The beginnings of the contemporary understanding of myths are particularly associated with early nineteenth-century discourses on secularism and colonialism. The battle of the sciences for authority over the church and similar powers in their ‘truth-claims’ about reality, led to continued debate on the rational and irrational in the aim towards verity. This was intricately linked with prevailing theories on race and empire, class, sexuality, the civilized world, and the primitive. In such light, the term ‘myth’ and all of its associations were set as degrading – references to the fabulous, untrustworthy, deceptive, and non-rational. These discourses were directed in large at the belief systems of colonial imperialism, at “other” people; however, through the lenses of universalist and transhistorical theories, they were also increasingly directed within – at the internalized and barbarian otherness inherent in modern ‘civilized’ man with all of its complex expressions. In this paper, I will be referencing Craig Owens’s “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” Sigmund Freud’s “A General Introduction of Psychoanalysis,” Slavoj Žižek’s “The Sublime Object of Ideology” and Jacques Lacan’s “The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis,” amongst various other peripheral resources.
The dramatic and textual arts of myths provide a wealth of substantial material to these theories in their uncovering of universalist and transhistorical codes in expressions – particularly those of Classical Greece with which this paper will focus. The argument here, however, is that relativism and universalism are flexible terms and that the postulates of myth and those of philosophy are best seen as forms of local knowledge. To this end, in the following essay, I will argue that the standards of transhistorical philosophy should not interpret historical, metaphysical postulates about reality. I hope that this will ultimately lead us to explore the broader question: to which (and whose) reality is it that myth speaks to?
Past theories have cited that myths can be translated into allegorical impulses. An allegorical impulse is an examination of why humans are driven towards creating stories with hidden and symbolic meanings. “Every image of, the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably,” Walter Benjamin (Owens, 67). This quote has exciting implications for the question –”to which (and whose) reality do myths speak to?” – as it is only through their validity to present concerns (their ability to speak to the present) that myths continue to be relevant. The question then unfolds into the following – how and why the interaction between myths and the theories and philosophies which have addressed them in the modern and contemporary world remain relevant.
Lik,e the term ‘allegorical impulse,’ this essay will be dealing with several other keywords. These keywords are principles in the discourse of the topic in hand. It is imperative to examine these keywords here before addressing their additional readings as the essay bridges the gap between the dialogical players and the myths themselves. The first in these definitions is the word itself: myth – The word myth is derived from the Greek word muthos. It has a very different meaning in contemporary times than it did ,in Classical Greece. “For them, muthos, was a true story, a story that unveils the exact origin of the world and human beings. “(Partenie, Stanford Online) For Hegel, the myth was something to be un-shrouded by philosophy (Kojéve, 78). In these two notions, we see an opposition. In philosophy, the “truth” became the story, and muthos became the myth. Plato himself had a hand with this exchange, as he would often use traditional tales in addition to his own invented ones for academic purposes (Partenie, Stanford Online). Transhistorical – the second keyword – holds to the idea that a concept can transcend a particular period in history. Various aspects of the human condition can be given as an example of being transhistorical. Transhistorical can be something that is considered “timeless” in nature – applicable to all humanity at all times (Oxford Online). The third keyword is Universality or the universal; according to Kant a proposition that is thought of as universal is a priori; independent of experience. Universality in a way is in direct opposition to relativism – that certain truths exist, but only under certain circumstances and contextual means. Universality, in opposition, refers to a “truth” that exists within the whole of the universe (Johnson, Stanford Online). The last few keywords are all covered in-depth in their application to the Greek myths of Zeus & Alcmene and Zeus & Semele.
The two particular myths that I have chosen about Zeus encompass what could be interpreted in philosophical terms as symbology. Searching for hidden meanings in myths, symbology implies that they have an allegorical nature, allowing us to keep myths relevant, to rescue them from historical oblivion – it follows that with each breakthrough, in theory, philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science, that we can continuously see them in a new and refreshed light (Owens, 68). Freud related symbolism to dreams. His psychoanalytic analysis of his patients consisted of the interpretation of dreams. He believed that the unconscious mind would create wish-fulfilling dreams and hide these desires in symbology. Each symbol would only give specific meaning to the individual dreamer. This brings up the concept of subject and object. In this case, the subject is the dreamer, and the object would be the dream.
A term like psychoanalysis can be mercurial as there is no fixed meaning. However, using the OED’s and Freud’s definitions as a reference point, one could say that psychoanalysis is a method of psychological therapies that attempt to treat mental conditions by exploring the interface between conscious and unconscious fundamentals of the mind. In using these observations, a psychoanalyst may help the subject to bring their repressed fears into conscious being. In this way, the story of Zeus and Alcmene would very likely be treated as a symbolic, psychoanalytical dream. So the question must be asked, “Who is the dreamer?”
Alcmene was the daughter of King Tiryns, Electron. She was considered the most beautiful and wise of all mortal women. Alcmene was exiled to the land of Thebes to marry Amphitryon. However, she refused to sleep with Amphitryon, until he had sought revenge, on her behalf, for the wrongful death of her brothers. Zeus took advantage of Amphitryon’s absence in order to seduce the stunning Alcmene. When Amphitryon had gone, Zeus changed his form into Alcmene’s soon to be husband and returned home in his guise. He proclaimed that he had avenged her brothers and would now claim his reward. Alcmene willingly gave herself to him, believing in his facade. With this union, a child was conceived and was later born as the hero Hercules. Amphitryon returned to Thebes, unhappy with the union of Zeus and Alcmene, but unable to do anything, as he was only a mortal man (N.W.E.).
This painting by Giulio Romano, painted in 1525, called “The Lovers,” illustrates a reinterpretation of Zeus and Alcmene. The Classical Greek Period was fixed between 500-335 BC, and this painting was painted during the Renaissance. Allegory was considered highly popular during the Renaissance, making Greek Myths a clear favorite amongst many painters. However, that is all these paintings were allegorical interpretations. “Allegory and symbol – like all conceptual pairs, the two are far from evenly matched. In modern aesthetics, allegory is regularly subordinated to the symbol, which represents the supposedly indissoluble unity of form and substance which characterizes the work of art as a pure presence” (Owens, 81).
Žižek would say, in the spirit of Lacan, that in the action of Zeus taking Alcmene, there is a void. The act itself holds no meaning. However, the pretext for setting the work in motion holds significance to the subject: Alcmene. The guise of the said action is the object of the subject. Amphitryon’s’ return to Thebes would symbolically take on the role of the Real. The paradox that this action would cause could be described as an ‘excrement’ of the Real. It is the symbology of what is Real, the truth, which holds these individuals together. “In other words, the ideal balance changes into a symbolical network through the shock of the Real. The symbolic structure must include an element, which embodies its ‘stain,’ its point of impossibility around which it is articulated: in a way, it is the structuring of its impossibility” (Žižek, 207).
“This suggestion would find an important point of the rapprochement between the structuralist and psychoanalytic approaches to myth in Freud’s thought” (N.W.E.). Structuralism is a theoretical concept that argues that some aspects of human activity can only be understood by looking at the larger picture. What structuralism professes to do is examine the underlying things that people do and how they think, act, and feel (Audi, 181). The shock of the Real would have been a structuralist intervention into the actions of Zeus and Alcmene. The question must be asked, “Is Alcmene the subject, the dreamer?” This transhistorical myth is an essential truth to the Ancient Greek people; it is not just an allegory for the futurists.
“The essential gesture of ‘structuralism’ is to reduce the imaginary richness to a formal network of symbolic relations: what escapes the structuralist perspective is that this formal structure is itself tied by an umbilical cord to some radically contingent material element which, in its pure particularity, ‘is’ a structure, embodies it. Why? Because the significant “Other,” the symbolic order, is always failed, crossed out, mutilated, and the contingent material element embodies this internal blockage, limit, of the symbolic structure” (Žižek, 208).
“Symbolization of the Imaginary” (Žižek, 209)
Alcmene is not the one dreaming the dream. She does not pose as the real subject; the dreamer would be the population of the Ancient Greeks, which would make them the subject. The dream itself is the object.
Its perhaps one thing to analyze a single patient on a single couch, but to sit an entire culture upon it is another entirely, especially when that culture is a historical one. The past can only speak in one direction. There is no mutual or level-footed conversation it can hold with us, and because of this, we can place any number of interpretations upon it. In a sense, it becomes a kind of “Other,” one, which is much more related to the values, and postulates which are applied to it than those of the previous reality of itself. Transhistorical theories seem to overlook this, and because of that, they cannot meet the past on its terms.
This is undoubtedly a productive line of inquiry, but its creating symbols and the hidden forces behind them for a historical culture, which would not have been recognized by them. It undermines their versions of reality, and through focusing on the ulterior motives of creation stories, loses sight of its providence and the forces, which have influenced and brought it into being. It is almost like looking at a phantom reality through the lens of a constructed reality.
Although myth is intrinsically bound to the political, social, and moral concerns of its culture, it does not necessarily mean that these are reflected in the myth in such a clean or straightforward way; neither is it correct to apply science as truth over the actual beliefs of the culture. Because although the transhistorical approach can provide a convincing argument for the hidden meaning behind these symbols, it does so at the expense of not understanding or seeking to understand the context of the use of myths in everyday practice. The transhistorical approach, in a sense, forces the data to conform to its theory, while selectively overlooking competing or alternative versions.
The second myth is of Zeus and Semele. Semele was a mortal priestess of Zeus. One day Zeus saw her slaughter a bull as a sacrifice at his altar. Afterward, Semele went to wash in the river Asopus, to cleanse the blood from herself. As Zeus flew over in the form of an eagle, he fell desperately in love with Semele. Later, he came to visit her in secret, and they consummated their feelings for each other, conceiving a child. Zeus\’s wife, Hera, became jealous after discovering the affair. Masked as an old crone, Hera befriended Semele and gained her confidence. Semele confided in Hera that Zeus was her lover. Hera proclaimed that she did not believe her and demanded proof. Semele began to question Zeus and demanded of him that he grant her a wish. Out of his absolute love for Semele, Zeus swore that he would give her anything that she so desired. She asked Zeus to reveal his pure form to her. Zeus protested proclaiming that it, was dangerous, Semele persisted. Zeus, reluctant, but not wanting to go back on his word, did as she asked and revealed his true nature. Semele, being a mortal, was unable to handle Zeus in all of his glory, and burst into flames. Zeus rescued the unborn child from her belly and sewed it into his own leg. Later the child was birthed from Zeus\’s calf and named Dionysus (N.W.E.).
There is a tremendous tragic air to this story of life, love, jealousy, destruction, and rebirth. This painting of Semele by Gustave Moreau, titled “Jupiter and Semele” (Jupiter was the Roman version of Zeus), was painted between the years 1894-95. Moreau was a leader in the Symbolist movement of the 19th century, which channeled Renaissance art. The Symbolists were known for constructing their own meanings out of historical references and feeding their emotions and imaginations into them. As a work of art, this painting is stimulating and emotionally charged. However, here once again, we have a picture that is taking its values from the allegorical nature of the artwork in the Renaissance time (Allan, 19th CAW). “This mystery is, in the final analysis, the mystery of the transference itself: to produce new meaning, it is necessary to presuppose its existence in the Other” (Žižek, 210)
Like Marcus\’s painting of Zeus and Semele, the use of the mirror as a means of interpreting alterity, Lacan’s “the gaze” achieves a similar solution. Jacques Lacan used Freudian theory to develop the concept of “the gaze.” As described by Lacan, “the gaze” is a state of consciousness created in the subject after awareness takes place. This is the association that develops between the eye and the gaze. A degree of autonomy is lost once the individual becomes visible. “In so far as I am under the gaze, Sartre writes, I no longer see the eye that looks at me and, if I see the eye, the gaze disappears.” (Lacan, 84) Lacan disagrees, saying no, this is not the case, but rather that “when I am under the gaze when I solicit a gaze when I obtain it, I do not see it as a gaze…The gaze sees itself – to be precise, the gaze of which Sartre speaks, the gaze that surprises me and reduces me to shame since this is the feeling he regards as the most dominant. The gaze I encounter – is not seen, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the ‘Other’ “(Lacan, 84).
“We can apprehend this privilege of the gaze in the function of desire, by pouring ourselves, as it were, along the veins through which the domain of vision has been integrated into the field of desire.” (Lacan, 85). The concept of desire is crucial to Lacan’s account of sexuality. Desire is defined as the “remainder” of the subject (Rose, 55). How do fantasy and desire relate to each other? According to Rose, “when the subject addresses its demands outside itself to another, this other becomes the fantasied place…of certainty. The “Other” appears to hold the “truth” of the subject and the power to make good its loss…” According to Lacan, we gain acknowledgment by the “Other.” We are made whole by the “Other’s” recognition of us. We can have a sense of ourselves, but it cannot be solidified until we are looked at from the outside, how we are seen from an outside view. This “Other” becomes a fantasy place – fulfillment through fantasy. We give the “Other” power to satisfy our own needs and demands (Rose, 56).
The gaze becomes the filter. The eye has the function of seeing. In this particular instance, “the woman that is being looked at,” but knows she is being looked at – the woman (Semele) is the object and subject of desire; she is both. Semele saw herself, or the greatness that she desired in herself, in Zeus. She was a high priestess for his temple; this is a position of high esteem. She admired Zeus. In the root of admiration for another, one usually seeks the same in oneself. Semele sought out “the gaze” of Zeus, to solidify herself. Semele loved and worshiped Zeus, she wanted him to see her, thus justifying her existence. This path caused a domino effect. Zeus’s wife, Hera, took notice and became jealous, which led to Semele’s demise.
This is just another example of an interpretation of the allegorical version of a Greek Classic, using transhistorical philosophy as the critical method. Žižek says, “The problem arises, of course, when there are several mutually exclusive readings claiming access to the true meaning: how do we choose between them, how do we judge their claims?” Žižek suggests that it is through the use of ‘Eternal reflection’ that a way can be found to transpose the ‘essence’ or truth of a text, “making of it a transcendent ‘Thing-in-itself.’ All that is accessible to us, finite subjects, are distorted reflections, partial aspects deformed by our subjective perspective, the Truth-in-itself, the true meaning of the text, is lost forever” (Žižek, 242). Žižek attains that we can never know what the Greeks really meant. That truth is unattainable because of ‘historical distance.’ A way of achieving some influencing truth would be to look at it from the perspective of the ‘succession of historical influences of the text.’ How did these stories affect the Greeks, and in turn, the Renaissance, Freud, Lacan and so forth. “And to accomplish the ‘determinate reflection,’ we have only to experience how this problem of the ‘true,’ ‘original,’ meaning ‘in-itself'” is. The real truth that can be found “in the series of subsequent readings, then in its supposedly ‘original’ meaning.'” In other words, “the Truth of a thing emerges because the thing is not accessible to us in its immediate self-identity” (Žižek, 243). We must be aware of our actions and how they can cause a reaction in reinterpreting these myths through transhistorical philosophy, not putting said “Truths” onto the meaning of the myths, but finding the only “Truth” that we can find in them by looking at their historical value.
Emmanuel Levinas, the philosopher, gives an excellent example of how our actions can cause a reaction. “The comedy begins with our simplest gestures. They all entail an inevitable awkwardness. Reaching out my hand to pull a chair toward me, I have folded the arm of my jacket, scratched the floor, and dropped my cigarette ash. In doing what I willed to do, I did a thousand and one things I hadn’t willed to do. The act was not pure, it left traces. Wiping away these traces, I left others. Sherlock Holmes will apply his science to this irreducible coarseness of each of my initiatives, and thus the comedy may take a tragic turn. When the awkwardness of the act is turned against the goal pursued, we are in the midst of tragedy.” (Levinas, 3).
In this essay, we have explored two Classic Greek myths and demonstrated how they could be viewed under the light of transhistorical concepts. Although psychoanalysis and its paradigms can provide convincing arguments concerning the nature of the mind, we hold that it is unable to meet the past on its terms or to accept contexts outside of the agenda of its theory. These inherent difficulties make it too problematic for universalist or transhistorical approaches to be applied to these myths, and I feel that the very nature of these problems call for a more historical and contextual understanding of them – where multiple viewpoints and contexts can be presented over grand ‘truth-claims.’
As stated in the introduction, relativism and universalism, are flexible terms, and I believe that they should not be placed in competition as a result, but rather that both could be used to help inform us of the broader picture. It is never a simple case of the rational and irrational, the specific and the general, the subjective and the objective, but an appreciation, awareness, and understanding of them all in combination. Science believes in concrete laws and rules, which can be applied and tested in the physical world, but I do not think that this is something that can be said of elements outside of this world. As we have seen, when you attempt to pull history close to you, to place laws and codes upon it, you cannot help but obscure it. I think, however, that this investigation leads us to several exciting viewpoints on the nature of art, perhaps central of which is whether art itself is capable of transcending the context and frame of reference in which it was created – as with the concepts we have examined, I believe it can, but not in a fixed way. As Žižek maintains – the truth is unattainable because of the ‘historical distance’ that remains between the Ancient Greeks and the now. However, the real truth can be found in the historical effect of myth on writers, philosophers, and artists, and what it meant to them. Moreover, in mind of our original question: they will speak to all realities, everybody is reality, at the same time.
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This essay was originally written in April of 2014 in association with IDSVA.