Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 4

This is the 3rd update to the Two-Thirds book Challenge.

2/3 Book Challenge: A Visit from the Goon Squad

E read this for her book club back in November but didn’t get the review posted until early January. She has been having a legitimately busy life the last several months. Hopefully things will calm down for her soon.

“I can say definitively that [Jennifer] Egan is a master storyteller. A Visit from the Goon Squad weaves in and out of time, with a number of stories told in layers, folding and unfolding onto themselves.”

“I wish I’d written this review closer to finishing the book – or to my book club’s discussion – as there are aspects of it that we found problematic that I’ve since forgotten.”

“And in that exchange lies the weight of the book, the way we measure the passage of time, all of the things we want to say but can’t, all of the things we try to say but fail to communicate, all of the moments in time that slip through our fingers.”

Sounds intriguing; see her review for more details.


Eleven Minutes, Paulo Coelho

“I read his book The Alchemist sometime in the last year or two and liked it. His writing is simple in quite a beautiful way. I like simplicity. I get lost in lyricism and can’t uncover deeper meanings. Coelho is right up my alley, but I don’t think that I could tear through his books one after the other. … In Eleven Minutes Coelho delves into love and prostitution, through the eyes of the young and beautiful Maria. Ah, love.”

Jen says she is too jaded for the love story here but I wonder if it wasn’t perhaps the storytelling. There are many ways to tell of love, and only a very few approach the sublimity of being in love.

The Violets of March, Sarah Jio

The Violets of March, …, is a delicious meal laid out stunningly on the table.”

“What a wonderful book. Romance and mystery (not a murder mystery–an historical mystery), beautifully woven together.”

“It’s the characters, not the romance, that will stick with me for a while. I’ll wonder about them and what they’re up to, the way I do with old friends I haven’t spoken with in a while.”

Jen references her comment in her previous review about being jaded, which has, perhaps, not been mitigated by this book but temporarily overcome.

Yes, Jen, some of us do use our amazon wish lists like that. By the way, you can put a comment, link, etc. in the notes for each item on your wish list to help keep track of just that issue. I try to do so when I read a review somewhere; it helps if I can go back 6 months or 2 years later and see why I once thought I wanted a title and to get some additional (original) input into whether it still speaks to me.


Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

“This is the 4th book that I have finished in my Two-Thirds Book Challenge. I started it 6 October 2011 and finished it 15 January 2012. I had not intended to take so long but it is somewhat complex and, in all honesty, the rampant Freudianism/psychoanalysis is simply too much at times.”

But it is a classic text and I do believe it is worth reading.

Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

“The gist is a comparison of how primitive or archaic humans viewed history versus how historical man views history. For archaic human, Eliade claims, everything that mattered—that had meaning—was a repeat of an archetype of some previous event or action in ‘primordial’ time, and that these things were endlessly repeated as the world was, in fact, repeatedly re-created anew.”

Modern, historical, humans have lost that which then leads us straight into the “terror of history,” a form of existential crisis.

I found this an excellent and engaging book, which, for me, generated as many questions as it may have answered. I like that.

Stay tuned for next month’s installment and good reading, whatever that may be for you!




Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return

This is the 5th book that I have read for My Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

I stated at the end of my review of Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces that I hoped that this might be a good follow-up book to Campbell and I have to say that I think it was. It is certainly a different project than Campbell’s but it dovetails nicely.


      • Introduction to the 2005 Edition by Jonathan Z. Smith
      • Foreword
      • Preface
      • Chap. 1: Archetypes and Repetition
        • § The Problem
        • § Celestial Archetypes of Territories, Temples, and Cities
        • § The Symbolism of the Center
        • § Repetition of the Cosmogony
        • § Divine Models of Rituals
        • § Archetypes of Profane Activities
        • § Myths and History
      • Chap. 2: The Regeneration of Time
        • § Year, New Year, Cosmogony
        • § Periodicity of the Creation
        • § Continuous Regeneration of Time
      • Chap. 3: Misfortune and History
        • § Normality of Suffering
        • § History Regarded as Theophany
        • § Cosmic Cycles and History
        • § Destiny and History
      • Ch. 4: The Terror of History
        • § Survival of the Myth of Eternal Return
        • § The Difficulties of Historicism
        • § Freedom and History
        • § Despair or Faith
      • Bibliography
      • Index

This is a fairly complicated book but I found it in no way tiresome to read, as I often did Campbell. Is it more “true” than Campbell? I don’t think we can ever know that but most of it is certainly plausible. My biggest concern, as it is in many areas, is can we really get into the head of archaic man? So many things were so different then than how they are, or have been for a good while, for any of us that can read (or could have written) this book.

The gist is a comparison of how primitive or archaic humans viewed history versus how historical man views history. For archaic human, Eliade claims, everything that mattered—that had meaning—was a repeat of an archetype of some previous event or action in ‘primordial’ time, and that these things were endlessly repeated as the world was, in fact, repeatedly re-created anew.

“The essential theme of my investigation bears on the image of himself formed by the man of the archaic societies and on the place he assumes in the Cosmos. The chief difference between the man of the archaic and traditional societies and the man of the modern societies with their strong imprint of Judaeo-Christianity lies in the fact that the former feels himself indissolubly connected with the Cosmos, whereas the latter insists that he is connected only with History. …” xxvii-xxviii

“The reader will remember that they [traditional civilizations] defended themselves against it [history], either by periodically abolishing it through repetition of the cosmogony and a periodic regeneration of time or by giving historical events a metahistorical meaning, a meaning that was not only consoling but was above all coherent, that is, capable of being fitted into a well-consolidated system in which the cosmos and man’s existence had each its raison d’être.” 142

The Hebrews, with their faith in Yahweh and their interpretation of events being a manifestation of His will, gave us ‘history.’ This view evolves over time, eventually leading to historicism.

“Thus, for the first time, the [Hebrew] prophets placed a value on history, succeeded in transcending the traditional vision of the cycle (the conception that ensure all things will be repeated forever), and discovered a one-way time. This discovery was not to be immediately and fully accepted by the consciousness of the entire Jewish people, and the ancient conceptions were still long to survive.” 104

“It may, then, be said with truth that the Hebrews were the first to discover the meaning of history as the epiphany of God, and this conception, as we should expect, was taken up and amplified by Christianity.

We may even ask ourselves if monotheism, based upon the direct and personal revelation of the divinity, does not necessarily entail the “salvation” of time, its value within the frame of history.” 104

“From the seventeenth century on, linearism and the progressivistic conception of history assert themselves more and more, inaugurating faith in an infinite progress, a faith already proclaimed by Leibniz, predominant in the century of “enlightenment,” and popularized in the nineteenth century by the triumph of the ideas of the evolutionists. We must wait until our own century to see the beginnings of certain new reactions against this historical linearism and a certain revival of interest in the theory of cycles; …” 145-46

The problem for modern man is one of existentialism, although that term is never used. It is, though, described in the text in places.

“For our purpose, only one question concerns us: How can the “terror of history” be tolerated from the viewpoint of historicism? Justification of a historical event by the simple fact that it is a historical event, in other words, by the simple fact that it “happened that way,” will not go far toward freeing humanity from the terror that the event inspires.” 150

What is interesting, and Eliade points towards it even in 1949, is that there is a nostalgia, a return even, towards the archaic view of history.

“Some pages earlier, we noted various recent orientations that tend to reconfer value upon the myth of cyclical periodicity, even the myth of eternal return. … …, it is worth noting that the work of two of the most significant writers of our day–T. S. Eliot and James Joyce–is saturated with nostalgia for the myth of eternal repetition and, in the last analysis, for the abolition of time.” 153

I think this kind of thinking is also reflected in the current interest in the Mayan calendar and 2012, in various forms of magical thinking like that involved in the Singularity, and other views and ideas floating around in early 21st-century consumer culture. I would really love to have Eliade’s take on this.

Eliade’s analysis leads him to claim that Christianity is the answer modern man has arrived at to combat the “terror of history.”

“But we are able to observe here and now that such a position [historicist] affords a shelter from the terror of history only insofar as it postulates the existence at least of the Universal Spirit. What consolation should we find in knowing that the sufferings of millions of men have made possible the revelation of a limitary situation of the human condition if, beyond that limitary situation, there should be only nothingness?” 159-60

“In this respect, Christianity incontestibly proves to be the religion of “fallen man”: and this to the extent which modern man is irremediably identified with history and progress, and to which history and progress are a fall, both implying the final abandonment of the paradise of archetypes and repetition.” 162

Personally, this leaves me unsatisfied. I am not sure that this is simply an objective (or as objective as possible) analysis or whether it is the answer Eliade wanted. Throughout most of the book, and even in the final clause above [the final sentence of the book], he seems to be more positively drawn towards the archaic human view than that of the modern, historical human.

I wonder whether the existential crisis is not simply overstated here, as it is in many places. Or perhaps it was more of a crisis when this book was written; it was certainly more of a ‘movement’ then than now. Perhaps 21st-century humans, at least those of us living our lives in our blogs and on twitter and so on, are simply too busy to feel the ‘crisis’ as deeply.

Something from the foreword which I fully agree would be a good thing:

“Our chief intent has been to set forth certain governing lines of force in the speculative field of archaic societies. It seemed to us that a simple presentation of this field would not be without interest, especially for the philosopher accustomed to finding his problems and the mean of solving them in the texts of classic philosophy or in the spiritual history of the West. With us, it is an old conviction that Western philosophy is dangerously close to “provincializing” itself … by its obstinate refusal to recognize any “situations” except those of the man of the historical civilizations, in defiance of the experience of “primitive” man, of man as a member of the traditional societies. … Better yet: that the cardinal problems of metaphysics could be renewed through a knowledge of archaic ontology.” xxiv

There are some interesting comments in a couple of places regarding the views of the elites (particularly the educated/intellectual elite) vs. the common person that I found intriguing, and that speak to related issues of today.

I imagine that I will revisit this work in the future. I am not entirely sure I understood everything Eliade claims; in fact, I know I didn’t. Another read might not fully solve that issue but it would help immensely I imagine. And I do think some interesting work on current culture could be done with the framework he has outlined here.


Scholes, English After the Fall

Disclaimer: I received an uncorrected proof copy of this book as part of the Library Thing Early Reviewer Program.

I read this book from 23 Nov – 13 Dec 2011 and the bottom line is that I enjoyed it and recommend it.


  • Prologue: English after the fall
  • Ch. 1: Literature and its others
  • Ch. 2: The limiting concept of literature
  • Ch. 3: Textuality and the teaching of reading
  • Ch. 4: Textual power—sacred reading
  • Ch. 5: Textual pleasure—profane reading
  • Epilogue: A sample program in textuality
  • A Note on Sources
  • Works Consulted
  • Index [missing in this uncorrected proof copy]

This book is a follow-on to his previous book, The Rise and Fall of English, which he claims “came about because of the alluring but ultimately fatal choice of literature as the central object of the English curriculum” (xiii). I have not read that book but will probably do so now; I will certainly be looking into other books and writings by Robert Scholes.

I have included a fair few quotes from the book to give you an idea of his style.

Prologue: English After the Fall

The Prologue gives us an overview of how the book came about, what the Fall of English is, provides a quick overview of the argument for “textuality,” provides Scholes’ qualifications and interests in this arena, and outlines the rest of the book.

“This book is simply a profession of faith in that fallen field of studies and an attempt to suggest a direction for its future” (xiii).

“The fall of English is actually part of the fall of all the humanities in a world that is driven by technological progress and the bottom line” (xiv-xv).

“In the case of English, the more obviously useful features of the field have been relegated to the bottom of the reward system, …. What is needed, as I understand the situation, is a broader reconsideration of the purpose of English studies. We need to see the main function of English departments as helping students become better users of the language—basically, better readers and writers. Literary works have a role to play in this function, but they are a means to, not the end of, studies in English, though they have often been treated as the end. In this book, I want to make the case for a shift in the field—from privileging literature to studying a wide range of texts in a wide range of media—so that what I call “textuality” can become the main concern of English departments” (xv, emphasis mine).

English as an academic field and the rise of such departments is about a century old. They replaced departments of rhetoric and took students from classical studies (xv-xvi) and this change coincided with the rise of modernism in literature and other arts (xvi).


  • history of ‘literature’
  • how a constricted notion of literature contributes to the fragmentation of the field
  • expanded field of textuality
  • illustration 1: the sacred
  • illustration 2: the profane

The prologue is quite understandable and provided me a bit of enthusiastic anticipation for what followed.

Ch. 1: Literature and Its Others

This chapter provides a rapid-fire intellectual/conceptual history of the concept of ‘literature.’ While it was interesting, it was not at all as clear as I had hoped it would be. This is definitely the weakest link in the book and its argument. Thankfully, it really isn’t required for the argument in any serious way; although it could certainly strengthen the argument if done well.

Intellectual history, and its close kin conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte), are my favorite kinds of history and I was highly interested in learning about the concept and idea of ‘literature’ as it has developed. Sadly, I am still pretty much in the dark after reading this romp of a chapter. I do understand Scholes giving just under 10% of the text to this chapter, seeing as it isn’t really fundamental to his argument, but I am still disappointed. Thankfully, this is really my only disappointment with the book.

Ch. 2: The Limiting Concept of Literature

Discusses the limits put on the concept of ‘literature’ within English departments and how that constrains what is taught.

“At the simplest level, as we have seen, this literary designation may rule excellent written texts out of consideration in our basic courses in reading, writing, and thinking. And that is one reason why we need to free ourselves from a restricted notion of literature” (23).

“We would not deny that certain kinds of texts, like instructions, are usually very low on the literary scale, but we all believe that there is a scale, and that there are poems, plays, stories, and expository texts all along that scale. This scale is a measure of a quality we may call “literariness” (which I would define as a combination of textual pleasure and power), but it is neither easy nor right to draw a line across the scale at some point and call everything on one side of the line literature” (24-5).

Provides a couple examples of the literary used for other forms of teaching and of the ‘nonliterary’ as examples of the literary.

Ch. 3: Textuality and the Teaching of Reading

(Some) problems with the restricted notion of reading:

  • “you can read it but you can’t write it”
  • “led to the separation of the study of reading/literature … from the study of writing/composition”
  • led to hierarchical structure of faculty
  • “further split between those kinds of writing that can be designated as ‘creative’ and those that cannot.”
  • “now have programs claiming creative status for certain sorts of writing not included in the restricted notion of literature, like the personal essay.”
  • “tied too tightly to the book”
  • “tied to a narrow view of what makes a text creative or literary”
  • “prevents us from demonstrating in our classrooms the relevance of the texts we cherish to the actual lives of our students” (33-34)

To solve these problems we need to redefine English as the study of textuality rather than literature. Such a redefinition has a number of aspects, but it begins with the recognition that English is all about teaching—not research—and that this teaching has two main branches: reading and writing. That is, the business of English departments is to help students improve as readers and writers, to become better producers and consumers of texts” (34, emphasis mine).

Scholes claims that “textuality has two aspects:”

  1. “broadening of the objects we study and teach to include all of the media and modes of expression.”
  2. “changing the way we look at texts to combine the perspectives of creator and consumer, writer and reader” (35).

“The basic purpose of humanistic education is to give students perspectives on their own cultural situation, opening the past so that they can connect it to the present” (35-6).

“…, we must find ways to make what students actually want and need more rewarding for their teachers, and we must find ways of making what teachers wish to teach more interesting and useful for those who may come to them for instruction. The solution, in my view, is to put these two aspects of English education back together. That is, teachers must not simply advise students how to consume texts but help them understand how these texts were constructed in the first place. The study of textuality involves looking at works that function powerfully in our world, and considering both what they mean and how they mean” (37).

“Cultural studies have actually been a part of the English curriculum for a while now. I am suggesting that English departments move these studies to the center of the historical dimension of their enterprise, using the connections between contemporary audiovisual media and the earlier print media as a way into our cultural past. This action also means historicizing cultural studies, …” (47).

“If English teachers can accept the responsibility to teach all aspects of textuality—the production, consumption, and history of texts in English—we will have a curriculum that can be competitive in an academic world in which the humanities have been marginalized.
In what follows in this book I take up some of these issues and pursue them to greater depths, concluding with some attempts to illustrate the kind of cultural work I think we should be doing, using the full range of texts available to us in the realm of textuality” (48).

He lays out and considers 3 levels or phases of reading, which are also further considered in rest of the book:

  1. Reaction – personal response
  2. Interpretation
  3. Criticism (50-2)

Ch. 4: Textual Power—Sacred Reading

“… we should treat all texts held to be sacred with interpretational respect. That is, we must see them as attempts to present a true version of events or a valid way of life, even if they seem to contradict our own views. Which does not mean that we need to believe any of them—even our own. Respect is different from belief” (53, emphasis mine).

Sacred reading includes both main sources of sacred texts: religions and governments.

Several sections are included in this chapter:

  • The Nature of Sacred Texts
  • A Fundamental Problem
  • A Failure to Communicate
  • Lots of Folks Forget That Part of It


“To simply make sense of it [notion of ‘sacredness’] in a basic way, however, we must perform an imaginative act, which tells us, I believe, that no text can be perfectly sacred in actuality—precisely because it is a text” (57)

US political sacred documents are “ideal for the study of interpretation” because we do know a lot about who wrote them and how they were composed (59).


“One of the main functions of textual education is to help people learn how to see things from more than one perspective, and to understand that these perspectives are not exactly matters of choice for many people, but ways in which they have been conditioned to see the world. ‘To see ourselves as others see us’ is important, but so is the ability to see others as they see themselves” (61).

“The textualist reader, then, must acknowledge the seriousness of fundamentalist readings, while resisting and criticizing the zeal that often results in interpretive leaps to an unearned certainty of meaning, achieved by turning a deaf ear to the complexity of the texts themselves, their histories, and their present situations” (63).

“them, there, then” ==> “us, here, now” “… “we must try to determine the text’s proper bearing on our own values and our conduct in the world” (71).

Ch. 5: Textual Pleasure—Profane Reading

“All texts that are not accorded sacred status may be considered profane—especially if we can do away with the semi-sacred category of literature” (89).

Focuses on musical drama and, in particular, opera in this chapter.

“Because performative works depend on audiences, the question of what they mean to “us, here, now” gains in importance. We live in a performative world, which is another reason why we should pay special attention to enacted stories in our classrooms” (92).

This chapter also has several sections:

  • Sacred versus Profane on Screen and Stage in the Twenties
  • Can’t Help It
  • Nobody’s Perfect
  • I’ve Become Lost to the World
  • The Pleasurable Pains of Opera
  • Send in the Clowns
  • Put on the Clown Suit
  • It Ain’t Over ‘Till the Fat Lady Sings

This chapter focused a lot on performance and roles.

Epilogue: A Sample Program in Textuality

“The essential matter for teachers of textuality is to get the interpretation of sacred texts into the curriculum, and to help students take pleasurable texts seriously—and to care about both the texts and the students” (142).

He ends with a “suggestion for a core of courses to be followed by advanced work drawn from whatever curriculum is already in a given institution” (142).

Most of these courses probably already exist, at least in title and with some applicable content. They would need to be restructured to focus on the textuality of the, hopefully, broadened range of texts used to comprise the content. I do see this as a totally doable venture, though.

Recommended! In particular, I feel that, at a minimum, the following folks could benefit from reading and thinking about this text: Lit majors [all languages], writing majors, and humanists of all stripes including digital humanists. This includes everyone from undergrads and their parents, through grad students on up to professors, department chairs and anyone else involved with or concerned with curriculum of literature(s) and writing.

This is a short but, nonetheless, important book. It is a quick read but supplies plenty to think about and act on.

Armstrong. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

This is an important book. But it is a book which cannot simply be read to do any good. Caveat: I simply read it.

Before I go on, let me recommend that you get the book from a library and read it. If you decide that you want to actually work at being more compassionate, if you want to work at the twelve steps in your own life, then go ahead and purchase yourself a copy. When Sara gets around to reading it we will probably purchase a copy.

The book itself is a quick read; but it is meant to be read slowly. Each chapter (step) is supposed to be mastered before moving on to the next. That is kind of difficult when you have a copy from the library for four weeks, like I did.

As Armstrong writes in the conclusion (“A Last Word”):

“It is rather a reminder that the attempt to become a compassionate human being is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or a day—or even in twelve steps. It is a struggle that will last until our dying hour. … You will have to work at all twelve steps continuously for the rest of your life—learning more about compassion, surveying your world anew, struggling with self-hatred and discouragement. Never mind loving your enemies—sometimes loving your nearest and dearest selflessly and patiently will be a struggle!” (191-2)

The author makes a good case for why we need more compassion in the world today, even though that claim should be self-evident.  This project arose from the TED Prize that the author won in 2008. Besides the cash prize, recipients get a wish. Hers was for a Charter for Compassion, “written by leading thinkers from a variety of major faiths [which] would restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life” (6).

The six major faith traditions of Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are used throughout the book to show how we may become more compassionate.

Armstrong shows how each of these major faiths were founded on compassion, how they each, among others, have all formulated some version of the Golden Rule. But the beauty of the book is in how religion does not matter. What matters are the ideas which underlie these faiths. This book is written and intended for the non-believer just as much as for the believer of any specific doctrine, whether of these six faith communities or any other.

As an agnostic (epistemically) and an atheist (commitment-wise), I quite enjoyed this book and Armstrong’s approach. In fact, ancient Greek mythos and culture is used as much as any of the main faiths are. Shakespeare, Joseph Campbell, assorted 20th century philosophers, and others are also made good use of.

This book would make a great selection for a committed book club, as it would for a campus reads program, or a first-year experience. In fact, a lengthy (one- or, preferably, two-semester, or a year or two for a book club), committed engagement with this book and the texts and doctrines and world views which surround it would be ideal. Many different approaches can and should be taken with the ideas presented.

One of her suggestions is to form a book group to go through the twelve steps with, and suggestions are made throughout of possible issues for discussion and further reading in such a group.

In the end, it is up to ourselves as individuals to become more compassionate. But if Armstrong, and all of the major faiths and ethical systems are correct, by treating others with compassion we will change them too.

As Armstrong writes at the end of the preface (“Wish for a Better World”):

“I am in agreement with His Holiness the Dalai Lama that “whether a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.” At their best, all religious, philosophical, and ethical traditions are based on the principle of compassion” (23-4).


  • Preface: Wish for a Better World
  • The First Step: Learn About Compassion
  • The Second Step: Look at your Own World
  • The Third Step: Compassion for Yourself
  • The Fourth Step: Empathy
  • The Fifth Step: Mindfulness
  • The Sixth Step: Action
  • The Seventh Step: How Little We Know
  • The Eighth Step: How Should We Speak to One Another?
  • The Ninth Step: Concern for Everybody
  • The Tenth Step: Knowledge
  • The Eleventh Step: Recognition
  • The Twelfth Step: Love Your Enemies
  • A Last Word

As a good companion book to this Armstrong book I would recommend Paul Woodruff’s Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue

I read Woodruff’s book in January 2009 and my, sadly, short comments can be seen in item #10 at my Books Read in 2009 post.

[This post was written for my dear friend, Jen!! I was thinking that I wasn’t going to say much about this book as I read it but I knew she was looking forward to my review. After discussing the issue of how it might work as a campus reads or first-year experience book with my lovely wife I realized that I might as well write those things down, too.]

Armstrong. A short history of myth

Sara also read this book recently.  I think that helped me as we had already discussed it a fair bit while she was reading it, and I had the benefit of her blog post about it.

Go read Sara’s review, which is excellent; I’ll wait.  See.  Now perhaps you don’t even need to read mine.  Nonetheless, I shall press on.

The help and benefit I am referring to is in regard to some of the assumptions the author makes.  Much of this bugged Sara and is what we discussed.  My anthropological and sociological background, and my background in mythology (as a subject), is both broader and deeper than hers to some extent.  Her background in assorted specific myths is far better than mine, just like mine is in other specific myths.  But this book is about mythology as a subject as a whole, and while it discusses assorted myths it is not about any of them.

Thanks to previous discussions with my beautiful and brilliant wife, along with reading her excellent review, I was able to approach this short book with its sometimes collapsed assumptions and high level synopses in a highly positive state of mind.

All that said, I really enjoyed this book!  I hope to reread it someday in the not too distant future and to map out some of Armstrong’s analysis in outline form as I find it valuable and would like to have it better to mind for whatever uses I might deem appropriate in the future.


  • What is a Myth?
  • The Paleolithic Period: The Mythology of the Hunters (c. 20000 to 8000 BCE)
  • The Neolithic Period: The Mythology of the Farmers (c. 8000 to 4000 BCE)
  • The Early Civilizations (c. 4000 to 800 BCE)
  • The Axial Age (c. 800 to 200 BCE)
  • The Post-Axial Period (c. 200 BCE to c. 1500 CE)
  • The Great Western Transformation (c. 1500 to 2000)

As an example of an assumption one must accept or move past, take the opening sentence, “Human beings have always been mythmakers” (1).  If one browses through the Wikipedia articles on Homo and on the Oldowan period you’ll see that “human beings” applies to our ancestors going back to at least 2.4 million years ago.

“Most models rely on social and communication networks to hold the band together. These social networks range from requiring no more communication than modern primates, to requiring more sophisticated sharing and teaching. At present, no evidence has been found that sharply divides these theories.” [From Oldovan]

Exactly!  We have no idea, nor will we ever have conclusive evidence, as to when humans acquired a form of language that not only makes possible, but uses, narrative structure.  Both are required for mythmaking.  Anyway, not really a critical issue to the story Armstrong tells but an example of some of the rhetoric that might get in your way.

One more short example so that you can make a better judgement as to whether this book is for you.  The opening sentence of the second chapter begins, “The period in which human beings completed their biological evolution …” (12, emphasis mine).  Excuse me!  Again, not critical to the argument at all but perhaps difficult for the discriminating reader to ignore.

Again, let me state that I think this is a good book, and that the argument that the author makes is an excellent one.

Each age changed mythos and humankind’s relationship to it until it was, at least in the developed West, fully eradicated and we no longer had a relationship to it.

“Western modernity was the child of logos” (119). … The new hero of Western society was henceforth the scientist or the inventor, who was venturing into uncharted realms for the sake of his society. He would often have to overthrow old sanctities—just as the Axial sages had done. But the heroes of Western modernity would be technological or scientific geniuses of logos, not the spiritual geniuses inspired by mythos. This meant that intuitive, mythical modes of thought would be neglected in favor of the more pragmatic, logical spirit of scientific rationality. Because many Western people did not use myth, many would lose all sense of what it was (121-22). … But logos had never been able to provide human beings with the sense of significance that they seemed to require. It had been myth that had given structure and meaning to life, but as modernization progressed and logos achieved such spectacular results, mythology was increasingly discredited. As early as the sixteenth century, we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place. We are seeing a similar anomie today in developing countries that are still in the early stages of modernization” (122).

It is with this comment, “… as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place …” that I want to point to W.H. McNeill’s Mythistory and Other Essays that I read last year.

While McNeill’s concept of “myth” is broader than Armstrong’s (each appropriate to their own contexts) he directly addresses this issue of the killing of all myth while offering nothing to take its place.  In the essay “The Care and Repair of Myth” he argues that public myth provides the basis for collective action:

“A people without a full quiver of relevant agreed-upon statements, accepted in advance through education or less formalized acculturation, soon finds itself in deep trouble, for, in the absence of believable myths, coherent public action becomes very difficult to improvise or sustain” (23).

In this, and the title essay, he scolds his fellow professional historians for their destruction of myth and attempts to show them why responsible mythmaking to replace those they have destroyed is an ethical and professional responsibility.   His main concern in the book is a rehabilitated view of myth, and while broader than Armstrong’s it is one that melds well with hers.  Whether one accepts Armstrong’s or McNeill’s concept of myth and the functions they respectively assign to myth, it is clear that humankind *needs* myth.

Sara, in her review [linked above] gives a good inkling of how Armstrong ends the book.  I agree with much of her analysis in the concluding sections but I fear this is at best a temporary amelioration of the problem and not an actual solution.

Sara and I were discussing this this morning and as she wisely pointed out this conclusion may have been primarily slanted toward supporting the series which this title is the lead in to, the Canongate Myth Series, which is “A bold re-telling of legendary tales — The Myths series gathers the world’s finest contemporary writers for a modern look at our most enduring myths.”

Nonetheless, I think there is much of value in this little book.  It is easy reading, and it is a great introduction to the riches-to-rags story, as Sara called it, that is the history of myth in human thought and action.