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Reply To: Myth: The Grammar of Creativity,” with Bradley Olson, Ph.D.”

Bradley Olson

    First, Thank you, Stephen. Your introductions are always thoughtful and evocative, and they set up authors to elaborate on their thoughts and ideas so well. Your moderation is itself very artful.

    There are so many things going through my mind as I read your introduction. So let’s go back to Campbell’s caveat for a moment. The way of art, the way of seeing, the way of perfect objectivity, which annihilates momentarily the entire world and world-orientation, has embedded within itself, madness. Why does he say this? There are a couple of reasons why I think Campbell would offer such an admonition.

    First, the “perfect objectivity” required necessarily results in an act of self annihilation. Human consciousness is irreducibly subjective, and to move into a place of “perfect objectivity” demands complete self-abnegation or ego-sacrifice. For a period of time, one ceases to exist as a self-aware individual. The tricky part is that I don’t think this can necessarily be a conscious choice. It seems as though it must happen more or less spontaneously.

    Secondly, it leads to madness those who are unable to bear what Freud called that “oceanic feeling” in which “a sensation of eternity,” a feeling of “being one with the external world as a whole” exists. Now, the following is my own anecdotal explanation of why some return from such an experience with a sense of the transcendent, and why some others have a psychotic break. In terms of what it means, a psychotic break with reality means losing contact with reality, such as hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, or feeling something that has no external correlate (i.e., hallucinations) or believing something to be true that is false, fixed, and fantastic (i.e., a delusion) or being unable to sequence one’s thoughts or control a flight of ideas that becomes increasingly tangential, or emotions wildly inconsistent with external reality. These are also experiences that also accompany transcendence and/or “aesthetic arrest.” It is clear to me that in the psychotic or schizophrenic experience there is still an ego hanging on, trying to retain some degree of influence, trying to understand a reason for the experience. THAT is what leads to madness rather than transcendence. I should also add that this is merely my thought, my speculations, about mystical and schizophrenic experiences. I have a few close friends who are psychiatrists, and I would be surprised if they agreed with me.

    So before I get too far into the weeds, let me address the issue of mythic thinking v. magical thinking. I like your phrase “wishcraft” in relation to magical thinking. I think magical thinking constitutes a withdrawal from the world and from life. It’s a kind of defense mechanism that creates illusions of causality, control, and influence that protects one’s ego from the reality of human experience, which is the experience of life being generally unfathomable, unmanageable, and often inhospitable. Magical thinking sees nothing objectively, it doesn’t even try to. It’s designed to please rather than penetrate. Magical thinking is often sentimental, often self-contradictory, and only interested in one’s own success, contentment, and self-assuredness.

    The aim of mythic thinking, on the other hand, is to see through the mask, to penetrate the veil of Maya–illusion, and discover deeper truths, deeper realities, deeper relationships among all things. Mythic thinking is inherently skeptical; it evolved from the most ancient of our ancestors looking upon the material world and thinking that there is something unseen and unexplainable going on here, and perhaps this story, this image, this play, will help make sense of it. Mythic thinking is, as I explained in my September MythBlast, ironic. Mythic thought encourages a kind of double vision, an awareness of the known knowns and the known unknowns, and when it is really successful, we get something of an inkling about the unknown unknowns as well. Mythic thinking draws us more deeply into the world, more deeply into ourselves, with curiosity, awe, and delight. And it does this always with a sense of discovery and bewilderment, turning the material world inside out. It gives one the gift of the possible, whereas magical thinking offers clear cause and effect and incongruously, a kind of epistemological certainty. So the madness we see on the fringes of our cultural and political life is based on a literalization of myth that inflates individual egos, and is the exact opposite of mythical thinking. From that perspective there is no will to attempt to see through any sacred cows, no logic, facts, social contracts, or common human decency will persuade otherwise.

    I didn’t intend to write another essay, so I’ll stop at this point and entertain questions or comments, but it is such fertile ground…