Toward a Future Mythology. 1990.
(Published as "Directions/Questions: Approaching a Future Mythology," in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art. 1991.)
It is twilight. A small band of men, women, and children wander across a dusty, relentless plain. They are searching for a new habitat. This is but one of many such journeys. Their shadows lengthen before them as the sun sinks into a distant mountain range. For them, this landscape is a void. An essential transformation must precede habitation. A young man carries a ritual pole, believed to hold magical powers. Fashioned from the trunk of a gum tree, it is the Kauwa-auwa, possessed by the Achilpa people, an Australian aboriginal group. It corresponds precisely to the first such pole, which the god Numbakula climbed to enter the sky. Guided by the direction toward which the Kauwa-auwa bends, the small group is led to their new territory. A space is delineated, and in its center, the Kauwa-auwa is planted, establishing communication once again with the sky realm. In this way, the void is overcome.The world itself is actualized and human existence is realized. The void can become world only when a break at its center into the infinite is made through the sacred pole. The landscape devoid of this transformation cannot support life. "Life is not possible without an opening toward the transcendent."1
It is the dead of night. The landscape is composed of precise rows of dwellings, organized into the pattern of a grid. Artificial light competes with a pale moon. Inside one of the dwellings, a woman lies sleeping. Suddenly a disruption occurs in the form of a rapid succession of images. Breathing comes in short gasps. She is falling, and as she falls, fragments of her dreamed surroundings seem to break away, hurling themselves into space. As the fragments disappear, the shape of her surroundings narrows and darkens. It is a dry well, a cave, a hole that plunges to the center of the earth. The darkness is impenetrable. A whistling sound steadily rises in pitch. Her fall now is dizzying. All orientation is lost. Terror. She is dying. The sound escapes the range of hearing and breaks off. Silence. Suspense. A thread rises from her mouth. It is made of spittle. Another from her navel. Made of gut. And another from her vagina. Made of blood.
It is morning. In a pastoral village composed of garden plots and tumular huts, stands a re-creation of the universe itself. Within the sacred lodge of an Algonquin tribe, space and time are coordinated into a perfect metaphor for the harmony between transcendent and finite realms. The roof is the dome of the sky. The floor is the earth. And the four walls are the four directions of cosmic space. Around the implied center, recognized as the still point of infinity, finite existence is manifested through a threefold symbolism of four doors, four windows, and four colors signifying the four cardinal points. To walk through the lodge is to be delivered into cosmic time. Within this universe, space and time are homologous constructions. Temporality is experienced as a journey through the four cardinal directions, represented by the windows and doors of the lodge, symbolizing the world itself. “The Year is a circle around the world.”2
The axis mundi is an archetype of protean dimensions. In traditional form, it originates as a rupture, a cleavage in the smooth continuum of space and time, a penetration of the infinite into the quotidian. In the guise of numerous images, whether a pole, a tree, a mountain, a pyramid, or even an empty space inferred from the six sides of a room, the axis mundi symbolizes a break, and thereby, the possibility of a passage between the cosmic regions of the underworld, earth, and heaven. It is the center. Around this cosmic axis lies the world. It signifies the sacred. Without this sacred axis, there can be no world. In vestigial form, it is a guide in a dream.
The genesis of the axis mundi lies in a moment of awakening consciousness, in a primal recognition of awe and dread. As such, it resides in a generative matrix of shared beliefs, behaviors, images, and stories that constitute the world's mythologies. Issuing spontaneously from the deepest recesses of the psyche, the mythological impulse is toward participation in "the mystery of this finally inscrutable universe."3 Cloaked always in local forms and customs, the essential story is nonetheless universal. Through their vitality as metaphors, the gods and heroes of myths make present a sense of transcendence and ultimately relate the steps taken during "an enigmatical incursion into a world of solid matter that is soon to melt from us like
the substance of a dream."4
Myth is the social stage upon which our innermost psychophysiological urges break through to visible reality."Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth. "5 Myth survives into modern times in disguised forms. Its rudimentary form is most apparent within the private dimension of dream. Emptied of contextual ritual, it surfaces like an ancient memory, perhaps to become the root substance of art.
Every mythology is essentially a cosmology. As space is sacralized through identifying its center, so time is sacralized through a return to its origins. Mythological time is circular time. lt is reversible to the extent that it permits the recovery of a primordial time. If the world is created by discovering the infinite, then it must be maintained by continually recapturing the infinite.
Periodically, the world declines into a state of decrepitude and edges toward a return to chaos. It must be rescued from this state. The ultimate threat is history. Historical memory, which derives from no primordial archetype and thus reveals the irreversibility of time, is intolerable. History supplants dread with ennui. The world can be regenerated only through a ritual enactment of the primal moment. "Through the actualization of the cosmic Creation, exemplary model of all life," the world can again exhibit the fullness of being and a sense of primordial plenitude. 6
Daily existence itself is appropriated into this process. The lasting invention of the mythic mind is essentiallya poetic one, the principle of analogy. By mapping one order of reality upon another, such as sleep over death or waking over rebirth, it takes the daily and repetitive examples of ordinary life as proof of our own continuity and that of reality itself. Thus, the mythic narrative always resolves itself in the same way.Returned to its origins and poised metaphorically at the beginning of time when any and all conditions are again equally possible, including its complete and final dissolution, the universe replicates itself. Randomness and chaos are conquered. Order and constancy prevail.
The cyclic resuscitation of existence through a return to its origins survives into the present as one of the dominant traits of the human mind. lts trace remains in the reservoirs of the individual unconscious as well as in the ambitions of the collective will. As a cultural phenomenon, it persists through the work of the cosmological physicist. As a tool for survival, it is the means of overcoming our sense of radical discontinuity with our surroundings. As a ground for art making, it is the constant re-creation of a mark in a prehistoric cave.
It is within the domain of art that a contemporary mythology will most likely be expressed. A new mythology, rapidly becoming both a social and a spiritual necessity as the structures of the past die out, is "already implicit among us as knowledge a priori, native to the mind which is brought to recollection by apparently external circumstance".7 External circumstance is equally an environment of technological artifice as the jungles and forests of the ancient past or the temple compounds of the historical past. The sources of the mythological impulse remain unchanged, motivated by the universalizing conditions of archetypes that, originating in the psychosomatic processes of the body itself, are a constant.
How will we recognize the center? The locale of mythological stirring has undergone considerable transformation since an Achilpa elder guided his small tribe to safe passage by means of a sacred pole. In traditional societies, the landscape is the first determinant of folk forms and customs. Limited by the horizon, these mythologies are conditioned by local geography, flora, and fauna. In historical times, the engendering phenomena are shifted from the animals and plants to the cosmos itself. The orderly and predictable procession of the planets in the night sky form the model to be imitated in the monuments below. For the ground of a contemporary mythology, we look to a universe whose limits are not yet known. Once again, the focus has shifted, placing us now around a minor sun at the edge of a galaxy surrounded by millions of other galaxies all hurtling through space. But our place now is primarily determined by theory, a system of mathematical signs that has no equivalent in the realm of direct perception. Insofar as this purely conceptual localization defies our daily experience, we come to recognize the essential message of the archetype, conditioned though it may be by any variety of external circumstance. We come to understand that the metaphysical center is ubiquitous. As it shapes states of being ultimately realizable only within the individual, the metaphorical language of myth unveils a center that is literally everywhere.
How will we tell the stories? The essential narrative remains unchanged. It is the course of an individual life mirrored in the world. But, as an exemplar of our own nature, our planet has evolved into an image of striking paradox. On the one hand, satellite photographs make visible what had until now been only a "conjectural and secret object…"8 It is an earth of swirling patterns, a glorious and celestial sphere suspended in space, an emblem of unity itself. On the other hand, this home site is "threatened by a new wave of millennial imagery—of killing, dying and destroying on a scale so great as to end the human narrative. "9 As we witness the structures of the past disintegrate, it is evident that a new mythology must be capable of withstanding the "intolerable" irreversibility of history while fulfilling its primal function as the threshold of the transcendent. "If history is a symbolizing treadmill, it is also the vehicle of our collective renewal. "10
Time's irreversible disruptions are recapitulated in the desires and dreads of an individual life,
for the self is the ground of the universal narrative and as such, the embodiment of a paradox. Undergoing the transformative stages of a human life, from birth, through childhood and adulthood, and into death, we are, now as always, living creatures fearful of the abyss and longing for the infinite. This dual aspect is built into the human organism. Prefigured from the beginning, an imaginative awareness of the structures of both death and life evolves according to the sequence of human growth, from sensorimotor responses, to visualized imagery, to complex symbols. A dialectic is formed between images of cessation and continuity that parallels the trajectory of the life cycle. The fusion of these two selves, mortal, and immortal, depends as much on an evolving inner pattern of breakdown and renewal as it does on a planetary design of threat and greater connection.11 The narrative of the self thus reflects the goal of myth: "[K]nowledge of that transcendent source out of which the mystery of a given life arises into this field of time and back into which it in time dissolves."12
How are the stories initiated? For the Hindu, a pilgrimage is made. Walking the countryside, from the headwaters of the Ganges to the foothills of Mount Kailas, the pilgrim transforms the landscape of India into the body of the mother goddess, a symbolic entity whose anatomical parts become shrines for the remembrance of the cosmology.13 What symbolic entity, mapped over our world, is capable of yielding a similar path? Its shrines, it would seem, must be conceived as questions. How might they focus the points of harmony and discord between historical and mythical time? How will they distinguish the ultimate from the primordial? How will they reflect our personal crises of belief and experience? And how will they assemble these into a collective imprint? Perhaps this symbol is nearer than we think. Perhaps it already flourishes wildly among us.
1. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
(New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1959), p. 34.
2. Ibid., p. 74, quoting a Dakota saying.
3. Joseph Campbell, The Way o/ the Animal Powers
(New York: Alfred van der Marck Editions, 1983), p. 8.
4. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949), p. 12.
5. Ibid., p. 3.
6. Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality
(New York: Harper & Row, 1963), pp. 28–38.
7. Joseph Campbell, The lnner Reaches of Outer Space
(New York: Alfred van der Marck Editions, 1986), p. 27.
8. Jorge Luis Borges, "The Aleph," in A Personal Anthology
(New York: Grove Press, 1967), pp. 138–154.
9. Robert Jay Lifton, The Broken Connection
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), p. 3.
10. Ibid., p. 284.
11. Ibid., p. 394.
12. Campbell, Inner Reaches… p. 31.
13. Eleanor Munro, On Glory Roads
(New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987), pp. 18– 23.