Mythos & Logos (1): Saturn, Jupiter, and René Girard

On another occasion, I inquired into the seeming paradox of simultaneous narratives of decadence and progress that often confront us in mythology. In some ways, this tension must be expected by anyone who attends to the more intimate levels of his own experience. All around us, order is continually perishing into oblivion, while new forms are simultaneously springing forth. Creation is at once burning up and emerging from its own ashes. The seasons exchange and also interpenetrate: “Hades is Dionysius.” Lift a lifeless autumn leaf and discover next year’s embryo. Silence is both the death and the womb of speech. We go towards our own tomb framed in the umbra solis of our golden childhoods, all the while evolving new abilities and articulating new dimensions of ourselves so that we die with both less and more. We construct the temple of history and discard all unused potential—all the “roads not traveled.” But the stone which we rejected as builders may become the cornerstone of the temple to come. This was indeed something of a conclusion for the last inquiry into this subject. The wind which once wove through ancient groves and oracles to inspire the lungs of prophets, though it can still be heard to blow, has since grown barren of its divine power:

Silence has come upon some and utter desolation upon others. [1]

But in the Palestine of the heart, the Saviour has been born. In the desert, the tomb is empty. With the same steps that lead us from the Garden, we also draw ever nearer to the Heavenly City.

“I don’t believe,” you say. And you are forgiven before the words escape your lips. The Pharisees did not believe him then, and we are all more-or-less Pharisees today. One day we celebrate his entrance into the Holy City, and five days later we scream for his Crucifixion. And yet to no one is the Kingdom denied but to the one who denies it to himself. I could go on, but the point is that these stories put a mirror before our own souls, and if we fail to behold our likenesses, then it is not because we have been denied the sign. I quoted Owen Barfield in the piece from several years ago, and his words seems as apt today as they did then:

In the course of the earth’s history, something like a Divine Word (Lógos) has been gradually clothing itself with the humanity it first gradually created—so that what was first spoken by God may eventually be respoken by man. [2]

Barfield points to an inwardization, or a simultaneous intensification and consolidation of subjectivity, that has transpired over the evolution of humanity and which characterizes the structure of our souls today. In fact, just because of this, we hardly notice it, having no foil to set it off. But I attempted to show in the last piece that any number of traditional mythologies can reveal the singularity of the Christian one in sharp relief directly they are set against one another and considered in light of the proper theory. In the last piece I attempted to present this difference diachronically: as an evolution through history such that the warlord ethos of the Greek gods in the theogony was overcome by Jesus on the Cross, and simultaneously, the entire multitude of conflicting gods and goddesses are brought under and single rule, but in a way that was antithetical to the manner by which Zeus achieved his regency. This is the theme I wish to develop in the exploration to follow, but from a different angle.

I am not the first to suggest that the Christian mythos is unique and even antithetical to all others. Barfield, together with his fellow Inklings J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, suggested that the Gospels presented a mythos that distinguished itself from all others in that it was also historically true. Rudolf Steiner, whose insights Barfield as well as the present author hold in the highest regard, dedicated a substantial part of his work towards investigating and explicating this interpenetration of the archetypal and the historical worlds in Christ: “Christianity as mystical fact” is how Steiner expressed it in the title of his collection of seminal lectures on the subject in 1908. 

Another thinker who revealed a particularly striking manner in which this is true, and whose work has largely kindled the inspiration for the present undertaking, was René Girard. I wrote the earlier piecewith very little acquaintance with Girard’s work. But having made my way through Violence and the Sacred (1972) and finding myself in the midst of The Scapegoat (1986), I am moved to elaborate the thoughts that I laid down on that occasion in the hope of achieving further insight into the same theme. I will attempt a brief outline of Girard’s theories of mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism and try to show how they illuminate further dimensions of the paradox that I indicated above and which was the primary impetus for the last piece. On that occasion, this paradox was the question I posed and “the unreliable narrator” was the answer that I proposed to reconcile the apparent contradiction in Saturn being both a filicidal tyrant and also the ruler of the Golden Age. I do not feel the need to reject this proposition with the present exploration, but I do hope to deepen it. 

In fact, the proposition that the myth of Saturn and Jupiter should be recounted by an “unreliable narrator” at once affirms too little and too much. It should really be affirmed that, relative to conventional expectations, all myth is “unreliable.” But this is less of an indictment of myth than of our naïve belief in the “objectivity” of our contemporary views, which are largely framed in the language of science. Neither Homer nor Hesiod, for instance, believed to be offering “view-from-nowhere” accounts that are the conceit of contemporary cosmologies. This would have been inconceivable to an oral culture, for which a narration was never encountered in abstraction from a narrator. The inspired bard was an aperture to the internal structure of the world; a well from which cosmic revelation poured forth in the form of speech and song. “You are the music/While the music lasts,” as Eliot put it. At the same time, the unreliable narrator charge is not a fair one because the bards did not pretend to do what this accusation assumes. Their accounts are more truthful than any of our interpretations that begin with false premises about them can ever be. To rectify these premises, it will be necessary not to assume the anatomised outlook of modern people. Myth cannot be read in the language of abstraction. For this reason, our first task will be to attune our interpretation to the language of myth, and establish theories that do not leave us deaf to it. I believe that a number of Girard’s theories can prove immensely fruitful in this respect so it is to his work that this exploration will turn in the next section I intend to write, in due season.

[1] Plutarch, Moralia Volume V Loeb Classical Library “The Obsolescence of Oracles.” 1936. The Greek text and the English translation (by F. C. Babbitt). Available at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/De_defectu_oraculorum*

[2] Saving the Appearances. Wesleyan Press, 1957, p. 127.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Hesiod says:

    Wonderful exposition here Max. It really is a pity that so many public publications shy away from this kind of conversation and forces people to self-publish. You’d be right at home with George Santayana!

    Like

  2. Charles says:

    Good writing. The book Yuga (Marty Glass) talks about the uniqueness of Judaism and Christianity. A move from cyclical time to linear time. Historical time. A fall into time. He quotes Eliade,
    Christianity goes even further in valorizing historical time. Since God was incarnated, that is, since he took on a history-conditioned human existence, history acquires the possibility of being sanctified.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Moreover, as Girard argues, it is, bar none, the only tradition to tell the story of the sacrifice from the perspective of the victim.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Charles says:

    The victim is the hero. Sacrifice is is a prevalent p[phenomenon in the life (consequently the history) of humans beings. There is an esoteric and a exoteric perspective related to how these ideas are articulated.

    Like

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