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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, June 22, 2013


Whereas empirical thinking is essentially directed toward establishing an unequivocal relation between specific "causes" and specific effects, mythical thinking, even where it raises the question of origins as such, has a free selection of causes at its disposal... Mythical "metamorphosis"... is always the record of an individual event-- a change from one individual and concrete material form to another. The cosmos is fished out of the depths of the sea or molded from a tortoise; the earth is shaped from the body of a great beast or from a lotus blossom floating on the water; the sun is made from a stone, men from rocks or trees."-- Cassirer, MYTHICAL THINKING, p. 46-47.

This ability of one form to morph into another is crucial to Cassirer's understanding of "magical efficacy," which embraces, yet goes far beyond, Robert Codrington's explorations of the concept of "mana" in tribal societies.  This point is not explored in MYTHICAL THINKING nearly as well as it might have been, given that Cassirer's overall project was to determine the status of myth within the hierarchy of "forms of knowledge."  In my essay INTERSUBJECTIVITY INTERLUDE I expressed some regret that he had not been able to deal with the theme expoused by Frye: that of the interrelation and interpenetrations of myth and literature.

Now when conceptualizing the above forms, particularly "myth," Cassirer focused almost exclusively upon the evolution of archaic mythico-religious systems. He seems to have been aware that some thinkers believed that myth survived into his contemporary times in one guise or another, but in his writings on art he did not strongly expouse myth as a principle overlapping with literature, as was the case with Northrop Frye, the best-known proponent of "myth criticism" as well as a critic strongly influenced by Cassirer in other ways. Cassirer's work explored the ways in which archaic cultures, dominated by mythico-religious systems, gave birth to the discursive theoretical forms of science and philosophy. Thus whenever Cassirer speaks of myth, as in his book MYTHICAL THOUGHT, he primarily refers to the state of myth in archaic human societies, prior to the rise of the theoretical forms.

Though I've touched in other essays on Jung's use of the word "acausal," Cassirer speaks, as I show above, of a "free selection of causes." Mythical thinking is grounded not in the physical demonstrable and repeatable effects one sees in empirical science, but in "the intuition of purposive action-- for all the forces of nature are for myth nothing other than expressions of a demonic or divine will" (p. 49).

I also touched on the concept of "purposive action" in Part I of THE POWERS THAT BIND by way of showing that every demonstration of supernatural power in archaic myth is tied to "creating a narrative effect," one whose core is the expression of an affect or affects. 

I can imagine a companion book to MYTHICAL THINKING in which Cassirer might have explored in detail many of the forms through which "magical efficacy" flowed in the myths and legends of many cultures.  He mentions in the section above many of the transmutations of creation myths, and on page 57 he mentions, in line with Codrington, how the "material substance" of magical force suffuses such "powerful personalities" as "the magician and the priest, the chieftain and the warrior."  But to these examples one could also explore the ways in which this force manifested in weapons like Excalibur, in hybrid beasts like Pegasus and the Chimera, and in entire races of quasi-humanoids-- those like trolls, faeries, and leprechauns, who may be regarded as implicit spirits of the dead come back-- and those like vampires, who are more explicitly the dead come back to life.

Further, such a companion book might have also explored how purely literary metaphenomenal works were universally obliged to resort to the same "free selection of causes" in providing context for whatever wonders they invented-- whether those wonders invoked the figures of myth and legend, as we see in Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST, or attempted to ground those wonders as well as was possible in empirical science, as with Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.

This mutual narrative dependence on a "free selection of causes," then, is a key link between the realm of archaic myth and the realm of metaphenomenal narrative; a link that is not in the least diminished by arguments defining myth through functionalism, or even by my own distinction between religious myths and literary myths as that of "closed rituals vs. open rituals."  And when the metaphenomenal author chooses his causal agent, he is placed in the same position as the archaic myth-maker.  The rules of normal cause and effect, of regular time and space as the author knows them, must be transcended by an authorial "efficacy," as in, "It works this way because I say it does."

This is much more evident in fictions that break the known rules of causality: that is, works of "the marvelous."  However, in a future essay I will demonstrate that the same authorial efficacy applies to works of the uncanny.  I may also use this Cassirerean concept of "causal freedom" to work my way back to writing an "ethic of the combative," which I suggested that I would write back in March of this year.

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