The Myth Craft of Writing

It was about a year ago that my now fiancée used the word “writer” to describe me to someone she was introducing me to, and it felt rather awkward. Though I was two books in, and with a few more in my head, it never occurred to me that I was something that could be called a “writer.”

My skin still crawls a little when I think of it, but not because it is false, it just has never been a way that I’ve thought of myself. Naturally, I update this weblog too infrequently. I don’t write… right? Heck, I never took a typing class in my life, I just steadily hunted and pecked until I could do so at an alarming rate per minute. I’ve admittedly thought myself more poetic or prophetic than prosaic. The Englishman Robert Graves, another war-touched writer, once spoke of his craft as resulting “from an inspired, almost pathological, reversion to the original language… rather than from a conscientious study of its grammar and vocabulary.” (The White Goddess, 12. 1975 edition)

So while I steadfastly refuse to train myself, I should nonetheless practice. Even if the things in my head don’t always need to be said, writing them gives them form, writing makes ideas things to be explored, scrutinized, and refined. I will not, however, “blog” in the proper sense. I am more interested in committing to write what is in my head. Regularly. Irreverently. Forcing pen to paper, fingers to keyboard.

So, with that out of the way…

As someone who has studied with Stanley Hauerwas and fashions himself an adherent to virtue theory, I have found myself interested in mythology as a way of thinking about moral formation. Famous mythologist Joseph Campbell influenced George Lucas, who in turn influences us. Mythology is related to anthropology, but as Stanley has said, Campbell tries to do too much, he’s all over the place. But myths are not (even if in modern belief they are judged) “fanciful, absurd, unhistorical.” (13) Myths are somewhere between fact and fiction, between ineffable Truth and worldly reality. They tell us about our past without reducing it to a numbers game or a statistical analysis.

Virtue theorists like Stanley, Alisdair MacIntyre, and innumerable others will similarly lament the loss of virtue and advocate a return to the classic school of Greek philosophical fathers. A recovery of virtue challenges the modern “enlightened” assumptions that falsely reify the self as the locus of moral, social, political and other inquiries. Somewhere between deontologists (follow the rules) and consequentialists (greatest good for the greatest number), virtue ethicists declare that habits and practices make possible a good life in pursuit of excellence.

Graves, however, has a very interesting read of the classical Greek school of thought that virtuists value, founded by Socrates and carried by Plato and Aristotle. He suggests that myth preceded the classical school and that Socrates saw it as threatening his new religion of logic, that philosophy as a discipline made an uncompromising rejection of myth ‘as opinions of which no account can be given.’ (paraphrase, 10) The pursuit of philosophy represented what Graves calls “intellectual masturbation.” In other words, if philosophic schools began with an assumption that “an understanding of the language of myth is irrelevant to self-knowledge,” then it represented “the male intellect trying to make itself spiritually self-sufficient.” (11-12) Saint Augustine could have called it “navel gazing.” But he didn’t.

I am interested in this stuff through my critique of modern mass media, that it forms morally immature agents incapable of engaging decisively with the moral landscape of war. Campbell laments that there are no more rites of passage, that the modern world is bereft of ritual meaning. But he is wrong, for Lucas has provided the world with meaning through pixels and pictures. The epics we once as a species carried in our hearts and in our minds have been transferred to the screen. There is no such thing as a ritual-less society. I can’t remember who said it (though I suspect it was Stanley), but if we have no heroes as Christians, our culture will happily supply them. And it has. In classes I have taught, when asked about the etymology of their names, a simple majority of students cite their parents watching this television show or that and liking the character whose name they curiously inherited…

Warriors-to-be are gluttons for John Wayne and Blaster One. And folks like Stanley don’t know where to point for better guiding myths, more relevant and experienced guides in the moral density of war. They point away from war as best they can, as though its demise is not far off, or that we can cleanly extricate ourselves therefrom. We look to Augustine, himself no war veteran, and neglect Martin, Ignatius, Francis, and others. Hell, I discovered Graves by mistake through researching the Great War Poets (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon).

If Graves is right about classical philosophy, then Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are not the answer to the “fact” driven, scientific enlightenment of three or four centuries ago, they were its precursors. If the pursuit of logic produced Athenian youth more inclined to intellectual masturbation than to civic engagement, one can see why Socrates had to be put to death for their corruption.

But that’s just what’s in my head tonight…

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