Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Myth of Myth: part 1

I've been reading bits and pieces of The Barbarian Within: Critical Explorations of Literature, Contemporary Culture, and Religion by Jesuit Fr. Walter J. Ong. Ong was an interesting fellow, who wrote his thesis on the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry under Marshall McLuhan and did the majority of his work during the 60's and 70's. At one point he was president of the Modern Language Association of America, and kept a membership in the Renaissance Society of America.

His prose is as dense as literary criticism can be, and it's hard work going through it. The Barbarian Within presupposes an immense knowledge of contemporary literary thought, a discipline I have avoided like the plague since my first forays revealed that as practiced in the late 20th century it tended to remove the fun from literature and shed neither heat nor light, but a bleak, contrary grayness of torture of language.

Ong's language itself is a bit torturous but he seems to be laboring towards a purpose that is noble. Here is an excerpt from his essay, The Myth of Myth. The bolding is my own.

When it yields to the self-intoxication and narcissism which constantly threaten it, the study of myth becomes a mere drill in the age-old antics of Gnosticism. Begging the question of truth and falsehood without ever being so gauche as to own it is doing so, such study can be merely an exercise in frustration. The key to the cabala is kept in a box locked with another key kept in another locked box, and so on.

One recalls how the Gnostic Manichees of St. Augustine's day kept putting him off; he would understand better when he had heard the exegeses of the next exegete, who was soon to speak his piece. Augustine finally heard him, as he writes in the Confessions, but all he had to add to the endlessness of former explanations was his rhetoric, which, Augustine had to admit, was superb. In the Gnostic chase, it is only the pursuit which intrigues. As the quarry digs in and the hunters delve deeper and deeper without stop - for to potency there is no bottom - one comes to forget after awhile that there is a quarry, until, sooner or later, death or something similarly definite intervenes to pull us up with the realization that myth is not all.

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