Monday, 17 June 2013

Escaping alienation into Art, or maybe Mythology?


I think I first became fully aware of alienation - the meaninglessness, purposelessness, disconnectedness of mainstream modern life - in the summer of 1981 (a very similar summer and in the same place as this one, which is why I am reminded of it) when reading JD Salinger's 'Glass Family' novellas (Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters, Franny, Zooey, Seymour).


What I got from Salinger, was that the escape from alienation was into Art - probably into being an artist (and thus living inside the process of creation); and this became as kind of 'hidden agenda' for me from that time and for many years.

(Salinger also talks much of Eastern Meditative religions and of a Christianity seem through this lens - but these are means to Art, rather than ends in themselves.)

Escape into Art didn't work - and probably it never really has worked^, except maybe with Goethe - although one can be misled into thinking it has worked by artistic recreations of an artist's life.


Around 20 years later I engaged with Joseph Campbell and began to re-re-re-read Jung from the perspective that alienated meaninglessness could be cured by escaping into myth - and that myth was actually a representation of humanity's shared inner reality.

Thus myth, heroic journeys and quests; stories from all kinds of places and cultures which seemed to have a special power, breadth, resonance; were perceived as symbolically depicting not merely the escape from misery, or the search for pleasure, nor even the pursuit of assimilating ecstasy... but an adventure or task undertaken for the well-being of other people, of the community.

But this simply kicked the can further down the road.

Because if my life would not be justified - wold not be meaningful or purposeful - by seeking comfort, distraction, and ecstasy - then why should things be different when my life is dedicated to enabling increased comfort, distraction and ecstasy for other people?

Somewhere, there has to be some-thing worthwhile in and of itself.


One response to my earlier desire to escape alienation into Art had been to leave medicine for science - which was supposed to sustain and advance medicine; then to leave science for Art, specifically the study and practice of literature - which I supposed to be the 'end' for which medicine and science provided the 'means'.

Yet Art turned out to be just another means, and not an end in itself.


What of mythology? I perceived mythology to underlie Art, to be even-more-fundamental than Art - such that the best Art was mythical.

Yet if myth was supposed to move us, I found that sometimes it did and sometimes (more often) it didn't - and although myth was asserted to be universal and powerful (The Power of Myth was the name of Joseph Campbell's popular PBS TV documentary) - in actuality myth often was not powerful, and no myth seemed to be universally powerful - such that most people preferred soap operas, sexual titillation and trashy news stories and never exposed themselves to actual myths or anything approaching such.

So myth turned-out to be as atomic, subjective and variable, and as alienated, as anything else in modern culture - not an answer nor an antidote.


Only after I had exhausted medicine, science, art and mythology did I finally turn to religion; and to Christianity, which I had previously always excluded from my search.

And there was the answer - the problem framed, described, its consequences delineated. Staring me in the face.


^The Re-enchantment of the World: Art versus Religion, by Gordon Graham