Myth. Mythology. Loaded words. Often with the terrible connotation of falsehoods.
Depth Psychology. An uncommon term out of the psych world. Mention Freud and people think you’re studying phallic imagery and Freudian slips. Mention Jung and my own students have not even heard of him (gasp!).
I think my friend Priscilla sums up our PhD program best on her website: “a high fallootin’ way to say that I’m studying the Humanities with an emphasis on cultural narrative and archetypal symbolism flavored with psychological theory.”
I plan to write some posts in the near future on my definition of myth and on an exploration of the various definitions available for depth psychology. To quote my instructor Christine Downing, “It’s impossible to define myth, but cowardly not to try.”
Today I want to write a little bit about why I study myth. Last night I went through all my notations and highlights from Ginette Paris’ book Wisdom of the Psyche, which I read last week. This book really had a profound effect on me. I think it’s going to influence all my work, personal and professional, in a manner close to that of Joseph Campbell‘s Hero with a Thousand Faces.
There’s one quote in particular from the text that I keep turning back to, and I think it really shows why I study myth, why I am so drawn to it:
“One needs to turn to the humanities to understand images that come out of the suffering of the soul” (Paris 34, 35).
I can hear Campbell’s voice echoing here, and I think of some of my favorite quotes from his book Pathways to Bliss:
“Life is a horrendous presence, and you wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that. The first function of a mythological order has been to reconcile consciousness to this fact” (3).
He tells us simply:
“All life stinks, and you must embrace that with compassion” (77).
When I was introduced to Joseph Campbell in my undergraduate studies, I was just learning to live with an injury that has left me with chronic pain. The short story is that I suffered nerve damage in my rib in addition to some fractured cartilage (which cannot be reset). This ultimately means that my nerves misfire, leading to an unnecessary signal of pain to the brain. I say unnecessary because pain serves the function of letting us know something is wrong and needs our attention. Chronic pain, on the other hand, is like a signal that won’t stop (think of Russo’s looped message on LOST!) but is no longer needed. So how does this affect me? Anytime I do anything that involves my core (which is pretty much anything aside from sitting), I am at risk of aggravating it. Also, since it misfires, I’m even at risk of pain when I’m sitting. This is particularly distressing for me because I used to be an athlete. Though I am greatly blessed and deeply thankful that my injury is not as bad as it was when I was injured nearly a decade ago (at the time I had to quit work and was barely able to finish college), I am still limited, and it is still something I am dealing with and honestly always continuing to process and re-process both physically and mentally. (And a a part of this process has been thirteen different doctors and specialists and countless treatments and procedures, something which itself has a draining affect on a person). And that’s where myth and the study of myth comes in for me. Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces was the first thing that took me out of my uneasy, worried, distraught mental space. It opened my mind to a whole world. To come back to Ginette Paris,
“A richness of imagination is the best cure against despair. Perhaps the most important question for the survival of the psyche is: Who shall I be, until I die? I have to imagine something, an interesting myth of some sort” (196).
Myth speaks the language of the psyche, and it is a beautiful place to go to for healing the psyche. Myth allowed me to find a new path, personally and professionally. It is a place I am continually exploring for mental and spiritual healing. Furthermore, though I was working on my undergraduate degree before the injury, I had no intentions of remaining in the academic world. I never imagined I would be a teacher or work on a doctorate degree. I followed Campbell’s infamous words of following your bliss, which started in literature, and spread into mythology. Because of my career in academia, as a currently life-long student and now teacher, I have not let my injury define me. I have claimed my success in spite of it.
Despite my background in English and my profession as an English teacher, putting all these ideas into words is actually rather difficult for me, and this may be a rather disjointed post, but it comes from the heart. But, afterall,
“My friend Heinrich Zimmer used to say the best thing can’t be said . . . The second best are misunderstood. That’s because the second best are using the objects of time and space to refer to transcendence. And they are always misunderstood . . . The third best: that’s conversation. We’re using the third best in order to talk about the first and second best” (The Hero‘s Journey, 41).
I believe in the power of words, but I also know there is much they cannot capture. In blogging, I’m attempting a conversation with people. I don’t have a lot of readers, but this leads me to deeply treasure the ones I have. Also, it’s okay that I don’t have a lot of readers (it is about quality, not quantity, after all). And, all this writing is simply for me as well, helping me process the steps I make in my studies. Because of my very nature, I actually can’t not write.
I do want to add that I’m not writing because I think I’m the world’s most brilliant academic and because I think I will enlighten and change you all. Not nearly. This is not self-aggrandizement, not by a long shot. And I hope I’m never read that way. I write to connect, to share, because I think things are richer when they are shared. Because “the psyche is inherently mitmenschlich [inter-personal]” (James Hillman, Healing Fiction 106). Furthermore, as Hillman also asserts, the soul wants community. And I am finding a very rich community online, which includes the people I know in “real life.” The PhD program I am a part of is a commuter school. Most of us live in different states! We get to see each other once a month for three days (with the exception of our upcoming five day summer session), and then we’re on our own again to read and process all the great texts being dumped into our laps. I miss that sense of campus community I was fortunate to have in my MA program, and find that online is a great substitute. So, today I’ve invited you all in and shown you a little more today about me, my past, and how I came to find mythology and the study of mythology so powerful and, quite frankly, so damn important.
I’ll leave you with one final thought from Ginette Paris:
“No explanation can reveal the mystery of human consciousness, no theory can ‘explain’ the relationship with oneself and with others as no theory ever could explain love. No living person can fully explain oneself to oneself, not to another, any more than we can explain why music moves us. Still, we can all develop an appreciation of music and the arts [and mythology!]. Similarly, an appreciation for the richness and depth of the psyche can be developed, an immense enrichment in the quality of life.”