Symbolism and Myth
A time ruled by the archetype of the apocalypse is a time when people lack a viable mythic container to give collective meaning to individual life. Mythic containers have their own lifespan, and an obsolete mythic container constricts and suffocates. Yet, the in between / liminal time without 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, and a lack of knowing one’s individual life as part of 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 language of image, dream, metaphor, and a permeability to how all that mixes with 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. (Even though I grew up in a surrealist home, and was asked about my dreams every morning, I consider my level of symbolic fluency to be rudimentary.) This matters much more than merely our inability to read that one text: It’s a whole way of being in the world and with the world.
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.
. . .
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, not in the living moment of interaction. Symbols, like other human beings, require a surrender to the living experience of them, which may very well transform both in some way.
All symbols must at some point reach the end of the meaning we attempt to assign to them and catch on fire, only to be reborn like a phoenix. Nothing is as fixed as many would like it to be.
If symbolism were put at one end of a spectrum, then hyperliteralism would be at the other end. If one takes the line and makes a circle, then the two meet and touch. Hyperliteralism is the method of the Zohar. For example, the Zohar takes the first words of Genesis “In the beginning, God created” and takes the Hebrew words in their exact order to come up with this: “With beginning, It (Infinity) created God.”
That’s unfortunately a difficult practice for those of us working with translations. For example, Jesus talks a lot about the Kingdom and tells us “ The Kingdom of Heaven is within.” According to Aramaic scholar, Neil Douglas Klotz, the word translated as “Kingdom” is feminine gender in both Aramaic and Hebrew, as is the word translated as “Kingdom” in the Greek New Testament. Both Hebrew and Aramaic have one word that means both “within” and “among.”
This is one of the problems with reading the Bible literally. Few know how to read symbolically, few know how to read hyperliterally, so many are left with one-dimensional readings.
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, comments on and quotes 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. I expect most people in the West know what he’s referring to, and experience 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. That is one of the central and heartbreaking tensions of our current apocalyptic times. This is where the self/other war is lived in the human heart, what Islam refers to as the “greater Jihad.”
The West has become proficient at multi- tasking, but not multi-faceted knowing. Multi-tasking takes place in repetitive shallow grooves. My interest in symbolic literacy is in service of restoring human capacity for multiple ways of relating to the world, as one way out of self-deception. Given that Apocalypse is a time when a society lacks a viable mythic container, it’s not surprising that symbolic illiteracy would be part of the problem, and has been for some time.
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, endanger our planet today.
Next up: The bad boy of Revelation: 666, the Beast