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Reply To: The Blessing of Spiritual Poverty,” with Mythologist Norland Téllez, Ph.D.”


    Stephen, as always, I am deeply appreciative of your thoughts and insights, wishing to pursue so many avenues and having to content with hints rather than concrete explanation.

    And yes, I know that in the dictionary definition the literal means the factual in the sense of existence. But to say that something is, that it is a fact, is to say almost nothing about it. Mere existence is the most impoverished notional determination of something. It is like saying that right now I am literally striking the keys of my keyboard. That is factually true but it gives you no sense of what I am actually doing in thought and imagination, attempting to communicate and formulate, etc. In order to know what I am actually doing beyond literally striking keys, you would have to read and interpret these ciphers of mine. The literal is the most abstract in the sense that it contains only the bare minimum of notional determination, the least amount of “information” we can have of a thing.

    To say that something is is the function of pure sensuous intuition. It does not yet tell me anything about what this thing is, nor how I may feel about it, neither does it help me imagine the existential possibilities of meaning produced by the context in which this thing is articulated, whatever it might be. Everyone knows that the best way to tell a lie is by using facts in distorted contexts. That speaks to the shallow notional emptiness that literal facts have by themselves.

    This is also the reason why the literal interpretation of the Christian myth, or any other myth for that matter, is so thoughtless—and consequently soulless. By taking something like the Virgin Birth literally, we no longer have to think about it. It becomes flat and empty, i.e., “abstract” in this Hegelian sense. (For it was Hegel who demonstrated the abstractedness of the literal in his Phenomenology of Spirit.)

    I love that you keep returning to the notion of mytho-history, or what in the Mahabharata was also called the “poetic history of mankind,” as a touchstone of what we’re dealing with here. And to be sure, this notion is nothing new and has been affirmed from time immemorial. That is the nature of Sacred Books like the Bible, Mahabharata, or the Popol Vuh, as well as the Greek myths and mythologies around the world. It is in fact the original notion of historiography.

    As I said above, in the notion of mytho-history the symbolic life and the literal life are indissolubly whole. In other words, it rests on the assumption that myth and history, the symbolic and the concrete, are not external enemies or opposites, but are implicated in a dialectical relationship with one another.

    As far as where this notion comes to us in modern historiography as well as Mythological Studies, I’ve already mentioned in previous COHOs Joseph Mali’s book Mythistory: the Making of Modern Historiography. This is a great place to start. In that book Mali gives credit to Giambattista Vico, a contemporary of Galileo, who contributed to the subject an enigmatic tome titled The New Science. Joseph Mali’s own philosophical underpinnings are expressed in his dissertation on Vico published 1992, where he explains his chosen title:

    The Rehabilitation of Myth: I have borrowed this phrase and its principal connotations from Jean-Pierre Vernant’s well-known essay on ‘The Reason of Myth’. Vernant’s thesis is that the concept of myth that we have inherited from the Greeks belongs, by reason of its origins and history, to a tradition of thought peculiar to Western civilization in which myth is defined in terms of what is not myth, being opposed first to reality (myth is fiction) and, secondly, to what is rational (myth is absurd). If the development of the study of myth in modern times is to be understood it must be considered in the context of this line of thought and tradition . . . [which would ultimately result in] discovering the authentic and essential nature of that shadowy part of man that is hidden from him. This new attitude was eventually to lead, in various ways, to the rehabilitation of myth. Its ‘absurdity’ was no longer denounced as a logical scandal; rather, it was considered as a challenge scientific intelligence would have to take up if this other form of intelli­gence represented by myth was to be understood and incorporated into anthropological knowledge. / My main claim in this work is that this rehabilitation of myth was first conceived by Giambattista Vico. Furthermore, I shall argue that this was the main aim of Vico’s work, and that in so doing he initiated a seminal process of revisionism in various spheres of knowledge. I trust that this perspective, which might seem at first glance to be rather limited in its scope, will prove to be the ideal vantage-point from which to view the enormous range of the New Science. This work, then, is neither a comprehensive study of Vico’s works, nor even a conclusive commentary on all aspects of his New Science (let alone on the vast critical literature about it!), but rather an attempt to elaborate the full meaning and implications of one singular notion that undergirds that work: the definition of myth as ‘true narration’ (vera narratio). (2-3)

    This singular notion of vera narratio is, of course, the essence of mytho-history. That is where I derive my term true mythto express this notion, a usage which makes it clear that we’re not talking about myth in the usual vulgar sense of the word meaning a false narrative. That vulgar sense is allowed to stand as a synonym for ideology from which we would like to draw a line of distinction.

    When you read The New Science you also understand the central role that the notion of truth bears in the concept of mythology as mytho-history. Here’s one my favorite passages from the Scienza Nuova in which he shows the dialectical relationship internal to the concept of mythology as the marriage of mythos and logos in a single paradigm of truth. And he does this while advancing a theory of the origin of speech itself out of times of articulated silence:

    401 “Logic” comes from logos, whose first and proper meaning was fabula, fable, carried over into Italian as favella,speech. In Greek the fable was also called mythos, myth, whence comes the Latin mutus, mute. For speech was born in mute times as mental [or sign] language, which Strabo in a golden passage [1.2.6] says existed before vocal or articulate [language]; whence logos means both word and idea. It was fitting that the matter should be so ordered by divine providence in religious times, for it is an eternal property of religions that they attach more importance to meditation than to speech. Thus the first language in the first mute times of the nations must have begun with signs, whether gestures or physical objects, which had natural relations to the ideas [to be expressed] [225]. For this reason logos, or word, meant also deed to the Hebrews and thing to the Greeks, as Thomas Gataker observes in his De instrumenti stylo. Similarly, mythos came to be defined for us as vera narratio, or true speech, the natural speech which first Plato and then lamblichus said had been spoken in the world at one time [227].