The Vocabulary of Myth, Part V

Gravity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses…

In Plato’s Phaedrus…

In The Blues Brothers…

 And its Moral and Spiritual (i.e. Mythical) Signification…

     Before we quite leave the earth’s gravitational orbit (figuratively, but also literally, as we’ll see momentarily), let me draw your attention to two other ancient mythic expressions of the same physical reality, and one modern one, all fecund with the kind of meaning that is entirely beyond the scope and capacity of empirical science.

My first example comes from Ovid, one of the most sophisticated writers who ever held a pen. Ovid’s cosmogony at the beginning of The Metamorphoses remains a seminal text, without the reading of which no one escapes my classroom.

It is utterly traditional in describing the creation of the world as the ordering by God of a pre-existent material chaos in which the elemental opposites have invaded each other’s proper territory, and are in a more or less permanent state of war.  God, or Nature, Ovid writes, composes this strife, separating the aggressors, assigning each of them to its own province, and binding them fast “in harmony”.

This is how the Roman poet describes this ordering process:

The fiery weightless element that forms heaven’s vault leaped up and made place for itself upon the topmost height.  Next came the air in lightness and in place.  The earth was heavier than all, and, drawing with it the grosser elements, sank to the very bottom of the universe by its own weight.  The streaming water took its place last, and held the solid land confined in its embrace.

I’ll come back to this passage shortly, but clearly Ovid knows a thing or two about the modern theory of gravitation.

My second example comes, somewhat paradoxically, from Plato.  Paradoxically, because in The Republic, as you know, Plato affects to be a strict constructionist of philosophical truth, and therefore banishes the lying poets from his ideal city.  What rather mitigates Plato’s criticism of poetry, allegory, and myth, however, is his own penchant for quoting Homer, and his prolific imagination, which confabulates innumerable allegorical myths as a means of explaining the invisible, incorporeal realities (God, the Ideas, the Soul) which apparently could not otherwise be explained than in those ostensibly false, and so forbidden, sensual images in which poetry traffics.

Plato’s ubiquitous reliance upon poetic figure, myth, and allegory (e.g., the allegory of the cave and the myth of Er in the very Republic from which he banishes the poets; the figure of the charioteer in the Phaedrus, to name only a few) suggests that his antipathy to the supposed falsity and sensuality of poetry is hardly to be taken literally.  (But then the opposition between philosophical truth and poetic fiction, science and myth, is a conventional and continuous topos in Western literature, discussion of which will have to be postponed for another course.)

In the Phaedrus, Plato compares the human soul to a pair of winged horses driven by a charioteer.  In its perfect, pre-lapsarian state, he says, the soul soars freely amongst the heavens, the habitation of the Ideas and the gods, borne upward upon wings that are the element within man most akin to the immortal divine.  In the supernal regions, the wings of the soul are nourished upon the eternal and incorporeal Ideas, but when the soul conceives a foul affection for the material and transitory goods and pleasures of this world, and when she gives in to these lower passions, her wings begin to waste away, and she droops in flight.  In due course, after her wings have thus completely atrophied, she at last settles on the solid earth, and finding a home there, contentedly receives an earthly body.

 

The first thing one notices about both Ovid’s and Plato’s mythic narratives is that the empirical fact of gravity can only be described by them in expressly moral and religious language. Ovid characterizes the earth (the heaviest of the four elements) as “foul” (sordidus) and “gross” (densus).   It is, in Hamlet’s later description of the earthly element in man, “O…too, too solid/sullied”.

Under its own weight, the Earth sinks to the very bottom of the universe, the farthest, that is, from the lucid and weightless heavens, and functions there as a sort of cosmic dust bin, catching all the flotsam and jetsam that drains into it.  This is not an auspicious habitat for man.

Ovidian man, in fact, is an exile, a “stranger and pilgrim” on the earth, to use the language of Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, always “mindful of” and seeking the “better, that is, the heavenly country” whence he came.  For Ovid, that which is essential and original in man’s nature, the “true man”, as Plato called it, is the incorporeal soul.

In his account of man’s creation (to which we will return in greater detail later), Ovid conceives of the human soul as a displaced fragment or spark of the Divine Fire, first stolen by Prometheus from heaven, and then breathed into the inanimate lump of clay that had been shaped by this arch-sculptor into the human body.  That body is thus the human correlative of the cosmic prima materia: it is a formless chaos until it is animated by the Soul of God, just as the cosmos is a formless chaos until Nature or God informs it with order.

Man walks erect, as Ovid goes on to explain—and we note that homo erectus is another important datum of modern evolutionary science, pre-empted by the mythic imagination—because his re-ascent to his heavenly home depends upon his morally and intellectually fixing his gaze, throughout his earthly sojourn, upon the divine region of his birth.

Which leads me, finally, to my modern example of a myth about gravity and how to defy it.  It comes from an intermittently inspired piece of cinematic art, the 1970s film starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd entitled The Blues Brothers.

At the beginning of the scene in question, Jake (the Belushi character) is standing reluctantly in the narthex of a church, having just been collected from the prison gate in the new Bluesmobile by brother Ellwood, who has shepherded him there for his reformation.  Suddenly, Jake’s body is bathed in, transfigured by, the celestial Light of Revelation.  “I have seen the light; I have seen the light”, he proclaims, somewhat redundantly.

The light he has seen is the idea to get the band back together, and to earn thereby the money necessary to pay the back-taxes on the orphanage where the brothers were raised.  Meanwhile, in the church itself, a prayer service is being led in the style of an old Negro revival meeting, by James Brown.

Preacher Brown and the choir are singin’ and gyratin’ to the exuberant praises of the Lord, and the infection is soon caught by the congregation.  They begin dancing in the aisles, and soon in the rafters, to which they have been propelled by the energy of the indwelling Spirit.

In mid-air, they perform long and lazy somersaults and other acrobatic maneuvers, as if they had broken completely free of the earth’s gravitational orbit.  And indeed they have.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, they are enjoying the state of enthousiasmos (to use the language of the ancient pagan mystery cults); they are entheoi, possessed by God.

In the more appropriate Christian language of St. Paul, they have “put off mortality” and “put on immortality”; they have become no longer earthly and carnal creatures, but new spiritual and heavenly beings, for whom gravity and the other laws of nature no longer apply.  And though Belushi and Ackroyd are sending up–sorry, another gravitational pun–a certain kind of modern American religion, be assured that its roots go back to the mists of pre-history, when human consciousness meant mythic consciousness.

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