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Cinematic Gods? Robert Segal on Myth’s Persistence
Review of: Robert Alan Segal, Myth: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. The Oxford series Very Short Introductions understandably varies in quality depending on the volume, but its very concept requires brief tours de force each time. It is challenging enough to think through vast concepts, even though most of us are trained to think narrowly. This collection requires the writers to be brief and clear enough for a general learned audience. As a scholar, imagine—better yet, recall—being fascinated with a “big” question or issue. Fascination leads to exploration, which rightly enriches and, of course, complicates the simple beginning. Questioned about our research, our scholarly reflex is to preface any answer with, “Well, it is more complicated than it seems,” which is a perfectly reasonable thing to say. But the very best of experts are expected to go full circle, to present depth with simplicity. A remarkable accomplishment, especially if it applies to a topic so vast—such as myth—that it cannot even find home in one traditional discipline. However, Robert Segal, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, has managed to do just that. His book, Myth: A Very Short Introduction, contains eight chapters, held together through a theoretical introduction about “Theories of Myth,” in general, and a conclusion in which Segal’s own voice comes through. He warns his reader from the start that his book is, “an introduction not to myths but to approaches
to myth, or theories of myth, and it is limited to modern theories” (2004, 1). Multivolume encyclopedias are dedicated to particular myths, which is clearly not Segal’s task here. But, as he rightly emphasizes, theory (of myth) is unavoidable (10). The encyclopedic approach nevertheless presumes a certain theory of myth, even if it is to choose what makes the cut. For a moment, if I set aside all that I have learned from Segal’s book, quickly going through different “myths” that I can think of, trying to figure out what makes each a myth, my own instinctive answer is to say, “Well, it’s complicated.” Segal’s synthetic approach is quite interesting. Whatever else it may be, he reminds us that a myth is at least a “story” (4). Not all stories are myths, of course. Myth is a type of story that has discernible main characters, with a “weighty” function (6)—as opposed to the case of literature or folklore; and it is a type of story “held in conviction” by its adherents. Segal leaves the truth and falsity criterion as an open-ended issue. After all, only in some particular approaches are myths considered false, and not all care about such epistemological issues. Given the importance of epistemology, the first chapter appropriately considers “Myth and Science.” This can only come as a surprise, were one to forget that Segal is limiting his analysis to modern theories. From a modern perspective, myth presents itself as an oddity. Despite some mild attempts at reconciliation, myth is too unscientific, or at least prescientific.1 Segal neatly summarizes a number of scientific approaches to myth, such as E. P. Tylor’s, Levy-Bruhl’s, Frazer’s, Malinowski’s, and Levi-Strauss’s. This kind of range continues in each subsequent chapter. Having essentially demonstrated that for most, “myth is part of religion, religion is primitive, and moderns have science rather than religion”
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Farhang Erfani, Erfani Reviews Segal
(2004, 26), Segal moves on in the next chapter to the equally difficult relationship between “Myth and Philosophy.” Putting my cards on the table, as a professional philosopher, I was somewhat less overwhelmed by this chapter. Though Segal once again carefully selects a number of thinkers, ranging from Cassirer to Bultmann to Camus, there is less cohesiveness to this chapter. Other philosophers could have been included. Although to be more charitable and equitable to Segal, the entire book operates at a philosophical level, to such a point that it is hard for me, as a reader, to make the distinction between the philosophy chapter and many of the other ones. Segal seems to sense this as well when asking questions about the place of philosophy vis-à-vis the social sciences (40). The next two chapters are about “Myth and Religion” and “Myth and Ritual.” Depending on how one understands myth, these two matters could be tightly related. Segal does not deny this; in fact, many of the previous figures— such as Frazer, Bultmann, and Tylor—return in these chapters, adding Mircea Eliade and René Girard to the impressive line-up. In relationship to rituals or to religion, a richer aspect of myth as story reveals itself—the power of conviction. Whereas myth has an uneasy rapport, both with philosophy and science, it shares something with religion and rituals that baffles science (and some philosophies). “Myth . . . can do things that science cannot” (Segal 2004, 56). Regardless of the progress of science (and reason), there is a space that remains unconquerable, almost beyond reach of science. Myth performs a function—as generative or purposeful (through rituals)—that is not pre- or antiscience; it seems to occupy its own space. To this line of thought, Segal seems to remain faithful, with his own twists to come. The following four chapters explore different modern emphases. Indeed nothing past the first two chapters seems quite as harsh toward myth, though it is still all “modern.” The centrality on the plot (“Myth and Literature”), the power of myth to express the “unthought” and the unconscious (“Myth and Psychology,” a chapter heavily dominated both by psychoanalysis and Joseph Campbell), and the power of myth to bring about meaning, structure, and our common bond (“Myth and Structure” and “Myth and Society”) add more perspective, all worthy of attention. In the concluding chapter, Segal presents his own view. He rightly points out that while, thanks to postmodernism, not only science has come under fire in the twentieth century, but also myths; regardless of the criticisms, however, myth has survived. Its tenacity is no light matter; it indicates to Segal that something is really there. By looking at Winnicott, Segal considers the role of play. Play is a makebelieve that matters to life, but we know—even as children—that it is not “real.” Segal notes:
And just as ‘a child clings to a physical object— a teddy bear—to create a safe world that then enables the child to explore with confidence the outside world, so an adult clings to an internalized object—a hobby, an interest, a value, or, I suggest, a myth—that then enables the adult to deal with a much wider world. (2004, 139).
So what kind of myth do we use these days to cope with the world? According to Segal, our modern gods are the Hollywood stars. They are “gargantuan” in size on the screen and perform superhuman roles (2004, 140). Segal readily admits that, although we do know that these stars are not real gods, when they fail as people—as normal human beings—we are shocked. We need them to stay distant; we need them to be more than mere human. Thus, “the cinema blocks the outside world and substitutes a world of its own, inviting us to play along, to suspend our disbelief.” In fact, Segal equates “going to the cinema . . . to the church” (142). The twentieth-century French philosopher Gilles Deleuze very much argued for this perspective as well in his work on cinema. To Deleuze, cinema was a way of reconnecting with the world after the disasters of World War II (Deleuze 1989). Science and reason fail
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us in dis-astrous times;2 they cannot fully come to the rescue. The privileged space that myth has occupied cannot be taken away that easily. While I register my support and admiration for Segal’s work, I wish to conclude with some brief critical comments regarding the role of Hollywood. Because Segal could only devote a few pages to the subject, I cannot, of course, blame him for not having covered the entire spectrum of possibilities, but some important issues were omitted, especially given Segal’s own theory. Hermeneutic thinkers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricœur belong here in my view, especially given the importance they attach to play (Gadamer 2004, 102– 110) and critique of ideology (Ricœur 1986). Contemporary critical theory, hermeneutics, and psychoanalysis (especially Lacanian) have much to say about cinema as myth. Although, through his chapters summarizing Girard and Sorel, Segal addresses myth as ideology, the connection is dropped in the conclusion. In his conclusion, Segal states, “Cinema-going combines myth with ritual and brings gods, hence myths, back to the world—and does so without spurning science” (2004, 142). I would certainly agree that criticizing science should not turn to its dismissal. The difficulty is finding the middle ground between Winni cott’s insights about play as an apprehension of reality and a position like Adorno’s that is concerned with escapism. With Segal (and Winnicott), we have a model of myth (as play) that apprehends reality—not science’s reality but the one of lived experience and existence that science cannot comprehend. To be clear, Segal does not equate play with escapism; after all, Winnicott’s play is a form of apprehending reality. The issue, in my mind, is that we need Ricœur’s hermeneutics of suspicion. Although Ricœur also believed in the power of myths and ways of apprehending the world through images and imagination, he also warned that images—for instance, through film—could take us from reality. The problem, therefore, is not inherent to myth per se, it is a question of narrative and imaginative critical intelligence that is culturally lacking. endnotes 1. Since Plato opposed myth and logic, we are used to thinking that myth has been displaced by science. Before Plato’s opposition, it was acceptable to let myth explain the world, as there was no other paradigm. Since the advent of logic and subsequently of science, myth has been deemed too irrational to serve any legitimate explanatory purpose. 2. Given Segal’s emphasis on film stars and Deleuze’s reliance on cinema after World War II, I have in mind disaster in the specific sense of the loss of the guiding light or star (aster). bibliography Deleuze, Gilles. 1989. Cinema 2: The timeimage. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Gadamer, Hans Georg. 2004. Truth and method. Eds. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. 2nd rev. ed. London, New York: Continuum. Ricœur, Paul. 1986. Lectures on ideology and utopia. Ed. George H. Taylor. New York: Columbia University Press. Segal, Robert Alan. 2004. Myth: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. farhang erfani is assistant professor of philosophy at the American University and Research Associate at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa. Correspondence: Philosophy and Religion, 4400 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20016. abstract Robert Segal has provided a masterful introduction to myth in Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Segal’s book serves, however, a greater purpose than merely surveying a
Bryan Wittine, Wittine Reviews Sullivan
history of thinking about myth. Through his analytical summary, Segal also argues that myths are here to stay and that they fill a need that science has never filled. In his view, today’s cinematic stars continue to productively capture our imagination much like the Gods in antiquity. key words Gilles Deleuze, hermeneutics, Hollywood stars, modern theories of myths, movies, myth, myth and philosophy, psychoanalysis, Robert Segal
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