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◌  Time and myth

25 February 2009

Let’s walk backwards through hills. Trees and houses appear suddenly over either shoulder and converge slowly into distant patterns. There seems to be a trade-off between seeing something in detail and seeing it in context. But quiet organs of the brain have tricks to work both ends of the deal. We get to assume that what’s far away feels, close-up, a lot like the close-up things feel, and we can go the other way and suppose that these distractingly close-up things fit into their surroundings much as similar things clearly do in the distance.

This is like our experience of time, where what happens every day is visceral but confusing and history is clearer but dryer. Lately I’ve felt old enough to be like someone who has walked so far that even very distant hills have moved a tiny bit against each other by motion parallax. It’s not that time feels shorter (or longer) than it did when I was very young; it’s that I know what it feels like. Readers who have seen three or four times as much might justifiably smile at my presumption. But a little is a lot more than none; to have any perspective is a big step from the only other thing I’ve known, a child’s basically abstract understanding of how many years are in a decade and how long ago the Romans and dinosaurs lived.

There’s a classic Mac game called Orion. The info text says This is a simulation, not a game. To me in about 1992, and probably to a lot of other eight-year-olds, it was an 84 KB epiphany. When you open it there’s the solar system rendered in a couple dozen pixels, including names, white on black. Pressing the accelerate button, you pull through. Then nothing happens for a while. But if you hold the button down, the speedometer keeps rising, and then the stars start drifting by.

To stare at the starfield, a painted backdrop, and then to be swimming through it – it was shocking. I still remember the first time I saw it. Do I? The textures of the moment are bleaching out under the story I tell about it. It’s an emptying node in a thickening web of meaning. As I forget exactly what year it was and which computer it was on, I have more contexts for it – Project Orion, classic Mac games, early 3D on home computers, or, now, things that gave me a sudden feeling of perspective.

I was reading some Haida myths in translation. Mostly I avoid myths – I can’t stand the big clouds of boring they attract. Boring papers by angry young professors. Boring passages that don’t make sense without glosses. Boring glosses. Boring national-revivalist art. Boring books of overedited parables by boring Victorians. Boring regional poetry about Raven this, Raven that. Boring cultural point-scoring. But these stories are not boring. Bringhurst’s translation reminds me of the Fagles Odyssey – lines with sharpness and elbowy periphrasis suggesting the original agglutinativeness. Take Spirit Being Living in the Little Finger’s lines 292–300:

They pulled him out.
He was covered with slime.
He licked himself with medicine
and made himself the way he’d been before.
There were many people’s skeletons in that one too, they say.

He tore the octopus in half
and ripped a part of it to shreds.
Then he scattered them around.
These will be of use to the last people in the world.

This kind of passage is hard to read when I have to grab my mouse hand, Strangelove-like, from signing up for courses in Haida and cultural anthropology. Unlike the Odyssey’s tumbling narrative, the myths’ structures are formal and full of symmetries. Bringhurst, who loves to almost overstate, uses an often abused term (page 29):

The patterns [in the narratives] are fractal in the sense that they repeat at varying scales. It may also be that, like the many fractal structures found in nature, they cause the story to behave like something larger than it looks.

This is ambitious, but not ambitious as a euphemism for stupid. Like rhyme (and all structure), fractalness lowers K-complexity while giving the storyteller a framework for iterations, variations, and microcosms. Such rough spirals make the depth that Bringhurst suggests. A certain amount of predictability lets you see around a text’s corners, making it more familiar mostly, but more surprising when a consistency is broken. And when any instance of a pattern is varied, it means something about all the others. Starting with that doesn’t mean what you want it to mean, the more I chewed on it, the more Bringhurst’s idea of fractalness seemed natural and even trivial. It doesn’t mean much more than that stories have themes, but it’s a strong way of saying it.

It’s hard for me, as a lay reader of oral literature, to see how to think or not think about things like authorship and historicity in myths. I have to re-work problems like intent which I thought were already in hand. The idea I most want to understand is myth-time, but I haven’t found a good account of it. It’s mentioned everywhere that myths (by definition) are set apart from and usually before historical time, in a universe somewhat our own but more platonic and with magical or dream-like causality. Aboriginal Australian Dreamtime is the canonical example. Fine. But no one seems to want to go into detail, at least on the web.

There is a glint of irony here. Like dinosaurs, of which few were buried in sediment, and few of their bones half leeched out and replaced by rock, and few discovered, we will be remembered rarely, partially, and not in our own terms. It’s conventional to chastise ourselves by imagining that the people of the future, like gods or campy noble aliens, will be disappointed in us. No doubt they will in some ways, and their successors in them. But if we imagine them as less like our consciences and more like ourselves, we can wonder what stories will survive of us when, by progress or disaster, only stories survive. I bet the web will be big.

(Maybe when I think I’m not imagining the future as my conscience, I’m tricking myself. It is my conscience, but by saying it isn’t I’m trying to sneak up on it from behind, where it’s less corrupted by the preconceptions and incentives of the moment. (And because the future is where things’ effects go, so conscience is naturally concerned with it.) It’s a way of asking what would timeless human values do? There is an analogy here to societies funding science research, which is of more use to society, by being more accurate and potentially surprising, the less it’s influenced by society. If you stop pretending pure research is pure, it becomes actually instead of just nominally useless.)

When our time is someone’s myth-time, their K-simple description of us will have a term for our sudden ability to talk around the world. The internet will be like the sampo. I am more sure of this than I am of whether they will remember it as the creation of something obvious, like myths about how the sky got there, or whether they will tell it in caves about a kind of garden of Eden.

This is the best explanation I can give to people who don’t understand why someone would put up with the obvious unpleasantnesses of work with infotech. Writing code is like a dream where whatever you describe appears. It’s heady and platonic but it feels natural. I strongly suspect that programming uses the same toolset as inventing, telling, and listening to myths.