Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Samuel R. Delany & the uses & limits of myth

In his early science fiction of the 1960s, Samuel R. Delany incorporated myth into his quest scenarios, in a highly unconventional manner, even with his first novel written in his teenage years, The Jewels of Aptor.

But already in The Einstein Intersection, Delany posits the limits of myth in providing models for the human condition. Delany's art attained a new level of maturity in the 1970s, always pushing the limits and posing the fundamental questions.

The limits of myth can also be seen in Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979) and Neveryóna, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities (1983).

I am hardly doing justice to the conceptual richness of Delany's fiction. I am broaching Delany's work on this blog in conjunction with my project on the limits of myth, however retooled and reinterpreted to create a perspective different from traditionally authorized meanings. Read this post in conjunction with my preceding posts on the Eden and Cain/Abel myths and Erich Fromm.

See also my capsule description of Delany's work published in the letters column of the Washington City Paper:

Bonny Delany: on science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany

From Adam & Eve to Cain & Abel

In line with an ongoing project, I finally put together a working though obviously non-comprehensive bibliography on unusual treatments of the Eden and Cain/Abel myths, actually two bibliographies, one in English and one in Esperanto (consisting of original and translated works in the respective languages), which do not completely overlap, as there is much that is found in only one of these languages:
Suggestions for additions are welcome.

Not everything gets translated, for example, Johannes Linnankoski's play in Finnish, Ikuinen taistelu (1903, ‘The eternal struggle’). See:

Johannes Linnankoski (Pseudonym of Johannes Vihtori Peltonen, 1869-1913): Literature in English & Esperanto

Ever since reading Byron's Cain in 1979, in conjunction with Blake's The Ghost of Abel, I have been interested in the reversal of the orthodox meanings of myths canonized in sacred texts. One sees an autonomous reconfiguration of myth in British Romanticism, in Blake, Byron, and Shelley. I have recently returned to this subject in engagement with literary uses and unorthodox interpretations of the Edenic and Cain/Abel myths, for example, with Imre Madách's classic verse drama The Tragedy of Man and with Erich Fromm's psychoanalytic and humanist interpretation of the Old Testament. I am interested in how far the meanings of these mythical constructs can be stretched in literary interpretations before their deployment bumps up again insuperable limitations. I am also interested in the fundamental flaws and intellectual duplicity of liberal religion. (See my previous post on Erich Fromm.)

Erich Fromm on religion (3): In the Garden of Eden

I probably first read Erich Fromm's distinctive analysis of the Biblical myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in his most important book, Escape from Freedom, which as a teenager I read several times. Over the next few years I read most of Fromm's books in English.  But as with several of my youthful interests, I moved on and only took him up again decades later.

I was always intrigued by his interpretation of the Eden myth, which makes a good deal of symbolic sense, i.e. that what Christians call the Fall really represents man's rupture with his unity with nature, with his unselfconscious animal state, whereupon he gains knowledge of his mortality and becomes embarrassed by his nakedness. I believe he is correct in this, but I cannot accept this as a complete interpretation. Several myths (my interest is primarily in the Edenic and Cain/Abel myths) have been reinterpreted, transformed, even turned upside down. But I think that, at the end of the day, there's an inherent limitation in myth, and I think the Edenic myth is a case in point.

Fromm includes variations of his analysis is various of his works. It seems to me that there is an unresolved contradiction in his perspective. His thesis on the Old Testament is that Judaism begins as an authoritarian religion and ends up as a humanistic one. I think that his approach is fundamentally flawed, but at the moment I would like to point out Fromm's admission that the Edenic myth shows evidence of its development in ancient times and the survival of repressed elements (see my previous post) and that God's judgment on Adam and Eve is a manifestation of authoritarianism. So, if the Edenic myth is interpretable both as anthropomorphically authoritarian and as symbolic of the rupture with the unity of nature, there is an unresolved discrepancy here. I think both assertions are true, but this is precisely why myth is inherently limited and liberal religion inherently ideologically suspect.

Here is my list of significant references.

Fromm, Erich. Escape from Freedom. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941. In Britain: The Fear of Freedom, 1942; see pp. 27-28.

__________. Psychoanalysis and Religion [1950] (New York: Bantam Books, 1967), pp. 41-42.

__________. The Forgotten Language: An Introduction to the Understanding of Dreams, Fairy Tales, and Myths (New York: Grove Press, 1957 [1951]), pp. 234-235.

__________. Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1961), Chapter 6, Marx's Concept of Socialism.

__________. You Shall Be as Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Traditions. New York: Fawcett Premier / Ballantine, 1966. See pp. 21-23, 57-58, 96-98.
Summary: Naomi Sherer reviews... You Shall Be As Gods by Eric Fromm.
__________. “On Disobedience” [excerpt] (1984).

Erich Fromm on religion (2)

The Biblical myth begins where the Babylonian myth has ended. The supremacy of a male god is established and hardly any trace of a previous matriarchal stage is left. Marduk’s “test” has become the main theme of the Biblical story of Creation. God creates the world by his word; the woman and her creative powers are no longer necessary. Even the natural course of events, that women give birth to men, is reversed. Eve is born from Adam’s rib (like Athene from Zeus's head). The elimination of every memory of matriarchal supremacy is, though, not entirely complete. In the figure of Eve we see the woman who is superior to the male. She takes the initiative in eating the forbidden fruit; she does not consult with Adam, she simply gives him the fruit to eat and he, when discovered, is rather clumsy and inept in his excuses. It is only after the Fall that his domination is established. God says to Eve: “And thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.” Quite obviously this establishment of male domination points to a previous situation in which he did not rule. Only from this and from the complete negation of the productive role of the woman can we recognize the traces of an underlying theme of the dominant role of the mother, which is still part of the manifest text in the Babylonian myth.

This myth offers a good illustration of the mechanism of distortion and censorship that plays such a prominent role in Freud's interpretation of dreams and myths. Memories of older social and religious principles are still contained in the Biblical myth. But at the time of its composition as we know it now, these older principles were so much in contrast to the prevailing thought that they could not be made explicit. And now we recognize traces of the former system only in small details, over-reactions, inconsistencies, and the connection of the later myth with older variations of the same theme.

SOURCE: Fromm, Eric. The Forgotten Language: An Introduction to the Understanding of Dreams, Fairy Tales, and Myths (New York: Grove Press, 1957 [1951]), pp. 234-235.

Erich Fromm on religion (1)

The following was written August 11, 2012:

Fromm was one of my teenage heroes, beginning with Escape From Freedom, which I read and marked up several times. I don't remember how I reacted to Fromm's writings on religion, but I approach this book again with a much sharper and more critical eye as to the weaknesses of Fromm's methodology, weaknesses shared with liberal religion:

Psychoanalysis and Religion - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This is not a very good Wikipedia entry, but it's one entry point into Fromm's Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950). I know I read this book at least twice before, because my copy is full of marginal scribbling, beginning with "completed for the second time 7/19/73".

I read and liked much of Fromm's work in English. The only one that did nothing for me was his best-seller The Art of Loving. My criticism of him 35 years ago, when I last seriously engaged him, was that he was overly idealistic. I thought him rather uncritical and gullible in his selection of heroes; he even included Pope John XXIII somewhere, which I thought was unacceptably shallow on his part. And I think he was entirely too gullible about D.T. Suzuki's propaganda for Zen. But then I left Fromm alone until I re-engaged the Frankfurt School serious in the '90s.

This is an apt summary of the first 41 pages of the book:

Religious Experience Resources - Reviews

You may discern even from this bare abstract the conceptual beefs I will have with Fromm. Left out of account here is Fromm's advocacy of Freud as humanist and critique of Jung as reactionary authoritarian. Fromm was right about Jung.

The nature of this web site notwithstanding, this quote from Fromm nicely captures the existential dilemma of human existence which is one cornerstone of Fromm's work:

MY BIOLOGICAL IMPERATIVE: --Excerpt from: Erich Fromm " Psychoanalysis and Religion"

Fromm is interested, as religion and philosophy once were, in investigating the "soul", a word he uses to indicate something not captured in the purview of experimental psychology. Psychoanalysis and religion both have an interest here.
     I want to show that to set up alternatives of either irreconcilable opposition or identity of interest is fallacious; a thorough and dispassionate discussion can demonstrate that the relation between religion and psychoanalysis is too complex to be forced into either on of these simple and convenient attitudes.

. . . it is not true that we have to give up the concern for the soul if we do not accept the tenets of religion . . . . He [the pyschoanalyst] finds that the question is not whether man returns to religion and believes in God but whether he lives love and thinks truth. If he does so the symbol systems he uses are of secondary importance. If he does not they are of no importance. [p. 9]
Relegating the the symbol systems and belief to secondary status I think is quite wrong and indicative of Fromm's idealist abstractions. As we shall see later on, he was unduly influenced by the Talmud.

My memories of Fromm's other writings on religion are vague and scattered. I know at one time I read these relevant books:

The Forgotten Language; an introduction to the understanding of dreams, fairy tales, and myths (1951)
Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (1960)
The Dogma of Christ and Other Essays on Religion, Psychology and Culture (1963)
You Shall Be as Gods: a radical interpretation of the Old Testament and its tradition (1966)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Soviet atheism revisited in jest

This is of course a huge topic, but I recently stumbled across a mock-nostalgia page on the Soviet Union, with particular mock-nostalgia for the Stalin era:

"A realm where no kulak goes un-liquidated, no five-year-plan goes un-overfulfilled, and no Great Leader and Teacher goes un-venerated."

Contents of this site can be found here:

Charter of the Cyber-USSR

So, from the period of stagnation:

Moscow University, 1977-1978: Courses on atheism

And from the period of "militant atheism" in the 1920s:

Some anti-religious cartoons and articles in the journal Bezbozhnik (1924, 1927).

There are several links on this page to sample materials in Russian, including covers of this periodical directed against Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. (What, no Hinduism?)

"Militant atheism" in the USSR was crude, and in the Stalin period, became even cruder, with a sledgehammer ideological and instrumentalist approach accompanying "socialist construction". This crudity, accompanying the virtual deification of Stalin, is what a peasant society undergoing crash modernization gives you, a monstrosity the likes of which were not to be seen again until Mao's Cultural Revolution.