My RE teacher long ago set us the challenge of re-translating from the original Greek the first sentence of the Book of John: “In the beginning was the word…” As all translators – and, indeed, users of English – know, some words have more than one meaning; and the multiple meanings of a word (particularly if you don’t have a handy dictionary) have to be imputed from other contexts. Our RE teacher provided us with a list of meanings that had, in various places and times, been ascribed to the respective Greek terms appearing in that first holy line – and the sentence I constructed read:
“In the corner stood a boy…”
I thought of this as I contemplated the Mayan prophesy that our world would end just before Christmas 2012. Had they really been that precise? Perhaps they had used a more generic term for ‘the day after tomorrow’, or similar, and we have simply mistranslated? The Mayans were surely accurate in their belief that the world will end on one of the tomorrows that recede before us… it’s the specificity of a particular tomorrow that gives us trouble.
More interestingly, the idea that there is some means or mind by which the future can be known is a comforting or reassuring myth that we oh-so-rational post-Enlightenment types can enjoy with a sympathetic smile. But if we dismiss ‘myth’ as mere illusion, as ‘error’, then it is we who are making a dangerous mistake.
Arthur C Clarke suggested that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. One might put it another way and adopt an Ancient Greek perspective to suggest that anything that we can explain using current technology we shall call ‘logos’ and anything that we observe that we cannot explain using logos we shall explain using ‘mythos’. Logos, etymological origin of ‘logic’ and progenitor of all things rational, is that domain of human insight characterized by fact, by measurement, by indicators and statistics, by physics and mathematics and models and computation and technology. It is that which can be explained; and it is explained by means of comprehensible, reducible units of account.
Yet at any given time in human development, there remains much that cannot be explained in this way. Once, we could not explain the stars, or the weather. We could not explain disease, or reproduction. We could not explain heat or movement. And for each of these, we used myths – stories that were not directly ‘true’ but which nevertheless served a useful purpose, to describe the unfathomable in terms we could handle. We are terrified by the nothingness, the abyss, the void; so we fill it with confabulation, with tales of the unexpected.
And with the endless turning of the wheel, we convert proximal myths into newly-understood logos (from philosophy to natural science ; from natural science to physic; from physic to quantum mechanics) and we reveal new mysteries for which new myths are then required. String theory? The multiverse?
Meanwhile, in some areas of human behaviour we have made much less progress. Love? Family? The way that a father or mother imprints on their child? Consciousness? For these we still significantly depend on metaphor, on story, on myth, to help us get by.
Indeed, anywhere where the challenge of day to day life is a little overwhelming, we tend to rely on some sort of short cut – a heuristic – that looks remarkably like a myth. Money? Globalisation? Capitalism?
It’s Christmas time, and there’s no need to be afraid… because a kindly bearded myth will hold our hand. What does he explain? For what is he the (cover) story? He is the story of each family coming together in its own way; of each family hunkering down with its personalised history, of happiness and horrors; he is the shortcut way by which we tell ourselves – we survived another year, and we’re still here. We each have our own personal myths – the myth of our own personal identity; the myth of the family of which we find ourselves a member – but it is through the shared myths that we belong to something bigger.
Until such time as we are grown-up enough to be ready to move from myth to logos, we persist with the former; and in the case of benign bearded fat man dressed in red and friendly with reindeer, this is not really a problem. In the case, on the other hand, of ‘consumerism’ and ‘modern lifestyle’, the problem is very real: the ‘logos’ of climate change, of massive injustices and inequalities, of psychic ill-health and the daily oppression of the weak by the strong, these are not benign, and the mythos of opportunity, of individuality, of ‘choice’ should surely be next in the firing line. A world without these things is not a duller world (there will, after all, be new stories to look forward to – to create!) it is just a bit more mature.
And if there’s a more mature myth than the Rolling Stones – alongside the Mayans, surely the other highlight of 2012 – I’ll eat my Christmas hat.