Plenary speakers

David Hawkes (Arizona State University), “I think Hell’s a Fable”: Literalism and the Death of the Soul.

Miriam Leonard (University College London), Tragedy, Myth and the Intrusion of History: Carl Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba.

Harish Trivedi (University of Delhi), Indian Myth: Postcolonial Translation.

Distinguished Bean Trust Lecturer

Sheila Spector (Independent Scholar), The Evolution of Blake’s Myth: Urizen’s Multiple Identities.

A full list of speakers can be found on the Programme page.

Plenary paper abstracts

David Hawkes: ‘I think Hell’s a Fable’: Literalism and the Death of the Soul

One of the strangest moments in Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century version of Doctor Faustus occurs when the eponymous anti-hero declares: ‘Come, I think Hell’s a fable.’  It is not so much the modernity of his sentiment that surprises as the context.  For Faustus addresses this happy atheist aphorism to Mephistopheles, a fiery devil who has quite obviously, and very literally, just emerged from the purportedly fabulous infernal residence.  The fiend’s response is salutary, striking as it does at the naïve empiricism that has allowed Faustus his illusory hope: ‘Aye, think so still, till experience change thy mind.’  Mephistopheles understands that Faustus’s entire enterprise, his assumption that twenty-four years of earthly dominion is worth the price of his eternal soul, depends upon an empiricist world-view.  He answers Faustus using the only terms he can understand.

For empiricists, appearance is reality.  That which does not appear is unreal.  Since Marlowe’s time, and in spite of Faustus’s cautionary example, literalism and empiricism have become the default positions for the middle-brow masses of the Western world.  This fact has recently been exposed with merciless clarity by the enthusiastic popular response to the ‘new atheism’ peddled by authors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.  It often seems that literalism is the primary point of the new atheism.  Its leading figures frequently declare that interpretation should be literalist.  The new atheism amounts to a manifesto for literalist reading, and the gleeful public response to its emergence reveals the appeal that literalism holds for the public at large.

This paper seeks to explain that appeal.  In the exchange from Marlowe, it might appear that Mephistopheles is the literalist, while Faustus takes a more sophisticated approach by suggesting that Hell is a ‘fable.’  But I will argue that the reverse is the case.  It is Mephistopheles who understands that human experience is always and unavoidably mediated through symbols, images and myths—through ‘fables,’ in short.  It is Faustus, the exponent of modernity’s naïve empiricism, who imagines it is possible to dismiss representation and directly contemplate things-in-themselves. As the subsequent development of the Faust legend shows, and as the joyous public welcome given to today’s version of Faustus’s literalism confirms, that is the most dangerous myth of all.

Miriam Leonard: Tragedy, Myth and the Intrusion of History: Carl Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba

The question of history has inevitably acted as a frame in debates about the reception of classical myth and tragedy. It has often been argued, for instance, that the universalizing assumptions and abstraction of modern philosophical and psychoanalytic readings of Greek myth and tragedy have been blind to its historical specificity. At the core of this paper will be a discussion of the essay Hamlet or Hecuba by the controversial German political theorist Carl Schmitt. Writing in 1956, Schmitt constructs his argument, on one hand, through an engagement with Walter Benjamin and his contrast between tragedy and Trauerspiel, and on other, as a reaction to Freud’s dehistoricized psychologizing readings of myth. Schmitt begins his analysis by mapping out three distinct modes of the historical in literature: allusion, mirroring and intrusion. His exploration provides a different vocabulary for thinking about the relationship between myth, history and tragedy. In particular, rather than seeing myth and history as oppositional forces in tragedy, Schmitt maintains that it is by tying Hamlet’s fate to its concrete historical situation that he is able to attain his mythical status. His essay thus helps us understand how myth and tragedy arise from the “intrusion of history” in the continuum of the contemporary.

Sheila Spector: The Evolution of Blake’s Myth: Urizen’s Multiple Identities

A chronological survey of Blake’s composite art indicates that his myth was not wholly original but, rather, the result of a decades-long process of translation, in which the linear myth of exoteric Christianity was gradually replaced by the esoteric cycle of Christian Kabbalism. The evolution of Blake’s myth can be divided into five basic phases: 1) the pre-mythic phase, in which he argued logically against the binary mode of thought that governs conventional Christianity; 2) the incipient myth, in which he introduced personifications to symbolize abstract concepts; 3) the linear myth, in which he generated a narrative around the symbols; 4) conflated myths, in which he attempted – but failed – to superimpose the esoteric onto the linear myth of exoteric Christianity; and finally 5) the cyclical myth, in which he embraced the Christianized form of Kabbalism. Throughout this process, the figure of Urizen provides a touchstone for the evolution of Blake’s intellectual progress. In the first phase, logical argument revealed the need for a specific mytheme to embody the characteristics Blake opposed. In phase 2, he named that mytheme Urizen. Then, in the third phase, he generated a narrative around the antagonist to his new myth. Recognizing the problems inherent in the linear mode of thought, in phase 4, he attempted to add  kabbalistic characteristics to the pre-existing symbol, though the attempt failed. Therefore, in phase 5, he re-characterized Urizen in kabbalistic terms so that the figure could be reintegrated into the restored cosmos postulated by the cyclical myth, as opposed to being eliminated as the antagonist of a linear myth.

Harish Trivedi: Indian Myth: Postcolonial Translation

There is apparently no word in the Indian languages for ‘myth’; the concept seems untranslatable. The Hindi neologism mithak and the faux Sanskrit cognate mithya (unreal) nicely complicate the issue. However, there is indisputably a vast body of Indian mythology, which was initially derided and dismissed by Lord Macaulay in 1835 as being ludicrous and barbaric, but assiduously translated into English by various Orientalists throughout the nineteenth century, from  H. H. Wilson to Max Muller, and marshalled for various scholarly and colonial purposes.  One culture’s myth was often viewed through another culture’s enlightenment.

After a brief review of some Western theoretical approaches adopted towards interpreting Indian mythology, I shall in this paper illustrate a few distinctive iconographic features of Indian mythology.  I shall then highlight the abiding popularity and potency of myth in modern Indian culture, as ‘translated’ or transmitted through literary and performative renderings, including  plays, TV adaptations and literary re-tellings in Hindi and now increasingly in English – often as a hopeful means of reversing postcolonial cultural deracination.  Where faith and belief are under constant erosion, myth and wonder may still provide a secular middle ground.


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