a man determined to be himself and no other. Only at the level of undifferentiated primary motivation can the heroic element be the same in all men. To resist because other men have resisted, and because we want to be like them, is to be something other than a hero—a follower. But we might also say that as the primary motivation grows in an individual, more of the heroic is embodied in his life; but meanwhile he may nonetheless be pursuing patterns of action he does not fully understand, and here are the sources of conformity, of fanaticism, of self- righteousness and sectarianism—ills of mind and of social formation that beset human efforts and hopes on every hand.

Are there symbols and myths which would help us to grasp the meaning of these contradictions? Probably so. It would be ridiculous to assume that no one has learned how to overcome such difficulties, which must belong in some form to every age or cycle of human development. But doubtless something of the quality of the hero is needed even for understanding myth and symbol. We have to understand them ourselves, not have them explained to us. An "explained" meaning is not ours, but something that can be given to us—or taken away. If we could really tell the difference between what we believe and what we know, we might have little difficulty in such matters.

A great myth, then, or a marvelously contrived symbol, is like a scientific hypothesis— we may find it appealing or reasonable but still not know it. Not knowing it—although believing it, or in it—the myth or the theory may sometimes be used as a tool for our manipulation, as well as by ourselves as a platform for inquiry, or as the design of an experiment.

Thus Northrop Frye remarks in The Stubborn Structure:
The language of concern is the language of myth, the total vision of the human situation, human destiny, human inspirations and fears. The mythology of concern reaches us on different levels. On the lowest level is the social mythology acquired from elementary education and from one's surroundings, the steady rain of assumptions and values and popular proverbs and clich├ęs and suggested stock responses that soaks into our early life and is constantly reinforced, in our day, by the mass media. . . .

One reason why our myth of concern is not as well unified as that of the Middle Ages is that all myths of concern are anthropocentric in perspective, and physical science, at least, refuses to have anything to do with such a perspective. . . . Naturally the main outlines of the scientific picture of the world are a part of our general cultural picture, and naturally, too, any broad and important scientific hypothesis, such as evolution or relativity, soon filters down into the myth of concern. But scientific hypotheses enter the myth of concern, not as themselves, but as parallel or translated forms of themselves. An immense number of conceptions in modern thought owe their existence to the biological theory of evolution. But social Darwinism, the conception of progress the philosophies of Bergson and Shaw, and the like, are not applications of the same hypothesis in other fields: they are mythical analogies to that hypothesis. By the time they have worked their way down to stock response, as when slums are built over park land because "you can't stop progress," even the sense of analogy gets a bit hazy. If a closed myth like official Marxism does not interfere with physical science, we have still to remember that physical science is not an integral part of the myth of concern.
Northrop Frye is saying in effect that this process by which "science" becomes part of the mythic, motivating, or "feeling" structure of our lives inevitably does violence to the original scientific theory or idea. Why should this be? Because, we might say, science is self-limited to a value-free description of the external world, while we live in a world of feeling and value-charged ideas. Science must be translated into "myth" in order to become a basis for human action. There is no way around this necessity.