Hans Blumenberg-Myth Allows Man To Live, By Depleting Superior Power

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Bas-relief on marble plate, 2nd or 3rd century AD, from the excavations of the Moreria de Sagunto site. from the collections of the Historical Museum of Sagunto (MUHSAG) in the province of Valencia, Spain. Picture by Joan Banjo.


Today’s in our sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA we continue our gleans from Hans Blumenberg’s ‘After The Absolutism Of Reality’ chapter with another selection of excerpts, from the book, ‘Work on Myth’, translated into English by Robert M. Wallace, MIT Press, 1985. Our quotes and excerpts are meant as an invitation to discover the author we highlight in our posts. They are there to give ‘a taste‘ for you to discover the ‘real thing‘ itself in the reading of the whole work, as the  fullness of context and the presence of notes and scholarly presentations, here lacking,  will provide an irreplaceable experience in the building of a reader’s intimate library.


It may be that magic was able at first to generate the beneficent Illusion that man was able to accomplish more in relation to the conditions of his existence than his skills could substantiate in reality. Even before that, the directions had to be determined and named, from which benefaction or the opposite was to be expected. Agencies to which to address oneself had to become apprehensible, in order for it to be possible to wring favor from them or to prevent their disfavor. It is not mere metaphorical convenience when phenomena are seen as results of actions. One of the fundamental patterns in which man’s history presents itself, into recorded times, is that in which the perception of his interest in relation to reality was played through in illusion and defended in the form of an (unrecognized) fiction before it could even begin to become realistic. The broad field of health-care practices provides the material to support this statement; but in principle there is nothing different in the ritual cultivation of forces and powers.

The narrow zone of realistic behavior is always surrounded by a field of suggestions of action and of the producibility of results. The burden of proving where the limits of influencing the world would be found always lay on cases of failure-and only on those where no supplementary explanation of its causes was available (an uncommon exception to the rule). This presumption supports an increasingly rich pattern of ‘as if behavior, whose success consisted in its initial or permanent incontrovertibility. Mankind has supported itself, through the greatest part of its history and of the contents of its consciousness, on irrefutable assumptions, and perhaps-it is a suspicion, not capable of proof- still does so.


That events were interpreted as actions is, according to Nietzche’s formulation, the distinguishing mark of all mythologies. But it is not primarily a matter of explaining phenomena, as it appears when he brings in causality. Urgently and early on, the interest was certainly in the existence of powers that one could appeal to, that could be turned away from or toward one, that were capable of being influenced in every sense, and that were also (to a degree) dependable, as long as this did not have to be the dependability of jealousy or enmity.


For Goethe the head of Medusa is the triumph of classicism. It stands for the overcoming of the terror of the primeval times by means no longer of myth or of religion, but of art. When he possesses this “ardently hoped for presence” on the Frauenplan,i it has already be­ come a distant memory that in Rome he had lived opposite the palazzo of the Rondanini and had often seen the marble mask, “of remarkable excellence“-a sight “that by no means turned one to stone, but rather enlivened one’s artistic sense exceedingly and magnificently,” as he writes to Zelter on January 21, 1826.

This is a unique paradigm of the ‘work on myth‘ that may have begun with the ‘apotropaic’ [hindering, averting] accomplishment of naming. Franz Rosenzweig spoke of the “name’s breaking into the chaos of the unnamed,” though the word chaos may conform too much to what is familiar from myths and cosmologies, as though these were fossils embodying the history of the human race. However late that may already be which we can grasp with the aid of the names that have been handed down, it is a piece of mastery of-of giving shape to and bringing into view-something that went before and that is beyond our reach. What was produced can be called “the capacity to be addressed.” It prepares the way for the exercise of influence through magic, ritual, or worship. And again, in the interpretation of the in­stitutions, practices, and rituals, the power that they are directed at becomes entangled in a story, which naturally is the story of the greater possibility, at least occasionally, of getting along with it. Every story gives an Achilles’ heel to sheer power. Even the ‘world’ gave its creator a need, when his dogma had hardly been completed, for a justification of the fact that his world acquired a history.


The historical power of myth is not founded in the origins of its contents, in the zone from which it draws its materials and its stories, but rather in the fact that, in its procedure and its ‘form’, it is no longer something else. I would never call it the “faith of the Hellenes” that Homer’s and Hesiod’s gods are a ‘sequel‘ to other gods, who stand behind them or have been merged into them. There is room for discussion of Edvard Lehmann’s formula that myth was destined to be overcome, although I fear that it contains an unfortunate deeper meaning. But it will be incomparably more important to describe myth itself as already the manifestation of an overcoming, of the gaining of a distance, of a moderation of bitter earnestness.

To speak of beginnings is always to be suspected of a mania for returning to origins. Nothing wants to go back to the beginning that is the point toward which the lines of what we are speaking of here converge. On the contrary, everything apportions itself according to its distance from that beginning. Consequently, it is more prudent to speak of the “plus-perfect” [Voroergangenheit, the past’s past] rather than of “origins.” This pluperfect is not that of an omnipotence of wishes, which would have submitted to compromise with reality, as ‘realism,’ only after colliding with the hostility of what does not bow to wishes. There we can only imagine the single absolute experience that exists: that of the superior power of the Other.


If one of the functions of myth is to convert numinous indefiniteness into nominal definiteness and to make what is uncanny familiar and addressable, then this process leads ad absurdum [to absurdity] when “everything is full of gods.”, as Thales of Miletus said. From that situation no further conclusion can be arrived at by a finite procedure, and no result can be expected beyond counting up and having named [the gods]. That could have been foreseen to a large extent already from the case of Hesiod’s Theogony. The power of genera ting images, the imagining of figures and histories, the systematics of their relationships with one another were not able to measure up to the abundance of names. If Thales had wanted to explain why myth was no longer sufficient, inasmuch as its outcome was a plenitude of gods, then the philosophy that he brought in would not have been something that pushed destructively into the sphere of myth’s full vigor, but instead would have been called for precisely by virtue of the demonstration that myth had fulfilled its function.

It is not an accident that the anecdotal, improbable tradition makes the proto-philosopher take over the office that myth too had held: that of discussing and, if not explaining, at least depleting the power of unfamiliar and uncanny phenomena. The prediction of a solar eclipse, which is ascribed to Thales, goes beyond the covering of the event with names and stories. It reveals for the first time the capacity of theory-so much more effective in ‘warding off’-to show, by means of foreknowledge, that the extraordinary is normal, that it is governed by a rule. Even as an invention, the nexus between the proto-philosopher and the solar eclipse would have to be admired, because it would have been only too accurate in its representation of the replacement of one heterogeneous form of attitude to the world by another.

Theory is the better adapted mode of mastering the episodic tremenda [terrors] of recurring world events. But leisure and dispassion in viewing the world, which theory presupposes, are already results of that mil­lenniums-long work of myth itself, which told of the monstrous as something that is far in the past and has been forced back to the edge of the world. What we find occurring in Thales’ obscure saying is not a zero point of reason’s self-encouragement, but rather the perception of a long-accomplished setting free of the world observer.
In this case Aristotle’s hypothesis that philosophy began with wonder and that it then progressed from puzzles that were close at hand to those relating to small things and great things requires correction. This hypothesis has been gladly heard in the tradition. Man’s natural vo­cation for knowledge was supposed to have proclaimed itself in wonder as the consciousness of his lack of knowledge. Myth and philosophy would then have come from one root.

By analogy to philosophos [wisdom­ loving], Aristotle constructs the term philomythos [myth-loving], so as to be able to relate the philosopher’s predilection for what is wonderful to myth, since after all myth itself is composed of wonderful things.0 The philosopher has something left over for myth because it is composed of what is also supposed to constitute the attraction of theory. But more than that he does not have. It is true that myth becomes material for exegesis and allegorical interpretation, just as it had become the material of tragedy, but it does not itself become an appropriate procedure for dealing with what had given rise to wonder. The classical ‘disinformation’ that is contained in the formula “from mythos to logos” and that still lies innocently dormant in Plato’s indecision between myth and logos is complete where the philosopher recognizes in myth only the identity of the objects for which he believes he has found the definitive mode of treatment. The mischief of that obvious historical formula lies in the fact that it does not permit one to recognize in myth itself one of the modes of accomplishment of logos.

That the course of things proceeded “from mythos to logos” is a dangerous misconstruction because we think that we assure ourselves by it that somewhere in the distant past the irreversible ‘spring forward‘ [Fortsprung] took place that determined that something had been put far behind us and that from then on only ‘steps forward‘ [Fortschritte “progresses”] had to be executed. But was the spring really between the ‘myth’ that had said that the earth rests on the ocean or rises out of it and the ‘logos‘ that had translated this into the so much paler universal formula that everything comes out of water and accordingly is composed of it? The comparability of these formulas supports the fiction that in both cases it was a question of the same interest, only of fundamentally different means by which to pursue it.


Myth had hardly defined the philosopher’s objects, but it had defined the standard of achievements that he could not fall short of. Whether he had loved or despised myth, he had to fulfill demands that had been set up by it because they had been satisfied by it. To surpass them might be a matter of other norms that theory would produce immanently by extrapolation from its real or supposed successes, as soon as it should be successful in moderating expectations. But before that the post-mythical epoch is under pressure to accomplish what the epoch preceding it had claimed or even only pretended to accomplish. Theory sees in myth an ensemble of answers to questions, such as it is itself, or wants to be. That forces it, while rejecting the answers, to acknowledge the questions. Thus, even the mistaken interpretations that an epoch gives to the one preceding it become an obligation for it to understand itself as the correction of a failed attempt to deal with the real issue. By ‘reoccupying‘ identical systematic positions it avoids or seeks to avoid letting the longing gaze of its contemporaries turn back to the gods of the Egypt that they have left behind.

Myth allows man to live, by depleting superior power; for man’s happiness, it has no images. If there are more daring forms of existence than the peasant’s, this is because of the striving to obtain a better life, beyond the mere securing of survival. That is the way Hesiod sees it when he describes the peasant who undertakes, on the side, a little seafaring on the Aegean, as venturing into the less certain do­minion of the earth-shaker, Poseidon.

It is not the action of seafaring itself that, as sacrilegious presumption, relieves the god of the charge of capricious persecution; instead, the mythical idea is one of competences, precincts, territories. As a seafarer, man crosses one of these boundaries, goes over into the precinct of another god who, while he would have to submit to the will of Zeus, is free, in the absence of any expression of that will, to follow his own inclination. The sea, of all the realities of the Hellenic world, is the least integrated into the ‘cosmos.’ The other side of the coin of the division of powers is that man cannot construct a homogeneous relationship to the world, and must cross boundaries of forms of power, too, under the stimulus of his appetites and wishes.


From this perspective it becomes evident that theodicy and-in its ‘reoccupation‘-the speculative philosophy of history finally fulfill myth’s most secret longing not only to moderate the difference in power between gods and men and deprive it of its bitterest seriousness but also to reverse it. As God’s defender, as the subject of history, man enters the role in which he is indispensable. It is not only for the world that, as its observer and actor, indeed as the producer of its ‘reality,’ he cannot be imagined as absent, but also indirectly, by way of this role in the world, for God as well, whose ‘fortune‘ (‘Gluck‘) is now suspected of lying in man’s hands.

Hans Sebald Beham: ‘Fortuna’, 1541. A winged woman holding a palm branch in her right hand and a spinning wheel with a small man perched on top in her left, walks past a globe, while a ship with billowing sails is passing by in the background; allegorical figure representing Fortune; first state of six. A fine impression, the monogram and date under-inked and printing faintly, a small abrasion at top left corner. From a private collection. Scan by Yellow Lion 2006.




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