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Reply To: The Blooming of Truth: Campbell on the Mythic Past, with Norland Tellez, Ph.D.


    OMG Stephen, you ask wonderful questions and you should never feel apologetic about challenging some of my assumptions. These are myth BLASTS! after all and if they’re not “blowing us away” into the mythological dimension—where mythos and logos meet (analogous to the meeting of myth and history in the modes of mytho-historic consciousness—then we are not doing our job. But its crucial that we come to recognize this intimate relation of mythos and logos which comes out in the full term “mythology” and Mythological Studies. Likewise, I suggest we must recognize the intimate dialectical relationship that exists between myth and history.

    As you see I am fond of terms that bring together the play opposites in the same notion. Freud famously wrote about the “emotional ambivalence” that characterizes all primordial words, that is, mythic terms used to describe the archetypal origins of humankind.

    My argument against “personal mythology” is as you say an argument against positivistic ideology but it is also more than that. It touches on the very definition of mythology as a vehicle of truth, or in the term used by Giambattista Vico in his New Science: vera narratio or “true story,” which once again is tied to the concept of mytho-history. All of these concepts became clear to me during the research for my dissertation on the Popol Vuh, where I first learned of the notion of mytho-history in Raphael Girard’s book Esotericism of the Popol Vuh:

    We, in fact, are dealing with a unified history that embraces in continuous succession the whole historical-cultural process: history written in terms of mythological thought, which is historical for these people. (Esotericism of the Popol Vuh 5).

    In the same way, Alfonzo Rodríguez makes this same observation concerning the mythistoric character of all ancient mythology, namely, that “to try to separate the mythic from the historical elements would be a very risky and difficult task, since it is the nature of ancient myths to tear down the boundaries that separate one thing from the other and to fuse them both into a single thing’ (Estructura Mítica del Popol Vuh 34).

    Likewise, one of the most prominent translators of the Popol-Vuh, Dennis Tedlock, is forced to make the same point when addressing lay audiences in the introduction of his Popol-Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life:

    We tend to think of myth and history as being in conflict with each other, but the authors of the inscriptions at Palenque and the alphabetic text of the Popol Vuh treated the mythic and historical parts of their narratives as belonging to a single, balanced whole. (58-59)

    To this day the Quiche Maya think of dualities in general as complementary rather than opposed, interpenetrating rather than mutually exclusive. Instead of being in logical opposition to one another, the realms of divine and human actions are joined by a mutual attraction. If we had an English word that fully expressed the Mayan sense of narrative time, it would have to embrace the duality of the divine and the human in the same way the Quiche term kajulew or “sky-earth” preserves the duality of what we call the “world.” In fact we already have a word that comes close to doing the job: mythistory, taken into English from Greek by way of Latin. For the ancient Greeks, who set about driving a wedge between the divine and the human, this term became a negative one, designating narratives that should have been properly historical but contained mythic impurities. For Mayans, the presence of a divine dimension in narratives of human affairs is not an imperfection but a necessity, and it is balanced by a necessary human dimension in narratives of divine affairs. At one end of the Popol Vuh the gods are preoccupied with the difficult task of making humans, and at the other humans are preoccupied with the equally difficult task of finding the traces of divine movements in their own deeds. (59)

    Now with this concept in mind, one I think that resonates with what you were alluding to with respect to Jung and Campbell, let’s turn back to the debate on “personal mythology” and why I think it is a bad term and a misnomer for the true opening up of the mythic dimension as mytho-historic consciousness. In this latter enterprise one works to bring opposites together, fundamentally, the opposition of conscious and unconscious, the personal with the collective, etc.

    I think that having highlighted the ambivalence of true mythology, you might have an inkling of what I am going to say about the term “personal mythology”—which Jung himself never used for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.

    To begin with: notice how one-sided the term “personal mythology” is, leaving out its own shadow from the equation of mythic consciousness. This opposite of personal mythology if it’s mentioned at all is only mentioned pejoratively, as some kind of mass-mindedness detrimental to the individuation process. Although Jung was himself guilty of this, if we remain strictly within the Jungian view, where he attempted to draw a line between the “personal” vs “the collective unconscious,” we can see why “personal mythology” would not be picked up by Jung himself as a synonym for the individuation process. Instead, Jung spoke of it as the “symbolic life” where the term “symbol” specifically refers to the archetypal connection of psychic contents to the collective unconscious.

    What the term “personal mythology” suggests is a kind privatization of the collective unconscious rather than the opening up to it. That is why, I use it as a synonym for ideology. It fits too perfectly the distinction Jung made between the “personal” and the “collective” unconscious. For it is not that the “personal” or subjective psyche is any less “collective” than the objective psyche of archetypal forces—ideology is a collective phenomenon per excellence!—but that in the narrow spheres of the “personal” psyche we have lost the primordial link to mytho-historic truth. The “personal” stands for a mode of “false consciousness.” For truth is a collective phenomenon by definition; the notion of a “private truth” is self-evidently a lie, a delusion akin to the idea of “alternative facts.” A “private truth” is nothing other than a creed, a belief system or an ideology. That is why, the way I put it in my little essay, “personal mythology” stood for the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves individually, as it were, unmoored from the objective reality of the collective unconscious. The feeling of not being able to hang on to religious traditions or other cultural norms does not save us from being immersed in the sea of the collective unconscious. On the contrary, we are too readily delivered into it, unhinged from any guide post, where many mariners have been abandoned in the wreckage that often accompanies such venture into pathless seas.

    We should always remember Heraclitus of old when speaking of the logos of mythology plainly as a phenomenon of the collective psyche:

    “Therefore it is necessary to follow the common; but although the Logos [λόγος] is common the many live as though they had a private understanding.” (Kirk and Raven 188 fr. 198).

    It is this “private understanding”—characterized as a phenomenon of “the many”— that deserves the name of “personal mythology.” Since, by definition, mythology is the language of the collective unconscious, or what is common to all, a “personal mythology” stands implicitly as an ideology set against the truth that is common to all. Despite the fact that “men,” as Heraclitus, explains: “are like people of no experience,” who “fail to notice what they do after they wake up just as they forget what they do when asleep.” (Kirk and Raven 187 fr. 197), true myth is precisely an integration of the individual into the real forces of the collective mind or “objective spirit.”

    In this Heraclitean sense, emphasizing both what we do awake and asleep, a private myth would become an obstacle for authentic self-flourishing; it is the opposite of the opening up of mytho-historic consciousness and its painful collective truths. That is the usefulness of the term personal mythology in my vocabulary for, as Heraclitus also put it:

    “They would not know the name of Right, if these things (i.e. the opposite) did not exist. (Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers page 26 fr. 30)

    For wisdom cannot be divorced from truth; authentic wisdom must be distinguished from lies. The old sage was finally right to put forward once again the notion of the true (λόγος) in dialectical motion:

    “The wise thing is one thing, to be acquainted with true judgement, how all things are steered through all.” (Kirk and Raven 204 fr. 230)