who are you?
The aboriginal elder in Peter Weir's film, "The Last Wave," chants to the Sydney corporate tax lawyer: "Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?" The lawyer doesn't know what to say. The life he has lived as a lawyer has left him with no answer, no language to voice a reply to the elder's chant. This lawyer's representation of the young aboriginal men charged with ritual murder becomes a maddening search for an answer and a voice. What he learns along the way about aboriginal culture, and himself, will take him far beyond the ready assumptions about his life as a lawyer and the reality he has fashioned for himself.
When we find that our literal, prosaic, reality-laced answers don't work, we turn to myth; myth is one answer in a topsy-turvy world.
"The discovery of a mythical pattern that in some way one feels is connected to one's life deepens one's self understanding. . . . Appreciation of the connection between a myth and my life seems simultaneously to make me more attuned to the myth's unity to help me understand how moments in my life which otherwise might seem accidental or fragmentary belong to the whole. Indeed, we may thus come to recognize the mythos, the plot, the connecting thread, the story of our life. As we come to appreciate the way in which all the variations, transformations, and elements that go to make up a myth are integral, necessary parts of it, we uncover its psycho-logic. Such attending to the psycho-logic of myth and the mytho-logic of the psyche's processes might be described as an exploration in mythopoeisis, in soul making, for it gives us some sense of how the soul, our soul, is given its shape through poetry, through images." [Christine Downing, The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine 26 (New York: Crossroad, 1981)]
I know from my own life, a life graced with much good fate, that life has turned out to be more strained and strange than I would have imagined it as a young man. No one told me that I might need a mythic sensibility to understand my life.
"The modern personality is forced to live in search, in search of itself, psychologically, spiritually, and historically." [Ira Progoff, Jung's Psychology and Its Social Meaning 13 (New York: Grove Press Evergreen, 1955)]
We pay psychiatrists and therapists to help us explore our inner selves lost in the misshapen shadows of childhood and the false necessities of everyday life. With the use of these paid consultants, we learn that our reasons and our lives are premised on scraps of memory, fragments of old family life, and the scripts we have devised to understand and respond to an uncaring world. In the many strands and strata of this inner world, there is an interior world that has logic and energy and direction. This realm of energized, inner purpose, takes recognizable form in numinous images.
The realm of psyche described here is not another name for personality, but a realm of possibility and darkness, unlived ideals and old secrets, watched over and nurtured by a faceless maker of sentiments and moods, attitudes and frames of reference.
Joseph Campbell describes myth as the "picture language of powers of the psyche" that we struggle to recognize, understand, and integrate in our life stories. These powers, Campbell argues, "have been common to the human spirit forever." It is "[t]hrough a dialogue conducted with these inward forces through our dreams and through a study of myths, [that] we can learn to know and come to terms with the greater horizon of our own deeper and wiser, inward self." [Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (1986) (Campbell's reference to dreams is the dreams that have their way with us at night.)]
Lynda Sexson contends that Campbell's achievement as a mythologer lies in his effort "to persuade us that myth is at the heart of human experience, that human experience is primarily imagistic and, moreover, that the images are embodied in narrative. Our being is in our stories." [Lynda Sexson, "Let Talking Snakes Lie: Sacrificing Stories," in Daniel C. Noel (ed.), Paths to the Power of Myth: Joseph Campbell and the Study of Religion 134-153, at 136 (New York: Crossroad, 1990)].
Christine Downing points out that "[w]e need images and myths through which we can see who we are and what we might become. . . . The psyche needs images to nurture its own growth; for images provide a knowledge that we can interiorize rather than 'apply,' can take to that place in ourselves where there is water and where reeds and grasses grow." [Christine Downing, The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine 2 (New York: Crossroads, 1981)]
Donald Light, writing about psychiatrists' rites of passage makes an interesting observation: "In professional socialization, certain aspects of a person's identity and life patterns are broken down (desocialized) so that a new identity and life patterns can be built up. While the person actively participates in the process and to some degree negotiates the terms of his or her new identity, this activity serves more to coopt the person into using the concepts, values, and language of those in power. Conversion occurs through the stages of moral transformation which intensify trainees' commitment to the professional community. . . . [T]he greater the difficulties encountered, the greater the trials undergone, and the more active the commitment required, the more likely the new identity will be sustained. But the price . . . may be an insensitivity to patient needs, an intolerance of uncertainty, a false and unwarranted sense of conviction, and grandiose behavior that betrays the original mandate of the professions to serve the people." [Donald Light, Becoming Psychiatrists 327 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1980)]