TELL ME A STORY
By Bob Lane
In monasteries, seminaries, retreats and synagogues, they fear hell and seek paradise. Those who know the mysteries of Life never let that seed be planted in their souls.
Over the years I have talked with your congregation on several occasions. I have talked about the Bible, about contemporary literature, and about absurdist philosophy, and had fun doing that. Today I want to tell you a story. Today’s story will be about story. I have come to believe that story is of basic importance.
Long ago and in a romantic faraway place my life was changed forever. Outside a Lutheran Church I met the woman who, some 62 years later, is still helping me to tell our story as a family. A second story was found in the works of Albert Camus – specifically the first two books he wrote: The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger. The ideas that had such an effect on me? The Absurd. And the absurd hero.
The ideas behind the development of the absurd hero are present in the first three essays of The Myth of Sisyphus. In these essays Camus faces the problem of suicide. In his typically shocking, unnerving manner he opens with the bold assertion that:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. (p. 3).
He goes on to consider if suicide is a legitimate answer to the human predicament. Or to put it another way: Is life worth living now that god is dead? The discussion begins and continues not as a metaphysical cobweb but as a well-reasoned statement based on a way of knowing which Camus holds is the only epistemology we have at our command. We know only two things:
This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. (p. 14)
“And the rest is construction” – Camus argues that there is no meaning to life. He disapproves of the many philosophers who “have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living.” (p.7) Life has no absolute meaning. In spite of the human’s irrational “nostalgia” for unity, for absolutes, for a definite order and meaning to the “not me” of the universe, no such meaning exists in the silent, indifferent universe. Between this yearning for meaning and eternal verities and the actual condition of the universe there is a gap that can never be filled. The confrontation of the irrational, longing human heart and the indifferent universe brings about the notion of the absurd.
The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.21) and further:
The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together…it is the only bond uniting them. (p. 21)
People must realize that the feeling of the absurd exists and can happen to them at any time. The absurd person must demand to live solely with what is known and to bring in nothing that is not certain. This means that all I know is that I exist, that the world exists, and that I am mortal. Doesn’t this make a futile pessimistic chaos of life? Wouldn’t suicide be a legitimate way out of a meaningless life? “No.”
“No.” answers Camus. Although the absurd cancels all chances of eternal freedom it magnifies freedom of action. Suicide is “acceptance at its extreme”, it is a way of confessing that life is too much for one. This is the only life we have; and even though we are aware, in fact, because we are aware of the absurd, we can find value in this life. The value is in our freedom, our passion, and our revolt. The first change we must make to live in the absurd situation is to realize that thinking, or reason, is not tied to any eternal mind which can unify and “make appearances familiar under the guise of a great principle,” but it is:
…learning all over again to see, to be attentive, to focus consciousness; it is turning every idea and every image, in the manner of Proust, into a privileged moment. (p. 20)
My experiences, my passions, my ideas, my images and memories are all that I know of this world – and they are enough. The absurd person can finally say “all is well”.
I understand then why the doctrines that explain everything to me also debilitate me at the same time. They relieve me of the weight of my own life, and yet I must carry it alone. (p. 41)
From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
What I know about myths I learned from Bob’s book on the bible. Here is what he says:
Myth is one of these constituents, and an important one. “Myth” is not used here to mean merely “fictional,” or “not real,” but in its full sense. As the German theologian, Bartsch, has said, “Myth is the expression of unobservable realities in terms of observable phenomena.” Myth then is always used to interpret reality, to read the physical and psychological world. Myth is metaphor. It is story. It explains the complex in terms of the simple. It may be non-rational, but it is not false. Myth is true to not true of the world. The non-rationality of myth is its very essence, for religion requires a demonstration of faith by the suspension of critical doubt. “In this sense,” as Edmund Leach puts it, “all stories which occur in The Bible are myths for the devout Christian whether they correspond to historical fact or not.”
Another characteristic of myth is its binary aspect: seeming opposites as heaven and earth, male and female, living and dead, good and evil, first and last, gods and people. In an attempt to bridge these binaries, a new element, “mediation,” is introduced into the story. “Mediation” is achieved by introducing a third category which is “abnormal” or “anomalous.” Thus myths are full of fabulous monsters, incarnate gods, virgin mothers, and the like. This middle ground of half-gods and super-humans is abnormal, non-natural, holy. It is typically the focus of all taboo and ritual observance. Leach, commenting on the tales of the patriarchs, says, “this long series of repetitive and inverted tales asserts: (a) the overriding virtue of close kin endogamy, (b) that…Abraham can carry this so far that he marries his paternal half-sister…, (c) that a rank order is established which places the tribal neighbours of the Israelites in varying degrees of inferior status…the myth requires that the Israelites be descended unambiguously from Terah, the father of Abraham.”
“Mythology,” he writes, “is not a datum but a factum of human existence: it belongs to the world of culture and civilization that man has made and still inhabits.” (p. 37) In this second sense myth is not merely a mistaken explanation of natural phenomena but is rather a form of imaginative and creative thinking that helps to produce the world we occupy. And that world includes our stories just as it includes the objects of the physical world. Again Frye: “…the real interest of myth is to draw a circumference around a human community and look inward toward that community, not to inquire into the operations of nature.” (p. 37)
Myth has these characteristics:
- form: primarily narrative (but may be pictorial)
- time: set in the past or the universal present – the same thing said in a different way at the same time – or, more simply, the past is universally present.
- subject-matter: themes are drawn from the realm of the non-verifiable, or at least from that which was incapable of demonstration at the time of the creation of the myth.
There are these kinds of myth:
- myths of the gods
- nature myths
- myths of origins
- philosophical myths
- myths of the “hereafter” or the other world
they function as:
- explanations of the beginnings of something
- para-scientific explanations
- expressions of the collective story of an age.
A myth is living or dead not true or false. We cannot refute a myth because as soon as we treat it as refutable it is no longer a myth but has become hypothesis or history. We need not believe everything we read in the Bible as literally true (because it is not), but it can be read as pointing toward a truth, or truths, about the human story. Sometimes we may smile at the naivete of the stories but we should never sneer at them. Often the seeming naivete is indeed just that, seeming. Myths are like parables – to be meaningful they must create their own lens for viewing the world.
We see the world through these lenses.
Volume 6.8 of The Journal for the History of Analytical
Philosophy (JHAP) has now been published online, with full open-access.
It features an article by Carl-Göran Heidegren entitled “Three Positivist Disputes in the 1960s”. Here is an abstract:
The West German positivist dispute in the 1960s is well known and thoroughly studied. At about the same time positivist disputes also took place in two Scandinavian countries: one in Norway and one in Sweden. What did the front lines in the debate look like in the three countries? What was the outcome of the different disputes? The main focus in the article is on the Swedish case, but some comparative perspectives relating to the three disputes will also be presented. The Swedish positivist dispute originated with Gerard Radnitzky’s doctoral dissertation in theory of science, defended at the University of Gothenburg in May 1968, Contemporary Schools of Metascience (2 volumes). The dissertation caused a stir of controversy. It meant a challenge to the Swedish philsophical establishment because it leaned heavily on continental philosophers such as Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas, who at the time were more or less unknown in Sweden. The controversy was continuated in the following years, most notably in the leftist journal Häften för kritiska studier (Notebooks for Critical Studies).
The volume also contains a review of Pieranna Garavaso and Nicla Vassallo, Frege on Thinking and Its Epistemic Significance (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015), written by Rasa Davidaviciute.
JHAP is a free, open-access peer reviewed journal. It is available at https://jhaponline.org/. Submissions welcome!