Desacralized Myths: Crisis of narrative and narrative of crisis

Giovanni Cucci, SJ

 Giovanni Cucci, SJ / Church Thought / Published Date:7 January 2021/Last Updated Date:12 August 2021

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The discomfort of fragmentation

A peculiar characteristic of today’s so-called “Postmodern” era is the absence of global narratives. This is the basic hypothesis of the famous book by Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, published in 1979. Lyotard pointed out that, from a cultural point of view, the so-called “Modern” era, characterized by comprehensive narratives and great utopian projects (the last ones were Rationalism, the Enlightenment, Marxism), capable of providing unity and historical identity to a variety of  social groups, has come to an end.[1]

Next came the era of liquidity, well noted by Zygmunt Bauman: “The era inaugurated with the construction of the Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall that ended with the Berlin Wall is over forever. In this global planetary space it is no longer possible to draw a border to feel truly and totally safe behind it. This is true forever: for today and for all the future days we can imagine.”[2]

La Civilta Cattolica

Narratives, however, have not disappeared: they have become desacralized (after all, Marxism was also a form of historical messianism), they have lost the aura of absolute truth, capable of an all-embracing explanation of the course of events valid for all time. In their place are the so-called “low-intensity myths,” to take up the title of a recent book on the subject.

There is a sacred dimension to high-intensity myths, which are separated from ordinary events. Their purpose is to clarify the main problems of life. They take place in a mythical time other than the mundane, have as protagonists higher beings, presented with positive or negative characteristics, to imitate or be wary of, such as heroes, gods, angels or demons, and they can be recognized thanks to a precise code of values.

Low-intensity myths no longer deal with the sacred and the eternal: they are set in ordinary life; they do not present particular values, but merely describe events, and their characters are no different from humans.[3] The reason they are also called “myths” is because they deal with the fundamental issues of life: the universe and its civilizations (science fiction), the magical dimension (fantasy), death without the sacred aspect (the many narratives of zombies and vampires), violence (TV series on serial killers), and disaster (epidemics and environmental catastrophes).

What these narratives have in common is their apocalyptic tone: the absence of possible answers to such issues as mentioned above leads to foreshadowing an imminent and unstoppable catastrophe, involving the entire human community, with no room for escape. It is a well-known genre because of its considerable public reach through publishing, film, music, videogames and especially social networks.[4] It has found, especially in the news events of these last months, dominated by a global and seemingly unstoppable pandemic, plenty of food for thought and some validation.

Low-intensity myths have also influenced philosophy. In 2011 Eugene Thacker published an apocalyptic book, In the Dust of this Planet, the first of a series dedicated to horror philosophy (anti-Cartesian and anti-Kantian), in which he theorizes about a world now devoid of human beings due to environmental disasters, growing pandemics and exploitation produced by a suicidal policy aimed at profit without limits.  It is a world that turns out to be indifferent to humans, indeed it can finally exist more effectively thanks to the disappearance of its real enemies.[5]

The question has been asked why certain types of production (e.g., Star Wars, Harry Potter, films and TV series about zombies, vampires and epidemics) surpass others in terms of popularity. Even in their low intensity some narratives somehow become “classics,” have a large following and show remarkable durability, despite their fragmentary nature noted by Bauman and the often repetitive and rambling plots. Evidently, such productions succeed in expressing in a particularly successful way a widespread current mentality about the fundamental themes of life, especially growing and unstoppable fears. At the same time they preserve a certain aura of mystery and enigma proper to every myth.

The pragmatic side of low intensity

The shift to low intensity can also be noticed at the social and political level. Epic narratives and heroes have always been a constant feature of the traditions of all times: Their presence can be found in the main civil festivities, in the names of streets, squares, stations (Garibaldi, Cavour, Vittorio Emanuele). After all, the very word “nation” comes from a word for “birth”: “There is no geopolitics without myth and no myth without ritual. Every community that aspires to power needs a historical root […]. Myth and ritual compress time. They use the past to legitimize today, to project tomorrow.”[6] Hence also there is the possible manipulation of these narratives: several times in the past the leader of the day has arrogated to himself absolute power, interpreting it in terms of a sacred mission. It is interesting to note how most of the dictators of the 20th century, in addition to attributing to themselves a mythological aura to justify their role, have tried their hand at writing and the arts (with unhappy but effective results), to construct a narrative enterprise, as well as an economic and political one.[7]

However, in line with Lyotard’s reading, these great narratives seem to have disappeared from the common imagination today: heads of state are presented less and less as heroes to be imitated, bearers of an epic narrative, except in some dictatorial regimes that still have a personality cult. For the most part, the leaders of current governments are also “low intensity.” So too is their narrative, expressed by a term of recent provenance: storytelling. It appeared in the USA in the mid-1990s and covers an increasingly wide range of activities, from economics to medicine, from law to politics.[8]

Remaining with politics, we note that the narrative genre of some electoral campaigns is striking. It is very different from a few decades ago and at the same time increasingly widespread in various parts of the world. It is the type of narrative that has a considerable grip on a pragmatic level and serves to justify decisions of great impact on the public life of a nation, or even of the entire world: “The great narratives that have marked the history of humanity, from Homer to Tolstoy and from Sophocles to Shakespeare, recounted universal myths and transmitted the lessons of past generations, lessons of wisdom, the fruit of accumulated experience. Storytelling follows the path in the opposite direction: it glues artificial stories onto reality […]. It doesn’t tell the experience of the past, but it shapes behavior, directs the flow of emotion, synchronizes their circulation.”[9]

These narratives are meant to gain the voters’ consent by trying to intercept their needs and emotions. They are low-intensity narratives because the protagonists present themselves in the guise of the common person and tell people, “I’m just like you.”

At his presidential inauguration, Jimmy Carter recalled his humble origins, stating “when I was five I sold peanuts”; George Bush made his redemption from alcohol addiction one of the main topics of his electoral campaign; Nicolas Sarkozy managed his candidacy for the French presidency in a similar way, dwelling on the suffering and injustice he had witnessed, appealing to the emotions of the listeners, for whom he claimed he wanted to be the spokesman.[10]

The narrative turn characterized a style of politics that soon spread around the world and was used by key leaders in recent years: they “staged democracy” rather than exercised it.[11]

The web constitutes an immense reservoir of information which can adapt the narrative to the tastes of voters. And in order to achieve this goal, the most disparate sources are drawn upon, not infrequently violating the privacy of citizens by exploiting personal information posted on social networks. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that this way of proceeding was used, for example, during the election campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, for the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2018 elections in Mexico.

Narratives have also been the main justification for questionable choices that have changed the politics of a nation, a continent (as in the case of Brexit) or much of the world (such as the invasion of Iraq) and, even when they have been disproved by the facts, this has had no consequences for its creators. They have resorted to what has been called “the Shahrazad strategy”.  In the Thousand and One Nights, the mythical hero, condemned to death, tells a story so compelling and touching that he is pardoned and gains in confidence and popularity.

A low-intensity leader

Another important consequence of this lowering of the level is that the leader can more easily continue to function with possible serious failings at an ethical or civic level. In this sense, the low-intensity myth is an expression of “therapeutic culture,” that is, the tendency to highlight the sick part of oneself (dwelling, for example, on one’s past suffering and negative childhood experiences), as a way of relating to others, but also as a way of manipulating consensus, thus justifying inconsistencies and serious omissions: “Ron Davies, a Labor MP who resigned in 1998 following a sex scandal, publicly announced in June 1999 that he had undertaken psychiatric therapy to address his ‘darker side.’ He attributed his condition to a ‘disturbed, violent, emotionally dysfunctional childhood.’ […]. Both Clinton and Al Gore spoke publicly about their marital difficulties, drug addiction problems […]. Hillary Clinton spoke, referring to her husband, of ‘mental damage’ and during the Lewinski affair revealed the abuse Bill suffered during his childhood: ‘He was very small, he was just four years old, and he was so scarred by the abuse he suffered that he can’t even talk about it.’”[12]

In this way, when the leader violates the rules he or she has set, he or she can more easily be justified. A recent example is given by Dominic Cummings, advisor to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak violated government lockdown rules to move his family into his vacation home. This had no criminal consequences for him, unlike the case ordinary citizens who had committed the same infraction.

Storytelling, by lowering the ideal level expected  of leaders, has also further undermined their credibility, fostering the already serious disaffection of voters, abstentionism and distrust in institutions and seriously endangering the very identity of democratic governments. As Joan Didion has noted, if politics becomes a novel, the seriousness of unresolved problems and the growing number of broken promises force us to recognize the inevitable difference between reality and fiction: “By dint of inventing, reality crumbles, and whole chunks of existence can no longer be represented, until there emerges an unbridgeable gulf between the ruling class and the rest of the population.”[13] The scenario presented thus risks giving substance to the worst apocalyptic fears.

A warning not to be overlooked

Low-intensity narratives, mostly used as forms of entertainment, are a particularly successful and intriguing way to read our current situation, and they call attention to the need to address ultimate questions. Their success and popularity confirm their ability to represent in an emblematic way some profound changes in the collective imagination and the great fear of the future, ventilating a possible point of no return. They constitute a sustained and disturbing warning: humanity will face a global catastrophe if it does not revise as soon as possible some assumptions concerning common life. In particular, some themes can be recalled: that of indiscriminate profit, which dangerously widens the gap between rich and poor, with increasingly evident consequences (riots, migrations, environmental disasters); the nihilistic conception of life (and consequently of death), with people deprived of dignity and of a transcendent dimension; the absence of examples on an ethical and political level, even if one cannot help but notice in this context a certain complacent connivance with nihilism.[14]

Detecting danger is important, but it is not sufficient. If, as has been noted, “the story is the guardian of time” and “a bridge between experience and the cosmos,” low-intensity myths fail to accomplish this task: they successfully identify the cracks in being, but are unable to rebuild the bridge, to present models capable of protecting from catastrophe.[15] However, they do recall these needs, especially for the younger generations.

Umberto Galimberti noted that today many young people are sick and cannot even say what makes them sick, because they no longer have narratives available that allow them to read the problems of life and therefore, as a result, they find themselves unable to interpret what happens inside them,  hence the nostalgia for a proposal of meaning capable of putting it into words: “If we are faced with a de-intensification, we must not ignore that animating it is also often a demand fora higher intensity, that the new information environment is the ideal habitat for old and new sects and faiths, for old and new rituals, and opens up even more than in the past to the creation of spaces of imagination where individuals and groups can seek a more or less temporary dwelling.”[16]

In the issues presented, there is a longing for completeness that cannot be ignored. The call for a “higher intensity” at the origin of the perennial narratives is, not surprisingly, one of the main threads of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS), dedicated to the protection of the common home, which five years later continues to demonstrate its enormous relevance. In it, the pope reminds us that there are no solutions to ecological disasters and global crises except in the context of a common collaboration and a renewed mindset. And he poses some decisive questions, which are also the questions underlying these narratives: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question does not only concern the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? […] The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn” (LS 160). The ultimate questions, for too long disregarded, now show their dramatic import.

Low-intensity myths have not only not cancelled the need for high-intensity narratives, but they are in some way their harbinger, claiming the need for their presence. There is in them a desire for redemption, to give a foundation to the hope of continuing to live, above all to continue to transmit to future generations a heritage of values capable of providing an answer to the fundamental problems of living that cannot be ignored.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 1 art. 7, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.0121.7

[1].    “Simplifying to the utmost, we can consider ‘postmodern’ the disbelief in metanarratives […]. Recourse to grand narratives is excluded […]; the ‘small narrative’ remains the form par excellence of imaginative invention, first and foremost in science” (J.-F. Lyotard, La condizione postmoderna. Rapporto sul sapere, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1981, 6; 110).

[2].    Z. Bauman, Society Under Siege, Polity, Cambridge, 2013.

[3].    Cf. P. Ortoleva, Miti a bassa intensità. Racconti, media, vita quotidiana, Turin, Einaudi, 2019, XV.

[4].    Cf. Ibid., 33 f. For the influence of these narratives on the changed relationship with death and the dead, see G. Cucci, “Morte e digitale,” in Civ. Catt. 2020 II 543-553.

[5].    Cf. E. Thacker, Tra le ceneri di questo pianeta, Rome, Produzioni Nero, 2019; A. Weisman, Il mondo senza di noi, Turin, Einaudi, 2017; E. Kolbert, La sesta estinzione, Milan, Beat, 2016 (2015 Pulitzer Prize in the USA). In Italy, philosophical horror is known indirectly thanks to the television revival of the writings of Thacker and especially Thomas Ligotti (La cospirazione contro la razza umana, Milan, il Saggiatore, 2016; La straziante resurrezione di Victor Frankenstein, ibid., 2018) in the HBO series True Detective.

[6].    “Tutti i miti portano a Roma,” in Limes, No. 2, 2020, 7.

[7].    Illustrative of this is work by D. Kalder, Dictator Literature. A History of Despots Through their Writings, London, Oneworld, 2019.

[8].    “Managers are required to tell stories to motivate workers, and doctors are trained to listen to their patients’ stories. Even reporters have adopted narrative journalism and psychologists narrative therapy […]. A glance at any bookstore is enough to see the impressive success of books devoted to the art of storytelling, considered as a path to spirituality, a strategy for scholarship applicants, a way to resolve conflicts or a plan to lose weight” (F. Polletta, It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics, Chicago, University Chicago Press, 2006, 1).

[9] .   C. Salmon, Storytelling. La fabbrica delle storie, Rome, Fazi, 2008, 13.

[10].   An example is the speech that Sarkozy gave in Versailles on January 14, 2007: “I have changed because the trials of life have changed me […]. Because no one can remain the same in front of the despair of the parents of a girl burned alive […]. I find the injustice revolting and it is unfair that society ignores the victims. I want to speak for them.”

[11].   Cf. S. Ventura, I leader e le loro storie. Narrazione, comunicazione politica e crisi della democrazia, Bologna, il Mulino, 2019.

[12]. F. Furedi, Il nuovo conformismo. Troppa psicologia nella vita quotidiana, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2005, 76; cf. G. Cucci, “La cultura terapeutica nelle società occidentali,” in Civ. Catt. 2013 II 23-36.

[13].   M. Marzano, “Dietro la politica,” in la Repubblica, May 30, 2020; cf. J. Didion, Finzioni politiche, Milan, il Saggiatore, 2020.

[14].   As Mario Iannaccone notes with regard to TV series on serial crimes, “the worldview of the police […] is not very different from that of the cult leader. We understand it when they expound their philosophy, based on Nietzsche’s eternal return. It turns out that the good guys don’t think very differently from the bad guys, even though they may not make human sacrifices” (M. Iannaccone, Meglio regnare all’inferno. Perché i serial killer popolano il cinema, la letteratura e la televisione, Turin, Lindau, 2017, 447).

[15].   Cfr P. Ricœur, Tempo e racconto 3, Milan, Jaca Book, 1988, 369; P. Ortoleva, Miti a bassa intensità…, op. cit., XI; G. Cucci, “La dimensione narrativa della vita”, in Civ. Catt. 2010 III 358-366.

[16].   P. Ortoleva, Miti a bassa intensità…, op. cit., 309; cf. U. Galimberti, L’ospite inquietante. Il nichilismo e i giovani, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2012, 11-14.