In plain usage, ‘myth’ used to refer to a mistaken belief held as fact, especially the kind of belief that purports to explain something present, or everyday in the light of something inaccessible or mysterious in the past. So we can say that the Ancient Egyptians (to take one banal example) ‘explained’ death, fertility, irrigation etc through the edifice of a series of stories about deities who are inaccessible to humans (removed in time and/or space) except through rituals of propitiation, invocation and so on.
Today, however we are accustomed to a much more nuanced notion of myth- at least in even moderately intellectual contexts. Say the word ‘myth’ and one no longer first thinks of the Greek gods, of pre-scientific mythology as such, but perhaps of ‘urban myths’, or national/ideological myths, or even of the kind of modern mythologies of the mediated and spectacular world examined by Barthes.
Nevertheless, what remains in common between all these modalities of myth is a certain kind of relation to belief; one that is characterized as, or identified in essence as, irrational, pre-rational, or unscientific.
The great 19th century text on comparative mythologies was, of course, James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (an abridged version of which adorned many bookshelves in middle-class Pakistani homes as I remember). Frazer’s remarkable imagination combined with his broad research allowed him to conjure up the most evocative, terrifying, strange and exciting visions of rituals and mythic beliefs around the world; these descriptions, in turn, resting on a presumption that humans (as human spirit?) evolve from a magical to a religious and finally a scientific worldview (as exemplified already by the late Victorian English society Frazer belonged to).
This presumption was famously challenged- in a different context entirely- by Wittgenstein, around the time he was writing the notes and observations that were eventually compiled as his Philosophical Investigations. As Wittgenstein points out, Frazer – fails to understand the so-called primitive mind, because he considers magical ritual and mythical beliefs to be erroneous propositions about the world- so, for example, a belief in a rain-god (from a Frazer-ian perspective) might lead to a belief that a certain action (say, the sacrifice of an animal at a particular time and place) will cause the rain to fall. Frazer points out that such beliefs are hard to disprove precisely because it will rain sooner or later, and presumably the supplanting of these rituals by more efficient predictive methods-the scientific method- is simply a matter of societal evolution. Wittgenstein’s counterargument- to my mind, a strong one- is that the magical/mythical is not the same as the scientific at all, in terms of what is expected by the users of each respective system. For example, it would be remarkable if generations of people had not noticed that it does rain, no matter what one does or believes; I would add, any ancient people would ‘know’ that neighbors or rivals worshipping different gods received their share of rainfall as well. What Wittgenstein proposes- en route to his critique of metaphysics- is that myths are not different from religious beliefs today, inasmuch as they do not represent ‘factual’ propositions about the world, but ways of expressing or experiencing the world. Perhaps one can further imagine a situation in which certain hypotheses about the world are expressed in the form of ritual- not exactly, not without remainder or even with intention, but in the sense that certain actions and ideas are there, they coexist, and are not reducible to one another- but they give a certain satisfaction. It is the act of seeking an ‘explanation’ where none exists which seems erroneous, an error born of scientism, that metaphysics of science which is peculiar to a blustering strand of modernity. For Wittgenstein, in the terrible or awe-inspiring scene of a ritual as described by Frazer, the terror or awe are all the explanation that are required. (They give satisfaction, or peace- in a beautiful passage, he says: Every explanation is an hypothesis. But for someone broken up[i] by love an explanatory hypothesis wont help much. – It will not bring peace.)
One can say, to bring this discussion closer to home, that a primary artistic urge- to describe, to present the world or to represent it- is precisely analogous to this kind of ritual enactment. If we discard the common view of ritual- that it follows a well-defined mythology or system- perhaps we can do something similar with how we look at the relationship of art- or various kinds of art- to particular world-views. In this understanding, for example, Abstract Expressionism is not the name of a myth or a truth, but the name for a field of ideas coexisting or associated with practices ‘on the ground’. That is, a distinct or novel practice occurs first, forms networks of associations, gathers ideas, spreads through teaching, plagiarism, marriages, friendships, affairs etc- and is eventually contained in an ontological framework, given a name or a goal. At this point, I would venture (without any attempt at proof), the practice ceases to ‘satisfy’ or ‘give peace’ as it once did and becomes merely dogmatic.
Pakistan has (as usual) a very interesting relationship to the intersections of myth, belief and art. So far I have been sketching a hasty outline of an anti-essentialist approach to art, derived from an anti-essentialist philosophers writings on myth and religion. Yet, the inescapability of dogma- religious and cultural- in Pakistani cultural life has made it look like our choice is between local or imported myths, between Muhammad bin Qasim and Robert Clive, between Abanindranath Tagore and Marcel Duchamp. These are false choices based on a mistaken and axiomatic presumption of the exclusivity of cultural beliefs and ideas, and lead to practices that follow a theory rather than form the ground for a subsequent theoretical description.[ii]
In case I have not made it clear where I’m going this, the problem facing Pakistani art is not the presence of multiple ‘myths’ or value systems. The problem is the prevalence of a mindset and educational bias that sees these systems as exclusive, or competing in the absolute sense (in which only one ‘truth’ is possible). There are echoes here of both a colonialist relic of attempted reformation and counter-reformation, and of a religious climate that is dominated by the obsession with discovering Kufr, with the possibility of declaring a single unequivocal truth. The only way in which this consensus on truth can be achieved, of course is by fixing the game, or by not-so-subtly rigging the terms of the debate to suit one side- mostly by presuming that religion and myth follow the model of propositional truth rather than of cultural or even scientific practices (if we allow, in extreme cases, that scientific method is a cultural practice). Hence, a monotheist might not understand the practices of ‘idolatry’, and my memories of school Islamiat lessons include being encouraged to participate in the delusional notion that Hindus somehow expected their man-made idols to perform god-like feats- surely any adult will cringe at this hateful presumption of stupidity where instead a complex and syncretic set of practices exists. Similarly Sunni’s and Shias, Ahmedis, apostates, atheists etc can no longer find ‘peace’ through their rituals and everyday existence alone, because they are attempting to first establish an unchallenged worldview.
The question, “What is Pakistani Art?” (eagerly debated in this publication and elsewhere) is almost an exact analogue of the question “What is Pakistani Islam?”. In both cases, the primary argumentative tool is exclusionary, a kind of demented Occam’s razor that leaps from hand to hand, brandished most often at the weakest and most easily disregarded. Anyone who holds a Pakistani passport as a Muslim has declared:
‘‘I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad an impostor prophet. And also consider his followers, whether belonging to the Lahori or Qadiani group, to be non-Muslims.”
In many cases, the signatory will not agree with this but sign out of exigency; some will presumably sign with a zealous flourish; and many will simply sign without thinking twice about how they feel about the matter[iii]. There are as many ways of believing and disbelieving as you like, and they are not deducible from yes or no answers. The urge to reach consensus accomplishes here nothing less than a flattening of an extremely variegated landscape of affiliations[iv]. Similarly, though less murderously, the discourse around Pakistani art focuses on foundational or originary matters almost to the exclusion of a real and complex world of facts, and the politics, aesthetics and novelties emerging from these realities (I have admittedly been as guilty as anyone else of this).
The situation we find ourselves in, in Pakistan especially is that it is near impossible to find a way out of this whirl towards a presumed, central purity. Art institutes, to the extent that they introduce students to these concerns as the price of sheltering them from the great, windy outside, perpetuate this condition unwittingly. The Biennale culture of globalized art, inasmuch as it places a premium on communicability and cultural specificity, tends to reinforce such stultifying parochialism as well. [v]
All this is not to suggest that religion, myth and art should in no way produce a picture of the world, or a ground of sorts. Indeed, the production of such a picture is probably the reason why we are attached, as a species, to such creative and interpretive activities. Neither am I proposing that the conscious removal of religious thought, or foundational myths is what artists and thinkers should be doing; rather, the opposite- if I have a program in mind it is the reproliferation of ritual and the reengagement with the mythic in anti-metaphysical and non-exclusionary practices. Art, given its freedom of expression, and education given its mandate for experiment and re-enchantment rather than training, might still be the models for such a venture.
[i] I prefer the original “beunruhigt” here, ‘made un-peaceful or un-calm’. Wittgenstein also refers to acts like kissing a lovers name or picture, as without aim.
[ii] In the latter case I am advocating an art that is ‘grounded in its own groundlessness’ to paraphrase Jean-Luc Nancy.
[iii] This kind of declaration of hate by proxy could be a seen as a (significantly less peaceful) counterpart of the Tibetan prayer wheel, where simply spinning the attached prayers is considered to have the same effect as orally reciting the prayer. Zizek cites the prayer wheel as an example of ‘interpassivity’, where a subject can mobilise certain interior states without experiencing them in the moment.
[iv] I would happily see the word ‘affiliation’ as a substitute for ‘belief’ in most cultural contexts; to expand on the history and current usage of this word is a task for another essay.
[v] In the meantime, the most rapacious and predatory people of the television and media world understand the brew of dogma and ritual that gives ‘peace’ to people (and peace can be malevolent too…). Amir Liaqat forcing mangoes down peoples mouths on a Ramzan television show in no way detracts from his role as religious authority in the eyes of an adoring public. I am suggesting-against my own instincts- that there is something to be learned here.