Ireland has rationalised its myths out of existence


AT THE Dalkey Book Festival last weekend, at an event based on my book Was It for This?, David McWilliams and I had a bracing argument about the state of the nation with a capacity audience in the Masonic Hall. As always seems to happen now – and it genuinely wasn’t David’s doing – the discussion deteriorated into economics.

After a time, a young man in a corner who may well have read my book intervened to say that we were off course, that Ireland’s problems are not fundamentally economic but a consequence of our deficiency of myths. This isn’t exactly what Was It for This? is about but it is a way of defining its central questions: what really happened to us, when and why?

The young man was talking about myth in the Greek sense – the Joseph Campbell sense – as public dreams and stories truer than history, larger than facts and more real than what is on the news.

Mythology, as Campbell insisted, is not for the entertainment of children but nor is it for scholars only. It is a matter of the utmost importance to human society – “For its symbols (whether in the tangible form of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centres of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilisations.”

And again: “The rise and fall of civilisations in the long, broad course of history can be seen to have been largely a function of the integrity and cogency of their supporting canons of myth; for not authority but aspiration is the motivator, builder and transformer of civilisation.”

We take for granted that this is true of the ancient Greek and Roman empires but we rarely think of our own civilisation in the same way. We, after all, are “modern”, which somehow puts us into a different category.

Myth enables us to exceed our expectations of ourselves by drawing on the deeper capacities which the banality of the everyday contrives to suppress. Ireland right now is a nation devoid of myths, seeking heroes in all the wrong places, incapable of transcending itself because its public culture rejects such understandings as obscurantist, outmoded and dangerous.

The last great myth that sustained us was that of 1916, and this has been soundly trounced by a pincer movement of the Provos and their cultural adversaries – one side appropriating the myth and demeaning it, the other seeking to expunge it entirely because of a misplaced understanding of its potency.

Such is the damage we have sustained that it is hard to see how 1916 can ever be reclaimed, and the most shocking thing is that quite a few among us think this a good thing. And yet it stands as an ineluctable challenge to us of a way of seeing our country that is not primarily concerned with interests. It can neither be expunged nor elided. It haunts us with its mythic power yet we cannot harness this power to haul us from our present stagnation.

Campbell held that the decline of belief in myth arises from overly literal belief in religious ideas. Mythology he defined as “other people’s religion” – the “penultimate truth – penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words”. Religion, he believed, can give rise to popular misunderstandings of the nature of mythology.

Half the world, he said, thinks that what he called “the metaphors of religious traditions” are facts; and the other half insists they are lies.

The problem of Ireland 2012 can be more precisely stated: that previous overly simplistic, sociologically-directed interpretations of religious and mythological understandings have provoked even more reductive reactions in the present, which divert the mind of society into an increasingly pedantic sense of the human journey. This has washed out of our collective imagination most of the elements which might provide some hope of a mass mobilisation of societal energies.

It is a strange quirk of what we consider “modern” society that it sees its literalism as evidence of increased enlightenment. But as Campbell advised, “Gods suppressed become devils”. We don’t think of such questions as coming centrally to bear on our affairs in this modern moment. But why should we be exempt from what human history has asserted from the beginning?

Led by incompetents, technocrats and middle managers, browbeaten by technical mumbo jumbo, tied to a pointless utilitarianism and “going forward” to an unfocused-upon destination that we sense is closer to nowhere than somewhere, we insist all the more loudly on the success of our “progress” project.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell wrote: “The psychological dangers through which earlier generations were guided by the symbols and spiritual exercises of their mythological and religious inheritance, we today (insofar as we are unbelievers, or, if believers, insofar as our inherited beliefs fail to represent the real problems of contemporary life) must face alone, or, at best with only tentative, impromptu, and not often very effective guidance. This is our problem as modern, ‘enlightened’ individuals, for whom all gods and devils have been rationalised out of existence.”

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