Progress & eternity

April 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the beginning, there was chaos — most creation myths begin in this same manner. Whether from a giant lotus, from Muspell, or from the arid Australian desert, it is the revisited tale of creation being borne of chaos & inciting order. There are two commonplace components in myths of creation: that human kind is the most superior earth-dweller, & that spoken language, often symbolised by a mouth, accompanies the dawn of humanity as we know it.

[All this, I say working with the assumption that to study myth is to reveal trends in human nature, not mystify them. This sentiment I share with] Claude Lévi-Strauss [who] mourns the loss of mythical thought in the scientific age in the 1977 Massey lectures, collected & published a year later by the University of Toronto Press as Myth & Meaning. At the onset of the scientific revolution — roughly defined by Lévi-Strauss as the seventeenth century — he accepts that “it was necessary for science to build itself up against the old generations of mythical & mystical thought, & it was thought that science could only exist by turning its back upon the world of the senses, the world we see, smell, taste, & perceive” (4).

Science ruptures into new truth, a truth based on an altogether opposing instinct to the “mystical” — to which both the arts & religion belong by virtue of relying on an extension of what is perceived. Max Weber identifies them most clearly: “Scientific work is chained to the pursuit of progress. On the other hand, the realm of art does not concern itself with progress in the same sense… A work of art which is genuine fulfilment is never surpassed; it will never be outdated” (592, blogger’s translation). The two instincts, then, can be called progress & eternity.

Very often — & too numerously to cite with any confidence of origin — this situation has been conceived visually as separate timelines: the horizontal one that favors progressive, scientific thought & monologic reasoning to which numbering & our world belong; against the vertical timeline that looks upward at god(s), dreams of apotheosis to the point of becoming a victim of the death drive, &, like the senses which give information all at once & powerfully, it is dialogistic.

They correspond to what both Weber & Lévi-Strauss effectively identify as two modes of thinking. These have been used to divide times in the history of the world into the categories of sophisticated & primitive societies respectively — or the world-affirming & the world-negating, the abstract & empathic (Wilhelm Worringer), the Dionysiac & the Apolline (Friedrich Nietzsche). The scientific revolution is an especially high-yielding case for its beginnings of danger & renunciation. Today, it is the great world-affirmer; its ideology is to challenge what does not further understanding in the narrow sense of detail. It enjoys the power of what it first fought.

Lévi-Strauss makes a point of not allowing his listeners to fall into a facile understanding “that these differences should be overcome. As a matter of fact, differences are extremely fecund. It is only through difference that progress has been made” (7). For venturing beyond logic, something need not be excluded but distinguished.

There is a lack of definition, however, which resembles Isaiah Berlin’s argument that by means of human longing for unity there has been the need for a second mythology. Lévi-Strauss turns also to history, a quarter of a century later, only more simply still with the question: “When we try to do scientific history, do we really do something scientific or do we too remain astride our own mythology in what we are trying to make as pure history?” (17).*

History is construction. It does not belong to scientific thinking, although this fact is nearly forgotten now that we stuff the practices together (creating scientific histories & creation myths).**

I am not far from believing that in our own societies, history has replaced mythology & fulfils the same function, that for societies without writing & without archives the aim of mythology is to ensure that as closely as possible[…] the future will remain faithful to the present & to the past. For us, however, the future should be always different, & ever more different, from the present, some difference depending, of course, on our political preferences. (Lévi-Strauss 18)

The us discussed is all-inclusive; it captures the irony of “progress as change” in a static world, an irony we are required to forget.


Exordium on the future

Meaning — historical included — is constructed for the future. A tool is only looked upon as such because one can anticipate a function for it, potential. Even if that function, as is the case with archaeological artefacts, is understanding of the past the task is nevertheless positively teleological.

Human beings as harbingers of nothingness also introduce to the world the concept of future for it is through the future, by means of willing desires, that we define ourselves. That is to say, the future is an illusion to battle absurdity — the only common enemy to both scientific & mythical thinking.


* A notable suggestion — & unique in this formation — is that these “histories” by which we live are mixed with neighbouring & past histories (better thought of in terms of a multiplicity of historians) more & more, accounting for a degree of identity fragmentation that is prevalently discussed today.

** Perfect objectivity has an odd bind to its nemesis, subjectivity, if we observe the world as Paul Valéry who admits “not know[ing] what historical truth may be; anything that no longer is, is false” (Degas Manet Morisot 66). That is to say, second-hand truth cannot but be questioned — it must be treated in a manner independent to microscopic observation.


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