ARTIST AND MYTH
In the case of myth we can clearly distinguish at least two usages: on
the one hand myth is used in its classical meaning, the one that most
people are generally in agreement on, and on the other hand we can
find phenomena prevalent even in today's society that seem to
resemble classical myths. A cursory glance at such myths amply
demonstrates the radically divergent precepts around them. From this
diversity it is obvious that the question is going to crop up whether
all of the phenomena subsumed under myth should be lumped together as
being part of one concept and whether myth is the best word to
express this concept. While I remain sceptical in this regard, I
nonetheless, would hesitate to offer any radically alternate
suggestion. As far as myth is concerned, we will use as our point of
departure those phenomena that diverse authors have considered as
myths without discussing whether they could be better expressed by
some more appropriate term or whether they could converge somehow in
the semantic field of some other concept. It is quite possible that
the multifacetedness of myth derives from the change over of the
original Greek word mythos from speech to (an imaginary)
Perhaps one of the sources of the divergence in
the meaning of myth might be hidden in the dual function it
originally had. In very broad terms these are:
- poetic or narrative
- explanatory or cognitive
One possibility allowing myth to survive today lies in its ability to
continue as a narrative. This is what we find for example in film
series, comics, detective novels or other stories produced by mass
culture (for example Eliade 1963: 191 ff), Another possibility lies
in its ability to continue as a cognitive element, that is, the part
of the myth used to explain the world. One common meaning of myth
associated with its cognitive aspects is that of myth as a deception,
distortion or falsehood. We can see the origins of this meaning when
the ancient mythos diverged from logos. This became
firmly estblished during the middle ages when the word myth became
associated with a pagan lie. We could now say that today's theory of
the myth is open but even though it would appear that we are dealing
with one and the same thing our conclusions can often be
Perhaps a few examples would
help here. The two most prevalent understandings of ideological or
political myths come from the works of George Sorel and Roland
Barthes (Sorel 1990; Barthes 1982). The ideological underpinnings of
both Sorel and Barthes were relatively similar - the left and a
critical approach to bourgeois society. Despite this, they managed to
create two very distinct dichotomies between myth and politics that
reflect changed historical circumstances.
interested in finding out why people were ready to offer their lives
in the name of some ideal that require them to shun their rational
egoism and normal practices. He came to the conclusion that only some
myth could cause a person to step beyond the bounds separating speech
and action, to step beyond rational considerations. He found that
revolution without myth is not possible. This was revealed in Sorel's
hate for language and politics - and paradoxically here was the
premonition of a totalitarian regime. After all, a disdain of words,
the slogan «from words to deeds» was one of the roots of
totalitarianism. Barthes' myth on the other hand worked in the name
of bourgeois ideology at the same time as being perhaps a direct and
perhaps unconscious conspiracy on the part of the bourgeois as a
class against the individual in society. Of course we might want to
consider Barthes' mythologies specific to his times if he himself had
not hurried to make further far-reaching generalisations about both
the myth-free nature of the left as well as the linguistic elements
A comparison of the relationship myths have to
language provide us with another example of a different approach.
In some ways both myth and language are
similar types of words. Both language and myth have a core of
languageness and mythness that everyone agrees on. At the same time,
both have an endless supply of hypostases in which these words are
used with either a more literal or more metaphoric meaning. In some
instances, the original metaphor has become so worn away that the
difference between their literal and extended meaning becomes
indiscernible. There are plenty of examples of the word language used
where the languageness of the thing discussed is completely
If Sorel's left-leaning myth was connected
to going beyond language or moving from words to deeds then Barthes'
myth in contrast was language-specific. To be sure, Barthes' theory
has often been criticised for its inconsistencies in that Barthes
considers myth to be the speech-act, the message, a meta-language and
a semiological system. In any case, Barthes' whole system of myth
rests on language where it is in a position to produce even more
additional meanings. In contrast to myth as Barthes sees it, we have
for example modern poetry, which has become a regressive semiotic
system at the stage of pre-semiological language (Barthes 1982:
Language leads us directly to Claude
Lévi-Strauss, who also dealt with myth. But while the basis of
Lévi-Strauss' theory was an unmotivated system of myth symbols
or mythemes (e.g. Lévi-Strauss 1972: 206-231, 1970:
1-32), then Barthes on the other hand, feels that no myth can exist
unless it is based on some motivating relationship (Barthes 1982:
A third example is provided by Juri
Lotman and Boris Uspenski who feel that myth is asemiotic and as such
is very reminiscent of that anomalous layer in language, proper names
(Lotman & Uspenski 1992: 62). Lotman and Uspenski associate
proper names with myth by using child-language as an example. Much of
what is in the child's consciousness could be compared to a
consciousness of myth. In the same way, child language at a certain
stage resembles proper names.
These two examples should be enough to convince us of the wide range of
meaning behind myth today. In admitting this, we can now move on to
look at myth in art. And here I am not referring to a secondary use
of myth as an object of depiction in art but rather to the continued
existence of a texture characteristic of some living myth within art
itself. And since our main object of interest here is the author or
rather artist, than the main focus will be on the myth of the artist.
A second focus will be on the differing opinions mentioned above with
respect to the connection between myth and language. The similarity
between myth and proper names that Lotman and Uspenski observed can
lead us to the logical connection between the name of an author and
the myth of the artist. I will take a book by Ernst Kris and Otto
Kurz as my point of separture (the book first appeared in 1937, Die
Legende vom Kunstler: Ein historischer Versuch - Kris & Kurz
1979). The principles presented in this relatively obscure work seem
to be universal even today.
Kris and Kurz examined
primarily ancient and renaissance artists or rather the stories about
artists that were prevalent during the ancient and renaissance
periods. The richest source of stories about artists of the ancient
period are found in Pliny the Elder's Naturalis historia. Book
35 and in part books 33 and 34 are devoted entirely to them. An
inexhaustible source for biographies of renaissance artists is
without a doubt Giorgio Vasari's lives of artists (Le Vite de' più
eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, first
publishes in about 1550 followed by an enlarged edition in 1568 -
Vasari 1927). It is quite evident that Vasari was the one that
established much about artists that has remained canonic right to the
Kris and Kurz found that a number of
wide-spread and coinciding motifs can be pointed out in the artists'
biographies (they mostly studied the artists of ancient times and the
Renaissance). After some adaptation, the motifs could be the
I - The Heroization of the Artist's
As subsections here we can distinguish the
- unusual background: (as repeating
motifs we come across things such as illegitimacy, poverty, serious
illness in childhood). As such, some premonition of an extra-ordinary
future is apparent already in childhood;
- an early talent in arts that is manifested in some very
(the artist sketches animals as he is tending the herd, doodles on
the walls - as with Filippi Lippi or doodles in notebooks -
Poussin, Michelangelo; this passion for drawing is often actively
discouraged, for example the child is beaten by the father);
- the artist meets a benefactor or teacher who recognized the
child's talent and who in later life becomes a significant force,
often assuming the role of the father. Part of this is the often
repeated admission of the teacher that he has no more that he can
teach the future artist.
An appropriate example of
this, albeit from a significantly later period, is provided by the
description of Pablo Picasso's childhood:
rain that had been falling a few days earlier had given way to a
strong easterly wind. Night had fallen early and it was dark. It was
a heavy autumn night in the city of Malaga. At number 36 in the
Plaza de Riego ... , there was an atmosphere of tension and
uncertainty. Doña María Francisca Picasso López
was lying in childbed. [---] The birth was not easy but at a quarter
past eleven on that autumn night it was all over. A new baby, another
son of the city of Malaga, had come into the world. [---] That night,
Tuesday October 25th, saw the start of the life of the man who, with
time, would become a myth, and like all myths, a legend. His uncle
Salvador Ruiz Blasco, a qualified doctor, attended the birth and made
sure, with his skill, that the newborn baby survived.» (Mallen
1999a) «His unusual adeptness for drawing began to manifest
itself early, around the age of 10, when he became his father's pupil
[Picasso's father was professor of Drawing José Ruiz Blasco]
... At this time he started his first paintings. From that point his
ability to experiment with what he learned and to develop new
expressive means quickly allowed him to surpass his father's
abilities. (Mallen 1999b)
One of the favourite
motifs in the childhood stories of Renaissance and later-day artist
was the tending the herds. Probably the most famous of these
childhood shepherds in the history of art is Giotto. Vasari describes
in a very lively fashion how Giotto loved to draw animals as he
tended them. It was there that his future teacher, the artist Cimabue
discovered the boy: «... and while the sheep were grazing,
[Giotto] was drawing one of them with a roughly sharpened piece of
stone on the smooth surface of the cliff, even though apart from
Nature he had no other teacher.» (Vasari 1927: I, 66.) This
fact found its way into the eleventh canto of Dante's Divine Comedy.
The herder and in particular the shepherd motif was
particularly successful in artists' biographies for centuries. In
Vasari we can find the same episode in the biographies of Andrea
Sansivono and Andrea del Castagno, Mantegna was a shepherd,
Raffaellino da Reggio was a goatherd, and from later periods we know
that Zurbarán and Goya were also herders (Kris & Kurz
Another story was circulated about Giotto.
According to this version Giotto was supposed to have become a wool
merchant but he ran away from the workshop in order to paint (Kris &
In the descriptions of the artists'
lives, the facts are not important but rather how they can be made to
follow the canons and preconceived notions that were already
prevalent assumes importance. We find instead of accuracy, mythical
motifs. In Giotto's times and in the following centuries a spirit of
pastoralism was floating over Europe and so it was inevitable that
the artists had to be sent to tend herds too. The post-Freudian myth
of the artist today is obviously going to be different in comparison
to that of the renaissance. The premonitions and influences are going
to be different, but they will be there nonetheless. As a premonition
at birth, the place of birth has often become significant today. A
mythical glitter is added to the biographies of western European and
American artists by virtue of their being born in eastern Europe or
As an example of this and how facts can be made
to be slippery, let us look at the biography of Mark Rothko. The
following excerpts are taken from the Internet where the raw data
found being disseminated there provides a fertile terrain for the
growth of folklore. The sources we have chosen are, however, among
the more trustworthy ones (i.e. net-encyclopaedia and websites of
If we set aside the fact of Dvinsk and Russia, which tends to offend the
Baltic amour-propre (similar sorts of examples can be culled from the
biographies of Estonian and Baltic Germans in Dorpat), the most
curious fact seems to be the one making Rothko out to be one of Josef
Albers' students. But Albers immigrated to America only in 1933 after
the closing of Bauhaus and he was the director of Yale's design
department between 1950-1960. Thus, we see in addition to emphasizing
his Russian origin (even though Rothko was actually a Latvian Jew,
the necessary irrationality emanated from Russia) it was also
important to find a familiar teacher and leader for him.
- «The artist was born in Dvinsk,
Russia [---] As a student of Josef Albers, Rothko's work may seem at
first glance much like that of his mentor. «
- «American Abstract Expressionist painter, born at Dvinsk in
Russia. [---] Studied the liberal arts at Yale University 1921-3.
Moved in 1925 to New York and studied for a short time at the Art
Students League under Max Weber, then began to paint on his
- «born Sept. 25, 1903,
Dvinsk, Russia ... American painter [---] In 1913 Rothko's family
emigrated from Russia to the U.S., where they settled in Portland,
Ore. During his youth he was preoccupied with politics and social
issues. He entered Yale University in 1921, intending to become a
labour leader, but dropped out after two years and wandered about the
U.S. In 1925 he settled in New York City and took up painting.
- «Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in
Dvinsk, Russia (today Daugavpils, Latvia), on September 25, 1903 ...
Rothko and his family immigrated to the United States when he was ten
years old, and settled in Portland, Oregon. Rothko attended Yale
University in 1921, where he studied English, French, European
history, elementary mathematics, physics, biology, and economics, the
history of philosophy, and general psychology. His initial intention
was to become an engineer or an attorney. Rothko gave up his studies
in the fall of 1923 and moved to New York City.»1
It is natural that in the post world War II biographies of artists there
is going to be a shift in emphasis as compared to the renaissance.
Among American artist there are many who died young (for example
Arshile Gorky's suicide, Jackson Pollock's car accident) or drank and
took drugs. These same shifts have occurred in pop culture and
literature, but the significance lies elsewhere - the symbolic
elements have shifted from birth to death and in the direction of
tragic signs (sickness, childhood abuse, the death of someone dear
etc.). If previously birth had been the prelude to life, then in the
second half of the 20th century, life itself had become a prelude to
death. It is true that in previous centuries there were many artists
who had short lives but their premature death had never been
fetishized to the extent it is now. By way of comparison, we can look
at the sicknesses and deaths inspired by romanticism. This is, to be
sure, more prevalent in literature. In the world of art the
best-known example of it would be the life of van Gogh.
Two examples from the beginning of the introductory materials for an
exposition in the Washington National Gallery are sufficient to
demonstrate the above:
«Rothko, who committed
suicide at age sixty-six, was born in Dvinsk, Russia, and immigrated
to the United States at age ten. After two years of liberal arts
study at Yale University, he moved to New York, ...» the
introduction to Jackson Pollock begins with the announcement of his
death, which appeared 20 August 1956 in Time Magazine.2
To summarize the basic points of the heroic artist's
- the hero demonstrates talent at an early
- often poor from a lower social class
- undergoes a turning point through meeting a helper, advisor, teacher
(this provides a bipolarity to the biography whereby the artist's
personality is allowed to rise out of his humble beginnings and the
raising up is carried out by the helper)
- premonitions and the helper/guide is present at the beginning of all
It is through these elements that we are
convinced that the artist is not like other ordinary people, and,
after all, the artist in any society can allow himself something more
than others can. In this way the hero motif is connected to the
The birth of Michelangelo assumes truly
mythic proportions in the biography by Vasari:
At that time, while the diligent and chosen spirits, helped by that
enlightenment which Giotto and his followers had created, hoped to
demonstrate those talents to the world with which auspicious stars
and their own equilibrate nature had provided them ... the great
Heavenly lawgiver looked down and upon seeing the vain and fruitless
exertions and arrogant opinions of men which verily were further from
truth than light is from dankness, decided in order to free them of
these faults to send a genius equal in all arts into the world. God
equipped him with a just and moral philosophy and a pleasing poetic
disposition so that the whole world would be enchanted with the
outstanding and uniqueness of his life and work and all his
achievements and that they would seem rather divine in origin than
Tuscany has always been at the forefront of
the painting, sculpting and architectural arts and Firenze was the
Italian city, more than any other, for her crowning achievements,
worthy of being the birthplace of such a citizen. And so in the year
1474 the honourable and virtuous wife of Ludovico di Lionardo
Buonarrotti Simone gave birth to a son under most auspicious stars.
This son of whom I speak was born on Sunday the sixth of March around
eight of the clock in the evening. He was give in the name
Michelangelo as was suitable for a creature of divine nature since
Mercury and Venus were in the house of Jupiter at the moment of his
birth signifying that his works of art would be prodigious.»
(Vasari 1927: IV, 108.)
Enn Kasak has depicted the birth
of Navitrolla in an interesting Vasari-like key:
the Beginning till the End, Harmony and Chaos wrestle in the world of
humans. Each of us will choose a side suitable for ourselves. It is
easy to burn our time vindicating ourselves and enjoying life. This
is the way of the many. Seldom one finds people who, through hard
work, create islets of order and clarity amidst slackness and decay.
[---] 1970 years after Christ, on the 10th of August in Võru (a
little province which is the capital of Southern Estonia) a boychild
is born, who, according to the documents, is a human unit with the
name Heiki Trolla. But according to his deeds, a person with the name
Navitrolla. His Võro descendants were peasants and his parents
have become peasants again. In his very early years Navitrolla was
seriously ill many times, but he recovered despite free medical care
and enthusiastic doctors. (I remember well how this little boy always
starts to scream desperately when seeing white overalls - his
first cognizant experience of color.) (Kasak 1995: 20).
We can find lots of stories about Estonian artist who grew up in poverty
and tended herds as children. The situation in Estonia even at the
beginning of the twentieth century made this the only possible path
for the most part. Even if the herder motif appears less often,
almost obligatory is the finding of a helper/guide. We need but
recall the debate only just recently on the occasion of Ado Vabbe's
100th birthday to decide whether he had met and been influence by
Kandinsky or not. The person most responsible for establishing this
myth was the Baltic-German art critic von Stryk who named Vabbe as
Kandinsky's favourite pupil (Stryk 1918).
The source of
myths for the 50's generation of Estonian artists is usually their
artistic life during the Soviet period or their under-ground
activities. These in retrospect cannot be substantiated and they live
on as oral commemorates. The most mythical of this generation of
artists are e.g. Raul Meel, Leonhard Lapin and Matti Milius, who is
active in art circles. Over this backdrop hover the shadows of Albert
Trapeezh and Matti Moguchi.
II - The Artist as Creator and the Creator as
- Deus artifex - divino artista
This motif is implicitly connected to the first one. In Plato's opinion
only poetry and music rely on divine inspiration, the painter and
sculptor must rely on their own skill and abilities in their work. In
his dialogues «Io» the poet's inspiration is transferred
to the reciter of the poetry. This person does not proceed from
merely the rules of the art but rather from that self-same divine
ecstasy that inspired the poetry.
However, we can find
parallel to this the opposite tendency as well. In many of the
creation myths around the world we can observe the actions of the
creator described in terms of an artist at work. God is often
represented as a blacksmith (Hephaestus, and an echo of this in the
smith figure of the Finnish Ilmarinen as well as the Estonian song of
the Golden Bride), builder or architect. We can easily find parallels
to the artist at work in the Biblical myth of the creation of man and
the subsequent creation of Eve from Adam's rib. The creation of
living creatures from a variety of different materials is without a
doubt even more extensive than the creation of the proto-humans
themselves. Jaan Puhvel mentions wood, stone salmon teeth and other
materials as the stuff that the Indo-European proto-pair are created
from (Puhvel 1996: 285).
Such a down-to earth
description of the creation of the world was particular popular
during the middle ages. Erwin Panofsky has seen two tendencies at
- to make the creative work of God more
graspable and approachable
- starting with the
renaissance to compare God with an artist and thereby heroizing the
work of the artist (Panofsky 1924).
The divine creator
had many supernatural powers but in what way they were manifested was
often dependent on the canons of the times. At this point we come to
the third motif in which nature itself is described, on the one hand
as the handiwork of God and, on the other hand as that of the artist.
We can call this the Alberti's Approach although the idea of copying
nature reaches back to the time of Plato and even further.
the Artist as a Magician, the Ideal Copyist.
Since nature is supreme, then the ideal of art is to be a copy of realty.
We notice this motif again starting from ancient times. We run into
it in the writings of Pliny the Elder many times. The best-known of
them is undoubtedly the story of Zeuxis and the
[Parrhasius] decided to challenge Zeuxis who
had painted a picture of some grapes with such virtuosity that birds
had flown onto the stage set [where the picture was hanging]: With
that Parrhasius made such a true-to-life picture of the curtains that
Zeuxis, still so proud of the recognition he had received from the
birds, asked that he pull the curtains from in front of his picture;
but upon realizing his mistake he offered his own praises so humbly
as to do him credit, saying that while he had been able to fool the
birds then Parrhasius had been able to fool him. (Pliny the Elder
1952: 65-6, XXXV: 311.)
Apparently this well-known story
was one of the reasons for the general popularity of grapes in the
later art of Europe. Pliny also writes about the stallion who tried
to mount a picture of a mare painted by Apelles; or about a painted
serpent that was able to stop the throats of birds or about a quail
that flew onto a picture Protgenes had painted another quail into the
background of. It would take too long to enumerate all the analogous
stories from the renaissance, of which there are many about Titian,
Dürer, Rafael and many others.
mythological development of this third motif is the falling in love
with a figure depicted in a picture. We find it in fairy tales about
a prince who falls in love with a portrait of a girl. We can recall
myths form ancient Greece about the works of Daedalos and Praxiteles
as well as Pygmalion. The best-known figure in literature is Oscar
Wilde's A Portrait of Dorian Grey and the Estonian equivalent
is the story of the Golden Bride. The further elaboration of this
theme involves the anger of the gods who are jealous of the handiwork
of these people (artists) - the myth of Prometheus as well as
the Tower of Babel and the confusing of the languages of the earth
that came about out of Gods fear of the greatness of a tower being
erected by humans.
A fourth motif rises
logically out of these three, mentioned by Kris and Kurz:
IV - The Works and Deeds of Artists as a Divine Act
say that art is one of the areas most prone to mythologization. The
opinions of Kris and Kurz suggest an explanation that provides a good
basis for understanding this affinity with myths that is empirically
observable. The artist is a creator and in this way the mythical
artist figure approaches godhood. The divine nature of a creator is
what results in a work of art. It is the sacredness of the act of
making a work of art (just as in Plato the divine flame of the poet
is carried over to the person reciting the poem). This motif has in
fact enabled us in the 20th century to progress relatively painlessly
from an objectified art to a ritual of art and there is no difference
in what the creator creates.
Art has become heroically
mythologised and serious. There is no place for carnival in great
art. Perhaps this is the reason why the art world to this very day
has not forgiven Dadaism for its rejection of the current myth of art
or its deheroization of this myth. But Dada is an exceptional case.
The myth, however, was not able to restore itself to the same extent
that it once had existed.
The myth of art current today
is characterized by the mission of art and the emphasis is placed on
societal issues. The artist is a special mediator here, and again in
a very Platonic way - not so much a creator/god anymore but
rather as a priest/shaman. Today, art has assumed a burden which
previously was not so obvious - it has an enormous appetite for
money. Art is directly connected to its financiers and must justify
somehow the societal luxury that it is. It is a matter of life and
death for art. It is impossible to suggest that this is rational -
but the nature of myth is always propped up by faith. When the artist
creates a myth around him or herself, his or her life and works,
then, when all is said and done, it is an expression of the belief in
the legitimacy of his or her activities.
quality of art inevitably penetrates into the very metalanguage it
uses - into art history and criticism. Art history differs from
general history in that most usually it is about individual persons.
A history that tries to achieve some semblance of objectivity and
attempts to free itself from the narrative avoids the individual (see
for example Ricoeur 1984: 193-206). Art history can never do that and
as a result it is prone to fiction and myth. One of the bases for the
mythic elements in the artist's biography is the selective quality of
memory itself. Art history inevitably relies to a great extent on
memory but the structure of memory often tends to be in the key of
In order to shed light on
the nature of these myths it would be the most useful to compare the
myths of art with the myths found and described in other fields of
inquiry. Perhaps the comparable field might be science, a field that
has traditionally been considered to be in opposition to art and
religion. It has been quite common practice to compare science and
poetry but here it seems that a comparison with visual art might
provide better results. Both science and poetry rely on natural
language while pictorial art does not do so directly. And since one
of the things that interested us initially was the linguistic
qualities of myth, then this difference will become even more
If art was at first felt to be a
continuation of the narrative texture of the myth then the parallels
to be found in science will have to be sought in its cognitive
aspect. There is, of course, always the temptation here to grasp at
the previous relationship between science and religion but, different
from the myth of the artist, this is not essential to science. That
firm sense of continuity does not exist since god has quietly
disappeared from science.
It is the model, the schema
taken as the basis of a hypothesis, the paradigm, that seems to be
the most reminiscent of mythical texture in science. These are also
connected to allegory as well as the rhetoric of scientific language
(MacCormac 1976; Clarke 1996a & 1996b; Paxson 1996; Weingart &
Maasen 1997). If a model has been adopted as the basis of a
hypothesis, it becomes difficult to replace it. The model becomes an
virtual symbol and a belief in its exclusive truth value is born. The
distance between the model and reality disappears. In the sciences,
fallacy is often conceived as myth.
attempt to examine the place of metaphor and myth in science appears
in Earl R. MacCormac's book Metaphor and Myth in Science and
Religion (MacCormac 1976). MacCormac concentrates essentially on
metaphor. According to him, the myths in science grew out of
metaphor. The fertile area for myths to grow out of lies in the
so-called root metaphors, the conditional assumptions chosen as the
basic hypotheses of a given theory which let us formulate the
hypothetic descriptions of the world and our experiences (MacCormac
1976: xiv). Such root metaphors were, for example in Aristotelian
physics, the direct physical force needed to put something in motion,
the Newtonian 'the world is a machine' which was replaced by 'the
world is mathematics' and 'the world is an organism' (MacCormac 1976:
MacCormac suggests that in principle
there is nothing to distinguish ritual from the testing of a
hypothesis by means of experiment. For example, at one time pregnancy
resulted from a fertility rite the belief in the rite was confirmed.
If pregnancy did not come about, then the mistake was sought in the
performance of the ritual and sub-hypotheses were formulated to help
find the mistakes but the ritual itself was not rejected. The
mechanisms of experimentation and computation in science actually
function in the same way - the ritual is performed in a
laboratory. It is true that no attempt is made to actually alter
things in the world through a series of experiments but the actual
manifestation of anything real is accompanied by a firm belief that
an experiment will confirm some aspect or other of the theory that
has been taken as a basic assumption. Small failures do not hinder
the continuation of this work (MacCormac 1976: 142-143).
we do not associate myth necessarily with a false belief but rather
simply with a belief in the validity of our own theories and
practices then Thomas Kuhn's paradigm becomes all the more fused with
the explanatory function of myth. Thomas Kuhn's (The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions - Kuhn 1969) description of the
development of science as consisting of a series of revolutions is of
course merely schematic but it has attracted much debate although no
one has completely negated the idea of a development of science that
happens in jumps and leaps. Naturally some leaps are more intense
than others (usually Copernicus, Newton or Einstein are referred to
here). Ground needs to be broken for such leaps and conclusions made
A hypothetic cross-section of the
axioms dominant in science at various periods in time would reveal
that the axioms differ one from the other in significant ways. It
would be difficult in any given time to maintain the truth or
falseness of one or another axiomatic belief but it is quite clear
that it would be impossible at these given moments to conceive of the
world in any other way. This synchronic view of the world and the
impossibility of seeing beyond it is what we can compare to myth. Of
course, in earlier times many actual mythological moments have been
associated with the axiomatic beliefs such as Aristotles' motionless
mover or God who remains a constant even within Newton's mechanics
but this in no way diminishes the mythic quality of any given moment
in the world view. The myth determines right from the start that no
other view outside the given one is possible.
can be summarised with two anecdotes: Einstein was once asked how
inventions come about that could change the world. The famous
physicist replied: «Very simply. Everyone knows that it's
impossible to do something. By chance, some imbecile who doesn't know
this comes along and he's the one who invents the thing. Or: Max
Planck, one of the founders of Quantum theory, in his younger days
went up to a 70-year old professor and confessed his intention to
work in theoretical physics. «My dear boy,» said the
honourable old teacher, «Why would you want to wreck your life,
theoretical physics has been finished. Is it worth working in a field
that has no future.»
The only thing speaking
against such a concept of the myth of science is its small range -
a limited number of people, very narrowly, the scientists in a given
field. At the same time, nonetheless, the reverberations of 'high'
science, however simplified and altered, end up in textbooks,
journalism, etc. and generally it is at this level where the theory
is accepted as belief (myth begins when belief begins). With this the
mythical elements of science is spread. We are not in a position to
demonstrate adequately the majority of what we know about our world.
Even the majority of humanities people cannot convincingly prove
Copernicus' views yet we do not doubt for a second that the Earth
revolves around the Sun. Any explanation of the world, or view of the
world, call it what you will, can inevitably only be conditional.
Inevitably, something will be left on the threshold of cognition.
After all, the majority of what we know is based on belief.
Another possibility of creating myths in the sciences
is also connected with metaphors, but in a different way. It is clear
that scientific language does not consist only of formulae, the main
part of it is still based on natural language. But each new theory
demands a new set of terms and the use of metaphor is thus quite
typical. In examining scientific terminology we often find ourselves
faced with concepts that have very thrilling and exciting stories
behind them. This rhetoric is perhaps one of the essential elements
in scientific language. A succinctly wrought new metaphoric term will
attract the attention of the public and will pave the way for the
dissemination of the new theory.
concepts are, in their turn, the bases for new and exciting myths
around the 'hard' sciences. The 'hard' disciplines and especially
physics, sometimes more intensely, at other times less so, has
enthralled thinkers from other fields since the science friendly
years of the 60's to the scepticism of the 80's. Often the belief in
the omnipotence of the sciences has assumed almost messianic
proportions (Midgley 1992). The enchantment with the sciences has
been the impetus for attempting to use the same theories in the
humanities as well. This might also be one of the causes for
mythifying metaphoric terms. Linguistically attractive but otherwise
neutral concepts become symbols. One such example is the concept of
entropy which was originally borrowed from thermodynamics and
later in turn from information theory. Along with it came the second
law of thermodynamics along with its negative aspects. The word
entropy itself come from the usage of the German scientist
Rudolf Clausius in 1865 who justified it as follows:
prefer going to the ancient languages for the names of important
scientific quantities so that they may mean the same thing in all
living tongues. I propose, accordingly, to call S the entropy of a
body, after the Greek word «transformation.» I have
designedly coined the word entropy to be similar to «energy,»
for these two quantities are so analogous in their physical
significance, that an analogy of denomination seemed to me helpful.
In borrowing the root trope the
neologism 'entropy' brought a certain mytho-poetic backdrop into the
transformation of energy, into the theory and from there back into
the humanities. The entropy of thermodynamics became an allegory for
We can recall from the not too distant
past chaos theory and again we have a name with an ancient
mythological background. In entering the humanities it acquired two
mythological layers - the original and the 'hard' science one
which seemed to augment one another. Chaos theory has been a
captivating concept for some time already and some people have tried
to find a parallel between it and deconstructivism (Hayles 1991;
Kellert 1996; Matheson & Kirchhoff 1997). An attempt has also
been made to utilise it in literary research. The physics background
of the word gives deconstructivism as if some guarantee of
justification and conviction.
While the narrative
aspects of myth seem to dwell in art and its cognitive aspects are
found in science, opposing currents can nonetheless be found in each.
Many attempts are made to create epic proportions out of the
cognitive aspects of myth in the humanities and in particular the
fields of popular science. On the other hand, the myth of art cannot
survive in just its narrative aspects. Inevitably the myth needs to
be connected to the artist's belief in his or her own activities and
in this way it achieves a connection with its cognitive dimensions.
The contradictions in the
multifaceted aspects of myth today which were referred to at the
beginning of this paper can in part be reconciled by the three stages
in the development of myth as outlined above.
start from the end:
First of all there is myth in its
classical definition, that is the myth of mythical consciousness
whose poetic and cognitive aspects are not separated from each
As the second stage is myth that for some is
alive but not for others. This means that there is some number of
people who believe the myth and others (such as Barthes in the sense
of the mythologist) who are able to determine the essence of the
myth. This is the most heterogenous of the steps. This is where the
continuation of the narrative scheme of classical myth in serial form
as well as commercial myths, political myths and Barthes' bourgeois
myths belong. It is possible to create this type of myth artificially
but it can also come about as the result of determined activity or
through the belief in the justification of the activity.
These myths are typically used for educational purposes. An attempt is made
to show the world in a better light and to create positive figures.
In the final analysis, art is the inalienable prerogative of this
type, the fundamental myths in art are of just this type.
I would call the third and last stage living myth. It is not possible
to determine synchronically the essence of this myth type nor
describe it - a living myth is determined by the knowledge
current at the time within a given society and the belief in this
knowledge. This myth lies at the edge of dankness since at any given
moment no one is able to see further than this. Thus, this myth
behaves in its own time in the same way as the first type in its
time, that is in the time of mythical consciousness.
From the point of view of the people who live within it, the second level
myth functions in the same way. Myth is in fact a typological concept
and can remain so either inside or outside the concept itself. A
living myth is not ideological since no ideology would have any use
for it. A living myth encompasses in itself both Foucault's discourse
as well as Kuhn's paradigm. In some ways it is the basis for a
The living myth crosses over into
the next stage right away when it is possible to recognise its
existence, that is when it is possible to step outside the myth. As
soon as it is possible to define the myth as a myth, the myth begins
to die and a new must replace it - existence without myths is
not possible. Barthes' mythologist did nothing but replace old myths
with new ones. At the time of his mythologies, the new mythology was
the political left.
I would not consider the living
myth as being asemiotic but rather as being presemiotic. The
recognition of the myth and the stepping outside the bounds of the
myth allows us to describe the myth and cause it to become a text. We
could say that people discuss living myths which means that they talk
about what they know as the myth is functioning. In reality they are
not discussing the myth but rather maintaining a dialogue with it and
they can only speak using the words of faith in the language of
faith. Myth is the addressee just as in a dialogue with God, the
words are directed at the one whose name is unknown.
The living myth does not require faith or rather intention. It functions
on its own and encompasses us in our passivity. This is what
distinguishes myth from message since communication inevitably
requires activity on the part of the recipient. Blind faith in myth
is the opposite of word. Myth is not a message, myth is a preverbal
state even if it is able to utilize words as an aid. When myth dies
its words are left behind. A verbalised myth is a dead myth.
Living myth is presemiotic in the sense that it is
lacking any characteristics of language. The essence of language even
in its most metaphoric sense presupposes the recognition of some sort
of system of signs. In order to identify the essence of language we
need not know the meaning but we do have to be convinced that some
assignment of signs is happening. In the case of living myth, this is
not possible. We are inside the denotation and we cannot understand
what is determining meaning and that this is happening at all. In
Pierce's terminology we might say that living myth lacks an
interpretant. The apparent lack of a myth makes it presemiotic and
ineligible to having meaning assigned to it. Only when myth becomes
text can it become apparent and existent.
Translated by Harri Mürk.
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