In this short article, firstly I will briefly mention Vico and Adorno & Horkheimer in relation to the ways in which these thinkers interpret the relation between mythology and enlightenment. Secondly, what I will argue is that the way Vico reinterprets the notion of mythology and rejects to maintain the binary oppositions with regard to the understanding of mythology and history, makes him one of the foremost thinkers of deconstruction. Furthermore, Vico’s idea that regards mythology as fiction which is a true story of social realities coincides with the ways in which Mikhail Bakhtin underscores in his theories of heteroglossia in the novel and of language as a socio-political entity. In the meantime, I’ll illustrate my arguments with a brief look at Kafka’s story, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”.
I – Vico and Adorno & Horkheimer: Mythology and Enlightenment
In “The Rehabilitation of Myth: Vico’s ‘New Science’”, “Joseph Mali stresses that the thinkers of the enlightenment identified “the mythical” as “savage and ancient”. Hence they excluded mythology from their cultural systems whose characteristics were defined as “civil and modern”. The thinkers of the enlightenment underscored the centrality of “reason” and “rationality” whereas mythology was characterized as “false” or “unreal”. However, Vico defines mythology as a “true story” which refers to “a unique mode of expression, complete with its own forms, history, and even logic.” Vico points out that, mythology doesn’t derive from irrational or absurd human behaviours as the thinkers of enlightenment propound; it is rather a form of “an alternative mode of rationalism, which stems from, and may reorientate the mind toward, a different perception of reality.” All in all, myth points at a new expression of humanity with its own logic. Then let us take a look at what Adorno and Horkheimer mention about the relation between mythology and enlightenment.
As mentioned, Vico opposes to the idea that mythology can be defined in terms of what the enlightenment is not. Vico’s refusal to regard the enlightenment as the ultimate form of human behaviour and his being critical to the whole perception of the enlightenment as the utmost point that the humanity has since achieved can also be found in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s work, “The Dialectic of Enlightenment”. Like Vico, these authors claim that enlightenment intends to leave no space for anything that’s unknown since it aims at demythologising and disenchantment of the world in order to free it from mythology, which was the once the way in which humanity aimed to reach the truth. With the claim to abolish the fear and the unknown in the humans, Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that “enlightenment compounds animate with inanimate”. It sees in the animate, inanimate. For example, enlightenment translates life into non-living mechanisms by numbers, chemical components, and physical laws. Here is the ultimate demythologisation and disenchantment. There are not any more spirits or gods, but numbers, particles; it removes all life from mythology so that they can become completely calculable, knowable. In the light of Adorno and Horkheimer, one can speculate that if myth is the act of looking at things and seeing the living forces in them; to “enlight” means to “de-mythologize”. Yet, Adorno and Horkheimer suggest a common core between the two, since for them, enlightenment and mythology are symmetrically opposed to each other and yet there is reversibility between the two. They eventually suggest that enlightenment is not liberation from mythology and fear. It is rather a form of taking relation between mythology and unknown to an extreme degree. Myth deals with fear and problems of unknown through gods. Enlightenment takes this explanation to the extreme in the way that nothing that cannot be measured is left in general. Adorno and Horkheimer explicates that myth is already enlightenment, which is also available in Vico’s definition of mythology. Besides, they further add one point to Vico when they claim that enlightenment reverses to myth; enlightenment is already included in mythology. In other words, enlightenment tries to free myth but it becomes mythology itself. As Vico suggests in the “New Science”, the influence of mythology is still present even though in the times of enlightenment. In the light of Vico, one might suggest that mythology is imminent to human society and to every stage of human history. (In that regard, the omnipresence of mythology in humanity although the social and material conditions are largely different than at times when mythologies were narrated, resembles me of Lacanian “imaginary” register. Enlightenment was or today modern society is the “symbolic” register during which the mythology as the imaginary is continuously felt and remembered although we are very past that age of mythology.)
II – Vico and Deconstruction
Vico refuses to consider history as a discontinuous phenomenon which progresses from mythos to logos. For him, both notions constitute “two different yet equivalent modes of thought by which human beings have sought to make sense of reality, the one by imaginary tales projected onto reality and the other empirical theories derived from it.” Besides, Vico also refuses to interpret Homer within the binary oppositions which on the one hand argue that he was a primitive poet and that he was a sublime poet on the other. Instead, Vico counters both ideas by putting forth a third way of positioning Homer. According to him, Homer’s primitiveness and sublimity don’t signal an opposition or a contradiction; instead, both notions which seem to be contradicting one another are necessary to define Homer in mythology. He therefore claims that Homer “was the most sublime poet precisely because he was also the most primitive.” The importance of Vico in the history of thought arises from his refusal to think within the binary oppositions and his endeavour to put forward a new possibility of thinking by means of reconciling the dualities which Western philosophy has constituted.
III – Vico and Kafka’s “Josephine”: Is Josephine Homer?
On the other hand, Vico’s insistence on the “sublimity” of the “primitive” as mentioned above, maintains the idea that in mythology the essence and the very source of art lies within the very ordinariness and the primitiveness of life. This understanding of “the sublimity of the primitive” reminds me a story of Kafka, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”. In this story, a narrator from the society of the mouse folk narrates the influence of Josephine the Singer to their lives. Although Josephine’s way of singing is not original and it consists of the sound of “piping” used in the everyday language of the mouse folk, the community is in awe of Josephine’s art. Josephine’s art is primitive, yet, it is sublime. In that sense, Josephine’s influence resembles the impact of Homer to ancient Greek society; Homer’s stories were made of “collective images of reality” just as Josephine’s art consists of nothing but of the very common traits of the society: Piping.
On the other hand, Vico’s beautiful analysis of myth lies in his interpretation of mythology as “fiction” and nevertheless as “a true narration”. Mythology is fiction since it doesn’t represent the instant, the immediate and the exact recordings of the particular historical data. Yet, Vico claims that “the truth of myth consists not in the modes of cognition or representation of reality but rather in its mode of narration of it.” In that regard, one might draw a further parallel with Josephine; Josephine’s art is a fiction since it originates from the sound of piping which is embodied into a higher and an aesthetic form of a musical song. Yet, by means of the very act of singing, Josephine narrates the truth about that society and her art derives from the very basic societal behaviour of piping. After all, Josephine’s art resembles the Homeric work in terms of its characteristic styles of being “impersonal”; both Homer’s and Josephine’s art point out the collective realities of the societies in the form of fiction.
IV – Vico and Bakhtin: Fiction, True Narration, Collectivity
The togetherness of collective realities and the form of fiction are introduced to philosophical and literary inquiries in 20th century by the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, though in different terms than Vico. Bakhtin proposes a theory of the novel on the basis of what he calls heteroglossia. According to Bakhtin, “the prose writer as a novelist doesn’t strip away the intentions of others, from the heteroglot language of his works, he doesn’t violate those socio-ideological cultural horizons (big and little worlds) that open up behind heteroglot languages – rather he welcomes them into his work.” He further states that “the prose writer makes use of words that are already populated with the social intentions of others and compels them to serve his own intentions, to serve a second master.” The novel corresponds to a “fiction”, yet it is filled with the intentions of others, collective realities or individual subjectivities; as Bakhtin profoundly claims that “the word in language is half someone else’s.” And what’s more, Bakhtin’s theory regards the language as a socio-political phenomenon as the novel is the reflection and the container of sociality. A similar attitude is evident in Vico’s treatment of “poetry” in mythology. Joseph Mali tells that “(Vico) perceived poetry in socio-political, not in merely aesthetic terms” since “the tales were primarily concerned with the common necessities and utilities of civil life.” It is at this point where Bakhtin and Vico meet and where a theory toward the togetherness of “fiction” and “reality” is concurrently established.
Franz Kafka, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” in The Complete Stories. New York: Schocken Books.
Joseph Mali, “The Rehabilitation of Myth: Vico’s New Science”
Mikhail Bakhtin. “The Dialogic Imagination”. ed. Michael Holquist. trans. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist. University of Texas Press. Austin. 1981.
Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer. “Dialectic of Enlightenment”
Picture Retrieved from: http://woodpig.deviantart.com/art/Giambattista-Vico-79192218