Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Cordon Sanitaire

So how much myth is good for us? And how can we measure the dosage? Should we avoid the stuff altogether for fear of contamination or dismiss it out of hand as sinister and irrational esoterica that belong only in the unsavory margins of “real” (to wit, our own) history? Or do we have to ensure that a cordon sanitaire of protective irony is always securely in place when discussing such matters? Should certifications of ideological purity be published attesting under oath that we are not doing dirty business with the Devil under the pretense of learned work, to pre-empt a working-over from Arthur Danto or Carlo Ginzburg?

The real problem—what we might call the Kiefer syndrome—is whether it is possible to take myth seriously on its own terms, and to respect its coherence and complexity, without becoming morally blinded by its poetic power. This is only a variation, after all, of the habitual and insoluble dilemma of the anthropologist (or for that matter the historian, though not many of us like to own up to it): of how to reproduce the “other,” separated from us by space, time, or cultural customs, without either losing ourselves altogether in total immersion or else rendering the subject “safe” by the usual eviscerations of Western empirical analysis.

Of one thing at least I am certain: that not to take myth seriously in the life of an ostensibly “disenchanted” culture like our own is actually to impoverish our understanding of our shared world. And it is also to concede the subject by default to those who have no critical distance from it at all, who apprehend myth not as a historical phenomenon but as an unchallengeable perennial mystery. As the great Talmudist Saul Lieberman said when he introduced Gershom Scholem’s lectures on the Kabbalah that became Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism: “Nonsense (when all is said and done) is still nonsense. But the study of nonsense, that is science.”

Simon Schama
Landscape and Memory

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