The critique of myth

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One of the surprises of this book is the recurring interest in mythology by many of those on whom I comment. It seems as though any discussion of

57 Bloch 1972, p. 75; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, pp. 103-4.

58 Bloch 1972, p. 75; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 103; translation corrected.

the Bible or theology cannot, in their eyes, avoid the question of myth, which then becomes one of the major features of their work. Thus, Bloch, Benjamin, Adorno, Althusser and Zizek all come back to myth, as critique and retrieval, for it is part of the Marxist problematic of ideology. Bloch is, with his detective's nose, most enthusiastic about the revolutionary possibilities of certain types of biblical myth. Benjamin, I will argue, is less enamoured, although he cannot escape the cycle of biblical myth. Althusser's early writings provide some surprising insights into biblical myth, Zizek identifies myth with the passage from the Real to the Symbolic, and Adorno systematically seeks to unmask myth as part of his ideology critique. And yet, they all want, in the end, to close down myth and its baleful influence. Bloch, by contrast, cautions against such a sustained dismissal, for with dialectical discernment myth can be revolutionary as well as reactionary.

What Bloch manages to do in his discussion of myth is provide a distinct example of the more sophisticated ideology critique that takes ideology neither as false consciousness that needs to be unmasked, nor as a positive force in its socialist form. For Bloch, all ideologies, no matter how repressive, have an emancipatory-utopian dimension about them - he will later make such a move with the astral myths he at first criticises - that cannot be separated so easily from deception and illusion. Thus, in the very process of manipulation and domination, ideology also has a moment of utopian residue, an element that opens up other possibilities at the very point of failure.59 And so it is with biblical myth, for the subversive elements in the myths that interest him are enabled by the repressive ideologies that show through again and again. All the same, I find Bloch too enthusiastic for such emancipatory and anticipatory elements; he moves too quickly from repression to emancipation and would have done well to tarry with the negative somewhat longer.

Alongside myth, metaphysics emerges from relative obscurity in the work of Bloch, Benjamin, Adorno and Althusser. That Marxists should be interested in metaphysics would be enough to make anyone curious. Historical circumstances play a role here, for the extraordinary influence of Heidegger and existentialism meant that some engagement with metaphysics was inevitable. Bloch was hardly going to let metaphysics or myth remain the preserve of fascism, since to give discursive ground like this and abandon such vast

59 See further on this Kellner 1997, pp. 82-7.

arenas to the opposition was hardly Bloch's style. In response, he argues that what passed for metaphysics under Nazism was a decayed version, using the label of metaphysics to purvey 'rot-gut'. But the danger is hardly there: Heidegger's more sophisticated return to the pre-Socratics and argument for an end of metaphysics means for Bloch a cementing in of the categories of metaphysics that denies the dynamic and temporal promise of metaphysics. Bloch criticises Heidegger for an implicit equation between metaphysics and myth, with the result that Heidegger's mythological thought ends up siding with domination and power. Heidegger's argument that the end of metaphysics must arise from within metaphysics itself turns out to be an argument for the status quo, an emptying of any possibility of change. Bloch may well have read Heidegger too rapidly here, for the impossibility of moving the earth beyond its own sphere of possibility through human will may itself be read as a utopian dialectic that Adorno was to pick up.

Bloch insists that the central theme of metaphysics, Being, must be understood as Not-Yet-Being, as Being open to utopia; this makes dialectical materialism the only viable form of metaphysics, for it is, by definition, an open process. Again, Bloch presses against the opposition between metaphysics and dialectical materialism, suggesting not merely that the openness of both brings them together, but that even the mechanistic world-views of vulgar Marxism are metaphysical. Yet, for Bloch, the Bible will return the distinctly temporal dimension to metaphysics and Marxism.

Let us return to myth: Bloch undertakes a prolonged theological discussion over how biblical myth is to be understood. Here, the philosopher wades into theology, arguing that the key issue is how human beings fare in the theological equation: are they great or small? The names Bloch cites are either major figures in the tradition such as Augustine, or central theologians in Germany of the first half of the twentieth century like Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann. The last two were not only profoundly influential theologians, but also biblical scholars; Bultmann was a theologian and New-Testament critic, while Barth filled his Church Dogmatics with large slabs of biblical exegesis. Further, Barth made his initial impact with a theological commentary on the Epistle to the Romans that relied heavily for its theological dialectic on Kierkegaard. Yet, all of those who appear are charged with removing human agency and passing it over to God. Thus, Augustine, who saw human will as a powerful faculty, makes a sharp break between human history and theistic absolutism.

His major contribution, for Bloch, was to read history, on the basis of the Bible, as a drama of events, acts and a dénouement, one that reaches its high point with Christ and end in the Last Judgement. Although history is the march of the City of God on earth, history and the coming of the Kingdom are two irreconcilable categories that result from 'a theistic absolutism of enormous proportions'.60 Karl Barth's massive exaggeration of this, stressing as far as possible the sheer transcendence of God, merely takes Augustine's deflation of human agency to its logical conclusion.

However, Augustine's greatest achievement - which Bloch wishes to undo -is to merge the Creator deity with the apocalyptic one, thereby enabling the clean break between history and its end. Here, we have the standard Christian narrative running from Creation to Salvation to the Last Judgement. For Bloch, this is a profoundly non-biblical conjunction, something put together to make Christianity cohere (Benjamin was to make full use of such a schema). But, here, we end up with a reactionary recreation of the past in which Salvation is a return to the Garden of Eden. Yet, for Bloch, Apocalypse - also the name of the last book of the Christian Bible - is not the Garden of Eden: the Apocalypse registers not a satisfaction with the world, but a profound dissatisfaction, a yearning for something better.

As far as German theology is concerned, the first target is Bultmann.61 Despite his admiration for Bultmann's 'invigorating' arguments, Bloch takes issue with Bultmann's programme of dymythologising, in which he argued -although Bloch assumes this rather than spelling it out - that the Bible cannot help but to assume the worldview of the time in which it was composed. But Bultmann pushed this further to argue that the predominant mode of expression was myth, and that for the gospel, the Kerygma, to be meaningful in the contemporary situation of the early twentieth century, this myth must be excised from the Church's message. And it was not merely the accretions to the central message he had in mind: focusing on the Gospel narratives, Bultmann urged that the central notions of Christianity derived from the New Testament, such as a three-tiered cosmos with heaven above and hell below, the miracles of Jesus, especially the empty tomb and the resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the return of Christ on the clouds at the end of

60 Bloch 1972, p. 32; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 62.

61 See also Bloch 1998, p. 299; Bloch 1985, Volume 9, p. 342.

history, should all be discarded as unworkable and unbelievable myths. The list could go on, but once the demythologising task was complete, the programme called for a remythologisation in terms of the contemporary patterns of thought, specifically the existentialism that had swept through European philosophy.

Controversial and influential, Bultmann remains a towering figure in theology and New-Testament criticism. But Bloch is not enamoured with demythologising. Although he can well understand the reasons for being 'wary of the mythical sphere in its entirety'62 after the Nazi myths of blood and soil, he argues that the 'myths' dispensed with are those that contain accounts of murmuring and rebellion, that is, the possibility for human beings to assert themselves with dignity against oppressors. What happens with the ban of myth is 'that the primitive, uncultured specters are thrown out, but the directives and announcements from on high remain to haunt as they always did'.63

But demythologisation is only part of the problem; Bloch objects to the 'myth' with which Bultmann seeks to 'remythologise' the New Testament -existentialism. Adorno also took on the baleful legacy of existentialism, but Bloch argues that the directives from on high now 'withdraw a bit and operate on the inner perceptions'.64 The formative influence for Bultmann was the existentialism of Heidegger, through which Bultmann sought to provide a fresh and meaningful Kerygma. In the end, Bultmann was a perfectly conventional evangelical Lutheran, seeking to give the Christian message a form that would appeal once again in a Europe under monopoly capitalism. Bloch's criticism, however, is of existentialism itself, arguing that it attempts to do away not only with myth, but also with bodily, social and cosmic elements so that the pure individual remains - a privatised soul. The Kerygma then becomes one of speaking from existence to existence, and anything else is nonsense or confusion. The revelation of God becomes a direct address to 'man', the Word itself. But, here, the Lutheran nature of Bultmann's work comes to the fore, with its absolute focus on the Word (the elision between

62 Bloch 1998, p. 296; Bloch 1985, Volume 9, p. 339.

63 Bloch 1972, p. 34; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 64. In one respect, Bultmann carries through an older logic that saw the Bible as the beginning of a completely rational faith free from myth, from Maimonides to Hermann Cohen's Religion of Reason (see Bloch 1998, p. 298; Bloch 1985, Volume 9, p. 341).

64 Bloch 1972, p. 34; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 64.

speech, text and Christ is quite deliberate), that which addresses human beings here and now.

Bloch's second critique - apart from the nature of existentialism - is that Bultmann does not distinguish between myths, dismissing all of them as one lump, 'blithely ignorant of the gunpowder they are handling'.65 And, thirdly, Bultmann privatises faith, existence and myth, thereby missing the worldly dimension of myth: theology and the Bible belong to 'the realm of the lonely soul and its solid middle-class God'.66 Adapting the by now well-known Marxist critique of reification, and its associated elements of fragmentation and individualisation, Bloch's criticism of Bultmann has made its way into liberation and political theologies, among others: Christianity has largely been privatised under capitalism, restricted to the realm of the private individual and has thereby lost its collective emphases. I cannot help but wonder whether a reference or two to Lukacs, who, of course, developed the notion of reification in his extraordinarily influential History and Class Consciousness, might have sharpened Bloch's critique of Bultmann somewhat - suggesting perhaps that his theology drinks deeply from the tainted waters of capitalism and the ideology of liberalism. But then Bloch's acknowledgement of his Marxist contemporaries is sparse at the best of times.

However, Bloch does identify Kierkegaard as a source for Bultmann's reconstruction (as also for Karl Barth's 'dialectical theology'). Kierkegaard will return in this book, albeit somewhat the worse for wear and tear, in my discussion of Adorno. For Bloch, however, Kierkegaard's eschatology of the present moment is a means of sidestepping the political and theological import of the Bible's eschatology: enigmatic information about the Eschaton becomes a gnostic self-knowledge that leads to the individual's awakening.

Finally, Bloch argues that Bultmann cannot avoid myth, this time of a distinctly Protestant type: in arguing that 'man' need only be delivered from himself to experience metanoia or change of mind in God's presence, Bultmann relies on the myth of the Fall. The individual must still put aside sin and pride, however existential, before God. Bultmann's present Moment assumes that God is the only one met in the encounter. Yet, submission to God replicates

65 'Ohne Ahnung solchen Sprengpulvers'; Bloch 1972, p. 39; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 70.

66 Bloch 1972, p. 40; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 70; see Bloch 1998, p. 300; Bloch 1985, Volume 9, p. 343.

all that is politically objectionable in the Bible, and, here, politics creeps back into Bultmann's theology. In the name of demythologisation, Bultmann has, in fact, recuperated the myths of authority and suppression; or, rather, he has enabled their preservation precisely through existentialism.

The criticisms of the liberal sources of existentialism are exactly to the point, as is the impossibility of avoiding myth in anything that wants to retain some theological meaning, but let me return to the lumping together of all things under 'myth'. For, in the lead-up to his discussion of Bultmann, Bloch spells out his criteria for the discernment of myth: the purpose of such material counts rather than the pre-scientific ideas they contain. Do they speak of transformation and liberation? Do they have cunning heroes who win through a ruse? But this requires some distinction within the blanket term 'myth' - Engels's 'imbecility of the primeval forest'67- between the despotism and domination of myth proper and those that, like fairy-tales, subvert such domination.68 The story of Prometheus in Greek mythology, or of the serpent in Paradise in the Bible, gives voice to this 'fairy-tale' element in myth. Should we take demy-thologisation seriously, then both conformist and non-conformist materials would disappear. Bloch would much prefer to have them both rather than no biblical myth at all, for Bultmann's demythologisation discards the 'joyful message', the 'deepest utopian theme'69 of biblical mythology along with all that is oppressive.

If the f rst step of his argument seeks the political purpose of myth, his second step distinguishes further between different types of myth. The reason: Bloch does not want a wholesale recovery of myth, for this would render him an anti-Enlightenment thinker beyond the wide circle of Marxism. And so, myths resulting from ignorance and superstition may go, but those that express the quality and wonder of nature should not. Fairy tale, legend, saga and myth all become separate entities.70 Here, he invokes Greek art, science (Kepler) and the romantics. He is, of course, trying to run myth through a dialectics - 'destroying and saving the myth in a single dialectical process'71 -that is different from Bultmann's position.

67 Bloch 1998, p. 297; Bloch 1985, Volume 9, p. 339.

68 See also Bloch 1988, pp. 163-85.

69 Bloch 1998, p. 300; Bloch 1985, Volume 9, p. 343.

70 See also Bloch 1998, pp. 301-2; Bloch 1985, Volume 9, pp. 344-5.

71 Bloch 1972, p. 37; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 67.

Bloch, however, falls away from a more rigorous dialectical reading. In the end, he prefers a 'particularly sober and discerning mind' that does not see myth as uniformly undifferentiated, without shades of difference.72 Rather, he needs to insist that it is precisely because of the myths of despotism that those of cunning non-conformism can be there too. It is not merely that we cannot understand the latter without the former, but that the enabling conditions for subversive myths are precisely those myths that are not so.

I find the subtle Marxist critiques of Bultmann (and the others who follow) extremely pertinent. Bloch sweeps me along, his enthusiasm emerging from the text. Yet, a question keeps recurring for me: does Bloch not seek to defend and rescue the Bible not only from Marxists but also from theologians? Apart from engaging in a strategy that forestalls any criticisms from theology and biblical studies, Bloch plays a tricky double game. He wishes to rescue the Bible and yet resists the truth claims that theology seeks to impose. Both dimensions - rescuing the Bible and theology's truth claims - have their own problems. Whereas the Bible itself makes no necessary truth claims for any 'reality' beyond its own text, theology is a different matter. Here Bloch dares to tread. For, the moment that he argues for the logic of atheism within the Bible, he enters the theological terrain; he must battle in the very terms of theological thought and language. At the same time, he rejects the representational assumptions of this language. The move is both daring - using the internal logic of the Bible and theology to show that the claims about God's existence do not necessarily follow - and problematic - the common language of theology sets up a debate about the nature of God which is precisely a theological debate.

The second part of the problem is the effort to rescue the Bible. Not merely content to retrieve the Bible as a classic text, he wants much more: a potent political force for the present situation in Europe. To my mind, any effort to rescue the Bible falls prey to the notion that this literature is good for you if you read it (correctly), and this is very much a legacy of its appropriation as sacred scripture by the Church for the edification of the faithful. Bloch does not, in the end, avoid such a tendency.

Although I find Bloch's attempt to rescue the Bible for revolutionary politics problematic, another dimension of his work is very appealing: he debunks the assumption of religious institutions that this is their own text by default. Less an effort to wrest the Bible away from its 'natural' home - church, synagogue or mosque - his argument assumes that such institutions have, in fact, appropriated and colonised the Bible. The marks of a text ill at ease in these contexts are precisely those elements that Bloch seeks to uncover, those that run against the institutions in question. Here, I find Bloch's treatment of the Bible most persuasive and full of potential, not only for literary criticism and philosophy, but especially for biblical studies.

Karl Barth, the other towering figure of German theology at the time, follows closely behind Bultmann in Bloch's text. But Bloch's reading of Barth is hardly conventional. Since Barth begins with God's absolute transcendence and then seeks to bridge the immeasurable gulf between God and human beings, his theology is one long detailed elaboration of that radical transcendence. Thus, Deus revelatus is nothing more than the Deus absconditus, the gospel of love is a variation on the fear of law, God's incarnational 'Yes' is spoken to an utterly fallen world that is still his creation, and eschatology becomes entirely immanent. Except that Barth must have a ladder that enabled him to peer into God's mind: 'Barth must have considered himself the one creature exempt from the boundaries of the creaturely knowledge he so radically asserted'.73 For Bloch, such radical transcendence sucks all the history out of God: static, alien, beyond history, it lacks any sense of an Eschaton. Thereby it becomes another part of the oppressive mythology that justifies the status quo.74 By contrast, in a characteristic lack of humility, Bloch approves in a qualif ed manner - a little too much Lutheran theology of the cross - of Jürgen Molt-mann's appropriation of his own thought, especially his emphasis on the Eschaton in response to suffering.

Yet Barth has a dialectical use for Bloch: at the moment Barth valorises the On-High at the expense of human beings, he unwittingly allows the elevation of human beings. The further God is from human beings, the more space they have to rise from subjection. Deus absconditus actually uncovers homo absconditus. For Bloch, then, Barth's emphasis on radical transcendence is not merely

73 Bloch 1972, p. 48; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 77.

74 Adorno was to make this point much more concrete, arguing that the high terms, retooled from traditional theology, were signals of a totalitarian tendency that both used such concepts for oppression and effectively demonised the absolute.

theological arrogance; it also demonises God, who can now be overthrown by human beings who can come out of hiding and stand on their own feet.

Bloch reads theologians in the same way he reads myth, looking for the subversive moment. And so, after Barth and Bultmann, comes Albert Schweitzer, musician, doctor and sometime biblical scholar who, in the midst of his comfortable bourgeois research, makes an astounding discovery: Jesus was no supporter of the status quo or purveyor of bourgeois morals. He was a firebrand who opposed Roman and Jewish authorities in the name of an immanent Kingdom of God. Bloch's surprise is that Schweitzer himself was no revolutionary.

Schweitzer's great work, Von Reimarius zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der LebenJesu Forshung (1906), still holds its own in biblical studies, particularly in the so-called search for the historical Jesus. Even then, in the first great phase of the search, Schweitzer concluded that each researcher uncannily constructed an ideal self-image. By contrast, Schweitzer's Jesus was so radically distinct that Schweitzer simply gave up his established career in biblical studies and his potential careers in music and medicine and went to Africa to live out the demands of such a person.

Bloch relishes Schweitzer's discovery and response, but it also enables him to enlist Jesus among the revolutionary biblical figures. The effort is breathtaking, for Jesus becomes a key figure in his own counter-reading of the Bible, backed up by a motley collection of writers.75 Jesus is, for Bloch, one in a long line from Exodus and the Hebrew prophets to Thomas Munzer, and the key lies in eschatology. Any effort to water such a message down is reactionary, whether we find it in the biblical myths of domination, being-oriented Greek thought in the early Church, the struggle for state control in the Middle Ages, or Jewish efforts like those of Hermann Cohen to distil an a-temporal messianic ethics.

And yet, for all his toying with history, the mythical Jesus draws Bloch's enthusiasm, a myth that comes from the motifs of insurrection and slave talk in the Hebrew Bible.

So, again, at this end of things we see how the person of the rebel, along with the apocalyptic promise-myth, is implicitly an important figure in biblical exegesis. And how these very myths, in their clarity, shed decisive light on others of their kind outside the Bible, too: on crypto-messianic myths, which are by no means lacking in the 'light of his fury', but which still, despite that, need the words spoken in the Bible, 'Behold, I make all things new,' if they are ever to come alive with fire.76

The recovery of myth is the linchpin of Bloch's reading of the Bible. Given his dialectical reading of myth in terms of domination and rebellion, he plays with two permutations of this dialectic. The default position is that the two are inseparable - his commentary on the Bible relies on this. Yet he often takes another, namely the rejection of myths of domination in favour of subversive ones, particularly with his focus on utopia where the latter will be realised. This line strengthens when he argues that mythology precedes the division of labour and formation of classes, only later becoming imaginative normalisations of social contradictions, or ideologies.77 These earliest myths come from primitive communism and may be discerned in the mix of later mythology by their rebellious elements - Prometheus is the favoured example.78 As with my criticism of his treatment of biblical sources, Bloch's dialectic slides away at these points and spuriously favours the earliest and supposedly pristine layers.

There is, however, a deeper problem that will recur with Benjamin in another key, namely, the theological claims of biblical myth. Most of the time, Bloch reads such myths as a language or code for politics: rebellion against Yahweh is political rebellion. But he goes further: such protest is also against God himself. Now he is in a curious bind, for, although he denies such a God existence, the protests against him are not merely against wisps of air. What then is the status of the God against whom the myths protest? Bloch does not offer us an adequate answer.

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