Symbolism and Myth
Times ruled by the archetype of the apocalypse lack a viable mythic container to give collective meaning to individual human life. Mythic containers have their own lifespan, and an obsolete mythic container constricts and suffocates. Yet, the liminal time that lacks a viable mythic container, as those of us living without the mythic container of an intact culture can attest, easily leads to chaos, despair, a general sense of meaningless and ennui, individual life isolated from a sense of belonging to a greater story.
The mythic is closely connected to the poetic. Have the centuries of bloodshed in the name of religion been an exploitation of the loss of the ability to live poetically? Living poetically includes fluency with the collective language of image, dream, metaphor, along with a permeability to how the myriad activities of the symbolic mingle within our individuality.
The word ‘mythology’ is sometimes trivialized to mean quaint fiction, while religion is held by its adherents as absolute Truth. Consider the word ‘mythology’ to refer to the stories and landscape of the human psyche. Our personal mythology lives within the collective mythology. The stories that we live are the air the psyche breathes.
America is a symbolically illiterate culture, which is why we can’t read the symbolically dense Book of Revelation. This matters much more than merely our inability to read that one text: It’s a whole way of being in the world that lacks a necessary dimension. We collectively escape into tv shows and movies that create dreamlike story lines for us to share.
Frederick Carter, a contemporary and colleague of D.H. Lawrence, wrote about the Book of Revelation in his book Dragon of the Alchemists:
Symbols are the product of the psyche – of the imagination of man, of that part of him which lays closest hold on the things called eternal. …To the older theology as to the newer psychology, these symbols had to do with the psyche and the states or moods of the psyche alone, that is to say, with the reactions of the soul to the external world.
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A symbol is of effect, not by its expression of the physical image, it depends entirely upon its use as a medium between the world without and the world within.
In speaking about symbols, Edward F. Edinger contrasts them with signs. He defines a sign as a “token of meaning that stands for a known entity” while a symbol is an “image or representation which points to something essentially unknown, a mystery.” Further: “A sign communicates abstract , objective meaning whereas a symbol conveys living, subjective meaning. A symbol has a subjective dynamism… It’s a living organic entity which acts as a releaser and transformer of psychic energy. We can say that a sign is dead, but a symbol is alive.”
For the most part Westerners are trained to translate symbols into signs : to translate images into abstract, objective, fixed, dead meaning. Relationships between human beings can fall into this trap as well. The habit of the conditioned mind is to freeze other people into some ‘known’ abstraction of them and relate to them from that objectification, outside the living moment of possibility. Symbols, like other human beings, require a surrender to the living experience of them, which may very well transform both in some way.
Eventually, all symbols reach the end of the meaning we attempt to assign to them and catch fire, only to be reborn like a phoenix. Nothing is as fixed as many would like it to be.
Is reliance on the literal dangerous? Is seeing the worlds in abstract, objective terms, with most of the imagery displayed to get our attention placed there with the intention of selling us something we don’t need, contributing to our current collective ‘head in the sand’ approach?
Slavoj Zizek, in his book Living in the End Times, quotes and comments on the thinking of Ed Ayres:
Ayres enumerates four ‘spikes’ (or accelerated developments) asymptotically approaching a zero-point in which the quantitative expansion will reach its point of exhaustion and will bring about a qualitative change. These four spikes are: population growth, consumption of resources, carbon gas emissions, and the mass extinction of species. In order to cope with this threat, our collective ideology is mobilizing mechanisms of dissimulation and self-deception which include the direct will to ignorance: “a general pattern of behavior among threatened human societies is to become more blinkered, rather than more focused on the crisis, as they fail.
The direct will to ignorance. Mechanisms of dissimulation and self-deception. A struggle between the aspect of self that wants to cozy up to that will to ignorance and the aspect of self that wants nothing to do with it: the heartbreaking tension of our current apocalyptic times.
The West has become proficient at multi- tasking, but not multi-faceted knowing. Multi-tasking takes place in repetitive shallow grooves. Symbolic literacy can help restoring human capacity for multiple ways of relating to the world, as one way out of self-deception.
Symbolism is a universal language. As the West degenerated into symbolic illiteracy, symbolism was co-opted into fear-based and fear-inducing literal stories, some of which were collaged over time into the fundamentalist apocalyptic scripts that, when energized by belief, participate in endangering our world home today.
Next up: The bad boy of Revelation: 666, the Beast