I have talked in previous articles on the importance of myth and story, and that how we apprehend and interpret reality depends on the stories we tell ourselves, and which we consider to be true. The point of talking in this way is to draw attention to the idea that facts are often the enemy of myths because they can lead to a literalism that is simply devastating—a devastation that is not merely an academic matter, but one writ large in blood for the last four centuries at least.
To go back to the original Catholic and Protestant divisions and conflicts would be to go too far for the purposes of this short article. Indeed, what I would like to do is to include myth’s short form, and explain in one simple and transparent example just how devastating this tendency can be.
What is myth’s short form? The metaphor (and its cousin, the simile). This is not just the story compressed into linear narrative, but the idea compacted into a brilliant image that bursts forth with meanings, as myths, in their longer form, do.
An example of a great metaphor comes in the poem “Rupertismus” from “Poems of John Cleveland” by the now forgotten 17th-century metaphysical poet:
For beauty, like white powder, makes no noise,
And yet the silent hypocrite destroys.
The metaphor is beauty, “the silent hypocrite,” which is powerful enough, but add to it the simile “like white powder,” and a whole range of fascinating readings emerges: white powder as a cosmetic concoction that women wear that makes them silently dangerous; or white powder as gun powder, in which beauty is seen as explosive although initially and apparently inert and idle; or even white powder as a drug that hypnotizes and addicts the viewer to his or her own destruction.
As Aristotle observed, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor; it is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar.”
Thus, when we come to writings of real significance and authority, we need to take account of this; we need to read with metaphor always in mind, or else we get trapped into a literalism that is seemingly factual but which denudes the text of its real power, power that derives from its real meaning. In other words, we distort, we misrepresent, we “say the thing which was not” (Jonathan Swift), or we lie.
When Literalism Becomes Dangerous
We have had over 100 years of socialism. Recently, the ex-finance minister for Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, said, “Socialism is in retreat, as it deserves to be, because we socialists have messed up big time, for decades if not for a century at least.”
That is a worthy and candid admission that you won’t find many socialists admitting; and if it is true of socialism, then it is even truer of communism and Marxism: We have had over a century of catastrophic failure, starvation, and bloodshed wherever this pernicious philosophy, and its ilk, has taken root.
As I write now, even in the UK, there is a dangerous drift going on, whereby a quasi-Marxist government opposition is getting closer to achieving power—and once, and if, it gets in, goodbye thinking, welcome the thought police. And perhaps as obnoxious as the policies themselves is the self-congratulation of these people, always virtue-signaling, always for the people, but by people who know better than the people: the oligarchs.
But where does so much of all this nonsense come from? How is it that people go about believing this nonsense long after history has demonstrated its fallacious and pernicious nature?
I like to reflect on Karl Marx and his notorious—and celebrated—riposte to sound spiritual teaching. The book of Deuteronomy tells us, “And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3), and this is reiterated as spiritual teaching in the New Testament when Christ says, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).