Myths and Other Truths

by Sam Buntz

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “There are no facts, only interpretations of the facts.”  I think that this can be weakly misread as the siren-song of contemporary nihilism—just some dude with a bad mustache telling me this is all bullshit. The quote certainly isn’t that, but I could understand coming to such a conclusion.  I’ll try to explain what Nietzsche meant—or, at least, this is the explanation that seems most useful and important to me, personally.  I’ll start with a fecund comparison between a few “interpretations of the facts.” There is no real reason to believe that the creation story given in Norse mythology is any more or less true than the first chapter of Genesis: when the Prose Edda claims that the world was created from the body of a Cosmic Giant named Ymir, and that every aspect of the visible world is thus made from humanoid parts—the clouds, for example, were made from Ymir’s brains—we have no rational reason to prefer Yahweh making a mud-pie and blowing his breath into it in order to create Adam.  The Hindu tale of the world’s creation out of the sacrificed body of the god, Purusha (a name that just means “Person”), also relates essentially the same story—except for the fact that Purusha is beautiful and transcendent, whereas Ymir is gross and disgusting.  The same myth persists in the poetry of Blake—the fall and resurrection of the giant, Albion—and in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which portrays the cyclic fall and renewal of a larger-than-life hero named H.C.E—short for Here Comes Everybody, he being nothing less than the fully achieved form of all human passion and history.  (I promise this is going somewhere.)

What is remarkable about these stories is not that they are literally true, but that the ancient Norse and Vedic myths and Joyce’s modernist epic all illuminate a truth, not about how “the world” exists physically, but about how we perceive and, in a sense, create the world: that is to say, we create it out of ourselves.  We interpret everything around us in human terms, because in truth, we are never really engaging with the world as-it-is, but with a “representation of reality” created in our own minds and projected against the blankly unfolding canvas of nature.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling the “facts” we take from nature, in order to create these representations, facts, actually—I would prefer calling them “raw material” or “stuff.”   Even, I think, it would be a dangerous mistake to say Newton’s or Einstein’s visions of reality were more than interpretations (since Einstein’s vision of reality needs to eventually be supplanted and doesn’t apply to the quantum world in the first place) – they were simply interpretations that made better and more adequate use of all the stuff or raw material at hand.  The literal, six-days-creation interpretation of Genesis stopped being a good representation of reality when it ceased, not so much to account for all the facts, but to make use of all the stuff available—it failed to satisfy us artistically and emotionally just as it failed us scientifically.  Any poem and any religious vision is just the full imaginative organization that any author can bring to the material at hand.  And that imaginative organization is always an interpretation of reality, rather than a dictatorial statement of how-it-is.   There’s no set of facts that magically interpret themselves, and—despite what billions of Christians, Muslims, and Ultra-Orthodox Jews think—there are no holy books that do this either.

Nietzsche viewed the world as nothing less than a “primordial poem” that we create by representing and envisioning existence together—our experience of reality is primarily a creative one.  Yet, he saw that our representations of reality were growing weaker, becoming increasingly feeble, absurd, and stupid, and he knew that if we failed to recognize that we only have access to representations or expressions of Truth, and instead kept insisting on the too-easy claim not to represent but to actually have the Truth—like those clockwork-brained, literalist guardians of the Bible and the Koran—we would fall into the abyss of real nihilism, burning down all the representations of reality we’ve created in self-hatred.  (We might, arguably, be living in the abyss already.)  Instead, we should’ve affirmed those representations as valuable despite their partial and limited nature.  Homer and Shakespeare—as well as (and I know I risk controversy in saying this) St. Paul and the Prophet Muhammad—might not actually give us the Whole Truth (whatever that would even be, written on a page)—but they represent it in part.  It’s a very fine distinction, but I think it makes a lot of sense.  If we could recognize that the “deep imageless truth” spoken of by the poet Shelley is always behind or before our representation of it, we might be able to chill out a little bit, and give our imagination free reign to continually push at the boundaries of our reality—scientifically, spiritually, literarily, and morally—rather than letting all the old creeds just repress the imagination, limit it, and make us perpetually miserable.  Perhaps Emerson was more eloquent and precise when—in one of my favorite moments in his essays—he said that the only text is the Self, and all the books and scriptures are but commentaries.  All great writers already implicitly know this, but the literalists soon swoop in and start to take tropes for truth.

Many Hindus actually do view the world in this rather Emersonian fashion—the Hindu gods are but masks worn by the Self, fictions more real than we are, but still contingent, still subject to illusion.  And a mask is a kind of commentary in a way—a way of revealing and concealing, of talking about IT without really being IT.  And the Gnostics of two millennia ago also knew that all representations of reality were not actually Reality.  Nietzsche was not so radical a critic as he thought, though he was brilliant and pungent enough—he merely advanced the critique that the great Transcendentalist, Romantic, Hindu, and Gnostic traditions had made before him—until he started to lose his mind, at which point he may have said some things unworthy of him.  The same advance of humanity’s standard out into Chaos and Night has been carried on in the modern era by visionary writers like D.H. Lawrence, Cormac McCarthy, J.D. Salinger, Harold Bloom, and plenty of others.  My point is that, despite claims to the contrary, most religious believers believe in a representation of reality, and certainly not in Reality itself—but they all refuse to call it a representation (which is not the same as calling it a fiction, unless we take a fiction to be a revelation of a partial truth.)  Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah don’t exist on the page in a qualitatively different sense from the way in which Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab do.  As Bloom never tires of noting, most religious believers basically believe in literary characters—which would be fine, if they admitted that a literary character is essentially a mask for a deeper underlying Truth that can’t actually be represented, that any character only expresses a part of The Self—which we might identify with that deep, deep underlying truth—but none of them can manage to express it wholly.  For the record, I don’t think this argument clashes with the arguments made by some of the more astute theologians and religious teachers—even with some whom we might think of as being pretty “orthodox.”

All books—especially holy scriptures—can only be partial revelations, wildly and greatly partial as they may be.  There is always further imaginative development to be made, and we have never yet reached the end of the Self in our attempts to represent it—though some of the naysayers might say we have (there are grumblings about “the literature of exhaustion”), or just deny the notion of the Self entirely, or try to argue that literary and religious representation (which, as I have been arguing, aren’t at all different) don’t actually try to depict the Self, they only depict historical circumstances surrounding a fictional entity we call the “Self”—or whatever.  Fine—abandon yourself to that way of looking at things if you must.  I assume that you have your reward, whatever that might be.  But the truth is that we need to continue excavating the Self and digging through all our representations of it since that’s basically what Civilization is—it provides pleasure, it enriches and cultivates life, and it allows us to identify those restrictions which repress and limit our grasp, so that we fail to reach for all that we could reach for (spiritually speaking), destroying error that threatens to cloud over our lives and deaden them–the kind of error I’ve been trying to point out in this article.

I’m definitely not trying to deny the existence of a metaphysical reality beyond our limited experience or the existence of God in this essay—what I’m trying to do is save those realities from our attempts to depict them when those depictions run out of steam, but also to save them so that we can continue to depict those realities in new ways with total imaginative freedom, following the muse as she moves us.  This is why so many literalist zealots tried to murder Salman Rushdie or why D.H. Lawrence’s work was censored—those writers put totally just, humane, and reverent representations of reality on the page, but were stymied by the bigots who insist that the only representation of reality acceptable is their own, which they claim is not a representation of reality, but in fact, Reality.  I know that I would personally rather be damned to whatever nasty cesspools the anti-vegetarian, human-sacrifice-loving God of such fundamentalists (frankly, usually less-informed Muslims or Christians) has cooked up, along with my heroes, people like Blake and Emerson and Yogananda, than have to endure an infinite supper at an idealized Old-Country-Buffet-in-the-Clouds, listening to Pat Robertson (assuming he dies first) and Osama Bin Laden orate on the duties of lawful service to the all-torturing and disease-dispensing deity of their respective “faiths.”  But fortunately, I am content to seek after Strange Gods—and I think that’s pretty consistent with my skewed Hindu-Christian-Gnostic sort of worldview.  Like Nietzsche, I would only believe in a God who could dance—not one who chomps on the bones of his non-devotees in a remote cloudy clime of pale inertia.  Fortunately, the God who seems to actually exist, buried in the human spirit, is just such a dancer, and the various representations of reality (including the scientific representations), from The Bible and The Gita to Blood Meridian and Franny and Zooey, seem to me to be the intellectual forms of one wild, terrible, yet ultimately, beautiful dance.

And here, the Offense shall rest.

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2 thoughts on “Myths and Other Truths

  1. Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
    And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
    I was myself the compass of that sea:

    I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
    Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
    And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

    • Hey — thanks for posting. Stevens is one of my favorite poets (as you might’ve guessed), and “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” is, I think, one of his best. I agree that this poem is directly related to what I was trying to get at — how the imagination sets the terms of reality.

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