We know the scene: he begins to tell a story by the fire, mumbling, miming, chanting, swaying, and no one pays attention, but he keeps going and there is something about the quiet insistence of his song as it grows louder that makes the woman, grinding ocher, look up. The men, scraping hides, one by one let the flint fall and find stones to sit on. Others notice the group and gather.
They were not like this before; the story has brought them together. In the warmth of the fire, they lean toward the story-teller, who is one of them and yet an outsider: he has gone away for a long time, he is crippled, or strange. Perhaps he is a woman. He tells them the story of the beginning of the world, the birth of the first people, the coming together of a culture, the origin of language and story-telling — a tale they all know, but only he has “the gift, the right, or the duty to tell it” (Nancy 43).
This scene, which takes place again and again, describes the beginning of human consciousness and speech. It is the story of “humanity being born to itself” (Nancy 45). The origin of myth.
Alas, this scene by the fire never took place, at least not in the way we imagine it. The scene itself is a myth. Jean-Luc Nancy calls it the myth of myths. (And we can call it a meta-myth!)
When we call the recitation a “myth,” the word separates us from the event. “Myth” is an indication that the tale is not true — a cultural fabrication. This separation from myth, created by the word itself, is what Nancy is referring to in his provocative title, “Myth Interrupted.” Our cultural myths have been interrupted: we have lost the magic of that shamanistic scene by the fire, perhaps forever.
What is myth? Homer’s muthos, meaning speech or spoken expression, “becomes ‘myth’ when it takes on a whole series of values that amplify, fill and ennoble this speech, giving it the dimensions of a narrative of origins and an explanation of destinies” (Nancy 48). Since myth explains the origins and destinies of a culture, it defines the community, as Abraham’s exodus from Babylon established the Jewish people, as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey created the Greeks, as The Aeneid justified the Roman civilization, and as the epics of King Arthur gave definition to Britain and all English-speaking peoples, perhaps France as well (since they were the ones who put the romance into Arthurian romance).
Since myth is a “narrative of origins,” it is not something created by a community, it is the creation of a community: “Neither the community nor, consequently, the individual (the poet, the priest, or one of their listeners) invents the myth: to the contrary, it is they who are invented or who invent themselves in the myth” (Nancy 59). Myth is always, Nancy argues, the myth of community: “Neither dialogue nor monologue, myth is the unique speech of the many, who come thereby to recognize one another, who communicate and commune in myth” (Nancy 50).
Because myth establishes and defines community, our separation from myth implies isolation from each other. Since myth is interrupted by the modern acknowledgment that it is fiction, community is also interrupted. Thus, alienation is a common complaint in modern philosophy and literature.
At the same time that the word divides us from the primal scene by the fire, “myth” draws us in with immense power: so primal, pure and authentic! We long with all our being to return to that innocence and harmony, however impossible that might be. The history of the modern world since Romanticism, Nancy says, has been motivated by a desire to return to that lost past when world, people, story, music and culture were one.
The idea that we have lost our myths is part of the story we inherited from the Romantics and therefore it is a myth itself. In other words, the absence of myth is a myth. Myth has two meanings: “a founding fiction” and a “foundation by fiction.” The second implies that communities are shaped by story-telling, established through myth, and in this sense myth cannot be considered a false fiction, since it is the real artifact upon which a culture is based. Myth does not describe unreal, fantastical events after all, it expresses the actual formation of a community through story-telling: “Myth communicates itself and not something else. Communicating itself, it brings into being what it says, it founds its fiction” (Nancy 56). A myth then does not need to be true, it “tends to become truth itself” (Nancy 53).
If myth only has meaning through community, and the myth of myths only has meaning in our modern community, then community is not interrupted, it has never disappeared. How can we say we have lost myth, when we name it constantly and try to approximate it in our speech, writing and lives? How can we feel that we are alienated from community when so many of us feel the same? Modern isolation is an expression of modern culture! The “myth of the myth of the mythless society” (Nancy 63) is the defining myth of our times and explains Nazism, as well as the hippy movement.
Even when modern literature bewails the absence of myth, it reaffirms its existence by referring to myth, and so literature is “the beneficiary (or the echo) of myth” (Nancy 63), as the writer is the successor of the mythic story-teller. To the myth of the mythless society, we have added a new myth: the myth of literary community.
All writing is social. Writing draws on preexisting language, forms, genres and cultural traditions. And all writing is written with someone in mind. Even solitary writers who keep their work hidden from the world must construct a reader, someone who does not know the facts already — otherwise, why bother to explain or describe what is already known to oneself? — and therefore all writing is inherently social, essentially communicative.
Literature may seem to fall short of myth, but literature does not end. Literature:
does not come to an end at the place where the work passes from an author to a reader, and from this reader to another reader or to another author. It does not come to an end at the place where the word passes on to another work by the same author or at the place where it passes into other words of other authors. It does not come to an end where its narrative passes into other narratives, its poem into other poems, its thought into other thoughts, or into the ineveitable suspension of thought in the poem (Nancy 65).
Nancy expands the definition of literature to include all speech and writing, and since communication is something that happens to us in common, language is always a participation in and creation of culture, which is never an abstract concept but something real people say and do. So, we “never stop being born into community” (Nancy 66). The mythic scene of story-telling is reconstituted in every form of communication we make.
In these few paragraphs, we have seen many uses of the word “myth.” What is the truest myth? According to Claude Lévi-Strauss, a myth is “the totality of its versions” (quoted in Nancy 48). Therefore, the truest version of the myth of the founding myth, the story of the originary scene by the fire, is the sum of all its versions. According to Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel (as paraphrased by Nancy), “a new humanity must arise from/in its new myth, and this myth itself must be . . . nothing less than the totalization of modern literature and philosophy, as well as ancient mythologies of the other peoples of the world” (Nancy 51). The truest story then is the story of stories, the tale that includes all other tales, the song of songs, the single verse that says it all: the universe.
Although this grand narrative, which includes all other narratives, is just a myth, it is nevertheless true because it acts upon the world and says all these cultures are one. On this fiction, which really exists, we can found a world community.
(Much of this material appears in slightly different form in my book Narrative Madness, which you can get at Amazon. To read a different version of the foundational myth, see my post Once Upon a Neanderthal.)
Nancy, Jean-Luc. “Myth Interrupted.” The Inoperative Community. Ed. Peter Connor. Trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.