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Cesare Pavese – About Myth

Cesare Pavese,

Fototeca Storica Nazionale,

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Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA is an article written by Italian writer Cesare Pavese between January 27-29 1950 for the magazine ‘Cultura e Realta‘ for its first issue-May-June 1950; here translated into working English by Via-HYGEIA from the French translation of Gilles de Van from its original Italian for Editions Gallimard- Collection Arcades in 1999. Article follows pages 209 to 218. It is a very important piece that clearly delineate Pavese’s understanding and use of myth in his writings. He also calls-in Giambattista Vico, skillfully offering a fascinating widening of the subject into its historical and cultural context.


‘Nowadays, the word ‘myth’ is quite rightly fairly discredited. If nevertheless we use it to point-out this inner ecstatic image, embryonic, loaded with virtual developments, which is at the very origin of all poetical creation, we do not think ourselves talking a mystical or aestheticizing language. We are just condensing in one word a historical and complex analysis and a poetic we believe in, that this analysis supports and justify.

Every time we manage to go back in time to the very beginning of a poetical age, we meet with the true myth. When we venture backward the pathway of any nation’s civilisation, we see its diverse modes of expression take more and more the colors of myth, until we reach the phase when nothing is done nor is thought, in the world of the tribe, that is not relying on a mythical model. What does this dependence mean? The diverse daily and festive customs, the language, the techniques, the institutions and the passions, all are shaped upon events that happened once and for all, upon divine schemes that are at the origin of all activity, and not in a strict temporal sense: In order to happen, something needs to have been already happened, to have been established out-side of time. Myth is what is occurring and re-occurring an infinity of times on the surface of the earth and yet is unique, out-side of time, exactly like a regular festival happens every time like it was the first time-in a time dimension that is the festival’s time: non-temporal, mythical. Before becoming a fable, marvelous adventure, myth was a simple norm, a meaningful behaviour, a rite sanctifying reality. And it was also the impulse, the magnetic charge that was, alone, pushing humanity at work and at task.

All of this is not new. Ethnological research established it through passionate and pedantic discussions, and the crucial point, explicit or implicit, of these discussions was the supposed pre-logism of primitive people and the problem of  knowing if our ancestors were thinking according to conceptual patterns and the law of causality, or rather upon a mystical law of participation, in terms of magic and the good will of people. Some even wondered if these people did possess supernatural and meta-empiric powers and if, as a matter of fact, witchcraft was a more serious thing than expected.

Our impression is, as always, the inventor of this question had been the most lucid of all: ‘The first men, as children of the human race, unable to form the intelligible type of things, felt naturally the necessity to elaborate the poetical characteristics that are types and universals of the imagination allowing to bring back to a few models or ideal figures all the particular species each of them resembling to a determined type…’ (‘The New Science’, second edition, axiom XLIX). This first classical description of the primitive mentality seems to us, up to today, the most convincing. If, furthermore, we add the other axiom (XLVII) according to: ‘The poetical truth is a metaphysical truth, in view of which a physical truth that would not comply to it must be considered false…‘, we could consider that Vico truly saw the problem in all its aspects; and if we read, where it rightly applies, ‘mythic’ instead of ‘poetic’, we would have ended so many ill-formulated contemporary discussions. What Vico calls the ‘universal’ of imagination are obviously the myths: through them, children, primitive people, poets (all those who still do not-or not completely-practice rational judgement, coined as ‘human philosophy’) seize reality, in theory and in practice. Vico was the first to notice and interpret the obvious fact that the existence of primitive people (the ‘heroic nations’) as a whole was modeled upon myth. But, this  fondamental human attitude, this reduction of ‘all particular species’ into ‘certain models’, into ‘types of the imagination’ is nothing else than a religious attitude.

Interpreting Vico’s thought, some  considered that the novelty of this science was the discovery of the aesthetic category. We are not convinced by that. Insofar as he identified and submitted to examination a whole chunk of this ‘eternal ideal history’ (period when reasoning thought, methodological, was not yet born) after which the history of nations develops through time. Vico couldn’t not meet the nature of poetry, creative imagination, but his passionate inquiry led to something else. It is not a random fact that he indulges using the documents of heroic imagination (from hieroglyphs and crests to poems) to render juridical, political, moral, economical and cultural realities of this world more clear. Starting from the embryonic kernel of myths (exalting and persuading believers, pushing them into action), he comes to describe an ideal heroic civilisation. And, even though this civilisation, fertilized by the religious seed of myth, gave birth to a vigorous poetry, he does not linger to define the autonomy of poetry: he does not believe in this very autonomy. It is, even in the ‘eternal and ideal’ process of poetic creation, a mythical moment more-than-ever-implicit (here myth is what we call inspiration, the kernel of intuition), and this religious moment, which in the other activities of the mind has since deeply changed or disappeared, only survives-immediate and un-removable-inside imagination.

We came to this concept of myth by meditating on a religious fact. It happened that we wondered what is representing for the faithful a sanctuary, in what a sacred mountain differs for him from any other hills, and our answer was precise: the sanctuary is a mythical place where once happened a manifestation, a divine revelation (tactus de coelo, a touch from heaven: lightning fell there); the place, unique among all, where the faithful participates in some way by his presence, his contact, his sight, to the unicity of this revelation which is multiplied in time, effectively because it happened once outside of time and consequently establishes all the mythical reality of this mountain. What does the faithful feel when in contact with the sacred hill? Time stops for him, in a vertiginous moment he contemplates, he feels the unicity of the place-incarnated symbol of his faith-central kernel of all of his inner life. The quality of the mythical object doesn’t matter much, complex liturgy or simple rock, because it doesn’t ‘express‘, it ‘is’ the divine, metaphysical truth.

Independent of all religious practices, there is something in our experience that recalls this moment: a universal of the imagination that inspires an analog passion to each individual (in this lays the difference with the religious myth which is always collective). Vico’s words perfectly adapt to this situation: ‘…The first men, as children of the human race…’ From childhood, from the very first years, from all of the moments of fondamental contact with the things of the world and the world that finds men disarmed, moved, immediate, of all the irreducible to rationality’s ‘first times’, from all the dawning moments when an image took shape in the consciousness, an idol, a divinatory thrill before the amorphous, rises, as from a pit or a wide open door, a vertigo,  a promise of knowledge, a foretaste of extasy. The essence of this feeling is that time stops, every experience is as new as the very first time: so it goes of the ritual practices for the celebration of a festival. To surrender to contemplation, to the deepening of this moment, means to get out of time, to brush against a metaphysical absolute, to enter in a sphere where we desire, where we elaborate with difficulty a seed that would lose its immobility only to become something else: conscious poetry, formulated thought, responsible action…to sum up: history.

This dawning state, we consequently call it ‘mythical‘; and ‘myths‘, the diverse images, always identical for all of us, springing from the depth of our consciousness. they live insofar they are not yet transformed into poetical evidence or into rational clarity, but they radiate of such a life, such a warmth, of such a promise of light, that they are as much bonfires and lighthouses for our consciousness. In the frame of this analysis, these individual myths are of interest to us as seeds of all poetry.

What does the poet do if it is not labor so that his myths become clear images, an accessible speech to his neighbour? Because it is in their daïmonique nature that, along being fascinating by the experience of a unicity, of an irréductible absolute, these myths (they ask to be believed-‘true metaphysical’) alarm consciousness, alike an important message that we only remember in-half, and engage all of the energies of the mind to shed light upon them, to define them, to possess them completely. But  everybody knows that possessing means destroying-which is of course a transformation-strip the violated myth of its unicity, of its mysterious symbolic power, ‘object of belief’.

The myth becoming poetry loses its religious halo. Provided that it also become theorical knowledge (‘human philosophy’), the process is completed.

It is therefore clear that we do not recommend to anybody to ‘keep myths in cotton’. The initial febrile faith is only sincere if when it doesn’t give up any effort to better fathom its object. And it is absolutely pointless to fake, by aesthetical complacency, that a mystery still lasts when it has already been transformed into clear image or into a lucid concept. Such is the law of the mind: to tirelessly arouse its very own myths through the  frontal confrontation with reality, and to strive to shed light upon them, to transform them into poetry or theory. The person who is complacent with a myth that has been already explained, penetrated, violated, is neither a true faithful, nor a poet, nor a scientist. It is only an aesthete and nothing more.

We should point out in-passing that all of our explanation concerns the spiritual process in itself and disregard the eventual biological occasion that determines it and sets it into motion. There is no need to precise that the person who undertakes the venture to fathom a myth that is incubating inside a heart will have to and ought to link it in an historical manner to the facts and gestures of the person who is its devotee, from its food diet, sexual, economical choices up to his relationship with culture, with all the culture of his time. Seen from the inside, a myth is obviously a revelation, an absolute, an intemporal moment, but it tends by its nature to become history, to produce itself among men, to finally become poetry or theory; in such manner, it denies itself as a myth, as out of time, and bends to the genetical and causal inquiry of the historians.

We will be told that all of these developments are pointless if they arrive to the conclusion that there is a historico-cultural moment where everything happens as if the myth, intemporal moment, never existed. Are we not used to consider that what is inexistent for the historian…does not exist at all?

Perhaps. It is our habit. And it would be like a proof of esthétisme, of complacency (like faking not to know that we know already) to seek myth inside our conceptual knowledge of history. By definition, we cannot find it there. The rational theory of nature and history, this hard conquest, faces us, imposing, guiding us towards action, keeping us alive.

Is it really true? Do we just live off that? Are each of our essential decisions (in virtue of which we put our life at stake or exalt it through the creation process) not born rather below or above theory, prompted by a more mysterious, a more ecstatic, a more imperious impulse than rational conviction or knowledge? What could alarm us, exasperate us, compel us to violate it, to shed light upon it, if it is not the un-breached, the fore-seen, the un-known? There is this truth referring to theory: A myth worthy-of-the-name can only rise upon the field of the whole existing culture: it pre-suppose this culture, considers it assimilated but even go further by appearing as a mysterious and promising image because it is irreducible even to the oxyhydrique flamme of our most lucid theory. We said it earlier: It is pointless to linger among already puzzled-out mysteries.

Let’s abandon these high spheres for the moment and and let’s just notice that what makes everyone live under the ashes-of-days, it is desire, fiery like ember, desire for its own mythical kernel, for every moment of extasy that have marked its true contact with reality, populating its memory of opportunities, of imaginary schemes, of veiled idols.  Memory truly celebrates the repeatability (recurrence) of these myths, their always renewed unicity. When they flush again in extasy, the law of time is mythically abolished. Their irrational power of suggestion mythically abolish cultural rationality.

The poet-creator of fable-is jealous and passionate about this dawning glitter which is the starting point and the food of every beautiful fable. To write poetry, it means to bring a mythical seed into obviousness and the then completion of the image. But it does also mean giving shape and form to this seed, to transform it into a object of contemplation, to detach it from the maternal twilight of memory, to get used ultimately to not believe in it anymore, like a mystery which ceased to be one. Then the true suffering of the artist starts: when one of his myths has become a representation, idle, he cannot believe in it anymore but is unable to let go of this good, of this authentic faith which animated his life and therefore he strives to go back to it, longing after it, walking away from it. Hence, possession ends, like any other possession, unless the rich human constitution of the artist is such that it makes him neglect or even ignore the purely contemplative aim of his work and pushes him to turn his energy towards a more practical aim (pedagogical, parenetic (relating to moral and ethical instruction or paraenesis), cultural or experimental) that allows his interest in his work to survive until it reaches completion.

We have some poets in-whose works the mythical seeds enjoys an eternal youth, a wealth that survives the diversity of forms into various elaborations; and we have also those who are overflowing with figures, opportunities, an abundance of myths, to such an extent that their existence is hardly enough to try them all and express them more or less successfully; they are very rare and we can call them the geniuses of the tribe. Overall, they are the most conscious, for their time period, of the existing culture: they survey it, plough it, carry it to its boundaries, towards a horizon beyond which other days show-through, other appearances, other veiled myths. Long ago they were called seers.

But we shouldn’t think that in itself the experience of the myth is a prerogative of the poets, and to a lesser level of the thinkers. It is a universally human good, it is the religion that survives even in the most scrimpy hearts, the most petty ones-and their owners would be quite surprised if someone would explain to them that there is in them a seed that could become a fable. It is also (and is it worth saying?) the condition upon which the universality and necessity of poetry is grounded.’

Picture from the site-Reggio Calabria-Portrait of Cesare-Pavese at his working table.





More about Cesare Pavese: 🌿About Giambattista Vico:
Cesare Pavese – About Myth

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