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Time and Myth

We all know that counting starts with one, not with zero. When we are dealing with decades, centuries or millennia, for some unknown reason, we start them with zero. Thus, the third millennium started in the year 2000, and its first decade ended on December 31, 2009. In his last column of the decade in the New York Times (Dec. 28, 2009), Paul Krugman describes it as The Big Zero. A few days earlier Newsweek had described it as A Decade from Hell. Krugman examines several aspects of our lives in which between 1999 and 2009 our improvements had been zero. What he particularly laments is that there are already indications that we have not learned a thing from our mistakes, which means that we are condemned to repeat them.

To describe the decade we just completed as A Big Zero or as A Decade from Hell is, of course, a tour de force, an attempt to make sense of a slice of time by fitting it into an idealistic, imaginary world. We could describe it as a world of myth, a world where we can express that which is transcendent. Both the idea of progress as the irrepressible engine of history and the idea of hell as the place where sinners suffer the ultimate penalty belong to such a world.

Thinking about this I was reminded of Mircea Eliade’s argument in The Myth of Eternal Return. It is very difficult to break away from seeing ourselves caught in an unbreakable cycle. Each turn of the wheel ends in some kind of chaos and is followed by a new cycle with its promises, but that is doomed to end again in chaos. That is the cycle of life in nature. Birth and death exist together. Every birth ends in death, and it is difficult to find significance in them. Traditional societies conceive themselves in this cyclical trap and give meaning to their lives re-enacting archetypal divine activities. God planted a garden, we plant a garden. God eats, we eat. God kills an animal to provide garments, we kill an animal to provide garments. God rests on the Sabbath, we rest on the Sabbath. Thus the monotony of existence is enlivened by the feasts that repeat, and thus celebrate, what gods did in primordial time. Meaningless time becomes significant when it is occupied in the repetition of divine archetypes.

According to Eliade, the prophets of Israel were the first to free themselves from circular returns to the beginning. They stretched time on a linear sequence to a historical goal. This brought about a totally new conception of what makes for a significant moment in our lives. Doing this, however, the prophets are to be credited with having begun the process of secularization. What gives meaning to our lives is not being engaged in the repetition of divine archetypes, but the performance of something never done before. We establish our being by doing something new, something unique, something which if repeated is no longer “new”. To use a faddish cliché, we must “make a difference.”

This is the difference between the historical and the traditional understanding of meaningful living. In traditional societies people live to celebrate the feasts, mimetically entering the divine world by repeating archetypal divine activities. It is at the festivals that human life gains significance and humans serve God. In historical societies people live to establish their personal identity by doing something unique. History is made up of unrepeatable events. To become a historical person one must appropriate a divine prerogative and create one’s future.

Eliade’s main point seems to be that ever since the time of the prophets of Israel, the eighth century B.C..E., our efforts to free ourselves from traditional thinking and find total fulfillment for our lives within a historical framework have been unsuccessful. At the end of the book he imagines a dialogue between traditional man [sic] and historical man [sic]. Historical man looks down upon traditional man because he is bound in a deterministic natural prison and brags about his freedom to create what is new. Traditional man responds by pointing out that historical man is not as free as he imagines. Historical existence also has binding limitations. The freedom to make history is not universal. It can be exercised only by small elites. On the other hand, everyone can participate in the repetition of archetypal activities and thereby give meaning to their existence in time.

At the beginning of a year that is also the beginning of a decade, it is natural to try to recap one’s experiences, or that of one’s family, church or nation.. It is natural to wish to celebrate Yom Kippur and have all the sins of the past year cast away, and start the New Year and the New Decade with a tabula rasa. In this way we affirm our dependence on the traditional myth of eternal return. The power of this myth was demonstrated soon after the careers of the prophets. Their descendents, the apocalypticists, took the prophetic historical line and made it into a circle that, instead of encompassing a year, encompasses the whole of history in a cycle that returns to the Garden of Eden. In technical terms, endzeit (end time) appropriates urzeit (primordial time). Apocalypticism not only reverted to the myth of cyclical time (without its yearly ties to nature), it also re-appropriated the cosmological battles associated with the triumph of cosmos over chaos and the monsters that carry them out.

The most successful attempt to show history as a time line that ascends continuously as human culture develops has been Hegel’s dialectical philosophy of history as the triumph of the Spirit over barbarism. The history of the twentieth century, however, placed Hegel’s philosophy in limbo. In the meantime, the more historical we understand ourselves the more secular we become.

Actually, we live in the middle and space and time provide us with room and duration, but not our location in time. Nature and history make claims on us, but we cannot get from them orientation and significance. In order to do that we can only resort to myth, the language that allows us to have God with us both in the cycles of nature and the future of history. Modern apocalypticists tell us that the cycle of human history has reached its final moments and urzeit is almost back. Modern descendants of the prophets tell us that justice and peace call us to become responsible co-creators of history who walk humbly with their God. The end of the first decade of the first century of the third millennium causes me to evaluate the myths I am using to consider my insignificance and find my place in time.

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