Cultural Fashions and History: Artist’s Unsuspected Mythologies

Cultural Fashions and History: Artist’s Unsuspected Mythologies
© Photograph by Renat Renee-Ell

The question that I should like to discuss in this editorial is the following: what does a historian of religions have to say about his contemporary milieu? In what sense can he contribute to the understanding of its literary or philosophical movements, its recent and significant artistic orientations? Or even more, what he has to say, as a historian of religions, in regard to such manifestations of the Zeitgeist as its philosophical and literary vogues, its so-called cultural fashions?

It seems to me that, at least in some instances, his special training should enable him to decipher meanings and intentions less manifest to others.

I am not referring to those cases in which the religious context or implications of a work are more or less evident, as, for example, Marc Zakharovich Chagall’s paintings with their enormous “eye of God,” their angels, severed heads, and bodies flying upside down-and his omnipresent ass, that messianic animal par excellence.

Or Eugène Ionesco’s recent play, ‘Le Roi se meurt’, which cannot be fully understood if one does not know the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Upanishads. (And I can testify to the fact that Eugène lonesco did read these texts; but the important thing for us to determine is what he accepted and what he ignored or rejected. Thus it is not a question of searching for sources, but a more exciting endeavor: to examine the renewal of Eugène lonesco’s imaginary creative universe through his encounter with exotic and traditional religious universes.)

But there are instances when only a historian of religions can discover some secret significance of a cultural creation, whether ancient or contemporary.

For example, only a historian of religions is likely to perceive that there is a surprising structural analogy between James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and certain Australian myths of the totemic-hero type. And just as the endless wanderings and fortuitous meetings of the Australian cultural heroes seem monotonous to those who are familiar with Polynesian, Indo-European, or North American mythologies, so the wanderings of Leopold Bloom in ‘Ulysses’ appear monotonous to an admirer of Honoré de Balzac or Leo Tolstoy.

But the historian of religions knows that the tedious wanderings and performances of the mythical ancestors reveal to the Australian a magnificent history in which he is existentially involved, and the same thing can be said of the apparently tedious and banal journey of Leopold Bloom in his native city.

Again, only the historian of religions is likely to catch the very striking similarities between the Australian and Platonic theories of reincarnation and anamnesis.

For Plato, learning is recollecting. Physical objects help the soul withdraw into itself and, through a sort of “going back,” to rediscover and repossess the original knowledge that it possessed in its extraterrestrial condition.

Now, the Australian novice discovers, through his initiation, that he has already been here, in the mythical time; he was here in the form of the mythical ancestor. Through initiation, he again learns to do those things which he did at the beginning, when he appeared for the first time in the form of a mythical being.

It would be useless to accumulate more examples. I will only add that the historian of religions is able to contribute to the understanding of writers as different as Jules Gabriel Verne and Gérard de Nerval, Novalis and Federico García Lorca.

It is surprising that so few historians of religions have ever tried to interpret a literary work from their own perspective. (For the moment I can recall only Maryla Falk’s book on Novalis and Stig Wikander’s studies of French writers from Jules Michelet to Mallarme. Duchesne-Guillemin’s important monographs on Mallarme and Valery could have been written by any excellent literary critic, without any contact with the history of religions.)

On the contrary, as is well known, many literary critics, especially in the United States of America, have not hesitated to use the findings of the history of religions in their hermeneutical work.

One need only call to mind the frequent application of the “myth and ritual” theory or the “initiation pattern” in the interpretation of modem fiction and poetry.

My purpose here is more modest. I will try to see whether a historian of religions can decipher some hidden meanings in our so-called cultural fashions, taking as examples three recent vogues, all of which originated in Paris but are already spreading throughout western Europe and even the United States of America.

Now, as we all know well, for a particular theory or philosophy to become popular, to be a la mode, en vogue, implies neither that it is a remarkable creation nor that it is devoid of all value.

One of the fascinating aspects of the “cultural fashion” is that it does not matter whether the facts in question and their interpretation are true or not. No amount of criticism can destroy a vogue.

There is something “religious” about this imperviousness to criticism, even if only in a narrow-minded, sectarian way.

However, even beyond this general aspect, some cultural fashions are incredibly significant for the historian of religions.

Their popularity, especially among the intelligentsia, reveals something of Western man’s dissatisfactions, drives, and nostalgias.

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