Sunday, November 19, 2017




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 Monsters & Bugs.


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Cultural mythologer, poet-essayist, stephanie
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Sunday, November 12, 2017

NOVEMBER GUEST BLOG: RETHINKING MYTHIC THINKING by Bradley Olson #depthpsychology #myth #soul #mythopo

"Each mythology has its own grammar." ~ Bradley Olson

I thought for that at least a portion of this blog post, I might respond a bit to Dave Alber’s really fine September posts, which reflect nicely the essence of his recent book, The Heart of Myth:Wisdom Stories From Endangered People. I particularly like his phrase “the grammar of myth,” because it is an unusual and surprising pairing of the words myth and grammar but soon, upon closer examination, one discovers the reasons for why the pairing of myth and grammar is apropos. Grammar is comprised of an internalized set of rules for the use of a given language, and for most native speakers those rules are not learned—internalized—by study and instruction. Grammar is learned by watching and listening to other speakers, and the grammatical nuances of a language learned very early in childhood are intuitively relied upon in writing and conversation, and even in thinking. Grammar may also be a word used to describe an orthodoxy that prescribes and governs punctuation, spelling, and usage. In other words, grammar is the foundation of self-expression. 

You see where I’m going with this; each mythology has its own grammar as well: rules that govern denotation, expression, orthodox understanding, thinking, and form. And these grammatical rules, sometimes called mythemes, tenets, or articles of faith, are also learned in very early childhood and often inexorably remain, over the course of even a very long life, the intuitive framework for understanding oneself and one’s world. Those of us cohabiting with a particular mythology rely on its grammar to communicate comprehensibly with one another, to support, instruct, encourage, and all too familiarly, rebuke. Perhaps even more important is that grammar insists on storytelling and making narrative possible, in fact, grammar may frankly necessitate story. I suppose one cannot truly imagine what trying to communicate with another person might have been like before, shall we call it, the invention or the organization of grammar, but I suspect that a lot of grunting, pointing, the use of contorted, exaggerated facial expressions, stick and dirt drawings, and an exasperated, repetitive emphasis on a few key sounds would have been the norm. An unwieldy enterprise, to say the least, and coupled with its longueur, it would certainly seem to incline one to fewer verbal interactions. Grammar allows one to participate in relationship by virtue of the narrativizing of life, not only one’s own life, but the lives (and deaths) of others, of the community, of animals, of forests, grasslands, deserts, seas, as well as the heavens. Grammar makes myth possible, grammar may even insist upon myth.

Rethinking Myth Through Joseph Campbell’s “Four Functions”

In David’s September 4th guest blog on this site, “What is Myth For You?”, he referenced an essay I had written: “Bradley Olson recently posted an essay on the importance of rethinking myth and personal definitions of myth, and similarly, he referenced it back to the mystical function of myth.” I was surprised to read this, because as I was writing it, I was thinking of it in terms of the psychological function of myth. But Dave was not wrong in associating what I had written with the mystical function of myth, of which is to awaken a sense of “awe” in the encounter with the, as Jung put it, mysterium tremendum. Joseph Campbell’s four functions of mythology, as I think about them now with Dave’s grammaticus influencing me, are also attempts at grammar, and it would be as wrong to relegate them to discrete domains as it would be to insist upon always speaking the King’s English; more elegant and clear, perhaps, but not nearly as interesting, nor as alive.  Each of these four functions—metaphysical, cosmological, sociological, and psychological—are in dynamic relationships with one another, sometimes opposing, sometimes syncretic, and sometimes paradoxical. The student, less innately fluent than, say, the initiate, will struggle with the intellectual imperative of properly consigning this experience or that phenomenon to its proper function. For instance, is this particular narrative supporting a sociological function or is it advancing my own psychological needs? At any given time, the answer may be yes, no, or both. How does one decisively separate cosmology and awe (the metaphysical function) for instance? Here again, these categories function as grammar, and as such, one must first learn how to use and apply them correctly and reliably in order to effectively and creatively transgress the rules at some future point when the goal is to creatively open up and revitalize the mythic narratives. In mythology, as in the lives of cultures, perhaps this task falls to those best suited for the work: the heretics, the visionaries, the poets, the artists, those singular individuals living within a particular narrative who see, perhaps for the first time, something entirely new in the old forms, plasticity in the rigid structures, and beauty in the unavoidable, and often unforgiving, realities of life.

Dave writes that “Myths are transmissions of knowledge from the enlightened state, from cultures that rightly identify spiritual work with the routine moment-to-moment development of their awareness state.” As David soon points out, “[the definition] is imperfect and limited,” and he believes the imperfection is intentional in order to, I presume, give myth the room and imprecision it requires to make it flexibly expansive enough to contain and transmit extraordinary esoteric, metaphysical knowledge. I am aware from our personal conversations and correspondence that Dave values, as I do, the timeless, mercurial, eternal, archetypal qualities of myth, the fleeting “Protean slipperiness” of it (as he once put it to me), and the ability of myth to evoke “profound states of awareness.” Dave’s September essays are deeply thought, innovative, and pleasurable to read, and I have no criticism for him in this regard. But since the point of my essay this month is to contribute something of my own thoughts about myth, my response is, it seems, yes and…. The and… is my problem with the focus on the transcendent and spiritual aspects of myth, a focus I acknowledge as a venerable interpretation and use of myth, but one I am exhausted by and, frankly, one I think the world can ill afford any longer. At its best, it denies the reality of human effort and inter-relatedness and creates comforting illusions; at worst it creates an excess of greed, stupidity, and shallow, trivial gestures performed within an atmosphere of mercilessness.

Myth’s Grammar, Thought, And Imaginal Life

I prefer to consider myth as a mode of thought or a condition of imagining rather than a narrative containing a body of knowledge. Perhaps, referencing my above discussion of Dave’s notion of grammar, I can call myth the grammar of thought, or the grammar of imagination (as I recall, Hegel mentioned something along the lines of grammar being the work of thought). Myth was “taken up” or rediscovered during the Enlightenment because, as a mode of thinking, it was believed to be a key to comprehending history, philosophy, religion, art, linguistics, and creativity itself. Considering myth to be a mode of thinking returns ownership of myth to human beings and, from that point of view, a mythic imagination is an uncritical, non-causal, wholesale search for meaning and significance in a human life lived in a fundamentally mysterious world. Myth is no longer the province of gods or the expression in the world of supernatural intervention but instead, it rightfully reclaims for human beings an apprehension of the sublime nested within human passions, changes of fortune, joys, and depressions, elation and pathos.

A Fifth Function Of  Myth? 

There is at least one other exquisitely human function of myth that I would add to Campbell’s well known four, and that is the function of delight. Delight as a function certainly isn’t my discovery. John Dryden specifically, and all manner of poets, writers, painters, classically educated people in all walks of life, have noted this function at work one way or another in the mythopoetic genre. The mythographer is, as the word poesis suggests, a maker and a creator, she aims at making something beautiful, something that stirs us, not by representing things exactly as they are but by heightening their intensity, deepening their depths, qualities Dryden called “lively” and “just” (Essay of Dramatic Poesy). Poesis, and by extension mythopoesis, is a uniquely human endeavor and delighting in it allows one to, if not exactly remake the world, remake our own reality here and now, for there is no fear in delight, and no pain, delight is play, not pressure. Poesis and drama also instruct, says Dryden, but the function of instruction is secondary in his mind, and what always assumes a place of primacy in his thinking is the function of delight. Delight is created by the contemplation of beauty, and it is the job of the creative person to create or highlight a beauty that contributes to the pleasures of the soul. The condition of delight taken in every aspect of life, even the difficult, allows one to accept one’s human, all too human, existence without the vulgar, slavish, and undignified need for transcendence.

Meditations On Existential Dread,
Salvation, And Transcendence

There is a story I love about D.T. Suzuki, the great popularizer of Zen in the West and who was, as he was dying, visited by a friend and they had a wide-ranging conversation about Zen, poetry, and, of course, the meaning of life. Suzuki excused himself from the room for a bit, and once he was out of earshot his wife leaned over to the visitor and said something like, “You know why he doesn’t believe in Satori, do you not?” The visitor shook his head and said, “No.” Mrs. S. began chuckling and then exclaimed, “He’s never experienced it, himself!” I suppose I like this story because it reflects my own understanding; I’ve never been, in my exposures to Christianity, Zen, Sufism—all of which I took rather seriously at one time or another in my life, able to experience what “they” said I should, namely, some sort of transcendence. Some sacred wisdom, or some spiritual practice, was supposed to enter me, heal me, or expand my consciousness or something, and I would be fundamentally changed as a result. But stories, narratives, even sacred ones, don’t change anyone. Human beings don’t change. We are not transformed. We do not become different, altered (although we may well become altared, tied to doctrine, rituals, and forms) beings.

One might wonder that with an attitude like that, what is the point of being a psychotherapist? Well, there is quite an important point it, and while I don’t believe that people can change, I do believe they can relieve their suffering. Suffering is created by the apparently insurmountable gap between who people believe themselves to be and who they believe they should be. Because they can’t change themselves in any way to which they are not already predisposed, that gap appears to be unspannable and they begin to long for transcendence, a transcendence that in its most frank, naked intention, is to somehow escape their human condition, the condition of limited agency and vision, competency and comprehension, beset by frailty and existential dread. It makes sense, I suppose, to wish that some divine hand of a supernatural agent, some compassionate, just and virtuous suspension of the universal order would simply erase my misery and install me in a life of happiness and ease.It may be that the wish for salvation and transcendence is built into myth as well as human nature. Chekov once remarked that if you see a prominently displayed gun in the first act, you can be sure it will be fired in the third. Likewise, in mythology, the first act emphasis is religious, it is focused on supernatural, divine beings, divine, supernatural realms, and the religious thinking that encapsulates them. So naturally now, in the third act, people often turn to myth the way they used to turn to religion, except that we tell ourselves we’re not being religious, we’re too sophisticated to fall for that. Instead, we think of ourselves as being scholarly, or psychological, or merely “spiritual.”  Practices arise such as personal mythology, culturally esoteric and exotic spiritual practices, and what they have in common, deep down in their religious DNA, is the desire for transcendence and salvation in some fashion. Please, the practitioner begs, let me be something I presently am not, and seem incapable of becoming. And I suppose, to some degree, that’s what those of us who privilege the metaphysical or psychological function of myth may have wrought. We’ve focused on the transformational, cathartic properties that an immersion in mythology is expected to offer. And it is, after all, a reasonable first step in the study of myth to try to understand exactly what is the impact myth is having on my life, on my personal situation.

Is That All There Is To Myth?  

But if that’s all it is, if myth is only beneficial to individuals because it makes their personal lives seem easier or better, we might as well give up on the way we (in the manner of Freud, Jung, Campbell, etc.) study myth right now. If myth has become merely another more exotic, and because of its unfamiliarity potentially more likely, shot at salvation, the genre has been exhausted in the way that a lode of gold or silver has been worked out; the mining of myth can no longer yield usable amounts of its natural matter. Secondly, we cannot continue to believe that our human condition is somehow inferior, fallen, or inadequate to the task of living. Life in the contemporary world has given way to other circumstances which must be met with other ways and forms of mythological imagining. And even if my second point isn’t correct, and the circumstances of human life haven’t changed fundamentally in ten thousand years, we either lack the imaginative power to approach the form novelly, or we no longer find the answers that novelty supplies to be of value. Finally, and we see this played out on every world stage multiple times every day, misunderstanding myth (intentionally or not) serves as some advantage to someone, and when mythic narratives are an advantage to someone or some group, one is helpless to be understood or to lay in course corrections.

Freud once remarked of his own theories that they appealed to him because they tended to, like the theories of Copernicus or Darwin, diminish man’s pride. Perhaps it isn’t asking too much to imagine that pride is at work in the sacred fantasies of transcendence, salvation, the project of leaving one’s human condition behind. Pride has at its core a loathing of the human condition and its forms, and pride refuses to see that simple human life and living has a profoundly aesthetic quality. The myths we cling to tend to summarize our cultural life, which may be why we so badly want to impress them into the service of escape. To my way of thinking, myths investigate and celebrate human will and if that avenue of their contemplation is dying, then perhaps it’s because the will of our society is dying, and if it is, it is likely dying of its own excess. But contemporary culture seems intent on transcending human nature, too, and self-interested, selfish excess is the chosen option for the program: multiply, augment, display, annex, coopt, volatize, transmogrify, transmute…and, like the directions on a shampoo bottle, repeat over and over until we are, finally, no longer human. As Oscar Wilde aptly put it, “nothing succeeds like excess.”

An Ethical Ideal

The answers to the problems of living are not found in self-transformation or through “realizing one’s divine nature,” but rather, becoming more and more and more human; more and more and more oneself. This is precisely what Nietzsche (no mean mythographer, himself) would prescribe. A self isn’t, according to Nietzsche, something you just naturally are. A self must be achieved, continually, over and over again. As Duncan Large notes in his forward to Ecce Homo, Nietzsche insisted that “the process of self-becoming [is] an ethical ideal.” In Nietzsche’s own words:

Becoming what you are presupposes that you have not the slightest inkling what you are. From this point of view even life’s mistakes have their own sense and value, the temporary byways and detours, the delays, the ‘modesties,’ the seriousness wasted on tasks which lie beyond the task. […] You need to keep the whole surface of consciousness—consciousness is a surface—untainted by any of the great imperatives. Beware even every great phrase, every great pose! With all of them the instincts risk understanding them too soon. Meanwhile in the depths, the organizing ‘idea’ with a calling to be master grows and grows—it begins to command, it slowly leads you back out of byways and detours, it prepares individual qualities and skills which will one day prove indispensable as means to the whole—it trains one by one all the ancillary capacities before it breathes a word about the dominant task, about goal, purpose, sense (Ecce Homo).

This is exactly, I think, what Campbell means by following your bliss; one realizes that living a human life is often accompanied by inescapable constraints of one kind or another, but there need be no authority but the inner deep, Nietzsche’s “organizing idea,” that continually unfolds proportionally to how intensely we approach our own self-becoming. That was a rather long quote, but one often reads about Nietzsche rather than actually reading Nietzsche, and we should be reading him…deeply. Those we turn to in our study of myth were powerfully influenced by him; Campbell certainly read him, Jung read him and worried that perhaps his philosophy made him mad, Freud almost certainly read him and lied, saying he had not.

Self-becoming, not change, is what happens in psychotherapy, although I suppose from an outside perspective it appears that, through this process, the individual has changed. But that would be wrong; in fact, she has simply become more of whom she has already always been. When a rose seed becomes a beautiful, blooming rose, it might appear to have changed from a seed to a rose, but the mature rose was always there, inside the seed, and she became the fullest expression of herself. The true value of myth is found not in esoteric teachings about transcendence, nor in, as seductive as it may be, an occulted promise to escape one’s human legacy. Rather, the value of myth is found in its way of consoling us, beings who are subject to wild swings of fortune, impossible moral dilemmas, horrifying exposures to the cannibalizing tendency of life itself to devour life, to triumph, love, joy, sorrow, and all the rest of the exquisitely human experience—as Zorba lovingly called it, “…the whole catastrophe.” To be more fully human should be the goal, to enter one’s humanity more and more deeply, to become as fully and completely human as one can possibly be, and those indispensable qualities and skills which benefit, not just oneself, but the entire collective, are found there.  What myths teach is what I have called, in other venues, radical acceptance; Nietzsche called it Amor Fati, Jung called it individuation, and Campbell called it bliss. Keats, in Sleep and Poetry, says it this way:
                        …Though no great minist’ring reason sorts
Out the dark mysteries of human souls 
To clear conceiving: yet there ever rolls 
A vast idea before me, and I glean 
Therefrom my liberty…

Myth has the power of absorbing and disturbing us in secret ways, just as our own self-reflection is likely to absorb and disturb us, in ways remaining frustratingly secret. Myth is one of the few ways complex civilizations keep in mind the uncivilized and untutored selves we desperately want to have outgrown. To keep us in mind, too, the existentially puzzling phenomena we’d rather not give too much thought to, things like death, birth, and the constant struggle between free will and fate, issues that remain stubbornly resistant to the intellect. Myth allows one to see the full force and effect of a complex world on a limited human being, and if one begins to think and imagine mythically, one wakes up and is less constrained by the complexity and limitation of living a human life, and opens the doors of perception to lives of joy and significance. Imagined and thought this way, myth serves the purpose of a closer and truer relationship with life. Myth doesn’t transform or solve the problems of living, but it does illuminate the subject, and that, itself, is something important and worth having.


Bradley Olson, PhD is a psychotherapist in private practice with an office at Mountain Waves Healing Arts.  Dr. Olson has a particular interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology and Mythological Studies, and his work with clients is heavily influenced by these two traditions.  Dr. Olson works mainly with adults on issues of spirituality, identity, and transitions into mid-life. 

For more regarding Dr. Olson's work visit
Mountain Waves Healing Arts

Bradley Olson Blog  

Falstaff Was My Tutor

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