The Sistine Chapel, T.S. Eliot, Manet, Thomas Mann, Bernini, Shakespeare—pick your own favorites. But anyone who has deeply experienced a great work of art understands the power of symbols to move us and even change the way we feel, the way we think, the way we live. Like many others, Joseph Campbell found a lot of similarities between how living mythological symbols work and how artistic symbols affect the individual. He considered both myths and art as products of the imagination, producing symbols that arise from the unconscious and communicate their emotive power to the unconscious minds of others. Although he did not believe that our society
(in the latter decades of the twentieth century) had any powerful common mythology, I’m not sure he would believe the same to be true today. Things were changing too fast for a mythology to develop, he thought. Yet now it seems as though the very intense pace of change has become a common part of the story of our lives. Images such as the web itself and the multiprocessor have captured the imagination of many. Is it possible that we are in fact developing a new mythology for our time?
In order to see whether functional mythological symbols are in fact developing at all today, it seemed best to first understand fully what Campbell meant by a functioning myth and to see if today’s leading neuroscientists had been able to discover any new insights in the process through which a symbol affects the individual mind. Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel’s latest book, entitled The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious, in Art, Mind, and Brain, seemed to be a promising place to start.
Kandel chose to study the Viennese expressionist artists at the turn of the last century in order to explore the interplay of art, mind, and the unconscious. He does see a direct correlation between earlier art forms that tried to arouse religious emotions and more modern art that attempts to tap into the unconscious realm of emotions by using primitive (or universal) archetypes in a similar way. Kandel notes that since the earliest cave paintings thirty thousand years ago, virtually all groups of human beings have created images. So even though story-telling and the visual and musical arts do not seem to be necessary for survival, they have been persistently part of human life from the start. Art, Kandel argues, creates a process that can produce “an Aha! moment, the sudden recognition that we have seen . . . the truth underlying both the beauty and the ugliness depicted by the artist.” “A great work of art,” he continues, “enables us to experience a deep pleasure that is at once unconscious yet capable of triggering conscious feelings.”
Kandel admits that the real challenges of understanding how the mind works in biological terms remain the crucial goals for neuroscientists in the twenty-first century. The current science of mind cannot explain much about the aesthetic experience, although scientists do distinguish between how the unconscious mind responds to an image, which they say produces “emotions,” and how the conscious mind responds, which they say generates “feelings.” This distinction dovetails with how Campbell described the experience of a functioning mythological symbol, which is initially experienced viscerally and then perhaps later interpreted linguistically by the conscious brain and placed
within a cultural and historical context. The similarities in the processes of experiencing myths and art also helps us see why Campbell contended that in the future it would be the artists who would create the myths and keep them alive: “The function of the artist,” Campbell told Bill Moyers during their series of conversations known as The Power of Myth, “is the mythologization of the environment and the world,” for it is the artist “whose ears are open to the song of the universe.”