Myths and mythical consciousness

Discussions relating to John Fowles' novel Daniel Martin.

Myths and mythical consciousness

Postby drkellyindc on Fri Jan 02, 2009 8:01 am

What part do myths and mythical consciousness play in "whole sight"?

Daniel Martin is sophisticated enough to engage readers not only in myths but in counter-myths as well. The novel proposes numerous original life-myths and also cautions us against believing in myths uncritically.

I'll take up the issue of counter-myths in a later posting. Here I want to explore a few initial thoughts about reading literature through the lens of myth.

According to mythologist Joseph Campbell, myths serve four main functions:

1. They impart wisdom on how to live a human life (pedagogical)
2. They support a social order (sociological)
3. They help us to imagine the shape of the universe (cosmological)
4. They serve the human capacity for wonder (mystical)

Lately I’ve been thinking about how these elements show up (or fail to show up) in various contemporary novels. Admittedly, the elements are broadly defined, and they overlap; whether they’re present or absent in a given book is a matter of interpretation. But as the lists below indicate, what I’m finding is that recent novels tend to engage only two mythic functions at the expense of the others. Daniel Martin remains the notable exception for me--a 20th century novel that convincingly integrates all four functions of myth in the same work, as War and Peace and Moby-Dick did in the 19th century.

List A. As I see it, mythic functions 1 and 2 (pedagogical and sociological) are prominent in the following novels, while functions 3 and 4 are neglected:
    Anne Tyler’s Digging to America; Back When We Were Grownups
    Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres
    Ian McEwan’s Saturday; On Chesil Beach
    Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran
    Philip Roth’s Newark, NJ, trilogy (American Pastoral; I Married a Communist; The Human Stain)
    Richard Russo's Empire Falls

List B. Conversely, mythic functions 3 and 4 (cosmological and mystical) are prominent in these novels, while functions 1 and 2 are neglected:
    Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon
    Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke
    A. S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale
    Yann Martel’s Life of Pi
    Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown; The Enchantress of Florence

In general, the social realists line up in List A, while the postmodernists go in List B. It’s as if the writers in List B have a high-power telescope that reveals far-off galaxies but leaves closer objects blurry, whereas the reverse is true for the writers in List A.

Many postmodernists seem to go out of their way to avoid function 1, as if serious literature had outgrown the need for pedagogy, or the world had become a place where such wisdom was unavailable.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with my choices. I’m offering them without a lot of discussion here, but I’m willing to explain further as needed. Here’s some of my thinking about individual novels:

  • Functions 1 and 2 show up in Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, but diffusely and inconsistently; the overall sweep of the book is what lingers for me rather than the characters or what they learn.

  • Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence seems to me to illustrate what happens when mythical thinking proliferates in the absence of a coherent realism in which to anchor it. Shalimar the Clown is more invested in the sociopolitical world, and achieves considerable power in its depiction of war-torn Kashmir, but what stands out for me in both books is the showy brilliance of the writing, not the plausibility or depth of the characters. I’m finding the same dynamic at work in Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet. I haven’t read Rushdie’s earlier work, but my take on what I have read is that he’s more an intellectual belle-lettrist than a novelist; that is, given the choice between a clever or beautifully cadenced sentence and one that furthers the story or enriches our sense of a character, he will opt for the former. (Fowles met Rushdie a few months after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa came out over his alleged “blasphemy” against Islam in The Satanic Verses. Fowles has some choice comments about Rushdie and also about Islam in his journal--see the entries of February and July 1989 in The Journals, Vol. 2.)

  • I’m undecided about some novels, such as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and A. S. Byatt’s Possession. Also Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, and Jonathan Safran Foer's two novels. I’m interested to hear how others see these works mythically.

  • Brian Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening covers most of the mythic bases but in a limited, chamber-ensemble way; it’s a beautiful novel but it doesn’t have a far reach.

  • I keep feeling that there’s something about Martin Amis I must be missing. He’s no fan of Fowles, and so far I’m no fan of Amis (Fowles wasn’t either). My initial take on his novel House of Meetings is that it fails in all four mythic functions. However, I still have an inadequate grasp of what Amis is attempting. Perhaps he's trying to create something other than mythic consciousness--or is actively challenging it?

I’m willing to entertain other candidates. However, from my present outlook Daniel Martin stands well above other contemporary novels in its integration of mythic functions. (My other topic threads, especially “Daniel Martin and Ken Wilber’s Integral Dynamics,” lend further support to this case. As I've shown in various postings, Daniel Martin has taught me an extraordinary amount about life and society (i.e., mythic functions 1 and 2). However, noticing how many novelists engage only functions 1 and 2 gives me a new appreciation for how Fowles engages all four.

When I think of all that Fowles brings together in Daniel Martin, I get occasional flickers of a supernatural awareness about the cosmos and how it’s structured. Although the items in List B above (Pynchon, Byatt, etc.) also lay claim to this “cosmos-and-beyond” awareness, I haven’t felt drawn back to any of these titles for a second read. To me they’re like flashy planetarium shows compared to the more thoroughly heart-, mind-, and soul-engaging novel by Fowles. It’s breathtaking to absorb the degree of mastery found in Daniel Martin, and in doing so to sense, as if with a divine consciousness, “yes, the universe is shaped like this.”

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Re: Myths and mythical consciousness

Postby drkellyindc on Sat Feb 07, 2009 8:57 pm

Here are some of the myths found in Daniel Martin:

  • A myth about new birth arising out of decay:
    Epigraph from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks:
    The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.

  • A myth about a capsized boat righting itself:
    Dan and his daughter Caro come to a new threshold as they laugh together over how difficult their earlier interactions were:
    One day she spontaneously brought up the absurdity of our meetings when she was younger—the stiffness, the boredom—and we kept laughing, remembering yet one more ghastly week-end or afternoon. It was marvelous: like seeing a capsized boat right itself, and knowing that no serious damage had been done—that in a way there was almost an advantage in the long being capsized (100)

  • A myth about ancient art, and encounters that are powerful enough to transform one’s belief system:
    While visiting Tarquinia, on the coast of Italy, Dan and his Oxford friends gain access to the ancient Etruscan tomb-walls. Dan describes the encounter:
    I felt it spoke more deeply to me, even though Anthony knew far more about the Etruscans in scholarly terms. I think it was also the first time I had a clear sense of the futility of the notion of progress in art. Nothing could be better or lovelier than this, till the end of time. It was sad, but in a noble, haunting, fertile way. (114)

  • A myth about regaining gratitude for being alive:
    On his arrival in Oxford after many years away, Dan finds that despite the regrettable occasion of his visit, he cannot help but feel glad about having lived to experience it:
    . . . I was far more aware of a secret happiness than a sadness . . . but something much deeper than that, the strange reversals of time, of personal histories . . . moments that you are glad, for once, to have survived to. Perhaps the presence of death always does that. Lost values regain meaning, to be still alive becomes the fundamental luck each ordinary, compromising day manages to bury (160)

  • A myth about writers and creativity:
    They live not life, but other lives; drive not down the freeways of determined fact, but drift and scholar-gipsy through the landscapes of the hypothetical, through all the pasts and futures of each present. Only one of each can be what happened and what will happen, but to such men they are the least important. I create, I am: all the rest is dream, though concrete and executed. (221-2)

  • A myth about the self-repairing universe:
    In the nighttime street scene at the end of “Webs,” Dan sees a policeman reach for an upper pocket and assumes he’s preparing to issue a summons to an old tramp. Instead, the policeman offers the tramp a cigarette:
    Which leaves our hero caged behind his window above, obliged to smile to himself, like an inefficient god who sees a lapse in his creation repaired by what he had forgotten to institute. (245)

  • A myth based on the Robin Hood legend:
    . . . this archetypal national myth, perhaps the only one, outside the Christ story, that literally every English person carries in his mind all through his life . . . It is a myth based on hiding, and therefore we have hidden its true importance ever since it first balladed and folk-rumored its way into being. (287-8)

  • Myths about continuity and failure:
    Phoebe’s obsession with polishing and the spic-and-span, which entailed “a faith in certain elementary decencies of existence—in method, habit, routine, as a prerequisite of continuity”; Ben’s grudging praise for his own plants and flowers, “his bone knowledge that if everything grew perfectly, the world—and he—had nothing to live for. He had really grasped a very profound truth: that failure is the salt of life.” (366)

  • A myth about “harvest magic”:
    At age 16, Dan’s daily work in the wheatfields takes away from his time with Nancy, but he finds unexpected solace in it:
    The deprivation seemed less cruel than he expected. It was the old harvest magic, that primeval breath of relief—there was still the ricking and threshing to be done, but it was like a voyage safely done, a landfall and solstice achieved, a promise kept. Nothing could really go wrong now. (384)

  • A myth about mysterious rebirth amid ruins:
    Amid the monumental wastes at Palmyra, Dan and Jane come upon a pair of whimpering dun-colored puppies, who represent “an unhappiness from the very beginning of existence” (650)

References to Dan as myth-maker: 221-2, 286, 450

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Re: Myths and mythical consciousness

Postby drkellyindc on Fri Apr 10, 2009 5:20 pm

The myths above are related in making an affirmation while taking into account—and even using as their substance—painful aspects of reality.

However, Daniel Martin also acknowledges the potential weaknesses of this kind of affirmation, and presents several antidotes to the uncritical use of myth-making. Such counter-myths:

  • A myth of self-reinvention that backfires, as seen in Jane's attempt to adopt an "anything-goes" stance based on her reading of Rabelais:
    What had happened was like an attempt to break out of a myth of herself . . . into that of Rabelais; but that once proven false, too expensive morally, she found herself now double-chained in the old one. (111)

  • Myths as false comfort, as seen in Dan and Nell's avoiding the "hopeless downward progression" of their marriage:
    Such changes in a person's character, and in the character of a relationship, don't announce themselves dramatically; they steal slowly over months, masking themselves behind reconciliations, periods of happiness, new resolves. Like some forms of lethal disease, such changes invite every myth of comforting explanation before they exact the truth. (149)

  • Myths as a form of denial, as seen in the American frontier mentality:
    Here they do it by looking forward to a dream world, where everyone succeeds, everyone’s rich and happy. Horrors like the supermarkets and the freeways and the smog and the sprawl are just incidents on the road there. The wagon-trail myth. Today’s problems aren’t problems, but proofs of tomorrow’s new frontier. You drive on, at all costs. (251)

  • The myth that life is measured only in terms of destination and success, as witnessed in Barney’s rueful attitude toward his career:
    And now he was maintaining that the only honest year of his professional life was the one he had spent on a provincial newspaper before coming to London. It was clear that he judged himself fallen between the wise mediocrity and a genuine reputation. Time. Fear of death, the wasted journey, which was part of the old Puritan fallacy: life is either a destination, an arrived success, or not worth the cost. The soap-bubble bursts, and looking back, there seems nothing. (278)

  • The myth that technology will solve the world’s problems, as witnessed in Mitchell Hooper, a U.S. computer expert working in Cairo, who eagerly awaits the research that will cure his wife’s infertility:
    “If there’s a breakthrough, we fly tomorrow.” And Dan was left with this sad little faith in technology as the key to the best of all possible worlds. That celebrated and pernicious myth seemed to underlie all his traveling companion’s attitudes. (540)

  • The childish myth of fairy-tale happy endings, which adds to Dan’s sullenness, humiliation and exasperation regarding his and Jane’s future, near the end of their tour of the Middle East:
    He knew he was being burned in the oldest of fires, but still could not understand where it had come from—like some medieval disease, the bubonic plague, that modern science had supposedly controlled out of all practical consideration; an infantile happy-ever-afterward device from fairy tales, a ludicrous myth. It was almost as if that other great myth, destiny, was having its revenge on him for so many other affairs so coolly and calculatedly entered and enjoyed . . . (614-5)

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Re: Myths and mythical consciousness

Postby drkellyindc on Fri Aug 21, 2009 4:25 pm

A physical, psychological, and mythical interpretation:
Daniel Martin’s first two chapters as re-enacting the journey of being born

My Aug. 10, 2009 posting on the “Getting started” thread explores the extreme contrast between Daniel Martin’s first two chapters. The distance between these chapters can’t be resolved through traditional means; there’s discontinuity at every level--narrative logic, plot, style, theme, characterization, dialogue, language use, setting, period, and so on. It’s as if Fowles were daring us to find a reason for the second chapter to follow the first.

Some might say that the two chapters are related by way of familiar separations between "before and after," "youth and middle age," "innocence and experience," and so forth. However, these pairings describe the juxtaposition but don’t fully account for it. I detect a subtler and more exciting possibility at work. The two chapters and the discontinuity between them may be read as a literary rendering of the physical, psychological, and mythical experience of childbirth.

The components fit this three-part schema:

  • The first chapter (“The Harvest”) parallels gestation in the womb
  • The transition between the two chapters parallels the journey through the uterine canal
  • The second chapter (“Games”) parallels emergent childbirth in a radically dissimilar setting outside the womb

This idea came to me while I was reading Richard Tarnas’s epilogue to The Passion of the Western Mind (1991). In Tarnas’s view, psychoanalysis has “gradually pressed the Freudian biographical-biological perspective back to earlier and earlier periods of individual life” until it reaches “the encounter with birth itself” (428). Tarnas sees the physical journey made at the start of a human life--from gestation in the mother’s womb, to the passage through the uterine canal, to childbirth—as archetypal in nature, and involving a powerful dialectic (or play of opposites). He describes the movement from an “undifferentiated unity” in the mother’s womb to “separation, duality, and alienation” outside the mother’s womb (429).

Here is Tarnas’s description of the profound separation between the worlds inside and outside the womb, and his rationale for why the physical experience of being born leaves an indelible mark on the human psyche:

Here, on both the individual and the collective levels, can be seen the source of the profound dualism of the modern mind: between man and nature, between mind and matter, between self and other, between experience and reality—that pervading sense of a separate ego irrevocably divided from the encompassing world. Here is the painful separation from the timeless all-encompassing womb of nature, the development of human self-consciousness, the expulsion from the Garden, the entrance into time and history and materiality, the disenchantment of the cosmos, the sense of total immersion in an antithetical world of impersonal forces. (431)

Fowles establishes just such a dialectic in the transition between Daniel Martin’s first two chapters. The chapters are concretely realistic—local detail sets them very tangibly in 1942 Devon and 1974 Los Angeles—but the presence of symbol and metaphor takes them into a dimension beyond realism. Note the parallels for prenatal experience in the first chapter, and postnatal experience in the second chapter:

    "The Harvest." The fourth sentence of “The Harvest” likens the field at Thorncombe to “a gentle bosom” (1). During the chapter, the teenage Danny’s whole existence is enveloped in a womb-like Devon county—its plants and animals, its people and voices, its land and seasonal rhythms. The narration says his life is entirely ahead of him--“. . . all life to follow” (4)—so in addition to seeing him as a boy in his mid-teens, as the chapter indicates, we might also regard him in some sense as not yet embarked upon his life, i.e. not yet born. Athough Danny is described as being “in exile,” and at an Oedipal “crossroads,” and he encounters death in the form of the rabbits and the German plane, he still lacks far horizons and the ability to analyze his experience intellectually. He is seen at one point in a fetal-like position with respect to his environment: “The boy lies on his back . . . bathed in the green pond of Devon voices . . .” (4). A fetus developing inside a womb has no concept of time; accordingly, the chapter suspends time, and focuses instead on pure being: “Without past or future, purged of tenses; collecting this day, pregnant with being” (10).

    "Games." In the second chapter, we encounter a middle-aged Daniel living in a frustrated exile—separated physically and politically from his birth country of England, and separated intellectually from his gifts as a writer. The city of Los Angeles compounds his sense of exile—to him it is rootless socially, artistically, and environmentally. Daniel has an uneasy relationship with the other human presence in the room, a female artist figure; the real passion and substance of their connection seems to lie in the past. Daniel complains to this woman about his sense of dislocation: “. . . you can’t find your way back . . . . Trying to crawl back inside the womb. Turn the clock back” (15).

Fowles is too skilled a writer for such references to be coincidental; however, it’s also part of his skill that he doesn’t browbeat us into any single interpretive mode. Instead, he keeps numerous narrative levels working simultaneously, so that the resulting reading experience is irreducibly complex (i.e., lifelike) rather than narrowly ideological (i.e., reducible to a literary or behavioral theory).

References to pre- and post-natal experience are found not only in individual words but in the structure of the two chapters and in their correlation. Numerous birth-related transitions are suggested: from plenitude to depletion, from the Garden of Eden to expulsion from the Garden, from enchantment to disenchantment, from unconscious fullness to self-conscious emptiness, from a participation mystique to alienation and exile, from immateriality to materiality, and from timeless suspension (“Without past or future”) to regretful nostalgia (“Turn the clock back”). The chapters invite us to recall pre- and post-natal experience as much as our sensory memory and imagination allow us to do so.

Perhaps a parallel from a different art form will help clarify this dynamic. In David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet, there is a disturbing sex scene between Frank (Dennis Hopper) and Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), which is witnessed by the young hero Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan). One scholar has argued that this scene recreates in cinematic terms what a child experiences with the Freudian primal scene (i.e., “what’s daddy doing to mommy?”). In the primal scene a child is bewildered because his father seems to be “attacking” his mother. Lynch preserves this bewilderment for the adult cinemagoer by casting the male figure as a psychotic sadist, and the female figure as a distressed mother whose son has been kidnapped. Their sexual encounter is further complicated by elements of bondage and fetish (a blue velvet sash and an inhaler mask) and by their strict adherence to certain roles and rules. Despite Frank’s fierce brutality and profanity, he seems to regress to infancy during the scene. As viewers we have no more ability to apprehend or interpret this scene than a young child does while overhearing his parents making love.

Similarly, in the first two chapters of Daniel Martin Fowles creates a literary equivalent for the experience of childbirth from the human fetus’s perspective. Since the fetus’s awareness is extremely limited during this process, our peripheral vision is limited in both chapters. As readers we are made to grope forward without full cognition of where we are or what is happening. Although Daniel is technically a focal point of both chapters, it is not finally Daniel’s birth but our own which the chapters endeavor to re-enact. The phrase that encapsulates Daniel's goal in writing his novel--"to awaken some analogous experience in other memories and sensitivities" (90)--is especially pertinent here.

Why recreate a literary experience of childbirth? As Richard Tarnas and others have argued, childbirth is not an isolated physical event in one’s past but is profoundly resonant for the psyche as well as an archetypal aspect of human existence. The journey involved in being born is both heroic and mythic, and rich with significance for other journeys taken throughout a lifetime. The individual journey is also intimately connected with the journey of the species. If we need to go back to our personal origins in order to move forward psychologically, so also do we need to go back to our collective origins in order to move forward as a civilization. In Daniel Martin Fowles enacts both journeys, by taking Daniel and Jane back to their biographical starting-point, and by taking contemporary readers back to their cultural starting-point in pre-Greco-Roman civilization.

In the next posting I’ll describe how, through the remainder of the novel, Fowles builds from the profound disunity of the opening two chapters to a unity that is greater than would be possible without them.

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Re: Myths and mythical consciousness

Postby drkellyindc on Wed Sep 16, 2009 8:59 am

Disunity in the initial chapters
supports a greater unity in the closing chapters

[Warning: plot spoilers ahead]

As I mentioned in my last posting, the diametric opposition between Daniel Martin’s first two chapters lays a foundation for the greater unity that the novel achieves in its closing chapters. Once again, Richard Tarnas’s epilogue to The Passion of the Western Mind helps to explain how an initial experience of disunity can lead to a greater unity than would otherwise be possible. In my Aug. 21 posting I quoted Tarnas discussing the “profound dualism” associated with departing from the womb during childbirth. In the same context Tarnas writes,

. . . Yet full experience of this double bind, of this dialectic between the primordial unity on the one hand and the birth labor and subject-object dichotomy on the other, unexpectedly brings forth a third condition: a redemptive reunification of the individuated self with the universal matrix. Thus . . . the liberated hero ascends from the underworld to return home after his far-flung odyssey. The individual and the universal are reconciled. The suffering, alienation, and death are now comprehended as necessary for birth, for the creation of the self . . .. A situation that was fundamentally unintelligible is now recognized as a necessary element in a larger context of profound intelligibility. The dialectic is fulfilled, the alienation redeemed. The rupture from Being is healed. The world is rediscovered in its primordial enchantment. The autonomous individual self has been forged and is now reunited with the ground of its being. (433)

Note how closely Tarnas’s phrases parallel developments in Fowles’s novel:

  • “the primordial unity” --- Dan’s position with regard to Devon in “The Harvest”
  • “subject-object dichotomy” --- the split between first and third person narration, signaling (among other things) a split between Dan in his youth and as an adult (e.g., “I feel in his pocket and bring out a clasp-knife . . .” (10))
  • “a redemptive reunification of the individuated self with the universal matrix” --- Dan and Jane are vividly individualized as characters; however, as the novel moves to Egypt and Syria, the depth of field shifts and we see them increasingly as universal types (for instance, “They were reduced to what, in their two sexes, had never forgiven and never understood the other . . . They stood at the opposite poles of humanity, eternally irreconcilable” (648-9))
  • “the liberated hero ascends from the underworld” --- Dan and Jane ascend from the underworld of Palmyra
  • “The individual and the universal are reconciled” --- As Dan embraces Jane while she sobs, the narrator states, “Mankind may think there are two poles; but there is, morally as magnetically, only one in the geography of the mind’s total being” (652)
  • “The suffering, alienation, and death are now comprehended as necessary for birth, for the creation of the self” --- As the Gramsci epigraph in Daniel Martin asserts and as the novel’s plot elaborates, Dan and Jane’s extensive suffering, their long-term alienation from each other, and their experience of Anthony’s death become the necessary precedents for the regeneration they experience in connection with their travels to Egypt and Palmyra
  • “A situation that was fundamentally unintelligible is now recognized as a necessary element in a larger context of profound intelligibility.” --- The separation between the first two chapters is initially unintelligible, but becomes graspable once the full measure of the novel is taken.

Tarnas speaks of the newly achieved unity in terms of fulfillment, redemption, healing, and enchantment. Evidence of these traits emerges in the final chapters of Daniel Martin on a number of levels:

    on the personal level, as a process happening within Dan and Jane as individuals;

    on the transpersonal level, as a process happening between Dan and Jane;

    at the familial level, as a new connection forged between the Martin and Mallory relatives;

    at the political level, as seen in Dan’s new commitment to living in England, and in his membership in the Labour party;

    and at the artistic level, as seen in the connection between Dan and the Rembrandt painting, and between Dan and his reading public.

The novel’s resolution also works on global, mythic, and temporal levels. What happens between Dan and Jane at the transpersonal level is writ large at a planetary level. One passage sets them up as “polar” opposites:

They stood at the opposite poles of humanity, eternally irreconcilable. (649)

A later passage reveals that these "polar opposites" are actually part of a unified global system:

Mankind may think there are two poles; but there is, morally as magnetically, only one in the geography of the mind’s total being; and even though it is set in an arctic where no incarnate mind can exist. (652)

As H. W. Fawkner and others have argued, Daniel Martin's greater unity also involves time. The novel depicts the present day as well as a “presentness beyond all time” (672); and it creates a narrative arc that spans from “the very beginning of existence” (650) to “the end of the world” (634).

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Re: Myths and mythical consciousness

Postby drkellyindc on Thu Oct 01, 2009 8:04 pm

Daniel Martin through the lens of Robert Johnson:
life as a journey from unconsciousness to consciousness, and from imperfection to perfection

Robert Johnson is a Jungian analyst and the author of He: Understanding Masculine Psychology, She: Understanding Feminine Psychology, Femininity Lost and Regained, and other titles. In his view, the human life-span may be divided into three main psychological phases or outlooks:

    In the first phase humans experience life as unconscious perfection;

    in the second phase, life is experienced as conscious imperfection;

    in the final phase, life is experienced as conscious perfection.

As I see it, “conscious perfection” does not mean “constant bliss” or “utopia achieved.” Instead, it refers to an outlook that has ripened to maturity and wisdom. A person with this outlook has reached the inner serenity of a sage or Sufi: aware of the world’s schemes and follies, and still able to see grace and beauty reflected in all things.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how these three phases appear in Daniel Martin. Here are some of the connections I’ve found:

  • Phase one: unconscious perfection
    Daniel Martin’s opening chapter, “The Harvest,” presents the book’s hero in the first phase, unconscious perfection. The Devon county harvest scene evokes an Eden-like period and setting where humans are integrated with their environment, live in harmony with the seasons in an agrarian economy, and work alongside each other toward a shared community goal. Although the year is 1942 and the political world beyond Devon is engaged in war, the chapter carries strong echoes of more distant and noble periods. These appear in references to

    • an ancient mythic past (“. . . many centuries before . . .” “. . . his is an ancient presence, and quasi-divine, of a time when men were hunters, not planters,” “. . . the sky’s eternal sleeping voice, mocking man,” “No cream since time began could equal it”);
    • classical antiquity (Argus, ambrosia, “old Celtic softness for metal Romans”);
    • the Bible (Solomon, Nimrod, “Our daily bread,” “as ritual as Holy Communion,” the Devil).

    In this world Daniel himself is an “inscrutable innocent” who, although he witnesses a rabbit slaughter, has a premonition for a day when he will weep for this loss in an empty field. The harshness of the slaughter is mitigated by his romantic identification with the rabbits (“dying, dying before the other wheat was ripe”). Despite the slaughter and the monstrous intrusion of the German war-plane, the chapter has an idyllic quality; it’s bathed in a golden light. Nonetheless, Daniel as an adolescent is only capable of grasping parts and glimmers of this light: he latches onto sensory details and surface knowledges, but not their underlying significance (“He clings to his knowledges . . . since he lacks so much else”).

    (Later in the novel, the chapters “Phillida” and “Tarquinia” also express moments from this first phase of unconscious perfection.)

  • Phase two: conscious imperfection
    Daniel Martin’s second chapter, “Games,” shows the hero in the second phase of Johnson’s model, conscious imperfection. Daniel now has a heightened awareness of his own imperfections, and of the world’s, and yet he’s unable to rise above them. Now 47, he is divorced and living overseas in a temporary arrangement with a much-younger girlfriend. He reflects on his current life, with its “layers of lies,” “sophistries of failure,” and “betrayal of myths” (12, 14). He’s at cross-purposes with his past, with his gifts and ambitions as an artist and writer, and with his girlfriend and his present cultural surroundings. He feels an emptiness about his previous writing (“Looking back at my immortal oeuvre,” 13), and suggests he is “totally in exile” from what he ought to have been and done (14). He says he is “sick” of his present work as a Hollywood screenwriter, which “bores him into the ground” (15). He considers this screenwriting work a “soft option” in which he doesn’t need to really stake himself (14). Further compounding his sense of imperfection, an adolescent part of him “mocks all he has known, learned, rationally valued” (11). He quotes a passage from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” referring to himself as being in “fragments” and “ruin” (13).

    (Later chapters, “Crimes and Punishments,” “Webs,” “Jane,” and “Hollow Men,” also reflect this conscious imperfection phase. The passage “The compromises of his life seemed to lie on him almost physically, like warts” (598) epitomizes this phase.)

  • Phase three: conscious perfection
    The final quarter of the novel in general, and the last two chapters in particular, indicate that Daniel is approaching the third phase in Robert Johnson’s schema, conscious perfection. He has overcome the early artistic immaturity that led him to write the self-justifying revenge play “The Victors,” and has found the fullness of vision needed to write the true “story of his life” (1). He has weathered out the “agapicide” phase of his marriage with Nell (140); now, in his dealings with Jane, he begins to perceive, for the first time in his life, “the true difference between Eros and Agape” (600). Daniel is guided to a new level of awareness through his encounter with the Herr Professor, who has “a stillness, almost that of an Indian sage” (546). From the Herr Professor Daniel learns the distinction between qadim and kayf (544-6), between ka and ba (546-7), between East and West, and between chaos and authority (558). The chapter “The River Between” begins with Daniel’s rationalist perspective about birds along the Nile, and ends with the Herr Professor’s supra-rationalist perspective on the world’s two nations and what divides them.

    Daniel is further guided by the late Rembrandt self-portrait he encounters after parting company with Jenny at Hampstead Heath (671-2). Hard-won lessons he gains from the painting include “the inadequacy of genius before human reality”; the primacy of feeling over skill, intellect, and good or bad luck; and the symbiotic connection between compassion and will (672).

    (The ending of the chapters “Beyond the Door” and “Webs” also express this conscious perfection phase.)

This application gives me still another angle on the separation between the first two chapters (discussed in my August 21 posting above). The contrast between unconscious perfection (the first chapter) and conscious imperfection (the second chapter) could not be more starkly drawn.

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Re: Myths and mythical consciousness

Postby drkellyindc on Fri Nov 27, 2009 8:33 pm


In Daniel Martin’s second chapter, “Games,” Daniel talks about wandering through the back-lots of a movie studio while he waits for Jenny to end her work-day:
“It was on the old Camelot set. It suddenly hit me. How well I matched it. The betrayal of myths. As if I was totally in exile from what I ought to have been.” He added, “Done.”

What does “the betrayal of myths” mean?

The passage above provides one answer; however, a number of other answers emerge elsewhere in the novel. One place to start exploring this theme is to look at the Camelot reference:

    The Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot (filmed in 1967) dramatizes the final years of King Arthur’s legendary Knights of the Round Table. A love triangle emerges between the King, Queen Guenevere, and a brilliant young French knight named Lancelot. The King is aware of the Queen’s growing attraction to Lancelot, but he avoids confronting them, assuming that to do so would jeopardize the kingdom. The King’s inaction does finally threaten the kingdom anyway; the Queen’s infidelity escalates from a personal to a political matter, and leads to a war between England and France that claims half of the Knights of the Round Table. In the betrayal of the Camelot myth, more than mere laws, agreements, and vows are violated—an entire moral order is threatened, and along with it, the beliefs that structure and animate a way of being.

A more recent depiction of a myth betrayed comes in the 2004-2009 Battlestar Galactica TV series developed by Ronald D. Moore and David Eick:

    Battlestar Galactica.
    As the series begins, the Galactica fleet is orphaned in outer space after an enemy attack devastates their home planets and most of their spacecrafts. In the show’s initial seasons, the Galactica fleet is united in its mythic quest to locate “a home called Earth”—Earth having been revealed through prophecies to be their physical and spiritual destination. Midway through season 4, however, “Earth” is located, and is revealed to have been the site of a nuclear holocaust 2000 years in the past. Everyone from the president to the rank and file has to contend with fundamental loss over the fact that Earth, their much-anticipated home planet and final resting-place, turns out to be uninhabitable. All their assumptions are open to question—their belief in gods and prophets, as well as their basic sense of security and well-being. Until subsequent events indicate otherwise, they’re left to wonder whether hoping for the future has turned out to be a kind of cosmic practical joke.

Both of these examples reveal that myths, as the expression of collective longings and beliefs, cannot be betrayed without significant loss on a number of levels.

* * *

What are the myths betrayed in Daniel Martin? Several answers come to mind:

  • A myth connecting one’s generation with one’s moment in history.
    In these passages, Daniel refers to a loss suffered by his generation:
    The world, time . . . it slipped. Jumped forward three decades in one. We antediluvians have been left permanently out of gear. (51)

    My contemporaries were all brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century, since the twentieth did not begin till 1945. That is why we are on the rack, forced into one of the longest and most abrupt cultural stretches in the history of mankind. Already what I was before the Second World War seems far more than four decades away; much more like the same number of centuries. And what we once were is now severed in a very special way from the present . . .. (89)

  • A myth of legendary friendship.
    Daniel, Nell, Jane, and Anthony develop an unusually close friendship during their Oxford student days, culminating in a “golden period” when the four of them take a six-week holiday in Italy after graduation. Many years later, Daniel admits to having cherished “a kind of noble legend of our joint past” (216). However, life after their student days brings both personal and collective decline--Daniel and Nell’s marriage ends, Daniel writes a revenge play, and is bitterly ostracized by Anthony. Jane and Anthony’s marriage appears enviable at the start, but soon comes a mask for dissatisfaction. Having reached a magical height in their experience at Tarquinia, on the coast of Italy (114-6), the Oxford friends all face varying degrees of comedown afterwards.

    The loss they undergo emerges piecemeal in the novel’s contemporary scenes. When we meet up with them again, Jane and Nell are no longer the “Heavenly Twins” of Oxford, but living in separate counties and given to sibling rivalries. Anthony and Jane’s marriage has devolved into suffering of various kinds--hoarding secrets, intellectual arrogance, and a streak of masochism (185, 214-5). Anthony apparently has not found a replacement for his friendship with Daniel (191); when he says he’s missed his botanizing trips with Daniel over the years, Daniel responds, “I’ve missed you in far more places than that, Anthony” (181). During a climactic conversation in Syria, Daniel places the blame for what happened on Jane: “You murdered something in all three of us, Jane. Largely without knowing it . . . But you made certain choices, developments, impossible” (631).

    It must be said that Daniel also derives pleasure from the loss of his legendary Oxford friendship. Jenny goes so far as to say that loss is his mistress (249). However, it may be more accurate to say that his mistress is loss revisited. His return to Oxford after long years of exile permits a richness of experience that wouldn’t have been possible if he had stayed put. Shortly after arrival he reflects on “the strange reversals of time, of personal histories . . . moments that you are glad, for once, to have survived to (160).

  • A myth of fulfilling one’s true destiny.
    In middle age Anthony is haunted by the feeling that his marriage to Jane prevented her from a better marriage she might have had with Daniel. Daniel later puts this matter directly to Jane: “You should have been my wife” (629). Further, he says, “Anthony should have been a priest. . . I should have tried to be a serious playwright” (629). Moments later he says, “I’ve betrayed the only two things for which I ever had any talent. Handling words, and loving one single other human being wholly” (631).

    Despite such pronouncements, the novel doesn’t suggest that the path to a “true destiny” is likely to be simple or linear. It also warns against unnecessary self-castigation about past mistakes (which Caro states as her elders’ habit of “Going around pretending what ghastly failures you are,” 282).

    In the larger view of things, the “failures” experienced by Daniel’s generation can be seen as leading to a more broadly defined kind of maturity and success, at least for the characters who have the vision and persistence to bring it about. Certainly for us as readers, the story is vastly more interesting than it would be if the characters had got it all right as young adults.

  • A myth connecting people and place.
    In his adolescence, Daniel must contend with a disruption that is larger than his capacity for dealing with it: “Thorncombe without the Reeds! I couldn’t imagine it, in some way it seemed a worse denial of natural order than all the far greater upheavals going on in the outer world” (404). This disruption still lingers for him three decades later, after he has purchased the Thorncombe estate as an adult. Recalling his adolescent experience, and reflecting on the true nature of proprietorship, he writes:
    “For the first time in my life I realized how profoundly place is also people. I could live a thousand years in this house where I write now, and never own it as they did; beyond all artifice of legal possession” (404).

    This theme recurs elsewhere in the novel, especially in the “Tsankawi” chapter, where Mildred pays homage to the vanished Seminole tribes of Florida (347), and Daniel pays homage to the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico (343-56).

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Re: Myths and mythical consciousness

Postby drkellyindc on Mon Jan 09, 2012 6:38 pm

As I mentioned above, among the four main functions of myth, according to Joseph Campbell, is imparting wisdom on how to live a human life. Paul Gray’s Time Magazine review of Daniel Martin affirms that Fowles’s novel rises to this task:

Like Henry James before him, Fowles has created rarefied creatures free enough to take on the toughest question that life offers: How to live? In suggesting that today’s seemingly infinite variety of choices need not produce a catatonic or nauseated anti-hero, Fowles has created both a startlingly provocative novel and a courageous act of willed humanity.

What content, then, does Daniel Martin offer on this issue?

In his review Gray suggests one answer at the “big-picture” levels of characterization, genre, and theme: Fowles, he asserts, is writing consciously after and against the mid-20th century tradition of the anti-hero, and is reviving aspects of courage and heroism more typical of 19th century novels.

Beyond this, what more local and tangible lessons does Daniel Martin offer? Here is a brief--and far from complete--list of “how-to-live” content I’ve found in the novel. Other readers are welcome to make their own lists!


  • “Late-night maundering” (15). Dan uses this phrase to downplay the sense of malaise that he’s been voicing to Jenny. Much later in the novel Dan describes his sense of ultimate personal loss as being “what he claimed of his life in his more depressed and self-dramatizing moments” (649). In both instances Fowles suggests ways that self-judgment is a fuzzy area subject to vacillation and mood. Given these clues, over time I’ve become better at distinguishing the things that truly bother me from mere passing irritations, and at recognizing the limits of “late-night maundering.”

  • “It just felt right” (27). Jane’s comment at Oxford (on the day that she and Dan discover a dead woman in the reeds) resurfaces elsewhere in the novel, and becomes a touchstone for intuition and emotional literacy (see pp. 47, 58, 60, 111, 198, 325, 425, 565). I find her approach useful when I notice I’m overvaluing logic and analysis.

  • Dealing with difficult people. Scenario: on a transatlantic flight to London, an Oxford-educated man encounters an old classmate he dislikes; soon he learns that the classmate is having an affair with his daughter. What to do? It’s not that you have to share this situation to benefit from what Dan learns while reentering Bernard Dillon’s orbit. Among these lessons are how to treat Bernard less as a caricature and more as a person.

    Other difficult people that Dan copes with, and learns from: his father, Parson Martin (78-93, 400-2); conservative Member of Parliament Miles Fenwick (329-38), and Jane and Anthony’s son Paul (219, 313-7, 357-61). Economists (413) and tyrannical movie directors (169) could be added to the list. One can invert this and say that Dan himself is a “difficult” person that others, such as his daughter Caro and ex-wife Nell, must learn to deal with.

  • “Absurd and necessary” (75, 112, 634). Anthony adopts this concept from the 2nd century A.D. Roman church father Tertullian, and it becomes a touchstone in Dan’s narration. I was several years into my encounter with Daniel Martin before I realized how useful with concept is. Endless applications! I also see it as suggesting a step past the existentialist framework, which emphasizes absurdity alone.

  • “Looking for” vs. “looking at (191, 195). In Anthony’s view, Dan tends toward the former trait, and Anthony toward the latter. This made them a good team in their orchid-hunting expeditions. Not until many years later does Anthony realize that his investment in “looking-at” has limited his self-perception and self-development. He envies Dan’s ability to imagine things other than as they are, and actively to “look for” (i.e., move toward) them.

  • “. . . a more difficult truth about the invention of myths than he had had the courage to tell Caro” (286). As Dan moves from talking with his daughter Caro to writing about why he’s drawn to attempt writing a novel, he acknowledges that he’s keeping certain truths to himself instead of sharing them with his daughter. Elsewhere he says, “I have always needed secrets” (68), and likens himself to an iceberg, nine-tenths of whose content is submerged (352). From this can be gleaned lessons about forms of knowledge, and discernment about when and where to share them.

  • Beyond science and reason. Fowles equips readers to move past an overreliance on empirical, academic, and scientific ways of knowing. The theme surfaces at numerous points, including: 1) when Dan hesitates before his decision to fly to England to see Anthony, he is likened to “an empiricist threatened with supernatural pattern” (46); 2) back at Thorncombe after seeing Jane off to the train, he reflects that she is like nature itself, “inherently and unconsciously dissolvent of time and all the naturalist tries to put between himself and his total reality” (441). These passages don’t reject empiricism and naturalism, but rather reveal them as incomplete.

  • “Secret paternal purpose” (504). This phrase surfaces at a moment when Dan considers whether the link between his parson father and himself parallels the link (in the religion of his youth) between God the Father and God the Son. Coming late in the narrative, this reference subtly suggests that Dan is making peace with the Christianity he rebelled against beginning in his teens. As I’ve developed in the Ken Wilber essay and in other discussion threads, I see Daniel Martin as offering a way to work through world-views such as Christianity, existentialism, and postmodernism. This passage supports the notion of re-integration as the last step in this journey.

Having started this list, I’m unsure now where to stop! I haven’t touched yet on insights about young adulthood and aging; living with cancer; surviving huge historical and social change; using language and rhetoric responsibly; detecting and adjusting to people’s moods; and so on. The lessons fan out in every direction.

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