Mythic Truth

“Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words.”  I recently came across this quote from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.  Coomaraswamy was a philosopher and metapmhysist from Ceylon, and like many eastern thinkers had a more holistic view of the world than western rationalism.  We’re taught from a young age that myth is something false, not true.  This colloquial use of the word is so common that those of us who’ve specialized in myth slip into it during everyday conversation.  Words, however, have uses rather than meanings.  Coomaraswamy was engaging this reality in the quote above.  Words can take us only so far in exploring reality when we have to break into either formulas or poetry.  Although they are under-appreciated poets are the purveyors of truth.

Having studied ancient mythology in some detail, it became clear to me as a student that these tales weren’t meant to be taken literally.  Instead, they were known to be true.  It takes a supple mind to parse being true from “really happened,” as we are taught in the western world that on what “really happened” is true.  In other words, historicism is our myth.  Meaning may not inhere in words, but when we use words to explore it we run up against lexical limits.  Is it any wonder that lovers resort to poetry?  On those occasions when I’ve been brave enough to venture to write some, I walk away feeling as if I’ve been the receiver of some cosmic radio signal.  We have been taught to trust the reality of what our senses perceive.  Myth, and poetry, remind us that there’s much more.

The Fundamentalist myth is that the Bible is literally true.  If they’d stop and think about it, they’d realize the mockery such thinking makes of Holy Writ.  The Good Book doesn’t look at itself that way.  In fact, it doesn’t even look at itself as a book—an idea that developed in later times.  The time and the cultures that produced the Bible were cool with myth.  They may not have called it that but the signs are unmistakable.  Ananda Coomaraswamy knew whereof he wrote.  The closest to absolute truth we can come takes us to the end of declarative, factual writing.  Scientists writing about the Big Bang devolve into complex mathematical formulas to explain what mere words can.  Myth is much more eloquent, even if we as a society, dismiss it along with other non-factual truth.

Where Was I?

Finally!  I have sent my proofs and the index for Holy Horror back to McFarland and I find myself in that state following intensive concentration on one thing.  Well, as much as work will allow such concentration.  Those who write books know how difficult it is to switch gears from fifth back to first while driving at highway speeds.  As soon as the email arrived stating that the proofs were ready, I dropped everything to get them read, outside work hours, of course.  With mind focused on a single goal—get the job done—I’ve managed to forget where I was before being interrupted by my own work.  I recall it had something to do with demons, though.

Perhaps the most taxing part of trying to write while employed full time is keeping track of where you are.  The luxury of spending hours outside of class doing the index, for example, is compressed into the little free time I have between writing for this blog and work—between a blog and a hard place, as it were.  Indexing, which can be quite pricey when a professional does it, is  much easier with a searchable PDF than it ever was going through a printout page-by-page to find obscure references you forgot you ever wrote.  It reminded me of the time I had Owen Chadwick over for dinner at Nashotah House.  I recalled someone asking him about something he’d once written and he looked puzzled for a moment and then replied, “One writes so many things.”  Indeed.  Millions and million of words in electrons, if not on paper, mark the status of a life.  And indexing will prove it to you somehow.

This morning I awoke with the proofs and index safely emailed back to the publisher.  What was I doing before that?  I know that work is looming just a short hour or two ahead, and I need to accomplish part of my life’s work before going to work.  I can’t afford to waste this time.  Nightmares with the Bible is coming along nicely.  A very drafty draft of the book exists.  I have some more research to do, however, and the annotated bibliography—ah, that’s where I left off!—is still a shambles.  Not only that, but I’ve got a stack of reading on the topic next to my chair.  Time to put on a pot of coffee and warm up those typing fingers.  I’ve got real work to do.

Free Cookie

So, it started out as a freebee.  The way I looked at it, I paid enough for my computer to justify some free software.  We had Quicken on our desktop for years before we started to use it.  Then came the notice that it would no longer work on our system (which upgrades apparently every nano-second).  If we didn’t want to lose our financial data we would, the note cheerily said, have to upgrade.  You have to buy what once was in the land of the free.  We consulted about it—I still have an objection to paying for something made strictly of electrons; when I pull the blanket off the bed this time of year I get a healthy jolt of electrons without having to pay for them.  We caved.  Then the notice came again.  Upgrade time!  Only you can’t buy Quicken, you can rent it.  The one-time fee for buying software is now an annual fee.  Isn’t everyone happier now?

I don’t mean to pick on Quicken, although that is the most insidious offender since you can’t very easily transfer all that data back to paper.  Services withdrawn.  Welcome to the internet of thieves.  Bakeries worldwide know that a free cookie leads to sales often enough that it’s worth the small loss in profits.  But electrons are free all the time.  Shuffle your feet across the carpet in you stocking feet and test it.  Amazon for a while sent the Washington Post headlines daily, for free.  Now, Amazon ought to know me by name since I’m a book addict.  Then, just at the midterm elections, they announced this freebee was over.  I don’t know what in the world has been happening since.  I do hope someone will tell me when our currency converts to rubles.

Who wants a cookie?

Humans are susceptible to the myth of permanence.  Although change is constant and time never ceases to flow, we tend to think things will stay where we put them.  Technological change, however, has become so swift that we now pay for the privilege.  Unlike that cookie which lasts a moment and the choice of buying more is up to you, the internet has swept up our lives and you can no longer opt out.  We pay our bills online because letter carriers drop things.  We communicate online because who has the time to pick up and dial an actual landline phone?  The fact that the signal cuts out now and again isn’t a problem, even when we lose valuable information.  It’s only electrons, after all.

Time Taking

Publishing is a slow business.  In a world of instant information, such plodding may appear to be old-fashioned.  Outdated.  Each step of the process takes time and anyone can sit down and type thoughts directly into the internet, so why bother with traditional publishing?  These thoughts come to me as I read through the proofs of Holy Horror, and work on the index.  This is time-consuming, and time is hard to come by.  That, I suppose, is a major reason for doing things this way.  Ironically, people don’t have a problem seeing that handmade items—which tend to take time and be less efficient than machine-made articles—are more valuable.  They represent care and quality, things that a machine can’t assess well.  This is the world beyond math.  It is the human world.

Those of us born before computers took over sometimes have difficulty adjusting.  The world of the instant goes well with inflation—the myth that constant growth in a limited world is possible.  The fact is that value is a human judgment and we value things that take time.  It’s true that most non-fiction books are instantly dated these days.  Often it’s because information flies more quickly than pre-press operations.  It takes a couple years to write a book and a publisher takes a year or two getting it into print.  Back when the process was invented news traveled slowly and, I venture to say as a historian of sorts, didn’t often carry the dramatic shifts we witness today.  A book could take a long time to appear and still be fresh and new when it did.  For the internet generation it may be hard to see that this is an issue of quality.

Most of us are content with the satisfactory.  We’re willing to sacrifice quality for convenience.  We do it all the time.  Then, in the recording industry, vinyl starts to come back.  Corporate bigwigs—for whom fast and cheap is best—express surprise.  Why would anyone buy a record?  The question can only be answered by those who’ve listened to one.  There is a difference, a difference that we’ve mostly been willing to jettison for the convenience of the instant download.  Our lives are being cluttered with disposable-quality material.  Even now I’m writing this daily update for my blog rather than continuing the drudgery of working on an index.  We all have expectations of alacrity, I guess.  The slower world of publishing is more my speed.

Creatio Nihilo

Just when I think I’ve reconciled myself with technology, this goes and happens.  These precise words, in this order, have been written before.  In fact, all words in the English language have already been laid out in every conceivable order.  Technology can be friend or foe, it seems.  The website Library of Babel—with its biblical name—has undertaken the task of writing every conceivable combination of letters (using our standard English alphabet) and putting them into a vast, if only electronic, library.  This was not done by a human being like me, with intent or even any interest in the meaning of the words, but rather as one of those things people do simply because they can.  This entire paragraph can be copied and pasted into their search box and found.

The Library of Babel has made plagiarists of us all, even as it plagiarized everything written before it was programed.  After I learned about this library the wind avoided my sails for a while.  You see, what’t the point in writing what’s already been written?  Then it occurred to me.  Context.  The fact is, had I not scriven these very words, and put them on this blog, they would never have come to the attention of the kinds of people who read what I write.  The words have been spelled out before, but they’ve never been written before.   Those of us who write know the difference.  We spend hours and hours reading and thinking of ways to combine words.  We’re not out to kill the creativity of our species, we simply want to participate.

There should be limits to human knowledge, otherwise we’d have nothing for which to strive.  The internet may make it seem that all knowledge has been found—it is so vast and so terribly diverse—and yet there are people who never use a computer.  Their wisdom counts too.  It may seem that everything is here, but there is material that still has to be looked up in physical books.  There are crates and crates of clay tablets from antiquity that have never been transcribed and translated.  When that finally happens, the words they contain may be found, in a strangely prophetic way, in the Library of Babel.  But they won’t have any meaning there until it is given by the context.  And what can a library preserve if it isn’t the context that a (human) writer has given the words?

Christmas Time

As children we can’t wait for Christmas because we’ll be getting things.  Now that I’m older I try to avoid the frenzy building up to the holiday, although I look forward to the vacation days that I’ll cash in to take time to be with family rather than business.  It’s not that I don’t like holidays—it’s just I’m no fan of hype.  Still, now that December is nearing, and Thanksgiving has reminded us that work isn’t everything, I can feel the anticipation.  Yesterday I attended the Christkindlmarkt  in Bethlehem.  Amid the backdrop of the truly colossal, rusting stacks of the former Bethlehem Steel plant, this is a seasonal event with nothing but good spirit.  People of all descriptions were crowded into the massive event, but rudeness and complaining were strangely absent.  Everyone seemed to be having a good time.

When I worked at Nashotah House, the atmosphere for Advent was austere.  We weren’t really encouraged to look forward to Christmas, bringing a tree home before the 24th was frowned upon.  It was a time to reflect on our sins, not to anticipate our rewards.  Still, I had a kind of epiphany among the secular crowds seeking to get into the spirit of things yesterday.  Bethlehem is a city that has known hard times.  Its industrial base eroded away, residents were left unemployed and wondering about a very (and increasingly) uncertain future.  Recasting itself as the Christmas City is a way of throwing new light on a holiday famous for its commercialism.

Christmas can be about resurrection.  It’s a season to think of birth.  It matters not if the mother is a virgin or if the child is for an exclusive sect.  People throng here for hope.  Beauty in the midst of ruin.  Some businesses clearly spend all year building up to Christmas, selling ornaments so delicate that I feared even to look too hard at them lest they shatter.  Handcrafted goods that represent the livelihood of others who compel strangers that art is worth more than money itself.  Wandering through the four tents of booths, the feeling of resurrection was palpable.  We were all here seeking something.  Loosening the grip on the wallet just a bit.  Wanting to make others happy for a while.  Birth is the symbol of hope.  Advent, it seems, need not be a dreary season of wallowing in unworthiness, awaiting a mythology taken too literally.  The proof of the goodness before us is just down the road in Bethlehem.

Family Names

Holidays are all about family.  In our society where families, due to jobs, often get spread across states, if not the world, we value holidays as times to get as many as possible of our close ones together.  They’re also rare days when work isn’t required, and true relaxation—a rarity—can take place.  This Thanksgiving break I’ve been reading the proofs for Holy Horror, but I put them aside after anyone else awakes.  We all, I think, come out of it feeling rested.  It has been many years, however, since I’ve had time to work on genealogy.  I don’t write much about it here because most people don’t find other people’s family history to be of interest.  Many of us are nevertheless fascinated by the ancestors without whom we would not be here.

One summer while I was teaching at Nashotah House I became fixated on one great-grandmother.  Nobody in my family knew her name.  I had a first name (a fairly common one), and, adding insult to injury, I grew up with her daughter (my grandmother) living in my home.  Kids, as nature dictates, aren’t interested in that kind of thing, and nobody thought to ask my grandmother her mother’s name before she died.  I found myself stuck at just two generations back.  I made trips to the repository of state and federal records at Madison, spending the summer in a basement room reading through microfiche—talk about ancient history!—trying to find her name.  Nothing.  I wrote to the federal agencies of vital statistics in Washington which gladly cashed my checks but never sent any information.  Later, when the internet began to fill up, I searched for her married name.  Nothing turned up.  I ordered books of gravestone inscriptions from the District of Columbia, where she’d died, but dug up nothing.  One of the cemeteries sends me newsletters now.  When my daughter asked why I was getting them in the mail I told the story.  We began to search online.

I couldn’t believe it.  At least a decade and a half after I’d found no clues, and after many web searches after that, we finally found her.  Someone had entered her on Findagrave.com.  As I pondered the dates, which seemed about right, my daughter pointed out that the site stated she’d been married to my great-grandfather.  My ancestry suddenly grew by two new surnames because her parents were also listed.  I was stunned.  I once calculated that, due to exponential growth, just ten generations back, (eight “greats”) we all have over a thousand ancestors, or 500 couples.  Genealogy could be a full-time addiction.  For the moment, however, I’m pleased to have found a long lost name, and an instantly larger family for this holiday season.