As a matter of fact, it is what philosophers find on the way that constitutes the body of philosophy for if the end is appointed in advance neither logic nor the lack of it can afford their passage. Jean Wahl wrote to me, saying “I am just now reading the Méditations Cartésiennes by Husserl. Very dry. But he affirms that there is an enormous (ungeheueres) a priori in our minds, an inexhaustible infinity of a priori. He speaks of the approach to the unapproachable.”
This enormous a priori is potentially as poetic a concept as the idea of the infinity of the world. Jean Wahl spoke, also, of other things in which you might be interested: of Pascal in a frightened mood saying “Le silence de ces espaces infinis m’effraie,”adding appropriately that in Victor Hugo one might find echoes of that idea.
“A Collect of Philosophy”
In reality there are more meanings than beings. Allegory offers a statement in which the number of beings is made to equal the number of meanings, whereupon the natural surplus of meanings hauntingly invades our sense of the allegory.
—after LIONEL A BEL (remark in conversation)
PHILOSOPHY, poetry, history—the realization of what these distinguishable areas of statement could be empowered to say had to begin with the possibility of distinguishing between them, of separating Heraclitus and Pindar and Herodotus off from Homer. And the separation had to take place with a transfer of power, not with a loss of power, the power being that which for the Greeks was invested in myth. Already for Hesiod the distinction between “true” and “false” is not only qualified but also connected to a transfer of power, from the Muses to a solitary shepherd on a mountain.
Hesiod is already many millennia from the “Old Europe” described by Gimbutas (7000-3500 B.C.), which is in turn not the first stage of Neolithic culture. The relation of myth to language has been changing, we may presume, at least from earliest Neolithic times all the way to the present. The attempt in our times to recover the power of myth in sophisticated literature, the attempt to explain myth as a rational structure, and the attempt to define emotional sequences as following patterns already intuitively and complexly laid down in myth—these attempts may all be related to one another as derived from the post-Industrialization factoring of inexplicable patterns into relation with linguistic structures, myth with language, or religion with art.
In some senses Vico is our Herodotus in this enterprise, Mallarmé1 our Pindar, and Nietzsche our Heraclitus. Perhaps Lévi-Strauss is our Aristotle and Freud our Plato. The possibilities of such parallelisms are themselves a characteristic language-game of our culture, the Spenglerian version of Vico’s attempt to account for the spirit of a culture in terms of its developmental stages.
At any stage of culture a speech act brings into focus, and refers to, the entire context of its performance.2 Part of the context is the deep motivation of the speaker, which itself carries a dialectic of relation to those inner forces of which he is either unaware, his unconscious, or to which he gives the names that codify them as outer forces of an unknown, the myths. The unknown thus bears upon any statement: or, myth bears upon language. In societies where we can trace the process, as David Dirringer points out (p. 157), the alphabet, a crucial development for formulating written language, follows upon and accompanies a development of religion, a formulation of myth.
That the entities of myth, seen from the point of view of systematic reference, are subject to the categories of truth and falsehood—and also transcend them—is a notion to be found not only in Hesiod but characteristically in the myth-systems of many peoples, as Éliade lists them (1963, pp. 18-23). The Muses in their own words Hesiod attributes to them are “perfect,” “just,” “prepared,” “of an exact fit,” artiepeiai (Theogony, 29; a Iliad 22.281).
At some Neolithic point myth and language may have been fused inseparably; then no single lexical item would have been without its inseparable mythic depth. In this sense Emerson’s dictum would apply in other than the trivial, etymological sense, “Language is fossil poetry.” The hieroglyphic name for the religious center-city Memphis was Hetka-Ptah, which means “the temple of Ptah” or “the double of Ptah.” As a complement to the other ways of periodizing myth-systems, one could produce a set of periods according to the degree of linkage between myth and language. In such a “relational” periodization the Egyptians of the Middle Kingdom, while at a fairly advanced period of abstract development for their gods, would stand in this respect quite close to the Neolithic point before the separation of myth from language for relative independence and increasingly attenuated interaction.
Cassirer’s approach to the problem of the interaction between myth and language is to subcategorize all communicative procedures as symbolic forms. This has the effect of defusing the mythic or emotional side, and it is parallel to the more elaborate Mythologiques of Lévi-Strauss, where emotional dynamics get factored out as structures of intellectual explanation. The totalization of the emotional context as a communication system between a psychoanalytic Self/self and an Other/other, Lacan’s procedure, would make of myth only a mode for handling the relations between the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real; myth then becomes a sort of metonymy/metaphor machine, it is referred to Ianguage.
So far so good. Botany is needed, but if all gardens are in some sense Eden, the force on which they draw cannot be accounted for by enumerating and calculating their special effects. The “use of myth” in a poem cannot just be accounted for by a grammar of metaphor, confusing as Christine Brooke-Rose properly finds honorific accounts of metaphor to be. A linguistic account, her own “grammatical” one, has at least the advantage of accounting for something, whereas theories of metaphor or allegory do tend to be circular: to deal with a cause by accounting for effects.
On the other hand, Hamlet does not converge with myth, even if his leap into Ophelia’s tomb, for example, does distantly mime the myth motif of Descent into the Underworld. To speak ontogenetically of orality or phylogenetically of such motifs as the swallowing or engulfing act of the Orphic Zeus would only produce a common context and one analytic scheme for the inclusive, the comic, and the high-oral mimetic in such different linguistic performances as those of Rabelais, Joyce, and the stand-up comedian. As always, an account of the message would have to include elements of both myth and language, and also to address their interaction. A crucial dimension of their interaction would be the elaborately determined series of temporal cues within the work (Ianguage is temporal, both in its syntactic presentation and in its lexical origins: a word is chosen at one moment of its drift through time, as the date “1605” or “1976” may be assigned to the word). These temporal cues, in turn, themselves both enlist an “expectation horizon” in the hearer-reader and call into play the dialectic of his quasi-Heideggerian self-definition in and through time.
As an instance of what may be involved in such effects, take Yeats’s “Leda,” a poem which complexly evokes the legendary effect of an encounter between an overriding god and a mortal of divine ancestry in its long-range historical and social impact:
Leda and the Swan
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
The immediate impetus in Yeats’ context for this poem was political,3 and its bearing is certainly macropolitical. But it combines the political, a common motif for the sonnet since Milton, with the amorous, an even commoner one. The macropolitical is seen in its conjunction with the amorous, and the amorous in its conjunction with the divine: the birth of a fatally fascinating woman (“And Helen has all living hearts betrayed,” as Yeats says in “The Tower”).
These two large spheres of reference, the political and the amorous, which the sonnet as a rhetorical form may be said to expect and accord with, are more specifically complemented by the kinds of sonnet form Yeats has chosen for the octave and the sestet separately. The octave, which describes the love-encounter, conforms to the pattern of the most notable love sonnets in English, those of Shakespeare (abab, cdcd). The Petrarchan sonnet, in Milton’s adaptation of it, would have had only two rhymes in the octave rather than four; it would have tended to make the octave one rhythmic unit rather than two distinct quatrains.
The Shakespearean sonnet ends with a third quatrain and a couplet. But Yeats, shifting from love to politics, also shifts his form for the sestet from the Shakespearean to the more political Miltonic form; instead of a third quatrain we are given a Miltonic-Petrarchan sestet unit (fghfgh), the third line, pivotal for the rhyme, broken by a full stop in the middle and given an enjambment.
These and other metrical peculiarities are made to echo from the form-staples of English poetry, and from the deep emotional-evocative potentialities of the rhythmed language that all poetry calls into being.4
These staple emotional effects are here patterned and subordinated in a rhetorical frame that calls the wonderment of the statement into play by reversing the normal order of question and statement. Here we are given first a statement and then a question, and then another question. That is the octave; the sestet repeats and varies the pattern, first a statement, then a question.
The final question leaves open, and leaves hanging, a form of our identification between what language accounts for (“knowledge”) and what myth expresses (“power”). Both knowledge and power are declared to be certain attributes of a sort of godhead, problematically transferred together through the erotic act, which certainly transfers one of them, the power. DeQuincey’s opposition between “the literature of knowledge” and “the literature of power” has, so to speak, been bypassed. The word indifferent applied to Zeus’s beak hints at something very like Lévi-Strauss’s neutral and objective underlying myth-calculus.
If we try to account for the modality of Yeats’ belief here, we are on terrain more complicated than we are with the Zeus in whom Homer believes and the Jove who for Shakespeare is a complicated artifice-reference. Yeats is asking, and answering, a version of Herodotus’ question, how divine influence gets into history.
The central systematic account in Yeats’ own terms of how this happened involves a psychology of unconscious processes, “will,” “mask,” “Creative Mind,” “Body of Fate”; these “faculties” are in turn transmuted into “principles”: “husk,” “passionate body,” “spirit,” “celestial body.” The particular modes of interaction among all these reflect the phases of the moon, this whole doctrine having been communicated to Yeats through his wife’s spirit-mediumship. The occult and the erotic are thus put in a kind of relation by Yeats in his own life.
That relation translates the inner of the unconscious into an outer of astrological recursiveness in order to make sense of a much vaster recursion, the Platonic Great Year. Yeats uses “Leda” as an epigraph for the concluding chapter of the treatise in which he expounds all these matters. Thus in A Vision, this poem has the further modality of exemplifying a doctrine. Its power, so to speak, is at the service of what purports to be a kind of knowledge.
Staying within Yeats’ system will produce complicated correspondences between myth and language. The persistent evasiveness of the system’s relation to either myth or language, taken together or separately, leads one far beyond notions of rhetoric or metaphor. Here the speech act somehow posits itself, and somehow this happens just because of the high generality of the doctrine it wishes to propound. As Yeats says in his prose account (A Vision, p. 268),
I imagine the annunciation that founded Greece as made to Leda, remembering that they showed in a Spartan temple, strung up to the roof as a holy relic, an unhatched egg of hers; and that from one of her eggs came Love and from the other War. But all things are from antithesis, and when in my ignorance I try to imagine what older civilization that annunciation rejected I can but see bird and woman blotting out some corner of the Babylonian mathematical starlight.
The two uses of the word imagine here are self-qualifying enough for us not to reject the attempt to come to terms with the sort of archaeological evidence that does give us, long before the Mycenean age of Homer’s imagining, in Gimbutas’s figures from “Old Europe,” various fusions of woman and bird. And at the same time the worshipper and the tourist are hopelessly confused in the visit to the Spartan temple that is evoked as some kind of equivalent for proof. Here allegorized abstractions, and the principle of antithesis, and the elements of myth, stand in an uneasy marriage.
The poem itself, however, celebrates the marriage: it somehow brings it off. And the nagging question of how to believe any poem, let alone so teasing a one as this, cannot be handled by an analysis of its language, because the language of a poem has power as well as knowledge: it mediates some access to that which it is also discussing.
This is the case in our time. Myth serves us not as a compendium of belief, and still less as a reservoir of history and convenient fiction, but rather as the modality wherein we consciously mediate between fiction and belief, between language and whatever it is that lies beneath or beyond language.
Literature characteristically finds words, and in poetry it also finds rhythms, for the wordless state of access to a world of perception akin to the states evoked in tribal ritual. A poem has the help of its rhythms, a play has the help of its concentrated actions, and a novel has the help of the indirections whereby it livens that which lurks under the story. With these helps it evokes such states, which are not equivalent to syntactic patterns or lexical entries. Moreover, poems use phonological patterns differently from ordinary language. They can therefore no more be accounted for by seeking out that which can be separately analyzed in an account of syntactic structures than the analysis of the lexical entry “mother” can account for the dynamics of a person’s real mother in his or her unconscious.
Longinus put this point in its most reductive terms by calling that which we translate as “the sublime” something that existed (phu) on a superior level (hyper), the hyperphua, which leads not to conviction but to a state of transport (“ou gar eis peitho tous akroōmenous all’ eis ekstasin agei ta hyperphua” 1.4). He included Herodotus in this category, as we may too, by virtue of something lurking under his story by means of which it produces effects like those we expect now from fiction, and this at a time when only historiography used the significant prose narrative. For Heraclitus, too, the distinction between poetry and philosophy had not yet come cleanly to pass. Heraclitus stands, to begin with, in the posture of something like a shaman. His isocola, stripped of meter and down to the bare bones of the Homeric contrasts, give his aphorisms the air of anti-poems. They are vaguely akin in their ontological self-questioning to the Poème pulvérisé of his modern admirer René Char.
Literature, of course, transforms and attenuates the states that might be evoked by a tribal ritual, so that the person reading or hearing is not thereby melted into the tribe, or at least not without a consciousness that enlivens and preserves him in something other than a role. This separation from identity with a mass feeling involves a critical state, and Hesiod moves into his theogony after being subject to a ritual of mocking at the hands of the Muses. As for the power in mockery, the satirical figure of Archilochus provides the earliest post-Homeric posture, and he remains dominant enough nearly two centuries later to enter the discourse of Heraclitus (B42), of Pindar (Olympian 9.1;Pythian 2.55), and of Herodotus (1.12), all three. Modern lyric poetry arguably got some of its start in the Goliards’ rapturously satiric inversion of medieval values for poetic purposes. The Archpoet is also an anti-poet.
Such simple inversions constitute acts of “estrangement,” which Shklovski attributes to all literary expression in some degree. “Nearly everywhere that there is an image there is ‘estrangement’ ” (p. 115; Todorov 2, p. 90), and Shklovski’s context is one where the question was being argued around the possibility of defining all literary expression as a management of images. By “estrangement” (ostranyenie) he means what results from setting two systems of value in confrontation (as Stendhal does), as well as what results from describing an event as though one had never seen it before (as Tolstoi does). Further, when, in Ohmann’s reading, Beckett mixes logical categories and social contexts in his presentation, the result is “estrangement” as much as it is absurdity. It is the result, not the procedure, to which we attend.
The speech act that constitutes a poetic utterance, in its bare context of expectation—what ‘poem’ means to an auditor—will evoke something like an “estrangement,” a procedure that cannot be separated from a sense of the numinous terrain of the mythic. Even weather saws, barely informational verses, transmit with their rhythms more than just an aid to memory. The dedicatory hexameters on the “Nestor cup” or the “Ithaca cup,” our earliest specimens of Greek writing, sacralize, in Homer’s meter, as well as formalize, in the order of verse, a casual act. Ashanti proverbs are without either meter or words, translated into animals and other beings. The proverb is rendered as an art object, a tiny sculpture. These have at once an exchange use as gold weights and the signification of a tribal wisdom not wholly divorced from the totemic —and myth-structural—function of the animals, even though the proverb encodes the gesture of a partial separation from myth. Aesop, too, associates the gnomic and the animal. The animals, as allegories, are at once reductive (less than men) and yet still intensive (foci of human qualities), though the totemic myth-charge in them has been weakened below the voltage of, say, Heraclitus’ pigs.
In La Fontaine, the proverbial use of animals is transmuted by a delicacy of metrical qualification, which suggests discriminations finer than either the barely gnomic or the merely allegorical. The enchantment produced by the metrical delicacy is different in kind, though comparably attenuated, from the remote sacral origins of the animals that enter the fables. The metrical enchantment sophisticates the relation between myth and language, where the animals, taken just as proverbial agents, have left the mythic force largely behind.
Heraclitus sets the gnomic in opposition to the mythic; he makes the gnomic do the work of the mythic while carrying out an act of demythologization. In Pindar the gnomic and the mythic interact, while in Herodotus the gnomic, under the form of the experiential maxims he frequently adduces, will not quite cover all of experience, since on the one hand there are the incursions of the divine to upset the experience such maxims codify; and on the other hand there are the interethnic and temporal complications which it is the business of the History to set forth. Isaiah takes up the gnomic, as Proverbs later codifies it, and puts it to the transumptive use of producing a vision about society, not of past experience but of the future, and not of the homely but of the tremendous. These are all “literary” uses, where the language of proverb and the domain of myth are set into fruitful and significative interaction.
Any linguistic act is at once individual and social, an act of parole that uses the langue. Poetry, seen in Adorno’s terms, provides an especially intensified interaction between the individual and society; a Baudelaire, through his “I,” gives voice to a general Weltschmerz (1958; p. 87). “Im lyrischen Gedicht negiert, durch Identifikation mit der Sprache, das Subjekt ebenso seinen blossen monadologischen Widerspruch zur Gesellschaft.”(“In the lyric poem, through identification with language, the subject just negates his bare monadological opposition to society.”) The act of “negation” (“negiert”) is also an act of use, like any linguistic act; and, like any, it posits an intersubjectivity as the condition of communication. Beyond this, the poem turns intersubjectivity into an arousal, a transport in Longinus’ terms, which uses the unconscious (Adorno’s “kollektiver Unterstrom,” p. 89) and to some degree controls it in the very process of arousal.
Theory since the Romantics has viewed the use of symbol or image or even allegory as a means of access to the source of power with which the myth is shaped to deal. But there is a corresponding negative sense, in which all human speech is circumlocutory, the “inexpressibility trope” of Dante and other medieval writers. This may be seen to follow logically, as it follows in time, the scriptural distinction between earthly utterance and heavenly, as in John 16:25, “These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs: but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall show you plainly [parrhesia, “in free speech”] of the Father.” The word proverbs, paroimiai, is the regular Greek term for what is gnomic; but it is here used for application to a kind of statement normally labelled by another biblical term parabole, “parable,” which emphasizes the discontinuity of meaning between the story and its signification, the para in parabole emphasizing juxtaposition.5
The single poetic act, in its linkage between language and myth, can be seen either as a continuity, insofar as the myth-domain is evoked and expressed; or as a discontinuity, insofar as the distinction between a statement and a mythic referent cannot be given a lexical account when it involves so complex an evocation.
The riddle as a persistent “einjache Form” advertises such a discontinuity, both in its folk manifestations, however elaborated by the riddles of the Exeter Book;6 and in the enigma-glorying formulations of the medieval skald, of Gongora, and of Mallarmé. “Tel qu’en lui-même enfin l’éternité le change” offers a paradox about a dead writer. It translates the topos that a poem lives longer than the poet into a sort of puzzle for solution. The palm of Valéry, the swan of Rilke, are not wholly divorced from the puzzling definitions of the medieval riddle-types, which in fact often dealt with animals. And Irving Ehrenpreis describes even the poems of Swift as subliminal riddles, “How is a cottage like a church?,” etc. In this sense poetic practice inherits the riddle’s management of myth by a questioning separation from it.
In the programmatic surrealism of Breton, and more loosely in “pure poetry” generally, the element of riddle has been pushed beyond even paradox. The “white-haired revolver” (“revolver à cheveux blancs”) couples entities that cannot be resolved even into opposition. These radically dissociated lexical classes are strung together syntactically in order to evoke some other realm, to which Breton, the friend of Freud, would be willing to give the name “unconscious.” Indeed the poem, in this program, serves as a mechanism to waken and celebrate this other realm. Seen as a significative structure, the surrealist poem, in Per Aage Brandt’s formulation, is a “dialectical text machine,” which works by moving up and down the levels of a “poetic text,” a “text in sleep,” and a “text in dream.” Sets of propositions are evinced that connect the aesthetic, the oneiric, and the political. Seen as a poetic act, however, the surrealistic poem declares the poetic function (Brandt’s “aesthetic”) to be paramount just because it is ancillary to the function of the uncònscious: this highest use of language is to renounce language in favor of an equivalent for myth.
A similar function is to be found in the “angel” of Wallace Stevens, and in the modality of all poems that are surrealistic in the looser sense. Indeed the diffusion and unclassifying generality that I have elsewhere (Cook, 1967) argued to be characteristic of modern poetry can be seen as a proto-surrealism, as a strategy for returning the poetic performance in language to the power lying in the source of poetry, in myth.
The power of myth, the power of verse, and the power inherent in the capacity of writing—all tend to move into close association for primitive societies, whose normal use of language would have to have continued this power without fixing or invoking it. As Grimm points out (p. 68), the runes connect with the word for mandragora (Alraun: a mandragora as a magic picture), with secret speech (raunen, “speak secretly”;rune, “secret”: in Ulfilas), and with writing (rista). Runes are the method by which a priestly caste codifies the religion into formulas, thereby working spells that are supposed to have a power over nature. As Parke points out (p. 63), Greek oracles tended to be associated with human sacrifice. So did riddles, notably in the riddle Oedipus saves his life by solving. In the Old Norse mythology, the Alvissmol, and elsewhere, the riddle is used as a death test, while the sequence of riddlelike questions and answers still covers the nomenclature of the known world, of men, gods, elves, giants, and dwarves before it moves on to simple objects like pin, egg, and horseshoe nail.
In the Bible, the proverb (paroimia) serves the same function as the parable (parabole), as in the passage above. In the Old Testament mashal may mean either a story with proverbial force or a proverb. Both stories and proverbs belong to the wisdom literature, Job standing under the same heading as Proverbs, with the interesting classification “Writings” (khetuvim). Even inspired scripture, the passage from John, sees an indirectness in proverb and parable which can be contrasted with a “plain” directness of utterance of “freedom of speech,” a parrhesia. This word, originating in the distinction of free from slave in Greek democratic life (Kittel, sub voc), transposes that whole political condition into a distinction between earthly and heavenly, since “freedom of speech” in the passage from John cannot mean fluency of utterance, ordinary parole. It is an imagined heavenly language where the very need for parable and proverb will have fallen away.
In this context the very movement from ordinary language to the form of proverb and parable suggests the possibility of such a still further development. In that sense, the gnomic usage implies the possibility of a prophetic one, and the desacralization of questioning religion implies the re-sacralization of dialecticizing it, a possibility which Amos and Isaiah actualize, and which underlies the typology of scripture. The Bible takes the pattern of story motifs and renders them apocalyptic. As Bultmann says (pp. 116-17), the predictive aspect of the New Testament abolishes the distinctions between the literal, the allegorical, and the typological. Dante, of course, knew this well and formulated it in the fourfold categories of the Convívio and the Letter to Can Grande, applying the fusion to the history of his own time; the past of the gnomic and the future of the prophetic are made to converge from the vantage of an imagined eternity. As Daniélou says of the New Testament, and the Old, “la prophétie est déjà interprétation typologique de l’histoire” (p. 135). Claudel and Neruda, who were alike in being diplomats by profession and poets by calling (if at the opposite ends of the political spectrum), both apply a paratactic-orotund trans-gnomic discourse and an image-stream to events as a way of rendering the discontinuities of political event into a kind of exhortation. Prophecy is to them as penitence is to Dante, at once a means and an end. Their anaphora serves some of the same use that Meletinskii finds in the anaphora of the Eddas. This means of heightened language reaches for that to which the realm of myth is a ground. Perse offers a stream of anaphoric abstractions, floating images. For all these, as for Heraclitus, Pindar, and Herodotus, to alter the relation between the mythic and the gnomic—for the Greek writer to transform Homer—is to alter a linguistic set entirely. In literature the linguistic set is defined by, and defines, a relation to myth.
The folk-motifs classified by Thompson, which pervade the stories of all earlier literature (or indeed, of all literature), themselves tend to attract staples of sacral reference and function, as Durand argues. Combinations of these motifs are also classifiable, though they occur in other contexts than those which simply recount myths, in the binary algorithms of Lévi-Strauss; the motif is a mytheme elsewhere than in a myth. And the motif serves as a vessel for the civilized psychological states that Bachelard traces for Lévi-Strauss’s primitive dominant substances, fire and water. In all these functions the motif, like the proverb which will be appended to it in Aesop or the Panchatantra, traces a continuity amid what would otherwise be discontinuities.
Motif is to the continuous as episode is to the discontinuous. Every motif raises the question of the degree of generality we should assume for it (just a disfavored daughter, or a youngest among three daughters, or a disfavored child, or a disfavored younger person generally?). Degree of generality is a central question for the use of Thompson’s index, and also of Bachelard (Fire, water, or simply a fluid, lambent substance?).
For motifs as they enter a text there is the further “syntactic” question of the relations between such items, and here Lévi-Strauss is syntactic insofar as he is relational, if not in some other respects. And then there is the still further question of narrative sequence, of the diachronie series of events, unique for a given sequence if typifiable in ways that Propp’s practice may be taken to suggest, if not to prove.
Taken together, these three questions would provide a lexicon, a syntax, and the possibility of a context, for motifs—all insofar as they enter into combinations of language. But motifs also urgently draw upon and evoke myths. The whole of Greek tragedy, coming after the pre-Socratic revolution, may be taken to reimport the questions of myth as problems rather than as certitudes into the linguistic area dominated by proverb and motif.
In all of this the magical redundancy of verse pattern serves to underscore the redundancy whereby we recognize continuities at all. Verse aids the memory, and so the truth; for the Greeks (Hymn to Apollo, 1.1), truth is a-letheia, a non-forgetfulness which is a laying-bare. In early verse, as we can still hear it in taped samples of, say, Yugoslav, Bulgarian, Xhosa, and Ainu song,7 there is a line pause emphatically more marked than the modern reader accords to his own verse. A silence heavily underscores the redundant continuities.
A poem adds the most primitive virtual and arbitrary redundancies to the redundancies of language. These specially marked linguistic features of the poem are noticeable in the meters and line breaks of oral poetry we have, as well as in the virtualized and minimalized redundancies of free verse. All these superadded redundancies constitute technique, a means of access to something. As McFarland (3) insists, this something is not exactly “content,” since the denotational and narrative portions of a poem are part of its “substantia,” roughly, all its linguistic features, the syntax and lexical items and sound patterns of the langue taken together with the formalized features. Rather this something, which I am calling “myth,” has an aspect of McFarland’s ens, or subjective withness to the objective world; it has also an aspect of his essentia, a heightened awareness of the fusion, and the split, that the poem brings into focus between the nowness of human life, its Dasein, and its contrasting openness to the past and to the future, its Existenz. The technique of “estrangement” or “foregrounding/’ as McFarland implies, may be taken to bring about a separation in the poem between ordinary communication and the specially heightened, globalized message of the poem.
This heightening is the sign of access to the something of the poem, a something which in psychological terms involves a sense of primary process or the unconscious; and involves, again, the unknown forces for which mythic systems are designed to deal. Homer uses myth one way, Yeats another; and William Carlos Williams mostly takes the stance of claiming not to use it at all, except in a carefully maintained disjunction: the man Paterson only Actively stretches out as the city Paterson to have the waterfall deafening his ear. The same is the case for the HCE of Finnegans Wake, framed in a dream-distorted account that carries with it a metalinguistic, Viconian commentary on the function of myth. Walter Savage Landor, Pushkin, and Emily Dickinson do almost entirely without myth in any explicit sense—and yet in their poems we are brought, as we must be, into an awareness of something whose power is not only felt but felt as part of the message of the poem, a message that cannot be coded back just into its philosophical strategies of bringing ens into conjunction with essentia.
All this would be no more than to assert that “poetry is moving” or “poetry is powerful,” were it not for the fact that the language of every poem, and of every literary act, contains not only a strategy of access to the realm of myth but at least an implied metalinguistic comment on the ontological relation of its own language to that realm. We learn from Homer, and from Yeats, and from Williams, the mode of this metalinguistic relation. And the general absence of explicit mythic figures in Pushkin, Walter Savage Landor, and Emily Dickinson, means not just that they are high on ens and essentia while Pope is low, but that such an absence of mythic figures will concentrate on essences (which the fancifulness of Emily Dickinson may be taken to emphasize). It is just this concentration which Pope, in turn, holds at low voltage. There is this mode of metalinguistic comment implied in his prosiness, and also in the almost exclusive Latinity of his classicism.
The retroduction to Greek classicism in Keats and Hölderlin implies an attempt to revive and recapture a Hellenic modality of metalinguistic relation to the realm of myth. Not even these poets took this revival, or more precisely this “bracketing” of a revival, of metalinguistic relation in the poetry, to be equivalent to a revival of the social set of the admired, Greek use of myth. Hölderlin did not believe that his Rhine operates like the Achelous of Homer or the Dirce of Pindar, though the poem “Der Rhein” carries a running invocation to gods.“Ein Rätsel ist Reinentsprungenes” (“a riddle is the Pure-origined”), he declares in that poem and links with this the declaration that “The song is scarcely permitted to unhusk it.”
“Ein Rätsel ist Reinentsprungenes. Auch / Der Gesang kaum darf es enthüllen.” Keats’s address to his Grecian urn also adduces a metalinguistic set, “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity.” The nightingale’s imagined disappearance brings him to the typical conclusion of an unresolved question about its modality, “Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?”8 Yeats ends “Leda and the Swan” with a comparable question, where the terms are “knowledge” and “power” instead of “truth” and “beauty.”
All this is of the bare statement of the poem. Its strategies of organization, either “diffusion” or severe coherence, and its strategies of reference, or “generality” (Cook, 1967), may likewise be taken to serve a particular mode of access to, as well as a particular kind of definition of, myth.
Both stories and plays further pattern their recurrences of event so as to reconstitute some version of the cyclic ritual celebration by which primitive peoples have access to heightened awareness. In this sense art functions as religion does. The terminal question is not only a terminal proposition for Keats or Yeats; it is also a way of not closing the pattern or circle of evocations that the rhythms and statements of the poem must constitute if it is to be successful.
In the psychic economy of bringing the unconscious to bear on the context of a communicative act, as Lacan defines this central human procedure of speaking, such breaks in a pattern are seen negatively. They betoken an unbridgeable gap in the circuit of reaching the Self in the self via the other in the Other. And all procedures involving images in such statements have the metaphorical character of overriding, or else the metonymie character of maintaining, the relationship between the signifier and the signified. Language is thus in this view a metalinguistic machine for working out identifications between the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real. Lacan further defines the whole psychological process in such communicative structures, building an elaborate algorithmic series on the patterns of recurrence between the presence of the symbolic and its absence.9 The symbolic, in Lacan’s structuring of significations with respect to the Freudian death-wish, always dominates the imaginary and the real; any compulsion to repetition, and therewith we may say the substructure of any redundancy, must be symbolic because of its relation to an origin in the unconscious.
In acts of literary communication, however, the symbolic is always more precisely present than in other statements, and even structures of “absence” have the positive function of leading in the direction of presence (unless they fail). Nor do they simply refer to presence; an absence in a communicative structure does that, like the embarrassed silence between patient and analyst. In literature reference and evocation are inseparable; the speech act of literature has the goal of achieving this connection, of bringing language and designative structures over into the realm of myth.
But to speak of it as “the order of symbol” (or with Bateson as an information-processing of contexts that occasionally refer to higher contexts) ultimately obscures the primacy, and urgency, of that with which literature deals. Art, to be sure, must unfailingly enlist hierarchies of contexts, as Bateson shows in his decoding of context-levels in Balinese paintings and his reference of these to modes of symmetry and complementarity in a society’s social patterns. Yet the convergence permits the essential to take place, a withness or immediacy of perception.10 The convergence of these contexts in the work of art is everything.
Looked at under the microscope of Fish’s subtle and sequential stylistic analysis, the epidermis of Donne’s sermons dissolves into cells and pores; the skin no longer covers the body, and Donne would seem to be denying instead of affirming his faith. But a sermon of Donne’s is not a “self-consuming artifact.” It is an exhortation at a certain depth, a depth that for us, and possibly for his auditors, reached the literary. Like the sermons of Bossuet and the Confessions of St. Augustine, it touches a ground where religion and art have something indistinguishable in common, the ground of a numinous source.
It is in the crucial area of belief for the participants in such complicated speech-acts as literary ones, and of ontological modality for the ultimate reference of a literary statement, that such discriminating discussions fall short. Taken as analysis, they increase oudr perception of how fine-woven the tissues of literature may be. Taken as prescript, they constitute a super-nominalism11 whose counterpart in philosophy is the “Mythologie blanche” of Derrida, the referral of all signification to uncorrectable distortion.
On the side of language, a literary statement is complex enough to need the tough hermeneutic discriminations of Hirsch, and also something of the intersubjective justifications that Gadamer oilers, referring the question to a network of post-Dilthey epistemological abstractions.12 On the side of myth, the literary statement may reduce the reader to a vague statement that the poem is unparaphrasable, something that the diehard advocate of primary process will also say about the full meaning of a dream, its “navel” as Freud calls it.13 However much the poem resembles the dream in its overdetermination, and in its utilization of the mechanisms of displacement (metonymy) and condensation (metaphor), the poem sets up a different relationship between language and unconscious process of myth than does the dream. The poet and the daydreamer, in Freud’s view, use comparable psychic processes, but to different ends. The poem becomes public; it enters the world of reality to declare something about the durable interaction of reality with fantasy. The daydream is private, fantasy pure and simple, though it may feed on reality. The poem, again, really tells us not just about fantasy but about the interaction of reality and fantasy, of language and myth.
What does it tell us? There is a quandary about the act of interpretation which derives from something other than the heresy of paraphrase. On the side of language, the discrimination of structures in the poem cannot approach the myth-core in it without re-rendering it as demythol-ogized language. Even in the psychic life the unconscious can only be known as its manifestations surface in the ego. On the side of myth, the assertion of its presence in the poem would seem quickly to result only in either exhortations of praise or crude typologies of archetype. We are caught, so to speak, between Bateson and Northrop Frye, if not between Lévi-Strauss and Freud.
But we resolve this dilemma, at least in the proposal of the question (and to ask a question is to begin to answer it), if we attend to the interaction between language and myth which it is the poem’s main business to effectuate, on the unavoidably primary ground of a consciousness and its being-in-time.
Freud says that the spectator is “gripped” by a play (2, pp. 179-183), and that Sophocles’s management (Handlung) of the material in Oedipus Rex is comparable (vergleichbar) to the work (Arbeit) of a psychoanalysis. Poems and stories, too, manage affective sequences in their readers, as Norman Holland discusses these in his studies of the (psycho-) dynamics of literary response. Insisting on the likeness between the terms of comparison, the temporal process of the poem and temporal process of an analysis, yields the structural similarities between the poem and the self-awareness which the emotional sequences of the analysis offers. At the same time there is an irreducible difference between the two, and this difference is crucial. The affective sequences in a literary work are virtual: the work refers them to a higher context of perception, where their interactions with the possible extensions of language actualized in the poem put the affective sequences at a task quite different from that of mere recursive self-reference, or even self-awareness in a psychoanalytic sense.
Bateson’s recurrent example for referral to a different level may serve to throw this transumptive aspect of the language-myth interaction of a poem into relief. Dogs bite each other in play, signalling thereby not that they are about to fight, but the opposite: it is a gesture of peace. This play behavior, seen negatively, avoids combat. Seen positively, however, it establishes a ground of peace between the dogs where it is then possible for them to associate further, even to indulge in other kinds of play than mock combat. The distinctions apply, by analogy, to the communicative effect of a poem. Seen negatively, the poem in its sequences does manage the psychological sequences it evokes; it becomes an instrument whereby the ego successfully sublimates what it might otherwise have repressed. Seen positively, however, the reader, healed or well in this regard by reading the poem, takes the affective act of reading and uses it to refer more than simply to his health.
In Jolles’ terms, again, a myth is an answer to a question we do not have; a riddle is the inverse, a question to which we do not have the answer. A psychoanalysis turns a riddle into a myth. But in doing so it is, in Freud’s terms, “endless” (unendliche) not only in the sense that it has a stubborn tendency not to terminate, but also in the sense that it goes from a riddling datum—the stalled patient who wishes to be rid of his stalling—to a ground of explanation in the unconscious: it moves from riddle to myth.
And so does the poem, play, or story. But the literary work combines that motion, so to speak, at one and the same time with the reverse. We do not know where the lines of the poem or the action of the play or the events of the novel will take us: it is a riddle. When we have concluded, we have a complete “answer,” a myth, or the virtual equivalent in linguistic structures for what in an earlier stage of society would have been simply a myth. This myth, however, reestablishes its character as a riddle. The whole text of War and Peace is an answer (myth); but it is also a giant question (a riddle). Apollo, on the other hand, taken by himself is simply an answer (referring to the ground of the unknown). Taken in the play of Sophocles he becomes something more qualified (and less), but also something more complicated (and less).
Literature is a temporal art, as we have known since Lessing. More than this, however, language itself is a temporal process: it proceeds through sequences of contrasting phonetic choices linked together in patterns. Without the patterns, there could be no redundancy in Ianguage, and no recognition of meaning. Without the initial phonetic contrasts there could be none either. Any literary art takes these features of language and transposes them into new patterns, new contrasts, and therefore new redundancies: it harnesses arbitrary sequences of sound in poems, of event in stories and plays—and of contrasts, often, in its idea-systems, the irony practiced by Stendhal or the “paradox” which is fundamental to at least some poetry. Image and metaphor, too, can be seen as a transposition into what is virtualized of a relation between signifier and signified. One no longer points exactly at a real horse or tree in nature; the virtualized horse signifies something else, something relatable to the numinous power earlier societies and dreams even today invest in horses and in trees. Even the true historian, who points at real people and events, does so in order to make a larger point lurking under these linkages. In this sense we cannot improve on the definition of Hesiod, who has the Muses accuse him of making “false” (pseudea) statements about things in a way that makes them “like the genuine” (etumoisin homoia, Theogony, 27).
Being virtual, the image or metaphor has a riddling character: it suggests something else than signification. Being arbitrary, the sound sequences in poems and the sequences of evocative events in plays and stories are also riddling as well as evocative: we are not only clearly moved; we are obscurely aware of something that being moved is necessary to and not arbitrary. The riddle is only arbitrary in its significations (“What has eighteen legs and swats flies?” could seemingly mean lots of things); but the signification becomes necessary, once the solution of the riddle is offered (it necessarily signifies, in the speech-act “riddle,” “a baseball team”). Such a puzzle-riddle functions somewhat as Freud says wit does, to solidify good feeling between people by having the auditors do homage to the lively yerbal resourcefulness of the speaker, not to resolve tensions, as the joke does, but to create the momentary test of intellectual tension by way of celebrating the equality and conviviality of two or a few more people. In literature, the movement from the arbitrary of its virtualized structures and significations to the necessity of its Mysterious Signification does homage to the power of the message. An arbitrariness superadded to language has been made to yield significations in the area of myth, without terminating in a necessary, single solution.
This arbitrariness involves the transposition of temporal patterns analogous to those in natural language. Literature may thus be said to foreground, or to insist on, its temporal character: it calls attention to the fact that it adds rhymes or compasses the significant events of years in a few staged hours of causal linkage, thereby making the future take on the character of the past (Cook, 1976). Primitive rituals bring the celebrant into heightened awareness of a convergence of the unique, oneway pattern of his own life span with the common, cyclic progression of the seasons. Literature induces a virtualized version of this awareness (which it may enlist as part of its own awareness, a play of Sophocles at the Greater Dionysia); virtualized temporal structures in literature are made to produce a heightened awareness of a virtual convergence between the secret of one man’s being and destiny (McFarland’s ens and essentia) and the possibility of giving it utterance in language.
The act of writing transposes the natural temporal sequences of ordinary language onto a spatial, and external plane, as Ong has pointed out. Writing is, further, abstract—at its most abstract in Greek and Western alphabets, a one-for-one assignment of letters to arbitrary phonetic values, an assignment as arbitrary as (and parallel to) the assignment of phonetic values to semantic entities. It is, as though by a kind of analogy, the literate cultures which permit language and myth to permute their relations by standing in some disjunction one from the other.
The syllabary of Hebrew is somewhat less abstract. Without the vowels written, a triliteral root can carry any one of a number of grammatical transformations: the written set of syllabic markers (“letters”) does not exactly tie down the sound of the word, and therefore does not tie down its meaning. Without taking the analogy between syllabary and myth-language relation in the Bible to the point of exhaustive correspondence, there is a kind of rightness that in the text, as it is uttered, the syllables of the quadriliteral for God—which already do not provide a distinct pronunciation—have in the tradition an entirely alien, honorific expression to be uttered when the divine name occurs, Adonai spoken when JHVH is written. The centrality of JHVH, and the high redundancy count of its recurrences in the text, can be correlated, if only loosely, to the fullness of reference that is felt to inhere in the syllabic shorthand. The Sanskrit devanagari, where the vowels are written in, handles the syllable “От” with far fewer permutations. However, devanagari does not separate its words; in its texts perceptions as well as words tend to get lumped together. And the Indian tradition is more conservative in its reference to mythological personages, but more innovative in its development of abstraction (with analogy to an alphabet instead of a syllabary) than that in the Bible. Job takes JHVH a greater distance from the Pentateuch than the Upanishads take the deity from the RgVeda; but at the same time the language of the Upanishads reaches, and stays rather flatly on, a level of abstraction to which the Old Testament has no recourse.14 In the New Testament, an alphabetic Greek subsumes and transposes the syllabic Hebrew, and JHVH retains at once the energy of theos and the abstraction of logos.
At an earlier stage, language and myth are completely fused, as in a representational system. The bison on the wall at Altamira has no phonetic character at all, and yet it must surely be Paleolithic man’s sole form of writing for the word bison. Warburton, cited by Derrida (2,pp. 308-9, 334-37), identifies hieroglyphics and the dream-interpretation for which the Egyptians were especially noted. Freud makes a comparable comparison for the Chinese (VIII, pp. 404-05). A soundless representation would seem in Egyptian hieroglyphics (insofar as the accounts of hieroglyphics make this clear to one who cannot read them) to retain a comparable relation between the pictograph and what it signifies, and therefore between myth and language, so fully that the development of literature in our sense is scarcely possible—or at least any development that allows for more than the disjunct love lyrics of one early text, graceful but casual, and possibly lacking the charge of the Western poems that they seem to become when they are translated. The hieroglyphic pictograph for sun can also mean “day,” “light/’ “time,” “eternity,” and other abstract notions associated so intimately with the concrete and visible sun that no distinction is possible between what is seen and what is thought (and so between what is signified in language and what is assumed in myth). These hieroglyphics combine in various ways, so that the ideogram for “feather” or “truth” can be added in a different combination, as a representation for the sounds “sw,” to the ideogram for sun, and still the sun is designated. And the determinative is a separate, silent hieroglyphic.
It would seem that the Egyptian hieroglyphics never become exclusively the lexicon of significant syllables, taken by themselves, which Chinese ideograms are. As sounds, they tend to lose their significance; as free areas of signification, they can easily be divorced from sound. Nor do hieroglyphics combine the way Chinese ideograms are said to do: the idea of sun is not put together with some idea for a further idea, as, in Liu’s explanation, where the ideogram for “window” plus the ideogram for “moon” give the composite character ming, signifying “bright.”15
One typology of relations between language and myth may be set up according to the degree of linkage between them. Another typology is possible in terms of degree of abstraction, and still another in terms of modality of credence to be assigned a statement. One could trace any of these typologies of relation between language and myth diachronically from Neolithic times to modern (it being part of the modality of the modern to try to revive the Neolithic).
But one could also consider them synchronically, as typical of the cultural systems where each kind of relation between language and myth occurs, in loose analogy to the kind of writing system it has adopted for itself. For the Egyptian an elaborate pantheon is retained which is at once visual and abstract. Hieroglyphics are visual, and far more emphasis is accorded sculptural and painterly representation of mythical entities: the Book of the Dead was painted on coffin lids, from which we have extracted it, and Egypt still contains volumes uttered in the silent language of stone. The Chinese would seem to have had a simpler, and more hieratic mythology,16 as far back as the Shang, and therefore to have had a writing system which admits at once of the possibility of personal poetry, in the Confucian Anthology (the earliest elaborate personal poetry in the world, quickly become “scriptural” within the society), and of a loose freedom from the myths. The rather simple myths themselves also had a frequent but iconographically simple representation in paint and in bronze, as the ideograms also are simple of form but quite a great deal freer in ideological combination than Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The Hebrews describe but do not preserve the temple of Solomon, let alone reproduce it widely; and on the altar stood the written book. The assignment of the whole work in the relation of myth and language to the word itself turned the mythology inward, stripped to monotheism. Hebrew is starkly simple in its verbal means, the same locution, davar, indicating both “word/’verbum, and “thing,”res.
The Greeks, after the invention of the alphabet, thereby (or at least therewith) felt free to elaborate a whole series of relations between language and myth in their literature; and at the same time to be poised in their graphic and sculptural arts to a concomitant and full “stylistic” development. To change from archaic to “classical” is not only to break free from Egypt but also to admit of the possibility that the statues could, so to speak, be seen as luxuriating in their own significations. “Breathing” in this way, they come to seem more “personal.” The Greeks can then begin building temples of stone rather than wood, at just the time when the alphabet was being adopted, and the poise and reliance implicit in this act has transmitted the stone temples to us, as the wooden ones could not have been.
In the assignment of imaginative functions, those that relate language to myth within a culture, the role of literary expression is crucial. However much work literature is given to do over against painting and sculpture and architecture and (what I have mostly left aside) the inevitably pure abstractions of music, it will do that work, it will elaborate its virtual significations, by using, by indicating, and by invoking, at once its connection to the terrain of myth, and its separation therefrom. Literature is able to incorporate and transpose myths by having changed the relation between myth and language. In this case too, as Heraclitus said of his “back-bent harmony” as of a bow or a lyre, “what is borne apart is borne together.”