In the 2016 essay AFFECTIVE FREEDOM,COGNITIVE RESTRAINT and in the two parts of 2019’s AND THE HALFTRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE, I aligned the didactic and mythopoeic potentialities with, respectively, my categories of “cognitive restraint” and “affective freedom.” I made heavy use of Ernst Cassirer in these essays, but for this one, I’ve decided to take a different path in order to dilate on the salient differences between the ways these potentialities operate.
In literature as in other cultural forms, all potentialities express themselves through processes of discourse. The discourses of “lateral meanings” deal with concrete subject matter—that of what sensations the subject experiences, and of the subject’s emotional reactions to those sensations. In contrast, the discourses of “vertical meanings” concern themselves with abstractions, with the didactic making use of “ideas” while the mythopoeic makes use of “symbols.” For the sake of argument, I will treat both ideas and symbols as if they existed as discrete monads, which is not the way either are experienced. Both ideas and symbols are best expressed in the form of typical story-tropes. Levi-Strauss was pleased to term these tropes “mythemes,” conveniently ignoring how such monadic forms were dispersed throughout all forms of human communication, not just myth.
Didactic discourse and mythopoeic discourse are not as intimately entwined as those of the kinetic and dramatic potentialities. The discourses can appear independently of one another, or they may intertwine within a narrative to support one another, or they may conflict with one another so as to confuse the narrative. An example of the last-named would be Steve Ditko’s story “Am I Roma…,” which I explicated it in this post.
The word “discourse” stems from a Latin root meaning “to run around.” However, all four discourses run in different ways, though I’ll only discuss the two vertically aligned potentialities here.
The didactic discourse runs in the fashion of a single contestant in a one-on-one foot race. The course of the race may be winding or straight, but the contestant runs in as direct a line as possible from start to finish. Didactic discourses may employ idea-tropes as disparate as “Christ died for our sins” or “Capitalism is doomed by its own excesses,” but the discourses are always aimed at teaching some sort of linear lesson to listeners.
In contrast, a mythopoeic discourse is more akin to a team of runners in a relay race, opposed, naturally, by a corresponding team. There’s still a goal that a given team aspires to reach first, but achievement of the goal depends on the successful interaction of all players on the team. Symbols can be used to help convey linear lessons, but their primary potency is poetic and associative. In my first post on the ARCHIVE, I quoted William Butler Yeats, who asserted that “symbols are an endless inter-marrying family.” The interactions of members in a family is of course analogous to the concerted efforts of a relay-team, and symbol-tropes in a mythopoeic discourse only win their “race” when they work so as to reinforce one another.
As noted, the vertical discourses align respectively with the categories I’ve termed “cognitive restraint” and “affective freedom.” Didactic discourse aspires to teach, and while some teachers seek to help students learn how to think for themselves, it’s implicit that each student will still end up choosing to advocate favored ideas over non-favored ones—in essence, “restraining” any potential tendency to advocate the latter idea-group. Even writers who analyze myths, both religious and literary, must use didactic discourse to assign a particular set of values to the myths analyzed. In this essay I showed how Claude Levi-Strauss advocated a “scientific” approach to myth and stated that he believed that mythic activity was on its way out of human culture. By contrast, Ernst Cassirer championed myth as an irreducible element of human culture. But both had to use didactic discourse to explain their respective ideas and philosophies. The didactic discourse thus is at its strongest within the sphere of non-fiction but has a more tendentious hold in fiction.
The mythopoeic flourishes in fiction but only appears sporadically in non-fiction, and then usually only in commentaries on fictional constructs, such as Raymond Durgnat’s FILMS AND FEELINGS. Mythopoeic discourse doesn’t so much send a message as open up all lines of communication. In contrast to the old saw “If it feels good, do it,” the mythopoeic discourse says, “If it seems significant, symbolize it.”
Mythopoeic discourse aligns to the category of “affective freedom,” meaning that symbols can combine in any way a creator may please to arrange them, irrespective of logical amenities. To be sure, mythicity takes on greater value when an author relates the symbols to the epistemological patterns that the audience recognizes from the world of experience. But I’ve argued, as did Cassirer in MYTHICAL THOUGHT, that mythic symbols are not gain their power from simply copying what audiences see around them. Cassirer had a more Platonic emphasis than I do. On page 3, he speaks of how Plato valued myth as signifying “the world of becoming” in contrast to the adherents of the allegorical school, and throughout the book he emphasizes myth’s potential to dissolve the boundaries between inner reality and outer reality (particularly on page 156). I agree, but for me the dissolution comes about when myth and its near relative literature make use of “real” epistemological patterns for “unreal” purposes.
In mythopoeic discourse, “perfect freedom” not only doesn’t mean “perfect service,” said freedom can be free of any utilitarian purpose. Case in point: Robert E. Howard’s 1936 novelette BLACK CANAAN, recently reviewed here. I pointed out that although Howard placed his story of an aborted race-war in a real location-- an Arkansas town named Canaan-- the author showed no real interest in reproducing the realities of life in that time (post-Civil War) and place. I noted that the outcome of the Civil War made no difference to the novel, and that Howard had no interest in what inequities might have contributed to the mutual hatred between the whites of Canaan and the blacks of the neighboring swamplands, called Goshen. Going purely by the content of the existing story—while acknowledging that the author was forced to cut his original draft for publication—it’s apparent that Howard wanted a pure “clash of civilizations.” The only motivation for the strife is rooted in the tropes of fantasy-fiction, in that Howard imagines the blacks of Goshen as having made diabolical alliances with elder voodoo-deities. Yet this is certainly not a didactic argument, since Howard says absolutely nothing about the presumed Christian orientations of the Canaanites.
Indeed, the only references to Judeo-Christianity devolve also to the blacks of Goshen. Howard named his imaginary swampland after the Egyptian domain where the pre-Exodus Jews were kept in bondage, before they escaped the land of the Pharaohs into Canaan. This symbolic trope is reinforced by the history of the way blacks of pre-emancipation America identified with the pre-Exodus Jews, which I tend to believe a Southerner like Howard could not help but know of. Thus, in the story the minions of Saul Stark, by rising up against white Canaanites, duplicate the action of the archaic Jews who conquered archaic Canaan and transformed that land into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
But what message was Howard sending in the story? None, I would venture. While he certainly could have infused his story of a fictional uprising with his own political opinions, as did many other authors, here Howard only cares about a conflict of good and evil. And even Howard’s concept of “good” may be problematic, since the righteousness of protagonist Kirby becomes compromised by his unquestionable hunger for the “forbidden fruit” of the quadroon voodoo-priestess, the Bride of Damballah. If Howard had wanted only to denigrate the evil represented by Black People—whom, to be sure, he denotes with the customary Nasty Taboo Word of the period—he could have left out this tantalizing sorceress. From first to last, though, she has Kirby under her thrall, and she’s defeated only by the chance intervention of a minor support-character. The hero enjoys the final triumph over the evil Stark, but Kirby doesn’t win because he’s white, and in many ways Stark and Kirby are mirror-images of each other, each striving to make sure his own race holds the whip hand.
There’s no harm in admitting that such a story has no moral to offer, but it’s far from proven that a story with a moral is necessary superior. On a personal note, in my youth I probably liked a good number of preachy stories, since my own ethos was still being formed. But today I tend to find even the best “idea-tropes” in fiction to have less value than the best “symbol-tropes,” while in non-fiction I often fault authors who load their arguments with clumsy symbolism, as per Frederic Wertham’s tortuous comparison between children and garden-flowers. Both discourses have their strengths, but the races they run come off to best effect on level playing-fields.