Welcome, or perhaps welcome back, to my blog. It has a long and graceless history of sporadic productivity, but it is once again active, in tandem with my attempt at keeping an Academic Journal.
The academic journal is an animal which I have often heard described by professors or Ph.Ds, but which until recently was foreign to me. It consists of more than my class notes–though it also includes the most interesting and thought-provoking lessons from my courses. It consists of more than notes on the reading–though excerpts from books and movies find their way into it. And it is not just a storage space for random ideas–although I find my imagination becomes more fertile when I stare at that loaded document. It’s only the fourth day of classes and already it is eight pages long.
The journal is all of these things. And it is more. The journal is a place for development. I take closely related concepts and draw the implied connections. I make the obvious statement that makes all my courses relevant to one another, and re-learn lessons I already knew. And then, I take that obvious statement and I write it out in a new format, just to pound it further into my head.
To that end, I will be waxing eloquent in a series of posts entitled “Divisions,” brought about by lectures in three disparate courses. I will inflict them upon anyone who wishes to look, and I hope that they prove entertaining. It isn’t often that I find academic work written in proper English (one of the rare exceptions is the blog of a professor at my school), and I hope the informal tone can bring some much-needed levity.
So here’s the situation.
INTERIOR: UNDERGRADUATE CLASSROOM: DAY
It’s the first day of class, and we are discussing Chinese mythology. Now, Chinese mythology is unusual in that it is a world with which I am absolutely unfamiliar. This sounds a bit arrogant, but really–I know something about nearly every mythological cosmos formed in the ‘Western Hemisphere.’ The mysterious East is pretty much a blank spot on my writer’s imagination. I was enthralled, as you might imagine. A Queen with a human head and a serpent’s body. A farmer god with an oxen’s visage. Stories of fires quenched, crops irrigated, skills taught, and families established. A place-spirit (a genius loci for you erstwhile fans of Jim Butcher) in every river, on every mountain, in every secluded grotto. A world ruled by social connections.
Of course, this was a philosophy course.
That’s right, philosophy. A subject commonly understood as the logical, rational pursuit of truth and understanding. And we’re taking a crash course in Chinese mythology. Why? It seems odd, to say the least. Analytic philosophy is the practice of applying Occam’s Razor to a problem until it has been trimmed into a lovely theoretical topiary. Myths are bunches of stories, all of them made up, arranged into a fetching cosmos.
Why start a philosophy class with mythology?
Well–and here is the kicker of this post–we started with mythology to convey more than just information.
Nüwa was her name. She was the Creator*.She gave life to humanity, held back demons, and quenched ravenous fires to protect her children. Multiple times, the world fell out of order on her watch; each time, she restored balance.
*I am told that it is actually inaccurate to refer to her merely as the Creator, but since I don’t speak the slightest bit of Chinese and (as I’ve said) have about forty minutes more knowledge in Chinese mythology than I did last Tuesday, I’m afraid I have no idea at all how to title her, if not in this fashion.
Anyway. Interesting stuff, isn’t it? How silly of these ancient Chinese people. We know better. The world was not actually saved from fire and demons by a lady with a snake body. What a weird way to explain evolution. Obviously incorrect.
But…maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the purpose of the myth isn’t in its factual content?
Maybe, instead, this origin myth is trying to emphasize the importance of balance in the cosmos, and the tendency that the world has to return to equilibrium? Maybe this myth is not meant to be a transfer of information–maybe it is meant to be an expression of cultural values.
Maybe, attempting to take this myth literally is just as much of a mistake as trying to use a metaphor around Drax the Destroyer.
Tune in to the next post for a more in-depth exploration of this idea. What is a myth? What is a legend? And do they contain more than just factual content?
Until next time, reader.