Between Myth and Modernity

Lee Maracle, an eminent Sto:Loh nation author recently shared a brief story on Facebook in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As it has been widely and freely shared there, I trust I am not overstepping by sharing it here:

I think we should talk to this virus. Once upon a time the viruses ruled the [earth] and the trees walked. Raven and eagle called a gathering what can we do the fragile ones are dying. Cedar stepped forward and said we will be still the invisible beings (bacteria and viruses[)] can live in the dark in our roots. And the tree stood still and the bacteria and viruses lived underground. But now clearcutting is letting them loose. We can send them back. Let us talk to this virus and ask it to return to the tree roots. Asking with a pipe to talk [to] the virus!!!!

I was moved to respond to Maracle’s story and wrote the poem (below in PDF format), all the while painfully cognizant of certain complications I want to address explicitly.

First, a white settler man writing a response to something a First Nations woman writer has written is fraught with complications (such a simple word, for all its syllables!). For this reason, I sought to answer her story with a story or account of my own, rather than writing, e.g., a critique couched in the language and epistemic and social stance of epidemiology. Moreover, I was careful not to pretend to be correcting her error with my truth:  my poem’s third line, “…from what I’ve heard”; I place two stories side by side, rather than try to replace one with the other (however much they disagree). In ancient Greece, for example, competing stories about the gods existed concurrently, peacefully, because the Hellenes understood, as Herodotus tells us, the poets created their gods.

More fundamentally my writing this poem and thinking about and over it the way I have is motivated by my concern (not position on) over the relation of myth and modernity. Maracle shares what to European settler ears is a mythic, premodern mode of apprehending the world. But it wasn’t that long ago, only centuries, that Europe itself underwent what has become known as the Enlightenment, itself only a moment in a process of “modernization” beginning with the Scientific Revolution when mythic modes of thought were slowly and painfully replaced by rational, scientific modes and the world (in Max Weber’s words) disenchanted.

virus infection

This relation between what I call here myth and modernity is far from simple. On the one hand, mythic ways of understanding what is are forced into having to come to terms with this new, undoubtedly powerful way of grasping Nature. On the other hand, if the two are understood as being in opposition, then that opposition is one that self-deconstructs (in the rigorous sense):  painstaking reflection can reveal how each term is a species of the other (as Lévi-Strauss shows at length, myth is a mode of thought every bit as rigorous and possessed of truth as the natural sciences, while the work of Adorno and others reveals the mythological character of Reason…), while not collapsing the two into each other or into a higher, truer unity (sublate them, in Hegel’s word). They remain in fraternal conflict and, ideally, dialogue. Anyone familiar with my poetic or critical work will know this problem is an active and ongoing concern…

How, then, to modernize myth, as it were, so the mythic and scientific can come into conversation? This is what I attempt in my own very small-scale way with my poem:  to answer a story with a story, as a story rather than critique, and in a manner that echoes that of the story being answered, the style of a folk or fairy tale (hers begins “Once upon a time…”).

If only the matter were so simple. After strenuous conversations with friends about the poem and no little rumination on my part, I’m forced to conclude the poem faces a very great danger of being misconstrued (which it is likely to be, anyway) if it’s read apart from Maracle’s story, let alone this blog post. Therefore, I post below the final version of the poem (which underwent countless revisions and incremental emendations) in the context here of Maracle’s text and the preceding apologia. Here, then, seems to be the poem’s final home.

Virus talk (final)

 

 

 

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