09 April 2010

History and Myth, or Jesus and the Kraken.

I had two experiences this week that have brought to my mind the question of the relationship between history and mythology. In my professional work, I am more of an historian than anything else, so the question of history is an important one.

The first was a television programme on the History Channel about the “True Face of Jesus,” which involved the Shroud of Turin. I love these sorts of shows, and this one didn’t disappoint. Watching these artists and scientists work their magic on the image of the Shroud was a wonder to behold. The one theologian who spoke made a point about the Shroud that I have heard many times, and which goes to the heart of the meaning of the artifact. That point is that ultimately it doesn’t matter if the cloth is “Authentic” or a “Fake.” What matters is what it represents, which is the suffering of Christ and ultimately the inherence of the divine in the human. I think that some people expected that with the carbon-dating of the Shroud to the 13th century, former believers in the authenticity of the shroud would be broken into two camps: those who were no longer believers, and those who denied facts staring them in the face. I think these two groups actually represented only a small minority of those who venerated the Shroud. More numerous were those who challenged the methodology without challenging the method (e.g. those who claimed, as many now believe, that the carbon-dating was done on a repaired piece of fabric that dated from much later than the original cloth) and those for whom the “authenticity” of the Shroud didn’t matter one whit to their faith. The latter are attesting precisely to the idea that what the Shroud means is much more important than what it is; that the myth of the Shroud is greater than its facticity.

The second was the opportunity to see the movie Clash of the Titans. I fully expected this to be as much of a cheeze-fest as the original, and this too did not disappoint. I also expected to be frustrated by the mish-mash of myths cobbled together to form a story could be told on the big screen in 118 minutes. I found that this expectation was unfounded. I am not sure if this is due primarily to the skill and artistry of the creatives behind the movie, or to my realisation that I was treating Greek myth as if it were a monolithic construct that oughtn’t to be changed in the minutest detail; I was treating mythology as if it were fact. The reality is that Greek mythology is itself a mish-mash and is often self-contradictory and open to wide variation. What the movie did do, and this I never expected, was tell a story that meant something rather profound; a story that taught us that there is a nobility in human beings that does not require even the gods to validate it. It created its own myth which stands on its own, no matter what its relation to the myths of Hesiod, Homer, Aeschylus and others.

So what do these things have to do with history and myth? The brute “facts” of history are particulars, and as such they tell us nothing outside of themselves. They only become meaningful when they themselves are subjected to the process of historiography, in which they become not data but meanings, not facts but myths. In this process they become universals expressed in concrete form, existential absolutes. The myths are true. The facts that make them up are merely, at best, correct. This is a distinction that is attested to in the language of the Greeks and Romans; it was present in our thought but we have lost touch with it in an age where many believe that only scientific “facts” are true. As Heidegger writes in his The Question Concerning Technology, “the correct is not yet the true.” This statement is very telling: it is not that the correct and the true are opposed, indeed they share an opposite, namely the false. It is not that facts have nothing to do with truth. It is only that facts are only on the way to being true. It is myth, even when it gets its facts wrong, that speaks truth, and when we lose our myths, we lose our capacity for truth.

1 comment:

  1. What you've experienced, I think, is perhaps common amongst people who straddle the worlds of myth and history. History, the telling of what happened, seems to be a relatively new idea. Myth, on the other hand, is about truth, about meaning. Reading myth in an historical mode; i.e. what "actually" happened, how did such and such a thing occur (my favorite being people trying to demonstrate that Aaron would have been able to hypnotize a snake and walk around with it as a staff until needed) misses the mark (which, I suppose, makes it sin, in a linguistic sort of way). Some myths may have been trying to tell their audience (who wasn't us) about something that happened, but it is done so in a way that makes it meaningful. The so-called facts are frequently secondary. As you say above, fact is not truth.