Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Enlightenment and Myth

At the Fourth Seminar many speakers made reference to the spirit of the Enlightenment as a value premise. In my evaluation of that seminar, I stated that this implies 'myth' being attributed to 'irrationality'. Naturally, I thought that once the Fifth Seminar takes place in Athens, Greece, it will be consequential to clarify the usage of the term 'myth'.

There are two possible approaches: the poetic and the philosophical. Since Plato they have been separated from one another, with still 'unknown' consequences for our perception of both culture and life. How to decide? The Fourth Seminar pointed very much in the direction of a scholastic or theoretical discussion. Yet the first linkage to the Flemish government has been through poetry thanks to Eugene van Itterbeek, General Secretary of the Poetry House 'Seven Sleepers' in Leuven and his recommendation that I should be asked to organise the Fifth Seminar. He came to Greece last year when our international poetry group in Athens attempted first steps towards networking with other poets and poetry centres in Europe. It was then when the name 'Touch Stone' was given to our little symposium consisting of poetry readings, discussions, swimming and cooking, all under the Greek sun. The connections were made further at the XVth European Poetry Festival in Brussels; at the General Assembly of the Poetry Association was accepted a Touch Stone proposal to interact with a project advanced by Poly Kasda, a performance artist wishing to close her cycle of 'myth networking' in Kamilari, Crete.

This was the beginning of the poetry project. Let me briefly explain some of the reasons for supporting such an idea as the one by Poly Kasda: Europe is based on 'networks', she gives this another terminology. One of her projects was to give anyone interested to support her project a little sculpture; that person had to place that sculpture at a location of his or her own choice, take a photo and write back to Poly Kasda the reason why or how come this location. I placed the sculpture called 'Chrysalis' directly beside the Berlin Wall (as long as it was still standing) where they had at that time just unearthed the former torture chamber of the Gestapo: an act of remembrance. Image that, once every person sends back photos and some explanations from all around the world as to why such and not another location for the sculpture was chosen, then one had a new map of connections created by Poly's initiative. Any other idea can bring about another network. I consider this interaction to be a part of modern artistic expressions. Herbert Distel send once a plastic egg of three meters in length across the Atlantic Ocean and interacted with ships, planes, etc. in an effort to re-locate the egg in the ocean. They found the egg had landed in the Bahamas. Herbert Distel would say, even if the needle is lost in the hay-stack, there is a 'system' by which to locate it. This means 'art' becomes a model to interact and to communicate with the world.

Thus, the poetry symposium in Crete, only later transformed into the XVIth European Poetry Festival, undertook again a double approach. Poets invited had to not only contribute some poems related to the theme of 'mythology', they also had to write about the relationship between 'myth and poetry'. A very rich and interesting material has been collected. Hopefully this will be published later as well and made available to you. It can help to clarify the concept 'myth' in a much more effective manner than which I could possibly achieve alone. At the same time, a special day was picked to interact with Poly Kasda who had made already a map of her own to guide the poets into a world filled with symbols of Mythology as prevailing, for instance in the Minoan culture, i.e. the double axe that feminists like to wear nowadays as a bracelet around their neck. She connected this in her own way to places she wanted to show on possible routes, as she did when walking with the poets through the 'holy church canyon' near the Cretan village Kamilari where the poets held their symposium on 'poetry and mythology'.

Artistic performance or 'rituals', in such cases as the crossing of the canyon that is a matter on how one is able to let oneself into if not water, then the 'landscape', in order to feel the 'memory of the land', i.e. energy flows (Poly Kasda). The project in Crete was not completely satisfactory, precisely because of the different usages of the term 'myth' and the artistic performance being too ritualistic, i.e. mystical in the sense of rigid, even authoritatively set expectations that once a certain attitude and subsequently behaviour, i.e. crossing the canyon in silence, is adopted, wished-for results will manifest themselves automatically. There are those that understand 'myth' in intellectual terms, and those who use their intellect to become anti-intellectual, that is 'mythical' since they regard by now anything coming from man directly as a kind of disturbance in the kind of 'silence' they seek, may it be the force to silence their fears or lies, or else in the wish to meditate between man and nature by becoming 'subjective' forces of the universe. It should be noted that the latter implies an indirect route to some kind of holistic explanation in the belief that everything is connected with everything else, including the flapping of butterfly wings over China with weather conditions in New York. That belief attempts to displace intellectual efforts in order to know things by claiming everything that exists stems from 'chaos and order'. It is the favourite pair of terminology used by those who are down-right discouraged by what is happening lately, socially and politically, but also culturally speaking. Their users hope to overcome the duality I have mentioned above already, namely the difference between our intellect and our world of the senses. It is clear what my position is in this matter: no fake unity or merging of the two can overcome this crucial difference. Everything else leads to mystification, irrationalities and hence to that what many speakers in Brugge tried implicitly to abnegate, namely 'myth' holding back the advancement of Enlightenment. In other words, honesty begins by acknowledging not to have an answer for everything.

All this would seem logical, if Enlightenment could be linked to both the advancement of the sciences and the 'rationality of man'. Obviously we cannot. The latter is easier to prove. One needs only to point to Yugoslavia and the many violent acts committed in the name of some absurd 'ethnic cleansing'? I still remember vividly the picture circulated by newspapers after snipers in Sarajevo had gunned down a couple trying to flee that once cosmopolitan city, now drowned in blood and incredible hardships: she was Croatian, he a Serb. Their love is worthy of remembering, since they did not conform to the dictates of power wishing to install its 'logic of partitioning'.

Thus, the other kind of clarification, involving a subtle connection between philosophies adopted and subsequent political pursuits, would take us back to reasons for the failure of the Enlightenment movement. Once a fellow philosophy student claimed such a movement over-demanded alone by its usage of language as a means to attain consciousness the normal citizen. Then, there was the example of trying to demonstrate to farmers the newly discovered law of gravity by letting many horses attempt to pull apart two halves of an iron ball out of which had been taken all the air; the result was a vacuum which welded the halves so strongly together, that not even eight heavy horses on either side could pull them apart. The farmers were stunned, but rather than trying to grasp the scientific explanation, they felt there was 'magic' at work. Myth and irrationality became identical after such experiments had failed to enlighten people. One 'irrational' outcome of that was to reduce science to 'performance', i.e. die Veranstaltung - German term to describe the purpose of a lecture as making something become perceivable (veranschaulichen).

It was only once Adorno and Horkheimer took up the 'failure' as the 'Dialectic of the Enlightenment', that some other, until then hidden dimensions of modern society became apparent. The two philosophers consider already Homer's "Odysseus" to be an epic poem written in the spirit of the Enlightenment. For there was a striving to make a transition from a hunting to an agricultural society; the difference meant not only a different 'logic of survival' requiring new skills instead of the old ones (i.e. tracking down wild animals versus knowing how to treat the earth so that corn can be harvested in the fall), but also the pushing back of the former powerful 'myths' into their place, in order to let new organizational logics rule, such as the separation of pleasure from work. This was demonstrated by Odysseus being tied to the mast, in order to be the only one able to listen to the enchanting songs of the sirens, while his crew rowed on, listening neither to the sirens nor to the commands of their master since they had 'wax' in their ears and thus did work without pleasure.

The separation of enjoyment and work still governs our present society, despite all the efforts of the 'pleasure industry' to convince us otherwise. Clearly the failure of the Enlightenment was connected, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, to the simple fact that the new survival strategy implied 'self domination leading to self destruction'. For instance, Odysseus could not reveal his anger when he returned home; that would have foiled his plan to oust the suitors at a suitable time. He had to remain in his disguise as a beggar, even though he was furious at the sight on how the suitors handled his servants.

It is in this postponement of living truly to one's emotions or feelings, that has often claimed the biggest victims of civilisation: its advocates promoting a perfectly reasonable irrationality, Heidegger and Hitler included. To name the two in one breath is sacrosanct, I know, but it has to be stated that the failure of the Enlightenment meant not only a destruction of 'reason', but also the opening up of Europe to other political approaches than the respect of the very core of life: enjoyment, but also 'wonder'. For once that has been understood, then one knows what is politics about: to make life possible, not impossible. By simply perverting this into the maxim, 'let us make life impossible or as miserable as possible for others, we can create such circumstances as to remain in control, because the others will beg for mercy, to keep them alive, then we shall have all the power we need to rule the world', this luring assumption is worse than the song of the sirens. It has filled many ears and leaves no one nowadays anymore in peace, especially after what has happened in this so-called 'Europe of Cultures' during Second World War. By the same token, European integration seems to have failed, because no longer easy going, that is, 'enjoyable', while no European culture has managed so far to bridge the two very different worlds, that of work and enjoyment, in order that people remain 'just' in their judgements about their own as much as that of other lives. It makes the problem of integration by 'culture' indeed harder than originally imagined.

Given the fact that 'enlightenment and myth' have not been really reconciled as stable twins of human development, various responses have unleashed national movements in the name of freedom as well as of suppression. There have been set into the world as many misleading ideas about freedom, as about how to deal not with power, but with human relationships. That confusion assists delays in necessary steps towards the future, but 'impatience' itself is not the answer. Another kind of awareness is needed, if the sustained growth towards something is able to translate this life in agony into one forthcoming with joy in what one is doing, and that not only because fulfilling perhaps one's 'dreams', but by coming a bit more in touch with truth, honesty, the human substance in all its longing due to a 'love of life'. That is a long way away from modern reality, I know, but the permanent production of misery, dissatisfaction and even 'failures' has to be somehow confronted. Whether or not Prof. Bekemans had this in mind when he spoke about 'confrontations' with cultural paradigms in Europe, that I cannot not judge right now, but I can include in this problematic the question on how various myth contribute 'negatively' to the cultural life in a particular setting, especially if writers and poets consider that to be their sole source of inspiration. For instance, there are many Irish poets who relate to the tales of the numerous Irish myths, but which are more 'bloody' than the other, for since the emancipation of the Irish from the British in 1916, violence itself was not a depressing thought, but a very liberating force. It must be mentioned, however, that poets like Elytis who was at first inspired by the Surrealistic movement did not continue to juxtapose enjoyment and pain, nor did he like in particular Greek poetry resorting to Ancient myths. Rather he restored the enlightening thought of anti-myth and with that the 'look into the future', as in the case of the Greek resister to a German officer who shot him because of disobedience to his command to step forth into the field of ivy. That officer never understood the limits of his power to command; Elytis pointed out that the Greek man looked into the future which had just began, whereas that of the German officer had terminated the moment he pulled the trigger - a powerful analogy to meaning in life despite the existence of death.

^ Top

« The Myth of Unity through Culture | The philosophical realm of myths »