Monday, January 4, 2021

'Writing was sympathetic magic'...

Today, in high-information environments, people may see writing as "logorrhea," or worse, a force of destruction and entropy. Writing can cause something simple to destabilize and to become unnecessarily complex.

But in low-information environments (and especially long ago), people have been amazed by writing and grateful for its contributions.

Writing seemed to make an idea immortal.


"To the ancients, writing was wizardry. ...the discovery of a method to project one’s self beyond a single life span seemed nothing less than miraculous." Leonard Shlain. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Penguin/Compass, 1999.


This also seemed to reinforce the truth of a myth. If the myth had seemed true enough to begin with, writing the myth made it tangible and permanent and thus made it seem more real. Writing something seemed to make it true.


"First-century people just didn't have the same sense of factuality that we do, or of writing either. Writing was sympathetic magic, we should remember: writing something down was to an extent making it so, it was a creative rather than mimetic act..."
John Updike. Roger's Version. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

"While the story of Christ was in many ways a typical hero myth — the virgin birth, the supernatural acts (miracles), the rebirth into immortality — in one respect it was unique: it claimed not to be a myth at all. It claimed to be history. Traditional societies do not distinguish between myth and history in the way that we do. Mythical events were not thought to have literally happened; yet in another sense they were true, as if they had. ‘These things never happened, they are always’, wrote Sallust sublimely (86-34 B.C.). Conversely, historical events are always mythologized (the Trojan war, for example). It is as if what literally happened is less important than what metaphorically happened. But the two are combined to create what ‘really’ happened.
When the story of Christ was held to be history, its events literally true, myth suffered a blow. It began to acquire its modern meaning of something unreal, imaginary (as opposed to imaginative) and merely fictional. At the same time, truth and reality began to be measured by their literal truth and reality. Literalism began with Christianity."
Patrick Harpur. The Philosopher's Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination. p. 81.