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Abstract

Story is the constant companion of consciousness, but it is more than the tales it tells. Story is the mother of all myths, but not itself a myth. As maker, doer, and shaper, it expresses and embodies itself in a world of things as ordinary as tables and chairs, as exotic as cyclotrons, as ubiquitous as mobile phones. In the things it makes and in which it abides it may read itself as in a book, thereby belying one of its own cherished fictions: that it is inherently private and out of public sight.

I

Consciousness is known by the company it keeps. Story is its constant companion. This is the case even when it addresses itself to itself and says what it sees. It is like the pilot of a ship in one tale, but a thinking "I" in another. It is a theater where perceptions come and go, or an aviary where thoughts fly in and out like birds, or a stream. It is the manifestation of an immortal soul, or perhaps the first rumor left behind by the disappearing soul on the air of philosophy. It is an ineffective nothing, a lyric cry in the midst of business, or the whistle of a steam engine. It is a mill, a tablet written on by experience, a telephone switchboard, a hologram, a computer. Anciently and most pertinently here, it is a pure beholder: the unseen Seer, the unheard Hearer, the unthought Thinker, the ununderstood Understander limned in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

The fact underlying all the stories is that consciousness is double featured. There is a beholder and something beheld. But this already [End Page 394] begins in the wrong place; the story has gotten ahead of itself. All that can be said to begin with is that there is a looking and a looked-at, a hearing and heard, thinking and thought, understanding and understood, each implicit in the other, and then explicitly apart.

Consciousness may feel itself as director, organizer, regulator, enduring agent, check, or goad, but latent in all its modulations is the onlooker, an actual or possible circumstantiation that is different from any of the forms it takes. We do something, see something, feel something, then notice what is happening, as if reporting it to ourselves: a surveilling and a surveillance of it; two moments out of one, and then, absorbed in the happening itself, one out of two again.

There is a name that is proper to this, a name that is not merely a figure of speech or a metaphor but one that betokens the double character of the activity itself: it is mythopoiesis, the compound word for it in Greek. I understand poiesis here, not in the sense of rendering something in verse—although verse, in a manner of speaking, is its native tongue—but in the root sense of making, creating, producing; and, more generally, of doing; and mythos, although it can mean simply a tale and often is such, I am taking in a more general sense to refer to speaking, a speaking out of, or that which is delivered by speech. It is tempting to suppose that one of these is more primary than the other, poiesis perhaps, with mythos as one of its doings or outcomes, but since each is implicit in the other, this defies clear stipulation. Thus, as we have been told, out of a primordial consciousness the ancient Vedas spoke themselves, and their utterance, remembered faithfully and repeated for hundreds of generations, made itself the Ur-text of your consciousness and mine.

What we see by seeing this is that the story maker is not itself a mere story; it is a fact, as fundamental as we are apt to find. The maker of metaphors, of likely stories, of persuasive accounts, is more than an account, a story or a metaphor. It is an actuality, shaping and reshaping what we do and think and feel in ways that exceed its own powers of reckoning. Whenever anything happens to us, or for us, or by our means, we behold its works; it is by them and through them that it makes itself known. Unable we may be to trace to their source and inspect directly the causes of our doings, but we know what they are: the urges, passions, and aspirations that excite them.

Mythopoiesis as an activity is a lived reality and not itself a myth, but it is the mother of all myths. In its indigenous being, consciousness may be one and whole, but it cannot remain so for long and can never be known to us as such. As humans our burgeoning awareness is bespoken [End Page 395] from the first. Each of us is born into a tale already being told; hearing it, each of us begins our own account and in its working out we may be one with the ambient context in which our story unfolds or be at odds with it. Characteristically we are both at once. But that is only the beginning of it. Seldom, if ever, and never anymore, does only one story reach our ears. The air is full of voices, siren songs of every sort to beguile, enchant, persuade, command, compel our belief or unbelief. Anecdotes, histories, tales, fables, fantasies, legends, dreams, theories, doctrines, creeds: the point is not to complete the list or to parse their differences but only to suggest that, given some scope and some number of adhering parties, any of these might be the stuff of myth, the stuff of which consciousness is made, if it is made of anything. It is not from looking directly into consciousness and trying to see it bare that we can know it for what it is. For this we must canvass the company it keeps: the tales it tells; and I believe no writings are better suited to this purpose than Plato's, where mythopoiesis abounds.

A vital aspect of Plato's vision is the soul. Many accounts, figurations, and descriptions of it appear in his writings, but the most engaging is the philosophic soul. Socrates embodies it completely, but usually plays at being something else. Claiming to understand nothing but love and impersonating the soul of eros, he celebrates the attractions of the many beautiful bodies so often found in his company, but without succumbing to them. Thus disguised he goes happily about his business seeking to transform eros into philos in the souls of his companions where and when he can. He is willing to talk to everyone and evidently does, but he likes especially to converse with young aristocrats who, in their pride and strength, aspire to rule and thus—for their own good and everybody else's—would benefit most if smitten by philosophy.

A story of how this might happen is told in the Symposium by Diotima, who is present in the dialogue only in Socrates's tale of her as his once-upon-a-time instructress in the erotic arts. According to her, the correct procedure in the activities of eros is to begin with beautiful bodies, move upward to beautiful deeds, then to beautiful acts of understanding, and finally to an understanding of the beautiful itself where, if anyone should happen to see it, "pure, clear, unmixed and not contaminated with human flesh and color and a lot of other mortal silliness," he would be able to give birth to true virtue. By giving birth to true virtue and nourishing it, he would become a friend of the gods "and if any human being could become immortal, he would" (Symposium 211e–212a). [End Page 396]

In the Phaedrus another encounter takes place between the erotic and the philosophic soul in the persons of Phaedrus and Socrates. In this conversation, enlivened by the question of whether, why, and when to gratify a lover, the upward thrust of eros is also depicted and its proper bridling extolled. In the course of this exploratory inquiry, a primary feature of the soul appears. The characteristic that "constitutes the essence and definition of the soul," Socrates tells Phaedrus, is that which "changes itself" (Phaedrus 245c–246a). That is why it is immortal and why it gives life to the body when it enters it. In the Laws, which stands as Plato's last word on the subject, this formulation is echoed, and its ontological significance is expanded: "the definition of this thing to which the name 'soul' is given," the Athenian Stranger says, is "the motion capable of moving itself," and that self-moving soul is "the same being as that which is the first generation and motion of the things that exist, that have come into being, and will be, and of all the opposites of these" (Laws 896a).

Another account of the relationship of immortal soul to mortal body is presented in the Phaedo, where the philosophical soul gets all the attention after Socrates's young wife, accompanied by their infant son, makes a nuisance of herself by weeping; she is banished from the final visitation, and the claims of eros with her. The story goes like this: the soul brings life to the body, but the soul's association with it is unwelcome; the body is an impediment; attachment to it and its unceasing alternation of pleasure and pain is bondage; we come into our true estate only when we are free of it. The way a man can be freed from all anxiety about the state of his soul is to become deeply dissatisfied with all bodily pleasures and adornments and devote himself to the pleasures of acquiring knowledge. Then he need have no fear of death.

Here it is not eros ascending but philos. After the arguments for the soul's immortality have been seen through and before the arrival of the hemlock, Socrates imagines a fabulous journey beyond the earth of experience, and even beyond what he calls the "true earth" to a splendid place where pious souls ascend to reside post mortem, and those who have purified themselves with philosophy dwell forever in mansions pure and fair.

In this dialogue, Socrates and philosophic discourse, now seen to be essentially the same, find their fulfillment. All distractions have been distanced; talk can actually be what it might be at its best. The pertinent question "How shall I die?" is understood to mean "How ought I to live?" The philosopher's preparation for death is shown as the proper [End Page 397] way to live the best life. Socrates departs in joy, assured that the mode of discourse to which he has given himself will fare well without him. Neither weep nor mourn, he tells his companions, only keep talking. Thus in a moment of enduring poignancy are both Socrates and the soul of philosophic discourse immortalized.

As its readers will remember, Symposium ends with most of the guests gone home and the rest asleep except for Agathon, Aristophanes, and Socrates, who is insisting that the same man could write both comedies and tragedies. Whether or not Plato is making a case for his own potential versatility, the fact is that from first to last his choice was comedy. The elements of tragedy might have been present in the life of Socrates, but Plato played it another way. The face of the philosophic life is a comic face, the face of Socrates. Comic, too, are the features of the Platonic cosmos. Terrible deeds may be done there, but nothing tragic can occur, which, by the way, is why Nietzsche despaired of it. The Good, a being said to be beyond being, is the father of all. There is no counter to it. There may be a lack of it, but there is no evil to oppose it. On earth, or above it, or below it, there is nothing to dread; there are no dark powers; the worst there can be is ignorance and an absence of the light.

Plato's ambition, it seems clear enough, was to inspire his readers and auditors with his vision, and change their ways of being and thinking. This meant displacing the Homeric religion and contending with the tragic poets who continued to give it voice. This is why Plato toyed with the idea of banning them from the playtime polity we know as the Republic.

It is hard for us to see, perhaps, that the tales the poets told were not merely entertaining stories: they were accounts of the gods, real beings that had been seen and spoken to and whose intercourse with humans might have fateful consequences. The gods had their temples, their sacred places where pious votaries went in awe to pray, make offerings, seek solace, and ask counsel. This sense of the divine was the manner in which people apprehended reality; it informed feeling and judgment; its exactions and deliverances shaped conduct. Its evocations of fate and tragic dread weighed on the souls of generations and stirred consequential passions that led to bloody and destructive outcomes. As a religion it was weakening; there were critics; there were many who neglected its observances; there were new and foreign deities. Socrates and Glaucon, we are told, went down to Piraeus one night to see a torchlight procession in honor of one of these deities. But the Homeric religion had its adherents and, unless the execution of Socrates was purely political, they were powerful enough to make him pay for his [End Page 398] evident lack of conventional piety. Socrates speaks often of honoring the gods, and believes he does so, but the gods that excite his enthusiasm are not the Olympians.

To many, as we know, Plato's new world of words came as a revelation. Inspired by Plato's vision of the Good, Aristotle imagined a pure intelligence, an Unmoved Mover, the highest and best of beings, and made the love of it, incorporate in all things, the final cause of motion and the ground of cosmic order. Augustine, the repentant Manichean, took it another way, wedded the Platonic vision to Christian doctrine and made the body more despised. As it spread afar, Plato's ongoing thought changed beliefs and lives and institutions, thus making manifest the shaping power of mythopoesis. In this it is exemplary, but not of course unique.

Another myth of ancient origin, awesome in its power, is even less remote from us than Plato's compositions. Before Plato lived to think about the Good, Democritus taught that atoms, uncuttable particles, were the stuff of which all things are made. Lucretius, hearing this story hundreds of years later and being enchanted by it, crafted the poem that delivered it to the modern world and the modern world to it.

This myth has set more things astir than any other, graphically demonstrating its ultimacy and blowing past its name. In the awful radiance of its oxymoronic incarnation, a message flashed, seen at once by Robert Oppenheimer, the man who oversaw its birth. "I am become death, the destroyer of Worlds," it said. More subdued, the myth of an ultimate particle enjoys another life, fulfilling and denying itself at CERN, where bits of stuff are smashed into smaller and smaller bits, leaving us to wonder whether its devotees are making or discovering what they see, whether there is truly any uncuttable thing after all, and whether the accounts of these many evanescent fragments can ever be made one.

So myths are real, no doubt about it, and very much alive even in our science-illumined age. The list of those extant is about as long as one cares to make it. Gender, race, ethnicity, barbarism, nationhood, Western civilization, mind, soul, ego, id, will, idealism, materialism, determinism, serendipity, providence, fate, karma, the self-made man, the American dream, the great American novel, the invisible hand, dialectical materialism, trickle-down economics, the entrepreneurial spirit, the global economy, progress, the survival of the fittest, the big bang, the primal ooze, the entropic soup, the laws of nature, original sin, hell, heaven, samsara, nirvana, the end times, the perfect storm, the colonization of space… we need only keep talking for more to come. [End Page 399]

Given world enough and time it might be instructive to pluck a few specimens from this gaudy array and expand them for a better view. Then they might burst from such inflation, or arrange themselves in hierarchies, or drift away into vacuity, or be tethered to reality by some validating tie. The question at the moment, though, is not which of these ways of seeing or saying things might be true, half true, or not true at all, or what counts as evidence for or against them, or how the truth claims they make might be settled. The significant fact is that we feel drawn to some of them and repelled by some and indifferent to others. Our many storied lives are abuzz with multiplicity and are farther complicated by the fact that we find ourselves responsible for making our way through this welter and putting our own story into one or some or many of the possible contexts imagined or seen. Why and how is it that we choose to embody one story or another in order to give it life? Why and how is it that we sacrifice our bodies in defense of this account or that, or give them up to obliterate another? But now I am only pondering questions that Plato's dialogues so often dramatize, even as they show us what it is like for something to be so deeply believed it is never to be let go, and yet so lightly held that the believer never knowingly harms himself or any other in its name.

If we wanted to say why and how Plato's teachings caught on and endured, we might be able to give an account of how they passed from time to time and place to place by discovering who heard them and carried them abroad or wrote them down and transmitted them to others. We could recount decisions made, actions taken, deeds done, institutions founded. What we cannot say is how, for their hearers and practitioners, the teachings intimated their meaning and significance, informed consciousness, became the tissue and texture of the real, the ground of experience, a guide to conduct, a revelation of how things are and what they might become. We can say that feelings were aroused by them, or conveyed by them, or gave them root—some hope emboldened, some aspiration legitimized, some fear dispelled, some anxiety allayed, some question answered—but beyond this, every attempt to explain them is another story, perhaps more eloquent and persuasive, more connected to its own parts, and broader in consequences than the last, but still another story. [End Page 400]

II

Story—primordial, originative, and world-shaping—long antedates writing, but the artifactual transmission of speech, the book, in its many forms and formats greatly augments its world-bearing work of conveying thoughts and depicting things so that those able to read it can employ, extend, alter, undo, reshape, or renew the very terms of consciousness itself.

As something made, the book reminds us that making things is as much the business of consciousness as telling stories. Its artifacts are durable—and in some cases, unendurable—goods. Once they are around and about and available for interaction, the things our consciousness makes can change not only our practices but our thinking, too. When a new thing enters the story, the story changes and the changing story brings about thoughts and things not previously known or done or seen. Coins, buttons, telescopes, automobiles, light bulbs, the pill, the cyclotron, the cell phone: naming them might go on forever, although that is perhaps too much to hope. If we want to learn how consciousness does what it does, we must ask the practitioners of the science or art or craft that brings its productions into being and study that science or art or craft and perhaps take it up ourselves. This will let us see, as well as we can, how thinking does its stuff.

Without a body of some sort, either living or artifactual, thinking is not to be found. The thing made is more than any wish for it and every account of it. No thought becomes a thing unless some body works, or is worked upon, puts it into play or is put in play by it. The being of thinking is its expression, and its expression wants a body. Insubstantial as it is, it must, if it is to persist, inform or shape another body, whether physical or figurative: air, paper, or stone; a house, a windmill, or a temple; a legislature, an organization, a corporation. Even to be present to the thinker it requires some embodiment in images, words, sounds—some formulation to fix it for inspection and endorsement or dismissal.

The embodiments of thinking are all around us and we live amidst things that only exist because consciousness has produced them. One of its cherished fictions, that it is something inner, hidden, inherently private, and inaccessible is belied by its nonfictional counterpart, a world of things where consciousness is portrayed and abides, and in which it may read itself as in a book. [End Page 401]

III

This story, too, it might be said, is only another story, subject to all the conditions and qualifications that constrain the storytelling art and set its limits. I believe it is—and it isn't. From beginning to end it has been my aim to forego attempts at explanation, to avoid theory making, and neither to invent nor employ a myth. I have meant only to assemble reminders and call attention to facts that are plain to anyone who wishes to look. If I have succeeded, the story should disappear with its telling, illuminate the obvious, and reveal what was always in plain sight. [End Page 402]

Robert Allan Richardson
St. John's College, Santa Fe

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
394-402
Launched on MUSE
2018-11-15
Open Access
No
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