I’ve read three books in tandem which are connected by subtle yet strong filaments. Choosing which one to begin with has been a bit vexatious, but in the end I’ve decided to do them in order of reading.
The first is an older book, handed me by a friend who thought I would find it very much worth my while. I did, not, possibly, for the reasons he may have thought I would. But it grounds a topic in which we’ve been engaged in occasionally vigorous debate for some time and adds a layer to it which I had not expected.
William Irwin Thompson’s The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light is about myth. It is also about history. It is also about grinding axes and challenging paradigms. The subtitle declares: Mythology, Sexuality & the Origins of Culture. This is a lot to cover in a mere 270-some pages, but Mr. Thompson tackles his subject with vigor and wrestles it almost into submission.
His thesis is twofold. The first, that Myth is not something dead and in the past, but a living thing, an aggregate form of vital memes, if you will, which recover any lost force by their simple evocation, even as satire or to be dismissed. Paying attention to myth, even as a laboratory study, brings it into play and informs our daily lives.
Which means that myth does not have a period. It is ever-present, timeless, and most subtle in its influence.
His other thesis, which goes hand in hand with this, is that culture as we know it is derived entirely from the tension within us concerning sex. Not sex as biology, although that is inextricably part of it, but sex as identifier and motivator. That the argument we’ve been having since, apparently, desire took on mythic power within us over what sex means, how it should be engaged, where it takes us has determined the shapes of our various cultural institutions, pursuits, and explications.
It all went somehow terribly wrong, however, when sex was conjoined with religious tropism and homo sapiens sapiens shifted from a goddess-centered basis to a god-centered one and elevated the male above the female. The result has been the segregation of the female, the isolation of the feminine, and the restriction of intracultural movement based on the necessity to maintain what amounts to a master-slave paradigm in male-female relationships.
Throughout all this “fallen” power play, ancient myths concerning origins and the latent meanings of mutual apprehensions between men and women (and misapprehensions) have continued to inform the dialogue, often twisted into contortions barely recognizable one generation to the next but still in force.
There is much here to consider. Thompson suggests the rise of the great monotheisms is a direct result of a kind of cultural lobotomy in which the Father-God figure must be made to account for All, subjugating if not eliminating the female force necessary for even simple continuation. The necessity of women to propagate the species, in this view, is accommodated with reluctance and they are, as they have been, shoved into cramped confines and designated foul and evil and unclean in their turn, even as they are still desired. The desire transforms the real into the ideal and takes on the aspects of a former goddess worship still latent in mythic tropes.
Certainly there is obvious force to this view.
The book is marred by two problems. I mentioned the grinding of axes. Time was published originally in 1981 and, mostly in the first third, but sprinkled throughout, is an unmasked loathing of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. He takes especial aim at E.O. Wilson for promulgating certain reductive explanations for prehistoric cultural evolution based wholly on biological determinants. Thompson’s prejudice is clear that he wants even early homo sapiens to be special in its cultural manifestations and he derides attempts at exclusively materialist explanations. The fact that E.O,. Wilson himself has moved away from these earlier “purely” biological considerations one hopes would result in an updating.
But interestingly, part of Thompson’s rejection of such early modeling comes from an apparent belief in Race Memory. Not, as I might find plausible, race memory as deeply-entrenched memes, but apparently as some undiscovered aspect of our genome. He never quite comes out claims that such race memory is encoded in our DNA, but he leaves little room for alternative views.
Hence, he asserts, the genuine power of myth, since it is carried not only culturally, but quasi-biologically, as race memory. Which we ignore at our peril.
He does not once mention Joseph Campbell, whose work on the power of myth I think goes farther than most in explicating how myth informs our lives, how myth is essentially meaning encoded in ideas carried in the fabric of civilization. He does, however, credit Marija Gimbutas, whose work on goddess cultures extending back before the rise of Sumer and the constellation of civilizations commonly recognized as the “birth” of civilization was attacked by serious allegations of fraud in order to undermine her legitimacy and negate her thesis that early civilizations were certainly more gender equal if not outright female dominated. (Just a comment on the so-called “birth” of civilization: it has been long remarked that ancient Sumeria appeared to “come out of nowhere”, a full-blown culture with art and some form of science. But clearly common sense would tell us that such a “birth” had to be preceded by a long pregnancy, one which must have contained all the components of what emerged. The “coming out of nowhere” trope, which sounds impressive on its face, would seem to be cultural equivalent of the virgin birth myth that has informed so many civilizations and myth cycles since…)
My complaint, if there is any, is that he undervalues the work of geneticists, biologists, and sociometricians, seeking apparently to find a causation that cannot be reduced to a series of pragmatic choices taken in a dramatically changing ecosystem or evolutionary responses to local conditions. Fair enough, and as far as it goes, I agree. Imagination, wherever and whenever it sprang into being, fits badly into the kind of steady-state hypothesizing of the harder sciences when it comes to how human society has evolved. But to dismiss them as irrelevant in the face of an unverifiable and untestable proposition like Race Memory is to indulge in much the same kind of reductionist polemic that has handed us the autocratic theologies of “recorded history.”
Once Thompson moves out of the speculative field of, say, 8,000 B.C.E. and older and into the period wherein we have records, his attack on cherished paradigms acquires heft and momentum and the charm of the outsider. (His mention, however, of Erich von Daniken threatens to undo the quite solid examination of the nature of “ancient” civilizations.) It is easy enough to see, if we choose to step out of our own prejudices, how the march of civilization has been one of privileging male concerns and desires over the female and diminishing any attempt at egalitarianism in the name of power acquisition. The justification of the powerful is and probably has always been that they are powerful, and therefore it is “natural” that they command. Alternative scenarios suffer derision or oxygen deprivation until a civilization is old enough that the initial thrill and charm of conquest and dominance fades and more abstruse concerns acquire potency.
But the value of The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light may be in its relentless evocation of institutional religion as a negation of the spiritual, as if to say that since we gave up any kind of natural and sane attitude toward sexuality and ignored the latent meaning in our mythologies we have been engaged in an ongoing and evermore destructive program to capture god in a bottle and settle once and for all what it is we are and should be. When one looks around at the religious contention today, it is difficult if not impossible to say it is not all about men being in charge and women being property. Here and there, from time to time, we hear a faint voice of reason crying out that this is a truly stupid thing to kill each other over.