Monday, 22 November 2010

DANIEL DEARDORFF: The Mythopoeic Intelligence

A treat this week. new work from the mythologist Daniel Deardorff. Danny and i will be posting new material around this theme at his blogspot:

cut and paste that into the engine and it should get you straight there.

The Mythopoeic Intelligence
by Daniel Deardorff

“Anthropologists, who spend their lives immersed in cultures different from their own, have called attention to the parochialism of the Western view of intelligence. Some cultures do not even have a concept called intelligence, and others define intelligence in terms and traits Westerners might consider odd.”
—Howard Gardner

“The ability to tell myths is necessary in order to learn how to ‘think’ …the mythmaker himself is one who ‘thinks well.’”
—Ufaina (Native Colombian People)

“Storytellers make an assumption that historians rarely do, namely that human beings are not rational, that they cannot be understood in terms of “objective” analysis, and that their deepest and most significant experiences are lived on a level that is largely invisible, a shadowy region where the mind and the body move in and out of each other in an infinite number of elusive combinations, and that can only be evoked through allusion, feeling tone… and “resonance.”
—Morris Berman

Mythopoeic means, quite simply: of or pertaining to the making of myths; causing, producing, or giving rise to myths. It might seem simpler to say “the myth-making intelligence,” but we would lose the connection to ‘poesis,’ and the vantage of James Hillman’s “poetic basis of mind.” Here, Hillman’s idea is amended to say that the basis of mind, more than merely poetic, is mythopoeic. The mythopoeic intelligence is a meta intelligence that works synaesthetically; it is not constrained by literal, or linear thinking—it is associative, “coordinating widely disparate, boundary-spanning
information and competing perspectives.” (see Sara Nora Ross). Beyond information as knowledge, the meta-intelligence brings “wisdom”—as Howard Gardner remarks in his seminal work on the multiple intelligences Frames of Mind: “Wisdom or synthesis offers by its very nature the widest view… considerable common sense and originality… coupled with a seasoned metaphorizing or analogizing capacity.”

More than a cognitive process this associative capacity draws on the whole person—the brain, the entire nervous system, all the senses, the emotions, as well as the body’s visceral senses of stereognosis and proprioception—the broadest notion of “mind” all woven together by the imagination:

“Imagination is Reality. Far from being just one of our cognitive powers, valid in the field of art, scientific discovery and the like, it is our whole power, the total functioning interplay of our capacities… Life itself, insofar as it is informed by imagination, is now poiesis—a work of art.”
—Robert Avens

Most importantly a life of mythopoeic art involves the untamed associativity of bricolage:

1. a construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things.
2. (in literature) a piece created from diverse resources.
3. (in art) a piece of makeshift handiwork.
4. the use of multiple, diverse research methods.

The mythopoeic basis of mind resembles a magpie’s nest: the nest is a large domed structure usually found in a tree or bush with thorns. The nest is made of sticks, twigs, roots and straw plastered with mud. They are well-known for their habit of stealing and hoarding bright shiny objects and using them in their nests. The image is a nest filled with mismatched and unexpected things woven together in a new and lunatic creation. This bricolage is precisely how the mythopoeic intelligence apprehends the world. In Berman’s words: “an infinite number of elusive combinations, and that can only be evoked through allusion, feeling tone… and ‘resonance.’”

To cultivate the image laden syntax of the mythopoeic intelligence we have to shed the constraints—blinders and harness—of the consensus “reality/sanity” world view. Of course this is much easier said than done. Human beings are a kind of animal that require bonds to place and community. When such bonds are severed we inevitably experience feelings of alienation and exile. But they do fail because we’ve made the great error of mooring our lifelines to affiliations, affectations, ambitions, and achievements—these cannot anchor us to the rhythms of the living world because they are abstract concepts, and concepts unlike images are not alive. We have lost our relatedness to the world around us because we no longer trust it. To renew the old bonds we need the sense of imagination—an imagination bolstered by a well developed associative alacrity. To “think well,” as the Ufaina say, our hearts must be filled with mythopoeic images from many stories; the more stories we store up the better our thinking and the more efficacious our thoughts and actions will be.

© 2010, Daniel Deardorff. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Beset by deadlines - writing ones mostly, but i see good times ahead. Sweet relief has been driving up and down a rain lashing A38 to Plymouth library with Seamus Heaney reading his translations of BEOWULF in his beautiful, tough Northern Irish brogue.
My other companion has been Ted Hughes - collected works read by the granite jawed beast himself. Heaney wasn't physically in the car i hasten to add, but the CD's are tre-men-dous. Treat yourself this christmas.

Lots of interesting murmurs for 2011 - a mooted collaboration with Mr.Bly, Mr. Barks and myself - 'THREE TRAVELERS TELL OF THEIR DREAMS' in celebration of the life of Rabindrath Tagore, celebrated by Dartington Hall, here in Devon next may. Lots of folks coming: Deepak Chopra, Andrew Motion, my mum. the list is endless. Anyway, the three villains involved are all up for it, its just a question of the distance for Mr. Bly.

I am also creating a kind of wild Bardic summer school - a four day intensive: 'ENTERING THE BARDIC SECRET' down here in Devon, second to last weekend in August. 10 lines of verse memorized daily, a solo night retreat on Dartmoor, morning dips in the river, intensive study of Taliesin and the old notion of something called DARK SPEECH. Numbers limited, due to the intensity of the programme. Robin Williamson and Chris Salisbury will be offering sage advice too.

Here is some new words...part of a much longer essay on orality and literature ( as you are probably very familiar by now, i drop in bits every few months). The words are not very lively, but the subject is.


In short, trickster is a boundary-crosser. Every group has its edge…and Trickster is always there. Trickster is the
mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox
(Hyde 1998 :7)

Jacques Derrida has been a some kind of Trickster figure in his work around speech and literature. Certainly enraged a few academics. The philosopher maintained that for over 3,000 years of Western philosophy, philosophers have claimed phonocentrism – that the voice is the centre, from Plato to Aristotle, to Rosseau, Hegel and Husseri. Rousseau says: “Languages are made to be spoken. Writing serves only as a supplement to speech.” (Collins Mayblin 1996 :40). From this perspective, presence is implicit in the communication of speech, but for writing, absence is the defining characteristic. So with speech, the listener and speaker are both present in time, and present to the succession of words from the mouth (later in this chapter we will examine the imaginative implications of that in the telling of an oral narrative). However, Derrida states: “To write is to produce a mark…which my future disappearance will not in principle, hinder in its functioning…for a writing to be a writing it must continue to ‘act’ and to be readable even when what is called the author of the writing no longer answers for what he has written.” (Reynolds Roffe 2004 :10). The image of letters on a page, wrapped in an envelope, and sent to a distant figure, also illustrates the concept of absence clearly.

Derrida makes a trail through oppositional thinking by locating what he calls “undecidables”. So, inside/outside, north/south, lose their organisational rigour and are replaced by the nebulous realm of indeterminacy. Indeterminacy indicates no precision, clarity, or easy definition. Initiatory process indicates that it is only in the surrender to this difficult awareness that any real vision can ultimately arise (hence the severing from certainty that takes place). We have noticed a variant of this in the notion of the ‘crossroads’ in relationship to Village and Forest. Like the crossroads motif, encountering this mired and unpredictable ground can feel distinctly uncomfortable. It is far from a ‘sure thing’. However, this is a crucial terrain for our discussion, especially when we place Trickster in the frame. We can see clearly qualities of orality and literature without having to choose. Like Trickster, Derrida is not interested in an eradication of what came before, but helping to engender some new constellation: “What interests me is not strictly called either philosophy or literature. I dream of a writing that would be neither, while still keeping – I’ve no desire to abandon this – the memory of literature.” (Collins Mayblin :100) He also draws from the past – writing about literary texts – whilst using such a contrary linguistic style it appears that the sentences are breaking down and reconfiguring in front of your very eyes. In this function, Derrida stands in the position of initiator, recalling Eliade’s idea in chapter one: “We may note the redeeming function of ‘difficulty’, especially as found in the works of modern art…it is because such works represent closed worlds, hermetic universes that cannot be entered except by overcoming immense difficulties, like the initiatory ordeals of the archaic and traditional societies.” (Eliade 1963 :188) Derrida certainly brings “difficulty” to the table, not as the end in itself, but to create new ways of seeing.

By working with host texts, Derrida actually requires the oppositions of past literature to find the instabilities that open the ground of uncertainty. Think again of Trickster: “The god of the roads (Trickster) needs the more settled territories before his traveling means very much. If everyone travels, the result is not the apotheosis of Trickster but another form of his demise.” (Hyde 1998 :13). This is an ancient ritual arrangement; the trammelling of boundaries to ensure that vitality tickles the status quo and life continues to grow. Trickster is nothing without something to rub up against.

As Derrida shakes the foundations of both structuralism and phenomenology, there is a loyalty to some wild spirit of investigation that is both troubling and refreshing. As an old oak collapses at the same moment a green shoot leaps from the earth. His notion of ‘the trace’, an ‘undecidable’ that is neither quite present or absent, is a hint towards the arguments between orality and literature, and another image of rupture and reconfiguring. If ‘trace’ exists, then it also effects the phonocentrism of earlier philosophy - the traditional top-heavy primacy of speech is dragged into greater relationship with literature. The tendrils of trace are obscure and hard to define, even (or maybe deliberately so) by Derrida, but they do away with purity. Speech and writing always hold the energies of history, influence and repetition between them. Derrida is in the business of hints and diffusion, traditional attributes of the Underworld journey, rather than brightly lit sound bites.

By questioning Plato’s handling of oppositions (See ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ 1969), but not refuting him entirely, Derrida infuriates but does not entirely overturn. What he does is reduce the assurance of the ancient texts, and in doing so, assists in their re-animation. It is a tense arena, especially (as previously mentioned) because of his handling of prose. The baffling cut and thrusts of his syntax play with something that we have huge investment in - everyday language. Still, when the young initiates are led from the village, they are blindfolded, spun round, turned up side down – they are now in submission to a fiercer dynamic, this is all in the nature of rupture. Derrida is being true to his work.

He was, of course, a man, not a mythic figure, but, as we have investigated, collision points seem possible. It is not to claim that Derrida was at all times tricky, but to see what stands behind him.? What drives the relationship still further is the aspiration of his work: the Trickster is not concerned with mundane thieving, or getting rich from lies (that’s just a crook), but carries fire to culture, opening the road to the fertile imagination.

Ok, here's some relief from all of that. Ted Hughes poem:


I saw my world again through your eyes
As I would see it again through your children's eyes.
Through your eyes it was foreign.
Plain hedge hawthorns were peculiar aliens,
A mystery of peculiar lore and doings.
Anything wild, on legs, in your eyes
Emerged at a point of exclamation
As if it had appeared to dinner guests
In the middle of the table. Common mallards
Were artefacts of some unearthliness,
Their wooings were a hypnagogic film
Unreeled by the river. Impossible
To comprehend the comfort of their feet
In the freezing water. You were a camera
Recording reflections you could not fathom.
I made my world perform its utmost for you.
You took it all in with an incredulous joy
Like a mother handed her new baby
By the midwife. Your frenzy made me giddy.
It woke up my dumb, ecstatic boyhood
Of fifteen years before. My masterpiece
Came that black night on the Grantchester road.
I sucked the throaty thin woe of a rabbit
Out of my wetted knuckle, by a copse
Where a tawny owl was enquiring.
Suddenly it swooped up, splaying its pinions
Into my face, taking me for a post.

More soon!
M x