Myth, Nature and Individual
By FRANK BAKER
George Allen and Unwin. 1931. Five Shillings
The style of Mr. Frank Baker's book on the status and significance of mythology is at once so allusive and elusive that one can hardly pack up the matter or pin down the meaning any more than bind Leviathan with a chord or pin Proteus to his proper self. To those of us who like to see a book not only well-informed but also well formed, it might appear a sin against proportion to give twenty mortal pages of "References to Literature" and twelve of Analysis of Contents" in a book whose main text occupies less than eighty pages. Mr. Baker speaks from a very full mind and runs the risk of making his study almost—how can one put it inoffensively?—well, a book padded out of books.
It is gratuitous to take Mr. Baker's statements very literally; some of them look rather groundless in spite of the copious references to literature and authorities, and almost all of them are provokingly dogmatic nonetheless for being expressed in a vague and drowsy language that seems always to mean more than it actually says. It is also impossible to enumerate those minor points on which we beg to differ from Mr. Baker, and incidentally from Nietzsche, Vaihinger and Gaultier too. We shall single out one point for discussion, and that point seems to form the basic concept of Mr. Baker's book.
Mr. Baker draws a sharp contrast between Myth and Science. " Science strives towards an absolute objectivity.... Conversely, in Myth, the Subject absorbs the Object" (p. 13). " Of the possibilities of apprehension, Myth and Science are the anti-podes (p. 79). We are then told that Science is as subjective and "fictitious" as Myth and "engendered" by mytho-poetic faculty. So in the end, the antithesis is blurred, the distinction turns out to be one without difference, and one thing becomes another. And we find that "just as Sleep is, as complement, imperative to the sustained tenue of Wakefulness, even so is Myth essential to the maintenance and preservation of Science" (p.73). The analogy is as questionable as the simile is apt, and Mr. Baker goes on to talk about the "protracted and systematized insomnia" of Science left "in isolation."
Even if there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in Science, Myth, we fancy, can never "complement" it to "apprehend" them. To stretch the term "Myth" to include the "transcendental knowledge" of poets and artists is to make a portmanteau word of it; to talk of Myth as "the complementary possibility of apprehension " is to take advantage of this equivocation. Poets may invent myths and fill silence with faint sighs and illuminate darkness with lurking eyes, but it does not follow that poetic imagination or apprehension consists in myth-making . The attitude of a poet towards myths of his own making is entirely different from that of the primitive man towards what are myths to us though "facts" to him: the poet willingly suspends his disbelief, as Coleridge says; but the primitive man actually believe bona fide and nolens volens. The fact is that Myth, properly so called, is not the antipode of Science. Its relation to Science is not diametric, but linear. It is crude or unscientific Science, if we may use an oxymoron. When a hypothesis is tried by the Scientific method and found wanting, it is pronounced antiquated and relegated to the limbo of Myths. Mythology is then the childhood of Science, and Science on reaching its second childhood will once more become Mythology. Just as " Child is the father of Man," even so Mythology may be said to have "engendered Science. like Science, Myth is cognitive and aetiological in function. It is an anthropomorphised account of natural phenomena. What experiment or application is to Science, magic is to Myth. We need not cite numerous authorities in support of this view to match Mr. Baker's cloud of witnesses. Suffice it to say, Andrew Lang is a doughty exponent of the aetiological theory of Myth. But the gist of the whole matter has been incomparably put by Froude in his much neglected essay on "The Book of Job" in "Short Studies of Great Subjects."
The real antipode of Myth is, strange to say, Mysticism. Myth represents the perigee of man's effort to understand the universe, urged by curiosity, yet credulous and uncritical; Mysticism is its apogee, the vertigo, so to speak, that results from the aspiring flight of thought. Myths are communal in nature and shared by the whole society in which they have sprung up, whilst Mysticism is intensely individual and remains a sealed book even to the mystic himself in his non-"numinous" moments. Mythology is not the product of religious feeling, whereas Mysticism is supremely interested in the happy union with the Divine. The contrast becomes more striking when we come to literary matters. Myth is often an element in poetry and is itself a teeming warren of figures of speech; Mysticism, however, being one of those things which Prof. Lancelot Hogben and Mr. Arthur Sewell call "private," is unspeakable and undescribable, as says Plotinus (" Enneades," VI. BK. IV. 4.) who surely has a right to be heard on this subject.