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Reply To: Don’t Look Up: The Doomsday Dilettante,” with mythologist Norland Téllez”


Thank you Stephen,

It is a great pleasure, as always, to join you and our outstanding participants, circling around the mythological review of Don’t Look Up. The film is so rich in content and relevance that in the format of our mythblasts I could not but scratch the surface, necessarily leaving much in the dark or merely hinted at. But I agree that before diving into the film further we need to expand a little more on the nature of the proposed reading of the film, both in terms of symbol and allegory.

So when I wrote that despite rumors to the contrary, I should have added, rumors started by the writers themselves, Don’t Look Up is not about climate change. I was well aware that Adam McKay and David Sirota did have an explicit intention to construct an allegory for climate change. But you’re right, to me this is not a question of either or. Neither do we exhaust the meaning of a work of art by tracing it back to the author’s conscious intentions. The comet can stand for all manner of planetary threats or disasters, including climate change. But as a symbolic or archetypal image, the presence of the comet, the way it functions in the narrative, says something more than that, something which is both greater and more precise.

But I should clarify that unlike the standard Jungian dissociation of symbol from allegory, the kind of “symbolic” or mytho-historic reading I am proposing here maintains their interdependent nature, in the same way it maintains the interdependency of myth and history in its fundamental pattern. So it was and continues to be standard Jungian wisdom to say that an allegory or a “sign” reduces an image to a fixed meaning whereas a symbol opens the gates to infinity, translating the unknown in terms of the unknown, pointing to that famous transcendent mystery which eludes all signification and language. Although I am not denying that such a scheme has its value, from a mytho-historic perspective I cannot so neatly cleave sign from symbol—or what was latter conceived of in terms of the differential play of signifiers and an alleged “transcendent signified.”

On this point, I must confess, I am leaning more on structural linguistics and Derridian grammatology than Jungian psychology, which is to say that I ultimately agree with Jacques Derrida more when he writes in Of Grammatology: “there is neither symbol nor sign but a becoming-sign of the symbol” (47).

Nevertheless, in terms of Campbell’s 4 functions of myth, we could still say that the allegorical reading corresponds to the sociological and cosmological functions, whereas the symbolic reading belongs to the mystical and psychological. What I like about Campbell’s scheme, however, is the way it suggests that all four functions may be present in a myth at the same time. It all depends on the perspective we take.