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Did You Ever Wonder What the World Would be Like without You in It? An Introduction

Did You Ever Wonder What The World Would Be Like Without You In It? An Introduction

Questions, Stories, and Possibility

Coming from a nine-year-old “did you ever wonder what the world would be like without you in it?” was an eye-popping question. [1]   What this question suggests is that human beings begin trying to sort out their place in the world at a very young age.  That was not the Kai’s first interesting question and it is not likely to be his last.  He also has asked: Where do you think the world comes from? Why is the world so cruel? Do you believe in God? Do you believe in magic?  Do you believe in dragons?  What do you think happens to people when they die?   What is our purpose in life? What about the purpose of other people?  And, why can’t people get over racism?   Not only are these some of the perennial questions on whose answers depend the choice between an orderly or a disorderly life; they also are the questions on whose answers human beings build either orderly or disorderly social and political communities.  They are the beginning of the stories human beings tell one another.  As Neil Gaiman writes, storytellers are creators and “when we begin, separately or together, there’s a blank piece of paper.  When we are done; we are giving people dreams and magic and journeys into minds and lives that they have never lived.”[2]  Stories implant possibilities in the mind—offer a vision, or visions, of change for an individual human life or a communal one.  They ae the parents of possibility, challenging humanity to analyze, evaluate, and, if needed, change its vision and actions.

This book is about politics and literature.  It is about the questions people ask and the societal myths they develop and teach to organize their communal lives.  It also is about the need for change in western societies’ current organizing concept, classical liberalism.  Finally, this book surveys some of the hints at new possibilities and directions mythopoets, writers whose stories include the form and/or texture of myth, have to offer political theory at the end of Liberalism.

The book is part detective story and part argument.  We have taught extensively most of the novels included in it.  As we read them, we caught glimpses of ideas related to the authors’ critiques of the world they experienced.  The more we taught them, the more questions they raised, and thus began our research. That research has led to three arguments.  First, as have many others over time, we argue that all human beings live some myth and that myth is part of the search for order.  Myth expresses the “truth”—the felt and lived experiences and values—of a particular people, place, and time. Next, we maintain that the myths held dear by contemporary western liberal societies since the onset of modernity need more radical overhauls than current political science can accomplish on its own.  Finally, we suggest that it is writers of mythopoesis who, in every age, have used the form of myth to point out the cracks in dominant cultures and values.  Mythopoets, we believe, have much to offer contemporary western societies in their attempt to imagine their way out of social disorder into a new sense of what it means to be human and to live together in communities, and in the world.

The foci of each chapter are Kai’s questions and Sheldon Wolin’s comment in Politics and Vision that the genuine problem facing classical liberalism is not the individual versus the state or freedom versus authority; rather it is “authority and community.”[3] Eric Voegelin also saw new ways of defining political space and addressed the alienation of citizens from public life and their withdrawal into “private worlds centered around trivial distractions” as a threat to democracy.[4]  How do/should human beings balance the nation state with their sense of community? Our book focuses on a certain type of late 20th and early 21st century novel that perhaps offers clues to forging better answers than those offered by classical liberalism—a better myth, if you will, with which to reflect upon the perennial questions of both life and political philosophy and their relation to the problem Wolin and Voegelin posed.

Logos, Muthos, and Mana: Responding to Mystery

Myth has a universal appeal and a universal importance.  It draws human beings into something.    People may never be quite sure what that something is, but they do understand that myth invites participation and helps in making meaning.  That is why myth is just as much a part of the contemporary world as of the “primitive” worlds that preceded modernity. Human beings also appear to intuitively grasp that by inviting participation and assisting in the search for meaning, myth has a place in the human search for individual and communal order.  Although various authors and various disciplines perceive myth’s form and function differently, they seem to agree that the study of myth is essential to the human search for meaning and order.  In today’s highly rationalized world and highly quantitative political science, myth and myth-making are underrated. This book seeks to study the importance of reintegrating the study of myth and mythopoesis into political philosophy and to examine some examples of how this task has been accomplished.

What is myth and how is it related to the mystery of existence in space and time?  That question is both very easy and very difficult to answer.  In the contemporary world, myth often is considered “just an old story,” a delusion, or a flat-out lie.  Thus, any book relying on mythopoesis for its analyses needs to be careful in defining its understanding of myth.  For most scholars of the subject, myth is muthos, or logos—a word, statement, or tale.   Many current scholars also accept Robert Segal’s definition of myth, stories about personalities who are agents or objects of action.  Those stories, whether true or untrue “accomplish something significant” for their adherents and are believed tenaciously.[5]  He argues that although traditional myths often took the sacred as their background or subject matter, today’s myths are purely secular.  Others argue that all myths have some religious element.  Still others maintain that the key to understanding myth is the concept of mana, or sacred power, which although extraordinary and often preternatural, is not necessarily religious.

Disagreement attends every aspect of the study of myth.[6]    Scholars in the field disagree about whether mythic thinking is rational.  For some myth is both illogical and irrational.[7]    In contrast, Lévi-Strauss argued that “the kind of logic which is used by mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science…”[8] In his view, the difference between myth and science lies in the topics to which each is applied.  Science and myth have the same job and each approaches its object of study with the tools most appropriate to that object.  Both are logical and rational. The realm of scientific understanding and knowledge is the physical world, and myth rules the equally important world of metaphysics (that which is real, but outside our physical examination).

Is there a difference between myth, folklore, and legend? In what ways do communal and individual myths differ?  Is there a difference between primary myths of origin and myths that reflect on that culture at a latter point in time?    Is myth real or something manufactured by scholars?  Does myth live on in contemporary society or is it solely the product of primitive humanity? Does myth support the social order?[9]  Scholars have given multiple and contradictory answers to each of these questions.  Yes, no, and maybe say the sources.  Most twentieth century students, however, argue that myth, although often in a different form, pervades “modern” just as much as “primitive” societies.  Marshall Sahlins, for example, writes about the dominance of Hobbesian myth in American society.  He argues that Thomas Hobbes developed the origin myth of capitalism in which “the competitive and acquisitive characteristics of Western man have been confounded with Nature, and the Nature thus fashioned in the human image has been in turn reapplied to the explanation of man.”[10]   In other words, Hobbes put the cart before the horse.  Instead of studying human beings and developing a theory based on experience, he developed a theory and then molded human nature to support it.

Complete analysis of this immense corpus is beyond the scope and purpose of this book.  What seems evident, though, is that a comprehensive meta-narrative of myth is impossible.  Thus, it behooves anyone who ventures into the field to heed the warning of Lessa and Vogt that they should consider myth a general label that covers myriad narrative styles, forms, and function.[11]   The novels discussed in this book are examples of this multiplicity.  Myths, however, do tend to manifest certain key characteristics.  (1) heroes and quests; (2) encounters with the preternatural; (3) a weakening of the boundaries between existent and non-existent reality; and (4) a bending or breaking of modernity’s notion of time.   Each novel contains one or more of these characteristics.

Further, these works pose the protagonist with the choice between participation in or closure to a universal human story that requires looking for meaning in all levels of reality.  The key element in these works, what sets them apart from other works of literature, is the emphasis on the choice between participation in and closure to a universal human story.  Mason & Dixon presents the reader multiple chances to contemplate the American experience and reorient thinking.   In Phantastes Anodos’ adventures in Faerie demand a response on his part both there and when he returns to his own world.  The woman who does not go blind in Blindness demands opsis (both personal and social) of every reader.  And at the end of McCarthy’s border trilogy the character of the Mexican Stranger makes one last attempt to get Billy to understand and live the one tale.  Each one is a piece of the human search for individual and communal order.

We do want to briefly address five generalizations, related to our overall argument for the book, that we see arising out of the scholarly literature.  These are:  (1) the function of myth as participation in and response to question and mystery; (2) the relation of myth to the search for meaning and order; (3) the relation of myth to the lived world of the time; (4); the demands myth places on the hearer for immediacy, engagement, and answerability and (5) the continued existence of myth in the contemporary world.  We believe that agreement could be found among most scholars of myth concerning the first four of the points above.  Only the argument for the continued existence of myth, even in highly technological societies, would be likely to provoke disagreement.

All theories of myth seem to rest on the same premise: human beings face a mysterious world, are made anxious by that mystery, and ask questions in order to assuage that anxiety of existence and express their sense of awe and wonder at the world.  Whether a given scholar agrees with the way in which myths work toward that goal is immaterial.  The assumption underlying what scholars of widely divergent opinions say about the nature and purpose of myth is that these stories are responses to question and mystery.  As peoples ask questions like those asked by Kai and search for answers, they incorporate them into their search for meaning and order at both the individual and communal levels.  Myths help them respond to their existential situation, to the world as they experience it.  This world is partly open to the human senses, banal, and capable of being changed according to human intention.  However, that lived world also seems part of some larger and more comprehensive reality which is outside human understanding and control.  Myth attempts to respond to both aspects.  In addition, myths make demands on the hearer to learn certain lessons, to understand the reasons for those lessons, and live as witnesses for those lessons by incorporating them into their lives—to immerse themselves in a drama of being, a story in which they often do not know either their role or even the nature of the whole experience.  We argue that these generalizations transcend the many differences among scholars and schools of thought in the field of myth.

The final generalization would not be accepted easily by some scholars, although it is certainly more commonly made today than at other times in the history of myth scholarship.[12]  We argue that myth and mythopoesis pervade human social life.  The myths are different because the understanding of the gods, human beings, social life, and the cosmos (what political philosopher Eric Voegelin called the community of being) they embody is different from that of other places and times.  But even the most industrialized and rationalized societies use myth to aid their understanding of the mystery of the universe and to advance their search for meaning and order.  We agree with Eric Voegelin that there really is no answer to the questions that face human existence except through the symbols of theory and myth.[13]  The myths that order the contemporary western world are about “liberal man,” “socialist man,” race, consciousness, science, reason, the nature of reality, the individual as an autonomous subject, the administrative state, and so on. Because these myths are so familiar and so deeply embedded in contemporary life, human beings do not view them as myths.  Human beings view the narratives that guide today’s world as basic and self-evident truths.  In this respect, today’s myths are no different than any myth system in the past.  In this generalization, we agree with a long list of scholars from literary theory, philosophy, and anthropology[14] who argue that myth is just as much a part of our world as it was of the primitive world.

Here, however, it is important to differentiate between myth and ideology.  To us, they are not always the same phenomena.  Ideologies tend to be closed systems that prohibit questions.  They attempt to give final answers and argue for the absolute truth of those answers.  They close off mystery rather than opening it up for human participation.  Some myths do that as well.  Other myths do not.  The answers found in “good” myth tend to be far more provisional.  They are true at that time for that culture.  However, they recognize that as human consciousness changes, so too will ideas about meaning and order.  Thus, there will be new insights that at some point will augment or replace older visions and ideas.

Incorporating these five generalizations into our thinking, we argue that myth is the human response to mystery.  For a time, myths fulfill the human need for meaning.  Myth attempts to encompass all human experience of the world by bridging reason and imagination.  Following C.S. Lewis, we maintain that myth resonates with the soul, the organ of truth in the psyche of a given society in a given historical period.  Somehow myth finds the symbols that can express a society’s understanding of itself.  Ultimately, we agree with Weber that myth is complicated.  In myth, economic, political, religious, social, and psychological factors all play a role.  Similar external forms among cultures may not mean the same internal “ethic” applies and similar external forms may not produce the same historical results.   Although religion and ritual play some role in myth, myths are not determined by them. Thus, we cannot agree with the late René Girard that the transference over time of divine status to a sacrificial scapegoat is the source of ritual, myth, and human culture.[15]  Myths do delineate between the sacred and the profane.  They are full of mana, of numinous dread, of the sacred. But, as Hatab points out (following Cassirer), the “sacred does not mean exclusively the supernatural or otherworldly, but simply the extraordinary, the uncommon, both wondrous and terrifying.  The profane, therefore, does not mean something sacrilegious but simply the ordinary, the common.”[16]   Myth expresses the mystery of existence.  Myth does not intend to eliminate mystery.  Instead, myth opens mystery to human participation and engagement.

The Myths of Liberalism and Modernity

Over time, human beings develop frameworks that pull together their answers to the perennial questions into a code that can guide their personal and communal lives.  That code becomes the society’s myth.  As Harari states in Sapiens, “any large-scale human cooperation …. is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”[17]  Further, none of these myths exist “outside the stories that that people invent and tell one another.”[18]  A society’s political myth embodies and safeguards certain answers to those questions, questions such as those Kai has asked.  Human beings ask questions.  In the attempt to answer those questions, they tell stories.  If enough members of the group like and retell one story, a myth expressing the commonly held ‘truth’ of the group’s place in and experience of living develops.  That myth will encompass a society’s actual conditions, values, and ideals.

However, just as all myths are true, reflecting the experiences and values of their time; all myths also are false.  As they age, they change.  For once an idea is let loose in the world, it develops a life of its own, one separate from what the original thinker of that idea could ever have foreseen.  There are new accretions to meet changing conditions.  Other parts fall away and are forgotten. Further some myths are “better’’ than others from the start.  Better myths understand they are not the truth for all times and all places.  In addition, we maintain that better myths realize they are part of what political philosopher Eric Voegelin called the “one tale”—a story of the interaction of an ineffable reality not visible to the human eye with the reality of will and intention in our physical world. They look to guarding the sum of things—all of life’s multiple planes.  Such narratives, “require the embrace of the full range of human otherness…”[19] They look to the borders of life and integrate human intention and participation in some larger and mysterious story.  Who knows what that ineffable, transcendent something is—God? Some Life Force? Love? Chaos?  The music of the universe?  Something that is neither being nor Being? Ultimate Mystery?  Whatever IT is, it is real but ever unknown to its full extent.  We argue that transcendence does not necessitate a belief in any God. The transcendent is the ineffably mysterious that goes beyond the “conditions of space and time and our direct or substantive understanding.”[20] It is a part of reality that is ultimately unknowable. As Voegelin argues, myths are the “provisional answers” to the questions posed by human experience of the world.[21]  Their truth is True only so long as it fits human experience of questions such as why do things exist? Why are things the way they are and not different?  It seems that the answers posited in the contemporary world no longer quite fit with human experience of those questions.

Despite the attempts of numerous insightful political thinkers, the myth of classical liberalism—like Humpty Dumpty—has developed so many cracks and fault lines that it cannot be put back together again. If not failed, it is at this point unsalvageable in its present form, although not necessarily for the reasons suggested by Patrick Deneen.[22]  It should not surprise anyone that classical liberalism is not the end of the history of political thought. Never the thought of just one person, the liberal model of individual religious, political, and economic freedom developed over hundreds of years from Martin Luther’s dictum that every man should be his own priest through Rawlsians, Libertarians, Communitarians, and postmodernists. Lockean liberalism is not one thing, or even the same thing to all people.  At its most basic level, this model sees human beings as individuals who exist prior to government and have rights over government and the social good; that is, the individual right always trumps the moral and social good.[23]

Still, although old myths seldom die, fresh ideas from different perspectives develop to meet the challenges presented by new understandings of the ineffable mystery surrounding all of life, of humanity, of the place of humanity in the universe (or multiverse as Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams would have had it), and of what it means for human beings to live in community.  These new ideas confront the weaknesses of the old myths and are the seeds of new ones.  It is in this situation that western liberal democracies find themselves today.  Political liberalism is a myth that is showing its age.  It has not failed.  It is like the old (and usually untrue) stereotype of the ancient professor who still uses class notes from 20 years ago despite the wealth of changes in their profession over that period.

Classical liberalism remains part of western societies’ cultural and intellectual landscape.  However, even the best scholars of the myriad ideas and accretions that have come to symbolize western liberalism seem unable to tell a story that provides convincing answers to the perennial questions as they arise in the present.  In response to classical liberalism’s inability to meet the challenges of 21st century life, come social turmoil and new ideas.  The old order becomes disordered and the search for an order more attuned to a changed concrete historical situation must continue. Today everyone believes they hold absolute truth in the face of a corrupt system and that their opinions should not only be respected but also dominate political decision making.  The result is stalemate and the end of compromise and civil discourse. They have forgotten that no right, no matter how precious to one or the other individual or group, is absolute and that rights always must be balanced.

In the face of the disorder haunting the contemporary world, it is fruitless to assert the need to defend western civilization, or any modern trope.  As usual, political philosophy is not the product of happy times.  Rather, political philosophy is humanity’s attempt during times of seeming disruption and chaos to return to the perennial questions about where things come from and what can be changed or not changed in the world in which human beings live.  It lets in the light of new thinking and allows human beings, as Hannah Arendt put it, to make miracles by coming together to begin something new.  The attempt to harden one creative spiritual or mental outburst into truth for all time is fruitless; yet in all times and places there will be many who try to do so.

In summary, the experience of facing question and mystery propels humanity on a quest for some ground of happiness, meaning, and order.  Myth remembers and tells the story of history and reality “as an unfinished tale…”[24]  Through the power of language and story, it evokes and communicates a feeling of participation in the whole of experienced reality. The societal tale expressed through myth pervades a society’s sense of individual and communal order and disorder.  Even the bawdiest of myths and folktales imply some vision of an orderly or disorderly individual and/or communal life.   Disorder in a society severely limits the search for personal and communal meaning and order.  Yet the search for individual meaning can produce highly equivocal results for a concrete political order.  That search for meaning may reinforce existing institutions and social values; it also may undermine them by revealing some hidden disorder at the heart of the existing pattern of order and/or suggesting alternative readings of the lived world. So, too, may myth.  As a variety of scholars have noted, certain kinds of myth are one way in which societies teach about and replace visions of order.

Mythopoesis and the Search for Order

The genuine question is: “What comes next?” Whatever comes next, it will be the work of human imagination combined with noetic reason.  Mythopoesis, writing in the form of a myth, provides the imaginative spark human beings need to pay attention to and reflect upon possibility. Applying noetic reason to imagine possibilities is the task of political philosophy. They are like Terry Pratchett’s witches who “look to the ‘edges…There’s a lot of edges, more than people know:  Between life and death, this world and the next, night and day, right and wrong…an’ they need watching…We watch ‘em, we guard the sum of things.  And we never ask for any reward.  That’s important.”[25]  Mythopoets watch the borders between two realities, a reality of physical things and a reality composed of non-physical things, illuminating the cracks and their effects on human life. They hint at new possibilities, new answers to old questions. It always has been this way.  Often, they reveal the flaws in their society’s understanding of the world.  Homer’s Iliad, for example, chronicles the cracks that brought about the demise of Mycenaean civilization.  The Old Testament YHWH signaled a true ancient Gotterdammerung by exposing the dark side of its competitors in the Middle East.  The truth of the Old Testament gave way to that of Christianity when Old Testament truths no longer appeared to fit the circumstances of Christ’s lifetime.  When cracks appeared in Christianity in the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment began, and classical liberalism arose out of it.   The story repeats itself again and again.

Politics, like mythopoesis, is an act of evocation.  The reality of the political order is called into being by the magical power of language as some human being (or beings) continue the search for communal order through writing that takes the form of a myth. Such writing shares with philosophy a sense of awe and wonder that motivates a quest for understanding.  Human beings want to understand their world.  They want their world and their lives to be intelligible and meaningful.  This is as much a communal concern as an individual one.  In today’s world, it is mythopoesis that leads the way in assisting citizens’ understanding of their world.   For the novelist, imagination and reason combine to achieve a vision of a flourishing and meaningful individual and communal life.

Mythopoesis prepares the way for that shared evocation of a community’s sense of meaning and order.  Mythopoesis (to make a story) refers to the use of the myth to communicate ever more differentiated experiences of the truth of existence.  Rather than a literal interpretation of a myth, the term suggests the use of myth to explore the ground of human existence and the interaction of the human and transcendent in the world.  Today, political philosophy seems to have lost its ability to participate in the deep knowing of the lover of the beautiful that Socrates accords to both philosophers and poets in Phaedrus (298d-e).

Human beings seem to have come full circle in terms of the symbols they use to express their experience of their lives, their place in the world, and their search for meaning and order.  Pre-language societies expressed those experiences in signs and drawings.  The discovery of language and writing allowed the use of another type of symbol—words and sentences—to evoke those experiences.  However, as the scientific revolution advanced, the symbols used to discuss the political in political science turned to formulas, statistics, and computer models.  Calculus truly did become the universal language.  But calculus is not the language of the lived world of human consciousness.  Thus, while pre-linguistic societies still could express their understandings of meaning and order, post-linguistic societies, which depend on data analysis and equations, have increasing difficulty in doing so.  This is what makes the work of the mythopoets so important.  Our readings of the works included in this book demonstrate that mythopoets continue to be wary of universal political truths and principles and distrustful of institutions and power, especially supposedly neutral ones.  In this, mythopoets may reveal this age’s hopes, aims, and worries (its consciousness) better than do standard works of politics.

Mythopoesis uses the form of the myth to pry open the human experience of life in the middle.  It lays bare the consequences of human and societal choices.  It offers examples of orderly and disorderly individual and communal lives.  Mythopoesis often takes liberties with the physical world to highlight truths that are felt but cannot be seen.  It accepts the reality of non-physical things, and in the face of mystery, ask a thousand important questions.  Some scholars label these writers “Postsecularists” because they see in these writers a turn away from secularism to a religion-less religion. Although the authors we have chosen for this volume exhibit the criteria these scholars call Postsecularist, we do not think the term fully encompasses what our authors are about.

There are similarities between our approach and that of postsecular scholars.  McClure defines the postsecular movement in literature as “a mode of being and seeing that is at once critical of secular constructions of reality and of dogmatic religiosity.”[26]  In such fiction, he argues, there is a “disruption” of the laws of physics and “an opening up of spiritual possibilities.”[27] Both these statements apply to the novels explored in this book.  There is the reawakening of a sense of awe and wonder in the face of life’s mystery.  Gods and goddesses may appear, but only McCarthy and MacDonald suggest God per se.

However, there are important differences in our approach that make this work unique.  First, we rely on very different thinkers in pursuing our argument.  McClure relies on Gianni Vattimo, William Connolly, Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, William James, and Mircea Eliade to present a picture of “weak” religion.  In his analysis, characters, who in the past were purely secular in their thinking, react to critical junctures in the story with a half-hearted turn to an ambiguous “and dramatically partial” religiosity linked to “progressive values and projects.”[28]

The sources for our analyses of Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon,  Neil Gaiman, José Saramago, J.M. Coetzee, and Nnedi Okorafor, on the other hand, include Plato, Simone Weil, Eric Voegelin, G. K. Chesteron, Albert Camus, Emmanuel Levinas, Michael J. Sandel, and Sheldon Wolin and the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pavel Florensky, and Miroslav Volf.  Nods to the late work of Jacques Derrida and to William E. Connolly also appear in this book.  Pynchon is the only writer we analyze who also appears in McClure’s Partial Truths.  Our analysis suggests that characters do not head toward religion, even the “weak” religion McClure borrows from Vattimo.  The writers we have chosen are neither postsecular, nor post doctrinal.  Instead, they use myth to explore a vision of life as lived in-between physical reality and some ineffable transcendent reality.

McClure’s view leaves individuals as sole creators of their lives and world.  Our authors appear, on the other hand, to see human beings as co-creators of reality who never fully oversee and control the events in which they partake. Second, McClure argues that the authors he labels postsecularist lead readers to a progressive and more inclusive politics.  Politics would still be Easton’s authoritative allocation of values for society.  In our reading of the authors examined here, the concern is more about certain characteristics that should be cultivated in order to address the issue of authority and community that haunts the contemporary world than about the political implications of those characteristics.  The political comes in only through our contentions that (1) the quality of a city depends on the quality of its citizens and (2) politics, as Simone Weil suggested, is a composition on a multiple plane—not just numbers and power, but also justice, inclusion of the mystery that surrounds human existence, the presence of some unknowable and unexplainable reality within the physical world, clear-sightedness, noetic reason, and obligations of solidarity.  Close readings of the novels indicate to us that their authors are more interested in these concepts than in actual political outcomes.

The six contemporary mythopoets (and one late 19th century theologian) whose works we analyze share several commonalities.  All these authors are moralists with deep concerns about the current western political fascination with liberalism’s materialist vision, the role of human beings in mass society, and the totalizing and totalitarian aspects of the Enlightenment and the Modern Project (or modernity).  Over hundreds of years, the Modern Project came to mean that the desires for wealth, power, and survival are the sole goals of human life and action.  Under its influence, the job of the State is to provide its citizens with the means of achieving these goals. They myth of modernity rests upon a certain type of consciousness—the belief that human beings can order their physical and personal environment according to will (intent) and that progress is the result of the imposition of human will on the world and on social relations.   Freedom, thus, is the ability to impose one’s will and achieve one’s desired ends.

Among the authors we have chosen are atheists, agnostics, puzzlers, and believers concerning the existence of a supreme being or beings.  At least one does not give the question much thought.  All of them, however, acknowledge that human beings face mystery and ask questions.  These mythopoets use the questions to form their stories and frame those stories in the form of myth. They accept the reality of an ineffability that humanity can glimpse periodically, but never grab onto.  They do not claim to have answers.  For, as Gaiman writes, “Things need not to have happened to be true.  Tales and dreams are the shadow truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.”[29]  Thus, they challenge their readers to question the myths that permeate modernity and to continue the search for new ways to think about what it means to be human, the place of human beings in the universe, how human beings should relate to the ineffable mystery that surrounds them, and how they should relate to one another.  Mythopoets offer glimpses of what needs to come—no more.

These authors seem to agree that human beings experience life as occurring with the metaxy—an experience of always living in the middle—and accept what Eric Voegelin called the paradox of consciousness—the feeling of being a subject in a world of will and intention and an actor in a play that takes place within a mystery participants cannot understand.  Thus, all explore boundaries and borders.  These authors layer story upon story exploring the forces of dissatisfaction with and revolt from the myths of the administrative state, of the American founding, of nativism, racism and tribalism, and of instrumental reason.  They include moments of grace, or presence (Parousia).  Further, evidence suggests that Plato has influenced each of them.

We argue that, for these authors at least, any new political vision should include acknowledgement of a paradox of consciousness.  But acceptance of mystery is not enough.  These authors suggest that also needed are acceptance of mystery’s presence in the world (grace), reliance on some form of reasoning that is more than instrumental, opsis (clear-sightedness), and response to the call for witness, that is, recognition and acceptance of obligations of solidarity.[30]  They point a direction for political philosophy as it struggles to deal with the problem of authority and community.  Ultimately, these authors offer the imaginative seeds of a political philosophy that not only would be different in emphasis from classical liberalism, but also is somewhat outside the bounds of contemporary political science.  We make no judgement concerning the real-world applicability of their offerings.  We do argue that they tell us something important, whether we believe their ideas will work, for always “the quest for truth speaks the language of the tale.”[31]

All the authors chosen for this book create characters who engage in quests, come of age, and/or sacrifice their lives or careers to witness what they see as some larger principle.   They confront one myth and suggest important aspects of new ones. Our mythopoets provide no final solutions to the mystery that surrounds human life.  If anything, they leave us with more questions.  Each explores the complexities of human existence in the middle—in between an unknown beginning and an unknowable future, between the beginning and end of human life or some stage of human life, between ideals and current reality, between physical reality and whatever unseen and ineffable reality exists. They unearth and share the lived reality of the wide variety of human experiences and allow readers to live those unending questions about why things exist and why they are the way they are.  If Eric Voegelin is correct (and we believe he is) that life is “an adventure of decision on the edge of freedom and necessity,”[32] then it is mythopoesis that roams the edges guarding the sum of things and searching for the places where the balance between freedom and necessity has been lost and must be redeemed before  political philosophy can suggest a workable blend of community and authority.  On those edges they find possibility.

The Mythopoets

Chapters 2-6 of this book focus on Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Neil Gaiman, José Saramago, J.M. Coetzee, and Nnedi Okorafor.  The chapter on Gaiman also includes thoughts on a late 19th century writer, George MacDonald whose understanding of reason is similar to Gaiman’s.  These authors engage their protagonists in adventures that critique old myths and evoke aspects of what the novelists see as important in the development of a myth better suited to the contemporary world.

Chapter 2: “Did you ever notice that there are stories within stories” relies on Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) to explore the multiple layers of reality experienced by human beings.  We argue that McCarthy’s conception of the Real and of transcendence most fully reveal themselves when approached from the perspective of Eric Voegelin’s paradox of consciousness.  In the contemporary world, the real is what human beings can see, taste, and touch.  The sense of the real pervading the Border Trilogy is different and paradoxical.  For McCarthy, reality includes both the physical and the metaphysical and both need to be remembered and honored.  Human beings experience life as occurring in the metaxy, in the middle and live with the tensions that experience imposes.

In chapter 3, Do You Believe in God? we examine the myth of America as a city upon a hill and the implications of accepting life in the middle.  Over the course of his prolific career, Pynchon has offered a mythic history of the United States—a vision of Americans at work and play, trying to act out their part in a drama of being whose plot is unknown.  Mason & Dixon skillfully symbolizes the almost incommunicable experience of life in the metaxy and metalepsis, the joint participation of something unseen and humans in a drama of being in which we sometimes are “the Slate” and sometimes “the Chalk.”[33] In Pynchon’s presentation of pre-founding America, he may be showing his readers that grace/presence is ubiquitous and needs to be recognized in the formation of any polity that accepts the paradox of consciousness.  Without such consideration no political community should receive the title of “city upon a hill.”

Chapter 4 begins with the question: “Do you believe in magic?’  Its focus is coming-of-age myths and the contemporary myth of instrumental reason.  Instrumental reason has become modernity’s magic incantation for decision making.  Close readings of the coming-of-age quests in Phantastes and Anansi Boys reveal that, despite their many differences, both George MacDonald and Neil Gaiman are critics of the Myth of Instrumental Reason and call for inclusion of reason in the classicl sense, or Nous.  Further, for MacDonald and Gaiman the essence of order is justice, and justice requires witness and self-sacrifice.  Growing up involves development of noetic reason and the will to make sacrifices for others.   Magical creatures and experiences become guides in the human need to develop a “wise” imagination.

In chapter 5, Do you believe in dragons? we argue that J.M.  Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and José Saramago’s Blindness suggest that the Myth of the Administrative State allows free rein to the dragon of building dream worlds and blindness to reality. These works suggest the need to develop horizons that encompass the whole of reality and, most importantly, they portray opsis, clear-sightedness, as an essential requirement in discerning the demands of life in the metaxy. These works give us a hint about the most important constituent of order—the ability of an individual to see clearly and deeply into all levels of reality and to use that insight to participate in the drama of being as co-creators, not sole authors of reality.

Finally, “Why can’t people accept each other?” (chapter 6) examines the universal question of why human beings create tribes and believe they cannot live with those who are not like themselves.  Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix and Who Fears Death examine those themes. Her books are excellent examples of new trends in science fiction/fantasy that elucidate important considerations for any attempt to reconcile authority and community.  The Book of Phoenix and Who Fears Death contain themes of the paradox of consciousness, inclusion/exclusion, cultural change, oppression, alterity, necessity/freedom, reason, opsis and weakness, justice and self-interest.  In fact, most of the themes we evoke in the other chapters are present in these two books.   Okorafor’s work, the most overtly political included, testifies to the importance to any political community of witness.

The final chapter begins with the question “What can I do? I’m only one person.”  Thomas Mann offers a clue to the implications of this question in Joseph the Provider when Joseph says, “I don’t know, Mai, what sort of man I am.  One does not know beforehand how one will behave in one’s story; but when the time comes it is clear enough and then a man gets acquainted with himself.”[34]  It suggests that Albert Camus and Alyosha Karamazov both were correct in asserting that human beings are responsible in some manner to all and for all—at least for each human being’s small corner of the world. The conclusion summarizes the insights of the authors canvassed and their call for human humility, imagining possibility, and listening to other’s stories.  Their themes make them the parents of possibility. These authors and their stories do not ask human beings to go back to some previous time when life and values were “better.” They imply, instead, that political philosophy needs to move forward beyond Lockean liberalism and develop political thinking that includes the entire community of being, both the knowable physical and the mysterious and ineffable transcendent. Their message to political philosophy is to expand its understanding of reason and embrace new possibilities. Such a change in political philosophy would start with recognizing the paradox of consciousness.



[1] Thanks to Radford University’s Faculty Development Leave Program for supporting an initial draft of this work.

[2] Neil Gaiman, “A Speech Given to Professionals Contemplating Alternative Employment, Given at PROCON, April 1997,” in The View from the Cheap Seats (New York: William Morrow An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2016.

[3] Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 314.

[4] John Ranieri, “Grounding Public Discourse: The Contribution of Eric Voegelin,” in Glenn Hughes, ed. The Politics of the Soul (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999), 35.

[5] Robert Segal, Myth: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2004), 6.

[6]  Excellent synopses of the history of myth scholarship are available in the work of Eleazar Meletinsky, Raphael Patai, Fiona Bowie, Robert Segal, and J. Van Baal.  Full citations for these works can be found in Chapter 1: Works Consulted for this volume. Here we provide only the briefest synthesis of a fascinating scholarly conversation.  Herodotus and Euhemeris viewed myth as an explanation of the transformation of an individual into a god.  During the Medieval and Renaissance periods students interpreted myths as allegories designed to illustrate moral principles.   Nineteenth century romantics saw myth as an aesthetic that depicts the universe through nature.  The turn of the century was dominated by those who saw myth as explanations of ritual (Edward Burnett Tylor, Sir James George Frazer, Lord Raglan, Walter F. Otto, Wilhelm Wundt).  Emile Durkheim and Lucien Levy-Bruhl moved away from the emphasis on ritual, but still considered myth the building block for religious belief. Over the course of the twentieth century, scholarship tended to move away from the ritualist school and to include ideas from philosophy, linguistic studies, psychology and literary criticism. Those viewing the topic through the lens of literary criticism focus on myth as a work of art and imagination, as mythopoesis (Richard Chase, Northrop Frye, C. S.  Lewis).  The philosopher Lawrence Hatab considers myth to be culture.  The psychologists and psycho-analysts follow Freud and Jung in arguing that myth is the attempt of the psyche to integrate the conscious and unconscious or explain the psychic life of the tribe.  Anthropologists seem to fall into one of six general points of view.  Some follow Malinowski’s view that myths are charter stories; that is, they function to reinforce religious and/or social mores, institutions, and power relationships.  Others support the idea, first suggested by Giambattista Vico in the eighteenth century, that myths are illogical or pre-logical explanations of natural phenomena that are replaced over time by reason and science.   A third groups supports Claude Lévi-Strauss’ characterization of myth as a vehicle through which a culture can logically reconcile contradictions experienced in individual and social life.  Still others agree with Eliade that myths are explanations of the origins of something, usually something sacred, or of the morality of certain actions.  In the late twentieth century Ernst Cassirer’s argument that myth is a vehicle for symbolic truth has attracted many followers.  Finally, popular audiences have responded favorably to Campbell’s thesis that myths are hero stories, and a variety of scholars are studying René Girard’s vision of mimetic desire, ritual scapegoats, and the development of myth in the formation of human culture.

[7] David Bidney argues myth is a kind of delusional thinking that is beyond truth and falsity and that disappears as human reason develops. Giambattista Vico considered myth both irrational and illogical and rejoiced in its replacement by reason and science.  Ernst Cassirer and Lucien Levy-Bruhl believed that myth is a kind of knowledge, but that science is better.

[8] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 197.

[9] Some, including David Bidney, Joseph Campbell, Richard Chase, Kathryn Hume, and Max Weber, say yes; others argue not necessarily.

[10] Marshall Sahlins wrote several pieces in which he discussed the illusory western vision of human nature that he traced to Thomas Hobbes and Hobbes’ understanding of the Thucydides.  Hobbes provided the first translation of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War.  See, for example, Marshall Sahlins, “The Western Illusion of Human Nature,” Michigan Quarterly Review XLV, no. 3 (Summer 2006), accessed December 18, 2018,; and Marshall Sahlins, The Sidney W. Mintz Lecture for 1994: “The Sadness of Sweetness: The Native Anthropology of Western Cosmology,” Current Anthropology 37, no. 3 (June 1996): 395-428, accessed December 19, 2018, DOI: 10.2307/536765,

[11] William A. Lessa and Evon C. Vogt, Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach (New York: HarperCollins, 1979), 168.

[12] See, for example, Mircea Eliade, Robert Segal, Ernst Cassirer, Fiona Bowie, G. S, Kirk, Lawrence J. Hatab, Max Weber, Paul Ricoeur, David Bidney, and Northrop Frye.

[13] Eric Voegelin, “In Search of the Ground,” The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 11: Published Essays 1953-1965, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000). 225-226.

[14] See, for example, Ernst Cassirer, Northrop Frye, Eleazar M. Meletinsky, Raphael Patai, Harry Slochower, Robert Segal, J. Van Baal, Max Weber, and Lawrence J. Hatab.

[15] See for example, René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976);   Violence and the Sacred (W.W. North & Company, 1979); The Scapegoat (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989);  and I See Satan Fall Like Lightening (Orbis Books, 2001).

[16] Lawrence Hatab, Myth and Philosophy (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1990), 22.

[17] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015), 27.

[18] Ibid., 28.

[19] Glenn Hughes, Transcendence and History (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 37.


[20] Ibid., 20.


[21] Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. IV: The Ecumenic Age (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1974), 304.

[22] Patrick Deneen,  Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press, 2018).  In this work, Professor Deneen suggests that the only way out of liberalism is the building of small, local cultures with different sets of values than those of today’s dominant liberal culture (18).   Simone Weil suggested something similar during World War II in The Need for Roots (New York: Harper-Colophon, 1971).  More recently, Kyle Scott’s The Limits of Politics also explores the importance of moral imagination in developing new political ideas that include the possibility of more localized political cultures and the requirement of concurrent majorities.  These are fascinating ideas that deserve consideration and genuine reflection.  In our view, however, implementing them would lead to the ultimate break-up of the United States—an idea with which the old novel Ecotopia plays.  See Ernest Callenbach. Ecotopia (Bantam Books, 1990).   Scott’s concurrent majorities really is no remedy for that.

[23] See, for example, Michael Sandel, Democracy’ Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Belknap Press, 1996).

[24] Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. V: In Search of Order (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 1.

[25] Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men (Harper Collins, 2015), 314.

[26] John McClure, Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison (University of Georgia Press, 2007), ix.

[27] Ibid., 4.

[28] Ibid., 6.

[29] Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country (DC Comics, 1995), 21.

[30] See Michael J. Sandel, Justice (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010) and Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

[31] Voegelin, In Search of Order, 65.

[32] Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. I:  Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1956), 1.

[33] Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (Picador, 2004), 442.

[34] Thomas Mann, Joseph the Provider (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1944), 352.


This excerpt is from Possibility’s Parents: Stories at the End of Liberalism (Lexington Books, 2019). Our review of the book is here.

Margaret Hrezo and Nick PappasMargaret Hrezo and Nick Pappas

Margaret Hrezo and Nick Pappas

Margaret Hrezo is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Radford University in Virginia; Nick Pappas is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Captain, USMC, Retired.

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