1. The Return to Myth
The time has passed for looking at myth serenely, as either legend or, as Littre defined it, “a story related to a time or occurrences which history throws no light on, and containing either a real occurrence transformed into a religious notion, or an occurrence fabricated with the help of an idea.” It was calmly affirmed that myth had to do with formal deities, and that it was it way of expressing the relation between those deities and men, whence the historical form in which it is usually found. Whatever the definition, it was something belonging to the past. The gods were dead, and their histories no longer concerned us. The nineteenth century, the century of reason, was free of myths. Only poets (the fake !) worried about them.
Yet, along came depth psychology, then the sociology of history, to give a new meaning, and consequently a new vigor, to those dust-covered stories repeated in the Greco-Latin mythologies. No longer are they a childish fabrication to color simplistic religion. What we have before us are subtle expressions of profound and complex tendencies in man. The deities brought into play in those myths are no longer merely gods of thunder or of the weather.
They are personalities rich in complex qualities. They take on unexpected dimensions. Kronos and Zeus mask a mystery, a mystery of man. By a strange reversal, what now seems childish is not the imaginary myth but the rationalistic philosophy which called it in question through a failure to understand it. Cicero is seen to be more simplistic than Homer.
The analysis of the myths themselves led to a much deeper understanding of a certain ongoing quality in man, a certain relation of man with the universe, a certain structure of soul. Research was carried out in various directions, but it all came together in a central group composed of Jung, Caillois, Eliade and Dumezil.l At the same time it was seen that these myths fulfilled diverse functions, and that one could, for example, distinguish between explanatory, etiological myths (whose purpose was to throw light on a place or a people, or on the origin of a custom or an institution), and ontological myths (which explained some profound, permanent reality of man and which displayed man’s reflections about himself). Along this line, it would appear that there was perhaps no other means of expressing those reflections, that from his remote beginnings, man had discovered a special language which alone was suited to his greatest depths and to a direct expression of the inexpressible. Surely we are no longer asking the same questions about the truth of myth. “Myth is seen as sacred history, and therefore as a true history, since it always refers to realities. The cosmogonic myth is ‘true’ because the existence of the world is there to prove it. The myth of the origin of death is likewise ‘true’ because man’s mortality proves it . . .” (Mircea Eliade, Aspects du Mythe, 1 963).
That was the first stage. But soon the perception of myth became more and more basic, and research took off in every direction. “Myth” was taken as word, a word in process of being born, explosive; and also as history, as a story, a discourse. From that standpoint one could indeed, in a certain sense, accept Littr6’s dead definition. Yes, myth was seen to be fable, but fable as “a word at the very center of history, heroic fable and a founder of civilization. Thus civilization has a basis for existence made more reliable through the reflection within itself of the myth as a discourse on origins maintained at the heart of things. That reflection, in turn, points to a somewhere-else, located outside human time as an unshakeable guarantee of the reliability of the civilization” (J. F. Rollin, Esprit, 1971 ). Thus myth was not only a fundamental expression of man, but also the founder of society, of civilization. Then there was the series of researches by R. Barthes, beginning with his Mythologies, on myth as language (in the radical sense in which that term is now understood), and structuralism Generally.
However, these discoveries raised the question of the absence of myth in our modern world. If it be true that the image expresses man’s permanent drives, and is the founding word of civilization as well as the justifying word of society, is it really possible that there should be no myth today? Some answer this by saying that myth is no longer dominant in the essential sectors of life. But can it be that man in the first half of the twentieth century lacked reference to the sacred, to mystery? Manifestly, the twentieth century has only exorcised such things in appearance, superficially, and precisely in the area where they don’t exist. Moreover, myth is not connected with belief in formal deities recognized as such. Those are only presentations, modes of expression, arrows pointing to something else. Because those formal deities are outmoded is no reason why myth should not exist.
In fact, it soon becomes clear that myth does exist, but an understanding of it is no simple matter, and its analysis even less so. Its domain is poorly defined. Its nature is fugitive, and writers have heaped up definitions which fail to harmonize with one another. One of the difficulties certainly stemmed from the determination to come up with a general definition of myth, equally valid for Hindu myths, Greco-Roman myths, Semitic myths, or western myths of the twentieth century. The temptation was indeed great, for if myth is an expression of deep-seated, permanent tendencies, why shouldn’t one be able to give it a universal definition? But in being too anxious to generalize, one was led to excessive abstraction, and that deprived myth itself of the very thing which appears most important, its vitality, its capacity to develop, and its forcefulness.
At least three possible trends of “definition” can be seen. According to some, myth is a relation with another world which is inexpressible and unnameable. Thus it is an indirect, oblique way, as though with mirrors, of giving an account of that which cannot be expressed otherwise. For others, it is the expression (pictorially, conceptually, theologically, or juridically) of the major cleavages according to which an institutional system is articulated. Finally, with Levi-Strauss, one can treat myth as “a sort of bridge providing a logical means of mediating a problematic of culture which man is unable to resolve rationally for lack of sufficient science.” It is impossible to do away with the problematic, so it has to be handled in such a way that one can live with it.
One all-embracing definition of myth robs it of just that which makes it a myth. According to this, a myth is the interpretation of a very direct relationship between man and the temporal structure of his life. Outside that relationship his life is dust and absurdity. It doesn’t seem to me that any overall definition is possible which would apply equally to our twentieth-century myths and to those of three thousand years ago. I am not in the same situation as man of three thousand years ago. If myth is a mirror of man’s reflection, if it is an explanation of man’s action, if it is a grasp on and a justification of man’s situation hic et nunc, if, finally, it is an image of the most mysterious depths of man in confrontation with a given reality, then it cannot, by its very nature, be the same now as then.
Myth necessarily appears in specific forms, but its characteristics and reasons are constant and common to all. Since this mode of expression is directly related to its given civilization, it obviously will take whatever form is most suited to man in that civilization. To the very degree to which our civilization is atheistic (not areligious, but simply not recognizing any formal deity to be worshiped as such), myth today will not wear the mask of any active gods, to whom appeal would be made collectively or individually, and for whom the traditional modes of relationship with the divinity are organized. Yet myth always contains an element of belief, of religious belonging, of the irrational, without which it could never express what it is meant to express for man.
Obviously, religious sentiment is capable of focusing on something other than formal deity. If a myth expresses the deep significance of the civilization to which it is bound, if at the same time it is a way for man to integrate himself into that civilization, and perhaps to reduce the tensions between himself and his milieu, then that myth must be related to the nerve center of that natural and social structure, that combination of artifice and givens, in which man is called upon to live. Formerly man was guided in relation to passing time and threatening nature, but that really is no longer the confrontation which haunts man in this century. He has mastered too many things. He is now man alone. What haunts him is his absence of virtue, of certainty concerning himself. Now that natural obstacles are brushed aside, where does his assurance lie? There is nothing to counterbalance his own sovereign action. It is fine to possess the power of the atom, but now to find himself all alone with this thing in his hands, to know that he is responsible for the decisions, with only his own strength to count on-that is an unbearable situation.
Whether the myths be those of reconstituting the environment so that man will not be alone and will be reassured, or whether they be calculated to restore meaning to this adventure by having the past assure the future-in any case, myths are necessarily common to all the people who go to make up this civilization. We might even say that since, as far as the civilization is concerned, all its people are placed in the same situation and face the same question, the image will be revealed to us as myth in the very degree in which it is common to all.
The contemporaneity of myth, its presence in our society, is no longer disputed. Yet there is a tendency to reduce it to a clear sociological function, to rationalize it. Barthes is an example of this when he makes myth the equivalent of Emile Durkheim’s “collective representation,” a social fixation, a reflection, but a reflection in reverse. “Myth consists in turning the culture back into nature, or at least the social, the cultural, and the ideological into the natural. What is nothing other than a product of the division into classes, with its moral, cultural, and aesthetic sequels, is presented as something to be taken for granted. By means of the mythical reversal, the contingent bases for the assertion become just reasonable good sense … in a word, the doxa [the lay representation of origin].”
Nothing could be more marvelously hackneyed (for he is merely saying that myth is a justifying system, which quite a number of us have been saying for a long time) and inexact, for he makes no reference to the inescapable content of every myth: the “transcendent” dimension, which brings the cultural right back into the picture. Myth in no way conceals the fact that it is cultural. If Barthes simply claimed to be presenting one aspect of myth, that would go without saying. The mistake is in focusing myth on that single function and in explaining it by that alone, not to mention the fact that Barthes himself, for the purposes of his scientific study, follows the myth of the class struggle. We shall come back to that.
However that may be, it is still true that in every critical period of history myths reappear which have as their purpose to assure the maintenance of a certain type of society and to confirm the dominant group in its faith in the system. “The last resort of a certain category of individuals who profit from power and don’t want to fall prey to the adversary is to resurrect the discourse on origins and to appropriate it for themselves.” But it is just as true to think of myth as G. Sorel does, as a motivating image for the purpose of authorizing revolution and calling the establishment into question.
In any case, and no matter what the sociological substratum, no matter what its use, or the outlook of those who elaborate and transmit it, myth is always explanatory. It explains a situation and a purpose whenever reason is unable to do so, and that characteristic has scarcely changed from the archaic myth to the modern myth. The location and the object of myth have changed, but not its function.
This takes place, of course, in a time of sociological crisis or conflict-which is the point at which reason stops. Science drives myth back, but then immediately recreates it, for science itself raises radical questions which bring back the necessity for myth. Thus, as is the case with the sacred, the domain of myth is shifted. It no longer refers to nature (cosmogony) but to the real problems of the culture of our day. In the face of tragic, threatening, intolerable situations, myth makes it possible to mediate conflicts; for example, “the problematics of culture arising with space exploration, the discovery of the secrets of procreation in a society where ethics are still traditional.” “Myth is a palliative which makes the problems of the times livable, and facilitates emotionally the transition to new structures in which man feels more at ease” (Claude Ramnoux).
Problems of the times are brought about through economic growth, through science, through demographic change, through the dissemination of information, so the myths will be related to those situations (not directly, to be sure, but secondarily). Hence their function and meaning have not really changed. In correlation with a given civilization, myth gives expression to the deepest trends.
Myth is not a superstructure in that it is not a mere translation of the material structures. Neither is it an ideological veil thrown over reality to keep it from being seen. Nor is it a summary justification of something felt to be unjust. It is much more than that, and in some ways it is more basic than the material structure itself. In fact, the material structure is nothing in itself. Only as it is reflected in the consciousness of man does it take on importance. Man is situated in relation to this particular economic life, this technological development, this growth of the state. He interprets these, and in so doing gives them significance. More than that, he perceives, perhaps subconsciously, by a reaction of his whole being, the direction of their development, which he wants and fears at the same time. He expresses all this in a myth.
Henceforth the myth is seen both as the stand taken by the human collectivity toward the structures, and as the meaning which it attributes to them. Furthermore, since the economic or political life depends largely on the action of man, the image which he entertains of it and, still more, the image he entertains of the direction of its evolution are of decisive importance for the evolution itself. Myth is seen as the condition of loyalty of the mass of the people to a certain civilization and to its procedures in development or in crisis. It is also an explanation of man’s permanence within this civilization.
But of course the myths are themselves influenced by the concrete situation which they, in their tum, are to influence, for the reason that they express in a psychological image the reality of the structures. This explains the fact that the myths, although grafted onto the most profound givens of the individual psyche, can be quite diverse, and vary even in nature, according to the various contexts of civilization. When man is confronted by a radically new situation, new myths appear which have nothing in common with the preceding ones. It is as though there were a new “beginning,” which is what is happening today. Another society appears to have chiefly regressive and explanatory myths, whereas our society has progressive and active ones. Yet both are expressions of the same basic tendencies of the individual. It is simply that the individual is situated in a different economic and political context.
In any case, it is quite certain that myths in our western civilization are connected with action, and incite to action. In that sense the definition of myth as “a motivating global image” is certainly the most exact. This myth is indeed a vigorous, highly colored, irrational representation, charged with the entire believing capacity of the individual. It is, for the most part, a subconscious image, because the religious charge which it carries gives it an appearance of obviousness and certitude so fundamental that to become conscious of it is dangerous. Conscious awareness would run the risk of weakening the certitude. The person with a confused sense of it escapes the clarity of seeing the myth as myth. He can continue to take refuge in certitude. It is easy to expose other people’s myths and be surprised that they could fall prey to such absurd imaginings, but how we resist an analysis of our own myths!
Finally, myth has to be global. It embraces all the elements of a situation or an action. It furnishes both the explanation and the synthesis, the future and the requirements. The totality of the myth is what counts, not this or that fugitive aspect which might be discounted tomorrow without much damage. Again, it is global because there is no part of the individual to which it is indifferent. Its control is complete. It appeals as well to the reason as to the emotions or the will. Nothing subsists outside its sphere. There is no point which could serve as a fulcrum for criticism. It supplies the entire man with a satisfying image. It is a design which permits of only one interpretation on the part of the person in whom it dwells, and no decisive divergence is possible among those who harbor the same myth.
Nevertheless, at this point we have to distinguish several levels in the construction of myth. Thus, in my view, we have three mythical layers. First, there is the basic line, the subject of the myth itself, the starting point from which the mythical system is organized. Levi-Strauss has brought this out admirably through a structural comparison of the myths studied in his series of works (The Raw and the Cooked, etc.). Second, there are the explicit myths which develop this basic line in a more or less complete discourse. They apply it and illustrate it. Therefore they are rather extensive in their themes and are fairly well elaborated. Third, there are the most superficial elements, a set of formulas, images, ready-made declarations, such as I studied, for example, in Critique of the New Commonplaces.
But it is quite superficial to suppose, with R. Barthes, that this last phase, and it alone, constitutes the myth. “Myth can be read in the anonymous pronouncements in the press and in advertising about any heavily purchased article.” That is true, but only as a passing, incidental reflection of deeper myth. Barthes’s work in Mythologies is unsatisfactory. What does the piecemeal currency of myth indicate and signify? When does a mythical account really reveal itself as myth? In any event, it seems to me that the myth is complete only when the three levels are discerned in it, and when they can be related to one another.
It soon becomes apparent that myth presents three qualities. First, it is neither conservative nor revolutionary in its essence. Revolution can be opposed to myth when the latter reflects a situation of domination. On the other hand, revolution can very well produce myth and “introduce it into the course of events as its Ghost.”
Second, we cannot go on multiplying the phenomena designated as myths. According to some authors, everything is a myth: youth, profit, class struggle, the fatherland, freedom, the university, the state, sociology, enzymes, vacation, the automobile, pollution, etc. It has to be admitted that, generally speaking, there is a semblance of truth in these more or less incoherent statements. What is missing is the effort to show inner coherence. Youth is not, in itself, a myth, but it is part of a mythical system, a totality which is the myth. Therefore, when the mythical character of a given ideological reality comes to light, one has to ask what it is connected with, of what totality it is a part. But, conversely, one has also to ask whether a given concept of truth, accepted as completely assured or as explanatory on the scientific level, may not belong to the category of myth-concepts like class struggle or even scientific objectivity. If it is possible to connect these truths with a mythical system, then we must retain their aspect of mythical truth, but not as truth accounting for reality, nor as a point of departure for explaining everything.
Third, myth is an anonymous discourse. No one is talking to anyone. “When myth is being told, individual auditors receive a message which, strictly speaking, comes from nowhere. That is why it is assigned a supernatural origin” (Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked). Yet there has to be someone to tell this story which comes from nobody. Someone picks up “the trail of origin.” Someone puts himself in the place of no one, yet without destroying the anonymity. From this fact, and it cannot be otherwise, myth is “a word from the origin about the origin, of which no one is the author, but which is addressed to all” (Rollin).
In our century this has taken on a special tonal quality. The anonymous account brought to all by someone, who assimilates himself to the anonymous, is no longer that of yesterday. Anonymity can no longer be assured by ancestral tradition in a society geared to the future and rejecting continuity with the past. The anonymity is now assured by the mass media. The someone who carries the story to all, the someone who is completely known and completely anonymous and is assimilated to the “no one” speaking in the myth, is, par excellence, the television announcer.
That is where we find, not the birth of modern myth, but it’s guarantee of mythical authenticity. The transformations produced in the modern psyche by the mass media, the disconnected order of the discourse, the reappearance of global mythical thinking, the rejection of rational logic, the instant seizure of the real, etc., that has all been thoroughly shown, demonstrated and explained by Marshall McLuhan. This is surely the best possible refutation of the idea that contemporary man is rational and scientific, and that we are in a demythicized society. Our historic situation involves a recourse to myth. Our means of acting in the world, and on reality, produce myth of themselves. How could we escape it?
2. What Myth Today?
That which is the deepest, the broadest, and the most decisive, on which every edifice rests, is perhaps also the most passive. It enjoys a greater share in the common belief in group values, and it is less direct in its demand for action. If it didn’t exist, myth could not be constructed. It is also the most widely distributed. It dwells in everybody. Again, it is the most durable because it develops along with the structures of civilization. It is coextensive with civilization, and only disappears with it.
Today we could say that the two fundamental myths of modern man are history and science. There is no need to go into a lengthy analysis of their origin and characteristics. That has been done many times. Let us simply consider that they are the bases for all the beliefs, ideologies, actions and feelings of twentieth-century man. History has been transmuted into a value, which makes it the judge of good and evil. “History will judge,” said Marshal Petain, and Nikita Khrushchev declared that history will decide between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A., and it will be a judgment of God. We are here in the presence of a significant mutation. It is known that history traditionally had a sacred meaning. It wasn’t a matter of describing events, but of gaining from them an exemplary, meaningful account. History was one of the instruments of myth. Traditionally it had no value except in its integration into a myth. Now we have changed all that. We have secularized history. It now consists in a recounting of events without reference to the eternal, and in a tracing of their unfolding without looking for a meaning. It is desacralized.
But, by an amazing turnabout, at the very moment of the desacralization of history, we see constituted the myth of history. No longer is history integrated into a myth. No longer does it serve a sacred. It is the meaning, in and of itself. It is no longer referred to the eternal, because it contains within itself the value of the eternal. Perhaps one of the most remarkable general phenomena of our time is that by which the desacralized universe becomes sacred through the very fact of being desacralized.
This new characterization of history explains the lack of harmony, the rupture between history as known, understood, explained, and narrated by the historians (a process which Vayne in Comment on ecrit l’histoire has admirably elucidated), and the mysterious, grand goddess who inhabits the thinking of contemporary philosophers and the brain of the average person. It is impossible to harmonize the account of historical science, which conveys neither meaning, nor lesson, nor value, nor truth, with the “belief-discourse” about history, which is nothing but that. Thus, when the historian and the philosopher pronounce the word, they are not at all saying the same thing.
To be sure, there is a relationship between myth and history. Myth is always a recounted history, but Vayne has clearly shown the sense in which the account of the historians is nothing but a myth. While the history which is the point of reference for television and the newspapers, which is the atmosphere in which all our reflections are steeped, which modifies our manner of seeing and understanding both morality (relativity of morals) and God (who has become relative to history), is simply a history about man and his destiny, it is at all points a myth. It is a new discourse about origin. It is modern man’s way of recapturing his origin and of establishing himself. His life is legitimized by his status in history. He is justified in everything he does, for all is in history. The one vocation is to continue to make history possible. Those are all specific characteristics of myth.
But more than that, there is the problem of meaning. We have said that history of itself has become significant, and that has two sides: it is endowed with meaning and it gives meaning. The second depends on the first. The major problem stems from the fact that history no longer receives meaning from something outside of history: God, truth, freedom, etc. History itself is all-inclusive. Nothing any longer is extra-historical (and that indeed is mythical). Hence it has to get its meaning from itself. The meaning cannot be obtained from a philosophy of history, which would again have an external reference. It can come only from the very structure of history itself.
If history has a structure, then it has a meaning. That is what made dialectical materialism a success. The dialectical movement of history guarantees the meaning. Through it we have the key to man, to his past and to his future, and everything gets its value from that dialectic. There is no need to look elsewhere, because elsewhere, by definition, is not subject to this dialectic, and consequently it could have nothing to do with history. It could not even exist, since it is impossible to conceive of anything existing not subject to history. Conversely, if from its very structure history has an intrinsic meaning, then since everything is inserted into history, everything receives meaning through that insertion—each life, each decision takes on value and truth because it shares in the meaning of history.
This basic myth, this general line which underlies all modern myths, also displays the completely mythical quality of being valid for all degrees of awareness, irrespective of social categories. The philosopher and the journalist, the average person and the member of the proletariat, young and old, white and black, fascist and leftist, everybody and at all levels of intelligence and interpretation, submit without hesitation to this implicit verity, which is both diffuse and conscious, and which has become the ultima ratio of the wisdom of our time. How could we refuse to qualify it as a myth?
The second fundamental myth is science. We find the same constituent factors as in the preceding case. On the one hand, there is the transition from a sacred science to a desacralized/desacralizing science. There was science as the preserve of the magi and the cabalists, the secret-sacred whose remains are observed by modern research into the secrets of the Great Pyramid or the Inca civilization. Then is brought to light a method of comprehending and apprehending the real which implies that the real is no longer sacred, and that the method can no longer be secret. From being esoteric, science became exoteric. It was constituted within itself, without reference to the outside, and everything it examined became desacralized.
Following upon this, there came into being a discourse about science, and that is the second aspect. One witnessed an increasing gap between what scientists were doing in their laboratories, the patient research, the cautious conclusions, the abandonment of explanations, the refusal to generalize, the challenging of causalities, mathematical abstraction as a representation and a method and, on the other hand, the grandiose, grandiloquent discourse about science, such as was heard at the time of sputnik, or of the first landing on the moon. Occasionally a scientist ventures into this area, as Monod (Chance and Necessity), following upon Teilhard and Lecomte du Nouy, has unfortunately done. But then the scientist is no longer behaving like a scientist but like any average man who yields to the magnetic attraction of myth.
Specialists are beginning to ask whether, in the last analysis, “scientific discourse might not be understood as the contemporary form of mythical discourse. But how could we, during the time in which it is being written, read the text of science as myth without the risk of reading the truth into it as its cause, instead of knowledge as its end from which it gets its charter?” (P. Boyer). That is just what is done by the discourse about science, which people call science. Lacan gives us a similar warning: “The amazing fecundity of our science needs to be questioned about how it relates to that characteristic by which science would hold up: that she would have nothing to do with the truth as cause.”
That may be the way it is with scientists themselves in their work, but it is not at all that way with the exultant glorification of science. There, of course, science has the truth as its content, certitude, principle and end. It is the revealer of ultimate truth. Associated with this faith is the absolute conviction that science’s capacity is universal, a belief which is likewise bound up with the mythical. The transmutations, the fabulous adventures, the unrealities which appear normal in myth, and which guarantee its authenticity, have now left fables and dreams to enter this image of science as a domain in which everything is actually possible, so that we can no longer be surprised at anything.
I am not referring to science fiction, where the author and the reader play a game of unreality together, while retaining the question: “After all, why not?” I am thinking rather of rhapsodic works like Future Shock, in which the author firmly believes in the reality of what he is writing: all is possible to science. But all is never possible except in the universe of myth. Moreover, the latter, like science itself, has its own strict rules and structure.
This belief in the universal capacity of science is now associated with the faith that science is man’s destiny. He lives (and cannot live otherwise) in the scientific cosmos. Science discloses his origin, justifies his present, and assures his future. Of course the scientist’s science does none of that, and doesn’t pretend to. But it has such prestige and produces such magnificent results, it stands for such great value, that, in generalized global discourse, this can be brought out only in the form of myth. Science is thought of as undertaking everything, in conjunction with history. We expect everything of science, as of an awe-inspiring and benevolent divinity, which plays a central and mysterious, yet well-known role in the story which modern humanity is telling itself.
But this mythical discourse compromises science itself, just as, in a parallel case, it compromises the historian’s history. Here we must consider one of the aspects of the penetration of myth into the scientific mind itself. Thus, in the sphere of objectivity, Roszak (The Making of a Counter-Culture) seems to me to be the first to present the problem under this aspect:
Are we using the word “mythology” illegitimately in applying it to objectivity as a state of consciousness? I think not. For the myth at its deepest level is that collectively created thing which crystallizes the great, central values of a culture. It is, so to speak, the intercommunications system of culture. If the culture of science locates its highest values not in mystic symbol or ritual or epic tales of faraway lands and times, but in a mode of consciousness, why should we hesitate to call this a myth? . . . What is essential here is the contention that objective consciousness is emphatically not some manner of definitive, transcultural development whose cogency derives from the fact that it is uniquely in touch with the truth.
To the degree, in fact, to which objectivity stems from pure methodology, then becomes a state of consciousness, an attitude, an ethic, it becomes a value judgment, an exclusion of every other mode of apprehending truth. That relation to truth introduces us into the mythical. But more than that, objectivity presents itself as a value which synthesizes all science. It is just that to which the mythical discourse lays claim, in the view of Roszak, with which I Agree.
This myth of science is the other great myth of modern humanity. Its universal reference, which one finds in all the attitudes, all the research, all the recognized certitudes, all the assumed positions, makes it the “profound motif,” the arcanum, like history. On those two profound motifs, “belief-images” are constructed, one degree more superficial, in which are interwoven the two major themes of “history-meaning” and “science-salvation.” These “belief-images” are the detail of the basic myth, mingled with particular speculations and explanations. We cannot go into them all. They are multiple facets of one and the same reality of common belief. We shall take up class struggle, happiness, progress, and youth.
To speak of class struggle as a belief-image forming part of the collective myth is surely a terrible insult and a profanation. Still, when we try to specify, we are obliged, first of all, to observe that the classes do not exist, at least not in the way one would have them exist. With Marx, one never knows whether the class is a “model,” an abstract construct for the purpose of bringing out the movement of history, or whether he supposes that what he is saying about it corresponds exactly to sociological reality. In the latter case, it must be noted that he varies considerably in his appraisal of the structure, the number, and the definition of the classes.
Since that time the situation has grown worse, so that it is impossible to make a valid statement on what a class is, or to segregate the members of the society definitely into classes. To be sure, one can always say that there are the rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited, the oppressors and the oppressed. Alas, in saying that, one has indeed affirmed a constant in human history, but that corresponds to nothing that Marx claimed to be saying about the classes. To reduce the class struggle to the conflict between those two groups of people is very satisfying, for it is easy to see what one is talking about, but then one is neither talking about classes nor a class struggle. It is completely useless to employ those terms and to pretend that there is anything whatsoever of the scientific in it.
The conflict between the rich and the poor in no way permits of a scientific explanation of history or of politics. No scientific strategy, nor any rigorous tactic, can be obtained from it. But if one is not talking about that, one is not talking about anything! These classes, in this society, are quite indistinguishable and unclassifiable. It is needless to produce a demonstration which is already at hand. The thinking of Roger Garaudy is simply a final embodiment.
But if there are no classes, how can one speak of the class struggle? How could that be made the focal point, the key to all history and to all politics? Yet, in opposition to this factual attitude, in opposition to this result acquired the hard way through painstaking observation, there is set up a monumental belief, an indisputable dogma, to the effect that everything depends on class struggle. With serene seriousness the best French intellectuals explain language, the economy, political relations, the use of leisure time, pollution, the role of television, the lack of communication, problems of growth in the third world, racism, militarism, and modem music in terms of class struggle. It is the master key which fits everything because it has no form, no substance, no content. Of course, the impregnable fortress of class struggle enables one to defy and bombard the adversary, and the master key makes it possible to disclose why it is that the sociologists have not managed to perceive these much touted social classes.
It all goes together perfectly, too perfectly. The ability to explain everything should put us on our guard. The only thing completely explainable is what man himself manufactures. I know exactly how many squares there are on a chessboard because a craftsman like myself made it. To the very extent to which the class struggle explains everything, I have to suspect it of being a pure concept, fabricated to explain everything.
But it is a pure concept derived directly from the two great mythical structures of science and history. It is a scientific explanation of history. As a pure concept, it lives by a blind, rigidly uncritical belief on the part of the masses of people for whom this class struggle is so certain that it needs no proof or demonstration. It is an assumed fact, and everything that happens, no matter what it is, nourishes that faith. When Georges Sorel spoke of myth, he at least knew that this class struggle had to be carried to the point of myth in order to empower an effective action. We have arrived at that point, but reality escapes us. The myth, by virtue of which one acts, is still there, in all its dreamlike perfection. Such is the situation. How can we fail to characterize it as a “belief-image”?
The “belief-image” of happiness is likewise founded on science. The recipes for happiness hitherto proposed to man were based on individual experience, on an exercise of the reason or of the body, and almost always, even in the case of Epicurus, on a discipline. What is now being substituted is a collective, materialistic possibility, namely, a happiness guaranteed through scientific progress.
All have a right to it. All are actually promised it. There is no need for any sacrifice, any education, any decision, any responsibility. Happiness is due everybody, and it consists in a growth in collective riches, for this happiness is purely material. Thus what was only a vague dream for the masses and difficult research for intellectuals has completely altered its character in our society. It is a precise image, capable of realization and shared by all.
The myth of happiness is what makes it possible for man to feel that life is worth living. Without that promised happiness, why live? Justice, truth, virtue-all fade into the darkness of vanity before the triumphant conviction that the realization of happiness is the one thing to be taken seriously. All activity should be given over to that exclusive end, and it is impossible to conceive of life and the future except under the auspices of happiness.
Here, again, we note that the myth is gloriously shared by all, and connected by all to scientific development. The sole difference between communists and the bourgeoisie is a disagreement over what means are best suited to furnish man with this plenitude of happiness. The power of the myth is enough to legitimize without hesitation all crimes and all sacrifices. The elimination of the bourgeoisie is all that is needed for the totality of the people to achieve happiness. The nazi officers entering France in 1940 could say, “We are coming to bring you happiness.”
Every expression of doubt about this myth, however slight, is enough to cause the doubter to be looked upon as an enemy of mankind. Do you doubt that American civilization, in its orientation toward the achievement of happiness, is justified by that alone? You are “un-American.” Do you doubt that the Number 1 problem of the world is hunger? Do you think that the happiness of eating, extended to the masses in India or South America, could be paid for by a higher price than life is worth? You are an enemy of mankind. If you talk like that, you are a bourgeois with a full stomach. This is an assumption of myth which makes it possible to classify as wicked all who do not share it.
That brings us to one of the major mythical aspects of our time: the “power-image” of progress. This is located at the pivotal point of the two fundamental beliefs-science and history-and it shares as much in the one as in the other. Science cannot but lead us from progress to progress. That myth was born with the explosion of marvels before the bedazzled eyes of nineteenth-century man. Then there is history, which unveils for us the slow, secret, mysterious advance of man, driven, from his origins onward, toward a fulfillment better and better implemented, better and better understood, albeit through hesitations and even retrogressions.
It is a movement of freedom and democracy, from the beginnings of history to its flowering in the nineteenth century. It is a movement of reason, triumphing over the darkness in science itself, as hailed by Auguste Comte. It is a movement of work, which now has reached its point of triumph and its hour of truth in the ceaseless struggle against the exploiter. Those are three examples of one and the same belief in progress, bearing simply on different symbols.
Should the diversity of the symbols have awakened a doubt in the minds of the believers? But precisely because it is concerned with a myth, the mind can entertain no doubt. Otherwise the myth would cease to exist the moment it was called into question, and destitute man would be brought face to face with an agonizing reality. Reference is sometimes made to the belief in progress. That expression is inadequate. There is indeed a belief, but there is more than that. There is an image, both precise and rational, which calls forth the belief and incites to action. It is a rational attitude, because the entire past guarantees this progress, and even the memory of a single lifetime provides unmistakable evidence of the expansion of our means. This simple experience, shared by everybody, should be expressed in one word and must lead us onward toward the future. The past assures us that the movement will continue, and at that point the element of belief is introduced. Teilhard de Chardin is typical of this building operation of the myth of progress, to which he was completely enslaved.
If we are so well equipped in reason and faith, the question has to be asked whether it is at all possible not to share in the belief. This apparently irreversible movement, this characterization of history at our own level–can we refuse to grasp it and to be grasped by it? Such a thing is even less possible as the movement itself is more rapid. No longer is man’s progress seen over millennia, but in the course of a single lifetime. How could I escape taking up a position for or against? And how be against, since progress is inevitable? Here we have the third element of myth, the spur to action.
But myth is also characterized by its extrapolation from what is to what ought to be. The progress we see as being so unmistakable is the progress of machines, of technology, of material means as a whole. The progress of institutions is less certain, and the progress within man himself is probably nonexistent. Neither intelligence nor virtue seems very superior now to what it was four or five thousand years ago. The best we might be able to say is that we know nothing about it.
Now it is precisely the man in the grip of the myth of progress who does know about it. He knows with a certainty that man’s progress goes along with progress in things, and that his inventions are proof of his greater intelligence and truth. Indeed it has to be that way, for otherwise the whole thing might turn into a catastrophe. There isn’t the slightest doubt in anyone’s mind that man today is better, more intelligent, and more suited for self-government than the Athenian of the fifth century. If we project this toward the future, we have the same certitude that the man of tomorrow will have all it takes to resolve the problems we are unable to overcome.
Thus, not only does progress exist, it is also undeniably good. It has improved the human lot and is headed in the direction of the good. What lunacy, therefore, to think to pass judgment on it, or to oppose it! What lunacy and what evil! Myth always makes it possible for the person possessed by it to judge from the height of his certitudes any outside observer. Anyone today who has questions on the subject of progress is the butt of the most bitter and contemptuous judgment, a judgment brought unanimously by those of the right and of the left.
For let us not forget that, by an outworn tradition, we designate the person on the right as a reactionary. He believes in progress as much as the others, only his kinds of progress are different. His is progress toward the spiritual, toward individualism, toward the human. Here again, let us especially not forget that the bourgeois is the initiator of the myth of progress. If, in the name of one of the incarnations of the myth of progress, the person of the left can accuse his adversary of wanting to return to the liberal nineteenth century, the person of the right, in the name of another progress, can accuse communism of wanting to go in for a far worse retrogression toward the integrated society of primitive times. These are family quarrels. The important thing is to make history, and that goes by the name of progress. This incarnate act of faith does away with all problems except those relating to means.
History’s myth of progress is always accompanied by the myth of youth. Civilizations turned toward the past had the myth of old age. We have surely changed, and that change itself is weighted with profound significance. The sameness of this youth, which is everywhere alike, takes the pungency out of the discourse in its praise. Though rationally based, because youth represents the maximum in working energy, the maximum capacity for progress and the greatest strength for the battle, the myth nevertheless cannot stop at that. It is true that we need the young in the face of superabundant technical progress, for only they can adapt to the endless innovations. It is true that scientific research always calls for a newly trained, hence a young, personnel, and that the need for increased production requires the young even more. Of course. But from that, one passed on solemnly to the well-known tautology that youth is the hope of the future, and in this attitude one is leaning automatically on the myths of progress and happiness.
At this point, I wish we could sense how closely interwoven our myths show themselves to be, and the fact that this is one of the characteristics of all mythology. Myths reinforce one another, explain one another, and together form a unified pattern. The nation is formed by and for youth, and the latter is the driving force of progress. The only true face which can be shown the world is the face of youth. That alone inspires confidence and friendship. A political regime which exhibits such beautiful young people cannot be anything but good. The visage of youth has been displayed the same in Life, Match, and the R.D.A. Revue, · just as it was displayed the same in the communist magazines, in the nazi magazines, in the fascist magazines, and in American magazines forty years ago. Youth is everywhere the same. It is photographed the same, is used for the same causes, and answers always to the same myth. We were that youth.
Strictly speaking, nothing has happened in two generations to justify the myth. But the myth has no need of material proof in order to grow. Despite the evidence of the facts, the myth of youth is more alive today than ever. The tomorrows filled with song are obviously those of youth. Whenever a problem of civilization seems insoluble, a voice is raised to remind us that “youth is coming.” What we cannot do, youth will do.
Youth itself believes this. It conducts its own myth. It spreads itself, adorned in these images. Poor youth! What a convenient way to get rid of it, by tying it to its own myth, from which it has no right to escape! It must fulfill its role. It must carry the burden of our hopes. It must enter the mold prepared for it. The moment youth is in bondage to the socio-political structures, it is elevated, in jest or in compensation, to the level of myth. The elderly declare that they believe in it, and in fact they really do.
3. Genuine Myths?
The myths we have just described are, in the last analysis, the true motivation and psychological foundations of our civilization. They are clearly to be differentiated from ideologies, for they are not, first and foremost, political nor politicized. They are expressions of the very being of the collective and universal civilization in which we are living. In them we see our image and our future. That is what we want ourselves to be. That is how we think of ourselves. In the last analysis and limiting ourselves to our own times, there would not appear to be any myths other than those. Apart from those great themes, what are called “myths” have scarcely any validity. Either that term is applied to everything, because sufficiently vague and pretentious to suit the journalistic style, or else it is an incorrect analysis of contemporary civilization by which we speak of the Marxist myth, or the liberal myth, or the imperial Myth.
Still, we were saying that there are different levels of analysis. More exactly, the basic myths which we have just hastily described condition some lesser images in their tum. Like all the religious myths of antiquity, these are composed of tertiary myths which have their own individuality but which exist only through their reference to the essential myth, of which they are really only facets, and to which they lend a brilliance, a color, a reality. They provide the basic myths with a resurgence of vitality, although dependent upon them for their force. At this level we can enumerate (and each would require its own explanation) the myth of the machine, those of hygiene and health, the myth of the bourgeois, those of justice and peace, that of the actor or star, of the hero, those of oil and of productivity. There are many others.
Marxism, for example, is a part of these actualizations and illustrations. It is not one of the basic myths of our time, but a secondary image which is much more superficial and temporary. It exists only to the extent to which modem man is radically imbued with the belief-images of work, progress, technology, etc. They are what guarantee its dissemination, and supply it with warmth and passion, the very function of secondary myths. Marxism is nothing more than an expression of these deep-seated forces. Moreover, it gives only partial expression to them, and if it seems more satisfying than any other ideology, that is because it nevertheless expresses them better than any other current formula.
Furthermore, it is quite useless to try to determine how these secondary myths arise or gain circulation. The mechanism of their creation in no way explains their appearance. Their cause, and also the thing which gives them their vigor, is the need to express the basic myths in terms of current reality. The basic myths do not crop up as such in the expression, but (and it is the very nature of myth which requires this) they need to appear always in a new disguise, because the outward tinsel of the myth wears out rapidly and needs to be renewed and freshened up. That is why the description of these spangles, brilliant today and tarnished and discarded tomorrow, is deceiving, because one fails to perceive their lasting inner significance. It has to be agreed that soon what had been taken for myth is just absurd tittle-tattle, in which no one any longer believes. The current situation keeps supplying these endlessly, for the detail is constantly being replaced. That the hygiene myth, based on the myth of progress and youth, should afterward be expressed in terms of soap-equivalents and detergents, that the hero myth, based on those of progress and the fatherland, should be registered in a Johnny Halliday or a Che Guevara those are only matters of circumstance, occasion, and coincidence. One must pass on quickly to what follows, for the myth cannot long remain fixed in its formal incarnation, to be life-giving for a time, only to become disappointing and commonplace in the end.
But a scruple can come to mind. We should ask ourselves whether, after all is said and done, these collective belief-images we have tried to define are indeed myths in the technical sense of the term. The question is not entirely without interest, given the deep-seated nature of myths and their basic role in human life. If we look at the mode of formation of the foregoing images, we can actually say that this mode is very close to that of myth. However, one cannot really characterize the phenomenon by its mode of formation. Neither does the fact that it is shared by a great many people suffice for treating it as myth. A certain structure, a certain function, a certain signification defines myth. Can we, by comparing these with the ancient myths, discover a relationship after having noted at the beginning the inescapable difference?
First of all, it is clear that myth cannot be private or personal, and that it describes an exemplary, universal action. Over against myth, man cannot but encounter a truth which determines the structure of the real, and also a human behavior. The action expressed in the myth, and the reality disclosed by it and carried to the level of truth, are to be reproduced just as they are incarnated in the hero of the myth. The first set of characteristics is exactly duplicated by the belief-images we described. All show the essential structures of the real revealed to man, not as such, but as truth and treated as truth. They describe actions which are strictly exemplary: work, youth, the pursuit of happiness, revolution, progress, which are quite truly the only givens that in our day inspire “histories” (those myths of detail of which we were speaking) and incarnate themselves in heroes. Every myth, in fact, is incarnated in heroes who speak to all people. Their story is significant and symbolic, universal and exemplary.
In order to know to what degree these belief-images are myths, we need to recall who are the heroes (in the most ancient sense) of our times: the hero of work (the stakhanovite, or the worker), the hero of the nation (the fighting man, the unknown soldier), the hero of the movies (the eternal young lover, the ever new conqueror of love), the hero of science (the obscure scientist, the human guinea pig, the benefactor of humanity), the hero of the revolution. These heroes, who call upon us to imitate them, exactly determine our myths.
In these we will recognize another characteristic of traditional myth, namely, they are addressed to the person as a whole. The myths are assumed by the total man. At one and the same time they are a vision, an image, a representation-then a belief, commanding loyalty of heart and soul to this assured verity of our progress or of our work. Finally they are an idea, a way of thinking and even a doctrine, for is not all this founded upon reason? Ultimately they issue forth in action, and bring man precisely to the active imitation of the heroes. No part of modern man is left neutral or indifferent in these myths, as in the great religious myths at the beginning of history.
Religious? It seems correct to say that one of the chief functions of myth was to make possible the abolition of time and space. More exactly, man in the grip of the anguish of time adhered to a myth which allowed him to master time, and to share in a “glorious time.” At first sight it would not appear that our belief-images are of that type, and yet they do play the same role. More than at any other epoch, western man now has an agonized awareness of the passage of time and of the irreversible character of history. Long before Valery, and without any great thinker’s having to become involved in it, nineteenth-century man knew that all destiny was historical. It is to that anguish (and not to the perhaps different one of the Greek and the Semite) that these modern myths respond. It is precisely time which they make it possible to master, and in a sense to abolish.
The myth of progress as man’s seizure of history in order to make it serve him is probably the greatest success ever brought off by a myth. The myth of work as an affirmation of man’s transcendence and everlastingness in the face of, and in relation to, history; the myth of happiness as the joy of participating in a glorious time, which is outside the time in which we now participate, hence both a reality and a promise at the same time-all that appears to be at the very heart of these creations of the modern consciousness. In truth, it is all simply the mythical response to the person in the new situation.
But that gets us into a complex debate. It is usually assumed that, because man’s basic situation has always been the same from his most distant origins, therefore man’s reactions must be similar, and the myths created five, six or ten thousand years ago and registered in our most profound depths, remain in us as unchangeable archetypes never to be replaced. At the very most, they might take on some new form provided they retain those mythical precedents. It looks to us now, to the contrary, that over the past one hundred and fifty years there has been such a mutation of the milieu in which man is called upon to live that, for the first time since the beginning of the historical period. the situation has changed. Just as the great mutation of fire and of iron produced its myths, so also the mutation we are experiencing today must be registered in the deepest reality of man in the form of myths appearing as a defense and as an explanation. Thus these myths display the same characteristics as those of the origins of mankind or of the origins of civilization, but they necessarily display new characteristics as well.
Like all myths, they tell us that something has been clearly revealed, that an event has really taken place, one which is decisive for one and all. Like all the myths, they explain to us how that happened. This “how” suffices. It takes the place of a fully satisfying explanation. It replaces the “Why.” Myths of work, of progress, of youth have no other rationale, and they are, in fact, in one way or another revealers of a mystery.
Yet it is no longer the same. The origin which these myths are telling us about is no longer the same origin, nor is the event which they are interpreting the same. It is no longer the origin of the world and of man, because that is not a real question for people today. It is no longer the origin of the gods, for the traditional gods are indeed dead. It is no longer the advent of fire, or of the city. The origin, the advent, which enchants and at the same time obsesses them, is the machine, electricity, the dominion over nature, abundance. If myth is always a return to zero, it can certainly be said that it is not always the same zero.
In the western world today, our zero is in the neighborhood of the year 1780, in that marvelous time when all the hidden forces of nature were about to be let loose by a sort of magic, to be placed in the service of man. The myths of work, of progress, of history are constantly telling us how that happened. They are constantly causing us to relive this innovation and to participate in this dawn. This takes the place of the “why,” and of all justification. At the same time they are showing us that it was truly an origin and not a Fulfillment.
Here we have the difference, perhaps a unique difference, between these myths and those of tradition. The latter involved a return to the past exclusively. Perfection was always to be found in times gone by, and there had been a fall. Our myths, on the other hand, place perfection in the future. The future is the certain fulfillment of the past. Modern myth is what permits us to lay hold of the origin and the fulfillment at the same time. It guarantees the latter by means of the former. It presupposes, much more forcefully than through the past, the total participation of the individual, for it no longer involves him simply in a new beginning, but in an abundance greater than that at the beginning, and one for which each person is in some degree responsible. The projection into the future renders the myth still more active, more compelling, and more satisfying than the primitive myth, all the while guaranteeing an even greater mastery over time.
To be sure, when we speak of a zero point, we do not mean that these modern myths are completely new and cut off from traditional mythical elements. We could easily find mythical precedents for these replacement images. The myth of a lost paradise to be found again at the end of time is very directly related to the myth of progress and to the myth of happiness. The myth of youth most certainly has its roots in the myth of the goddess Juventas, who is the bearer of hope and is always sacrificed. The myth of the nation relates to the myths of the founders of cities, and to those of power. But those lines of descent do not enlighten us much, for the real question is not that of possible survivals from traditional myths, but rather, the question of what takes their place in our world. What are today’s power-images, whereby the man of today tries to explain himself and in virtue of which he acts? That search, merely sketched here, shows us what it is that conditions man’s action today, what he can be absorbed in, the future he pictures to himself, and which could even be our future in fact, since our myths commit us to making it that way.
4. Additional Observations
This analysis, done some time ago, is now confirmed by the enthusiasm of our intellectuals for utopia. The fashion burst into the open in 1968. Sociologists, intellectuals, men of letters, philosophers, politicians, everybody today has recourse to utopia. It is the great cliche which allows one to look as though he were taking the situation seriously into account, without letting it he seen that he is caught in a trap: the leveling society, the totalitarian recycler? the consumer society? One-dimensional man, alienated and turned into an object? Oh, come now! But yes indeed! Luckily we can avoid all that, thanks to utopia. It is an unparalleled project which makes it possible at one stroke to escape the unwieldiness, to avoid seeing the reality with which one has been too happy. It is a project which permits man to overcome obstacles and to ignore the traps. What good would it do to describe in detail this utopian talk, which today is repeated ad nauseam?
Nevertheless, in order to understand how it relates to myth, we have to grasp at least two characteristics of this revival. First, there is quite obviously a certain excess in this utopian thought. It isn’t a matter of repetition, in spite of the new glorification by Fournier. The renewal stems from objective conditions. Goldschmidt (Platonisme et Pensee contemporaine, 1970) was able, very skillfully, to write that utopia was now replaced by three phenomena: “the transformation of the eschatology of salvation into a belief in historical progress, the ascendancy of technology over the economic and social life, and a third element, which remains properly utopian in as far as it sets desire over against the existing order.” According to Goldschmidt, this last element inspires works of the imagination, science fiction, and modern art.
But this splintering does not really bring about a disappearance of utopia. Mannheim and Marcuse both have announced the end of utopia, but in a totally different sense. For Mannheim (Ideology and Utopia) it is truly a decline (brought about by realism, scientific thought, etc.). For Marcuse, on the other hand (La Fin de L’Utopie, 1 968), it is a question of fulfillment. Technology is making possible the consumer society, which, when rationally organized, guarantees man’s material life, an egalitarian and democratic administration, etc. What is done away with is the word “utopia,” insofar as it designates a project of social transformation which is impossible, because the means are at hand for the realization of these projects. Only a few minor defects still stand in the way (repressive organization and exploitation, which can and will be eliminated by technology).
Thus, on the one hand, technology and science appear as the real, which tends to reduce, if not to eliminate, utopian thought. On the other hand, utopia is open to question when it comes to realization. But “the [utopian] imagination is no longer satisfied with escape fiction. It wants to take over” (Goldschmidt), and it rejects the consumer society and repudiates all the techniques. “The only thing left to them is to subdue the enslaving universe created at all levels by technology.”
Thus one finds oneself caught up in a remarkable inconsistency which is eliminated by the utopians (looking, of course, to possible realization) thanks to two procedures. On the one hand, one idealizes technology. One refuses to see it for what it is and reduces it to a wonderful working sketch. One doesn’t even bother to describe it at all, but is content merely to invoke it. On the other hand, one omits the intervening period and the how. One passes from the current situation to the situation in which idealized technology will finally function without any drawbacks. This is where the imagination really triumphs, as it “avoids the real and tries to destroy it.” But it triumphs by taking a specifically myth-producing step. This is all the more true if we observe, with Goldschmidt, that this movement, which rejects future predictions, long-term planning, and projections, turns to the past in search of analogies. The more the belief in progress asserts itself as an accomplishment, the more it becomes utopian, insofar as it is forced not to take into account the (technical) real to which it owes its substance. It never manages to get into that.
The second characteristic is also marked by inconsistency. Here, following Goldschmidt, we have to rely on the study by Karl Popper (The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1966), which distinguishes a “piecemeal social engineering” from a utopian social engineering aimed at a global society, the latter being inapplicable because pretending to a total mutation. Yet regimes like those of Hitler and Stalin have precisely actualized the possibility of this global mutation. However, as Goldschmidt shrewdly observes, if utopia would take reality into account in order to make use of the implementing possibilities, the global utopian technique would be changed into piecemeal engineering-with the frightful result observed in Stalinism and Hitlerism. Nevertheless, the conviction of the carrying out of the global utopian technique remains.
In the face of this open possibility, the intellectuals, who are incapable of any effective political action or of any utilization of techniques, exhibit their impotence even more. It is they, and they alone, who are the creators of global “politico-social” systems. Thus they are necessarily thrown back on utopia, which is their way of imagining that they have a grasp of the real (since the utopian technique is capable of realization). The current development of utopian thought is thus exactly, the product of the encounter between an observed fact (the total impotence of the intellectual in the current system, combined with his intense desire to play a historic role) and a belief (in the possibility of accomplishment, thanks to the technique of the utopian project).
This effort ends precisely in mythical thinking. It is both a justification of the situation of the intellectual “class” and a pretension to the total, radical, irreversible and unmitigated overthrow of our society. One doesn’t go into detail. The more unreal the thinking, the more absolute it can be. That is indeed what characterizes our utopians. They retain the stamp of classic utopia, but with the mythical belief that in this way they are about to change life and transform the world.
So this utopian “thinking” is basically mythical, yet with a substantial difference in comparison with the myths. In this case we have the intentional construction of myth. People understand more and more that they cannot survive in the current situation by pretending to overrule fact, except through the mediation of a figure of speech, of a story to be believed as a source of courage and as an excuse to go on. For that reason utopia displays the two faces we discerned in myth. On the one hand, it is a justification of the existing situation and, on the other hand, it is a recourse for man who is unable to change that situation, and who in this way gives himself reasons for continuing to live in it. Utopia is the “Negro spiritual” of modern intellectuals of the West. It is a consolation in the face of slavery, an escape from something one is unable to prevent, a spiritual dimension, a separation of a free intellect from an enslaved body, a reinforcement of faith.
In this case it is faith in man, in history, and in science. The utopian story is rooted in the two great mythical essentials. It exists, one can bring faith to bear on it, only to the extent that it is an outcome of history and is guaranteed by science. Precisely what is important is not utopia as such, which introduces nothing new. It is the phenomenon of the belief of the intellectuals, who are running away in this fashion. The complexity of the modern world is such that (even with the aid of Marxism) one cannot grasp it, analyze it, or comprehend it-so one substitutes the marvelous blueprint of utopia. It is clear and simple, since in it all human relations have finally become comprehensible-thanks to mythical symbolizing.
Confronted with a civilization on which one has ceased to have any hold, which is beyond our capabilities of action, one sets up utopia as a means of action. This makes possible the conviction that one is about to change people’s beliefs and thereby to transform the facts. In the midst of a society given over entirely to means, to efficiency, to techniques, a society in which ends have practically no place or value, one goes resolutely for ends. One asserts the radical perfection of the end, and in a crisis situation one invents whatever makes life possible and the crisis tolerable. Utopia allows one to live and to get one’s bearings in this present world by escaping from it. Thus it fulfills precisely one of the roles of myth.
Formerly, whenever I analyzed the modern myths or the secular religions, I was reproached for “attacking” only the left by taking only leftist beliefs as examples of myth. The same could be said as well in connection with the sacred. There is the sacred of nationalism (it must not be forgotten that nationalism was in fact invented by the left, and that it was constantly the left which, more than the right, asserted its nationalism in crises, in 1871 and in 1940, for example), scientism, eroticism, progress, technology, etc.
In the first edition of Mythologies, R. Barthes explained, at length and dogmatically, how it was that the left could not be a creator of myths or, more exactly, why it was that a socialist society could not be productive of myths (and I’m sure he would likewise have insisted that it could not base itself on a sacred). The basis of the demonstration is well known. It is Marx’s doctrine of ideology and of the false conscience. I would not be so ingenuous as to present it again here. In a socialist society, the moment there would no longer be a divorce between thought and action, no longer an exploitation of man by man, no longer a rupture between man and nature thanks to a mode of operation which was once again just, there would then be no more false conscience or ideology. Hence there could be neither a sacred nor myths, which are a product of the false conscience, and are a part of ideology. There simply couldn’t be. Just like the savant Cosimus, who brought to perfection a bicycle after impeccable calculations. When he was about to fall, he proclaimed that, according to his calculations, he couldn’t possibly fall.
So, in view of the politico-social realities of the past half century, we can note without qualification that in the socialist countries and the movements of the left the maximum in myth has been produced and used, and the most conspicuous sacred of our time has been set up. The fact is there. How could it have happened?
That question allows us to introduce some precisions on the subject of myth. We must not deceive ourselves. Myth is not the result of fabrication on the part of the intellectuals or the elite. It is always an expression of the most active force in a society, the force creative of the future. We have seen, however, in accord with a majority of authors, that myth is very often conservative, a means of justifying the status quo. At this point we have to make a distinction between the time of the creation of the myth and the time of its utilization. It is always the social force on the rise which invents the motivating collective images which can be believed and accepted by the mass of the members of a society, because that is always the force which formulates a project. Without a project there is neither a return to an origin nor an explanation of the past. The two factors inevitably go together.
Thus the myths which we easily characterize today as bourgeois date from the era of the bourgeoisie, a revolutionary group trying to seize power and, at the same time, bearing within itself the hope of the oppressed poor. At that time it constituted the entire left. But when it became an established class, when it had set up its privileges and had taken up a defensive position, it used these myths as a means of justification.
Like it or not, there has always been an inability to explain the fact that it is the dominant class which creates the dominant ideology and which imposes it on the dominated classes. How is this imposition accomplished? How could it become an object of faith? Why are the alienated incapable of producing their own ideology? In reality, one has either to think them too stupid or else to rely on simplistic formulas (the dominant class is the one which is productive of dominant ideas, etc.) which explain nothing.
And yet, propaganda has its limits! It has to be noted that, historically, the myths of the bourgeoisie were born during the period of its rise and its conquest of power. We have to realize that the proletariat, the left, created substantial myths during its period of oppression and alienation. It seems to me that Marx’s formula should be exactly reversed. It is the dominated class, but in its period of conflict and seizing power, the group which bears society’s future, that creates myth. That is the time when belief in myth is possible. It is not the dominant class which can believe in ideologies, and have faith in its own histories, when there is no longer a battle to be fought.
Hence we are forced to conclude that the class on the rise brings with it its myths which are revolutionary. But when it has become dominant, its myths likewise become dominant. At that point, it tends to retain its power, so that the myths become conservative and instruments of defence. What is more, those myths had held out a future for the society, but the people who made the promise are now on top. From that point on, by retaining the same myths, they present themselves as the guarantors, the bearers, the fulfillers of the collective hope. Myth becomes the justifier.
However, there is another point to consider. It is also possible for the dominant class to seize upon a myth created by the rising class, in order to give it a new direction and to use it for its own justification (thus leisure is a creation of the left, but it has been transformed into an ideology of the right, with vacations, the Club Mediterranee, etc.; there are many other examples).
But it is never the dominant class as such which fabricates, circulates, and believes in myths. Thus it is that, just because it is the bearer of the hopes of the masses and of the future of the society, the left is the great purveyor of myths and of the accompanying political religions. That is not a vice. This is not an accusation. The left is the great religious force of this age. Marxism is the great producer of myths. Still, we have to be aware of the fact and not shift the responsibility when it happens, or say that it is through some mistake or deviation. To the contrary, it is through force of circumstance.
That also means, to be sure, that if the sacred, myth, and religion are what prevent man from coming of age, then it is the left and Marxism which bear that responsibility today.
One final point requires an explanation. It may be that the reader fails to see clearly the relation (or the opposition) between the sacred, treated in the preceding chapter, and myth. Isn’t it just a matter of the white hat and the hat that is white? Could I not, for example, have referred to the myth of the nation-state, or of sex, or of technology (I did that in an earlier writing through carelessness and error)? Conversely, could I not have spoken of the sacred of history and of science?
Here we have to take into account two points. First, myth can be formulated, developed, believed only in a sacral world. It is one of the expressions of the sacred, one of man’s points of reference for getting his bearings in the world. It is a way of inserting himself into the sacred time, into the zone of the sacred, and of explaining and at the same time expressing it. Without a sacred there can be no myth. Without the revolutionary sacred, there can be no utopia.
Wherever a thought-pattern is developed, one can be sure that there is a sacred domain. Therefore one should try to detect this sacred, starting with the myths. From the standpoint of method, one can, in fact, work back from the myths, the known accounts, to the sacred. The reverse route is impossible. Behind and beyond the myths one discerns the sacred of which they are an expression. It is by a kind of geography of the myths that one can discover the axes of the sacral world.
With regard to distinguishing between them, it seems to me that one could work that out on the following basis, and this is my second observation. The sacred is a qualification attributed to a completely tangible reality. This tree, that spring are sacred. The organization of the sacral world is an organization of the actual world in which man lives. Myth, on the other hand, is a fictive statement about a reality in connection with a given portion of that world. Hence the sacred keeps man constantly at the level of the real, whereas myth leads him into a fictive universe. The myth of history or of science is completely different from the sacred attributed to sex or to revolution.
In the extreme case, one might conceive of all the real as located in the sacral world, in the sense that each element in it has its proper place in relation to the great axes of the sacral domains. Likewise, on the other hand, everything could become the object of mythical discourse, which would be an expression of the sacred while, at the same time, fulfilling the specific function examined above. This is a function, moreover, which it could not at all fulfill were it not for the fact that the inventive and believing minds had previously been immersed in the sacral and sacralized universe.