Myth more important than history

Recently I’ve been enjoying the Power of Myth TV Series released by PBS in 1988. The series has six episodes, each featuring an hour long discussion between host Bill Moyers and famed American ‘mythologist’ Joseph Campbell, collected over several years prior to Campbells death in 1987.

Here he speaks on a topic dear to Free Range:

During the Power of Myth the conversations are focussed around the traditional roles of mythology and ritual in human societies – topics ranging freely around subjects like Star Wars, animal sacrifice, catholicism and cannibalism. At the core of the series is Campbells understanding of the essential traditional roles of myth:

  • Justifying the existing social order
  • A record of observable cosmological information – an early instance of science
  • General guidance through life
  • Creating appreciation for the essential mysteriousness of life

He suggests the last two functions are needs not adequately provided in contemporary urban society, largely because rational scientific thought easily dismisses mythology as absurd. Therefore he has based his career, as a teacher and writer of mythologies, around the motivation that  ‘the most necessary form of societal change is teaching people how to live again.’ Whatever you think of this, he’s a wonderful generator of quotes, to give you a few:

“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”

“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”

“We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”

“The person who takes a job in order to live – that is to say, for the money – has turned himself into a slave.”

“Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.”

“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

“Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.”

“Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute. …Certainly Star Wars has a valid mythological perspective. It shows the state as a machine and asks, “Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?” Humanity comes not from the machine but from the heart. What I see in Star Wars is the same problem that Faust gives us: Mephistopheles, the machine man, can provide us with all the means, and is thus likely to determine the aims of life as well. But of course the characteristic of Faust, which makes him eligible to be saved, is that he seeks aims that are not those of the machine. Now, when Luke Skywalker unmasks his father, he is taking off the machine role that the father has played. The father was the uniform. That is power, the state role.”

One fundamental discussion he has with Moyers is about where responsibility lies in contemporary society for the communication of myth. He contrasts the traditional myth-delivering Shaman with a contemporary Priest who is ordained into an existing body of knowledge and teaches from this. He describes the Shaman as a figure experiencing a schizoid-type breakdown and given powerful access to their unconscious, whereas the Priest represents a contemporary institution that often seeks to maintain a status quo (for example through alleviating guilt). Instead he suggests artists, a necessarily ‘elite’ educated group, have the responsibility of re-interpreting traditional myth into contemporary figures – something that I would suggest is conspicuous in good art be it film, music or gallery art.

What do you think about this? Does our society lack this mythic awareness as urgently as Campbell argues? Are many of our so-called problems caused by this absence? Or does Campbells thinking suggest a nostalgic view of human nature and society? Perhaps more interestingly, do any myths have this type of life guiding power for you?


Inspiration of the year

With a gloomy economic outlook and even gloomier climate climate scenarios emerging I’d like to post one last positive post for the year. Here’s a bit of Christmas inspiration. This is one of the most inspiring stories I’ve seen in years. It’s the story of the transformation of Bogota, the capital of Colombia, its a story of how ideas, creativity and bravery can actually achieve things. Its all too easy to get disillusioned in the face to the massive forces of history, but hats of to the people of Bogota for making it their own history. Please, take a few moments and watch this. Then go to the beach, or the fire, and have a good well earned break. Merry Christmas from Freerange. See you in 2011!

2011 TED Prize Winner: JR

JR exhibits his photographs in the biggest art gallery on the planet. His work is presented freely in the streets of the world, catching the attention of people who are not museum visitors. His work mixes Art and Action; it talks about commitment, freedom, identity and limit. Beautiful beguiling work.

More Trickyness: Freerange 3.2

Released today is the 2nd (and final) of our Tasters for Freerange 3: The Trickster!  Hoorah. More Trickyness! More Tricksterishness!

It contains two fantastic new articles, the first  titled “Hit me with your knitting sticks” is by Melbourne based musician, teacher, and writer Claire Hollingsworth, and the second is by Freerange repeat offender Rozzy Middleton called “Being Emil McAvoy: The Artist and Trickster”.

Download it: FR3.2

(Keeping the Free in Freerange.)

The full online and print versions FR3: The Trickster will be out end of November.

We promise.  (There are rumors of a proper launch party this time too.)

Photo of work by Emil McAvoy called Being John Minto

Please see his website for more details, or read FR3.2 for a profile of his work.


Some pages from: An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin. Beautiful writing, some of my favourite.

“There used to be a clear division between what the timid and the brave could achieve.  All the most prized rewards went to those who gave orders, while those who did what they were told were more or less despised.  But there is a third kind of activity in which the timid and the brave can be on equal terms.  Intermediaries can achieve more than their own personal talents permit. Mice can sometimes move mountains. That is why being an intermediary offers more hope than trying to dominate others, or fighting to have one’s merits recognised. Dropping out is not the only alternative to the rat race. However, to appreciate why so few people have thought of themselves as intermediaries, even when thats what they were, it is necessary to dig around the roots of ambition.

Until recently however, most ordinary people were expected one of two ways, as peasants or as artisans.  That, said Luther, was how they best ‘pleased the Creator’. However, priests tried something different themselves.  They were the first to become intermediaries, and they won enormous prestige negotiating between human frailty and divine strength, even when they were not themselves particularly brave.  Then Merchants set themselves up as intermediaries too, but they did less well; for a long time they were held in suspicion , because they lacked the magic powers and did not know how to inspire ordinary peoples imagination. When famine was an ever-present danger, they were blamed for shortages and for selling at exorbitant prices.  Their god, Hermes,  was trickster and thief.  Plato laid it down that it was impossible to engage in trade and be virtuous at the same time, though his academy was founded by a merchant. St Thomas Aquanis said merchants were bound to have trouble attaining salvation, because the temptation to sin was inherent in their occupation. In China, merchants were officially classified as the very bottom of the social scale, inferior to both peasants and artisans; in India, only members of a segregated caste were allowed to engage in the dirty business of moneylending. Everywhere, retailers were despised because they had to be obsequious to customers, no matter who they were. When Napoleon called the English a nation of shopkeepers it was like calling them a nation of pimps. It has taken intermediaries about twenty-five centuries to be appreciated.

That happened rather suddenly.  A new vision of the universe was needed before it was possible. Intermediaries are another example of how seeing a problem in a different context alters one’s attitude to it.  Nobody knew until the 19th century how two substances could combine to form a third one.  The guess was that they must have something in common, an affinity, a sympathy – objects were spoken off as though they were alive. Newton called this affinity ‘sociability’. It was as though objects could have love affairs; Goethe borrowed from the chemistry of his day to call one of his books Elective Affinities, meaning that couples were made for each other.  Fontenelle marvelled at the way a substance having united with another, then quit to unite with a third: the adultary of objects was as mysterious as that of humans. It was only in 1835 that Baron Berzelius of Stockholm introduced the word catalyst into chemistry, having observed that these combinations often required the presence of a third party.  He did not know how catalysts worked. But the third party was suddenly vital.

The idea of catalysis gives intermediaries a new status. Previously, they were mere links or hyphens, supplying needs felt by others. As catalysts, by contrasts, they have independent existence and purpose; they can create new situations and transform people’s lives by bringing them together, without having arrogant pretensions themselves. To be a catalyst is the ambition most appropriate for those who see the world as being in constant change, and who, without thinking that they can control it, wish to influence its direction.

An Intimate History of Humanity
Theodore Zeldin

A new model for leadership. I like it. It offers hope.

“The westernisation of the world greatly expanded the numbers of intermediaries living between two cultures or two economies.  The portuguese empire in the East relied on native middlemen called compradors (known in the middle east as dragomans and in China as mai-pan).  When in 1842 the British won the Opium war in China, they likewise sought out native ‘experts in barbarian affairs’, who spoke pidgin English, to manage their merchants who were content to remain merchants (unlike the traditional Chinese merchants who used their profits to buy themselves status as ‘gentry-merchants’.) They sent their sons to Western-style schools, refused to have their daughters’ feet bound, wore western clothes, neglected to master the Confucian classics, became cosmopolitons and opened the door to new ideas, though they were usually more imitative than creative in using their ideas.  They subsidised Sun Yat Sen and the overthrow of the Chinese empire in 1911.  But they did not become European, counterbalancing their services to Western Capitalism by a strong nationalism. They have played a major role in history, but unobtrusively.  Of course, governments have been suspicious of intermediaries whose interests  cross national boundaries, and at various times it has been a criminal offence to speak to foreigners. However, as travel becomes a universal pastime, a new era is opening for intermediaries.

Most advances in science have been the result of intermediaries venturing beyond the boundaries or the paradigms of their disciplines, uniting which come from different kingdoms of knowledge. Musicians have probably been the most important intermediaries of the emotions, bringing together people whom mere words divide.

Chemical catalysts are still something of a mystery: exactly how they get two separate substances to interact is not fully known. It used to be thought that they remained unchanged during reactions, but it is now believed they absorb a small portion of the substances they transform, and in doing so lessen the amount of energy needed to allow a reaction to begin.  It was only in 1926 that the catalysts in living cells- enzymes, which are the indispensible  regulators of chemical reactions in the body, controlling the digestion of food and the release of energy – were proved to be actual substances, not just properties of cells.  In the gradual process of discovering how their activity is controlled, it emerged that sometimes an enzyme is inactive, until converted into activity by another enzyme. This is how blood clots: two enzymes have to combine.

Intermediaries may need other intermediaries to set them off.  That is the new way of looking at the world, as a series of minute interractions in the presence of others.  It means that force is not longer in total command. It means that the humble or the timid can contribute to great adventures without being too concerned as to who is superior to whom: a minute ingredient can have as much effect as a large one. Intermediaries inject an element of the unexpected into human affairs, which can have negative as well as stimulating results; and they are always tempted to demand too high a price for their efforts.  But they flourish when they please all parties equally, when they oppress nobody.

The historical model of the intermediary is Maecenas, who died in 8BC and whose name became synonymous with generosity. He was a rich Roman businessman who greatly increased his wealth by using his connections with the government, arranging the emperor’s marraige, reconciling him with his rivals, negotiating peace with his enemies, using great charm, simplicity, cordiality, treating everyone he respected as an equal; ‘Sleeplessly vigilant in emergencies, but in his relaxation from business more luxurious and effeminate than a women.’ said a contemporary. His pleasure was to encourage the poets of his day, even though everyone laughed at his own literary efforts.  Aware that he owed his fortune to his friendship with the emperor, he bequeathed it all to him when he died. His method was essentially personal; he enjoyed the company of those he helped; it was a mutual relationship. That is what distinquishes intermediaries: they work at the individual level. It is impossible to have an army of intermediaries to destroy disagreement. Not everyone can be a leader, but everyone can be a intermediary.

Maecenas, however, is an imcomplete model.  The name of the mathematician and engineer Archimedes of Syracruce (287-212BC) needs to be coupled with his.  He is anecdotally remembered for jumping out of his bath and running naked through the streets of Syracuse with delight, shouting ‘Eureka: I have found it’, when he suddenly understood why his body felt lighter than water; but he deserves to be remembered outside mathematics too, because he used rational thinking to make difficult tasks easy, and small implements to move great weights, as in the famous screw he invented, in the lever, in the catapult, in the cog wheel. ‘Give me a place to stand on,’ he said, ‘and I could move the earth.’ Intermediaries follow that principle: the way for the weak to move the strong is not by force but by modifying their relationship , changing the angle of approach. When the Romans invaded Sicily, and a soldier entered Archimedes’ house to arrest him the mathematician asked him to wait while he finished solving a problem: the soldier was impatient and ran a sword through him. the trouble with intermediaries  is that it requires a great deal of patience, and above all, an ability to cope with fear.”

Theodore Zeldin.  An Intimate History of Humanity. Pg 160-161

First taste of the FR3: The Trickster

In anticipation of the upcoming third issue of the Freerange Journal, the Freerange team is happy to announce the release the first of two ‘tasters’. This is a small and lovely online taste of whats to come in the print edition later this year.  It has three awesome articles and some very pretty pictures.

Writings by Hana Bojangles, Federico Monsalve and Toby Huddlestone.

Drawings by Warwick McCallum.

Design by the illustrious Shakey Mo.

Clicka-tha-chicken to download.

Half Caste Broadcast

Combining tricksterism with earnestness is a tough tough ask, and I’d like to take my hat off to Toi Iti and Maori TV for achieving a rare feat of historically accurate emotionally moving political satire.

Half Caste Broadcast.

Comic genius

I’m going to post the dark side of tricksterism soon, that of corporate tricksterism, when the fine art of creative chaos is turned against unwitting populations.  As an intro to this please view the scathing, but hilarious video on the BP Oil Spill below.