The mythos and logos of story

I realise, with increasing intensity, the complexity of the layers of meaning in stories, and the challenge represented by so-called truth. What kinds of questions are raised, or answered, by using ‘factual’ and ‘fictional’ (or sometimes ‘factional’ as a former colleague coined it) stories, by contradictory version of the past, and by the complex layers of the practical and the emotional which are surfaced through story?

One slant on this comes from Karen Armstrong in her ‘Short History of Myth’ . In it, she disentangles “Mythos” deep values and meaning – and “logos” – practical lessons and knowledge. (My bold)

“Logos is quite different from mythical thinking. Unlike myth, logos must correspond accurately to objective facts. It is the mental activity we use when we want to make things happen in the world: when we organise our society or develop technology. Unlike myth, it is essentially pragmatic. Where myth looks back to the imaginary world of the sacred archetype or to a lost paradise, logos forges ahead, constantly trying to discover something new, to refine old insights, create startling inventions, and achieve a greater control over the environment. Mythos and logos both have their limitations, however. In the pre-modern world, most people realised that myth and reason were complementary; each had its separate sphere, each its particular area of competence and human beings needed both these modes of thought. A myth could not tell a hunter how to kill his prey or how to organise an expedition efficiently, but it helped him to deal with his complicated emotions about the killing of animals. Logos was efficient, practical and rational, but it could not answer questions about the ultimate value of human life nor could it mitigate human pain and sorrow.

From the very beginning, therefore, homo sapiens understood instinctively that myth and logos had separate jobs to do. He used logos to develop new weaponry, and myth, with its accompanying rituals, to reconcile himself to the tragic facts of life that threatened to overwhelm him, and prevent him from acting effectively.

When I read this, it was enormously powerful in shedding light on something that had eluded me about story for the first, oh, 10 years or so. And what I like about it is that it’s so bloomin’ obvious I can’t think why I didn’t see it before. Those are the best kinds of discovery, the ones that are uncovery of something that was there all along. (Reminds me again of Rilke and his inhabit the questions. I’ve blogged it before, but, as with study of sacred texts ( small deep enquiry into a small set of texts, as in koranic study, rather than a wide shallow trawl across many), its one of those quotes to come back to over and over again, so I’ll insert it here, before picking up my thread again:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Inhabit the questions now. Perhaps you will find them gradually, without noticing it, and live along some distant day into the answer.”

The mythos/logos thing helped me understand one of the things (a very important thing) which goes wrong with storytelling in organisations. Not just with explicit storytelling under that banner, but with all kinds of organisational communication, audit, review, planning, process, workflow. So don’t just file this under the cateory of those narrative people whining on. This is of fundamental import to the dysfuncion of most organisational systems I’ve experienced. It’s so important, I’m going to put it in bold, in direct contravention of Jane Austen’s advice (Mansfield Park) about etiquette in writing.

We fail, in most circumstances, most of the time, in most organisational systems, to understand which mode we are in (how to kill a bear/how it feels to kill a bear), or which mode we need to be in, or that the linked ways of being -mythos and logos – must both be present for something of meaning to be taking place . We muddle the mythos and the logos and fail to understand that they are there to perform different functions. So when we conduct, say, a lessons learned evaluation, we tend to home in the logos (how it went wrong) and diminish the usefulness of the mythos (what catharsis is needed for those who feel shamed, hurt or vulnerable because they feel responsible for it going wrong) by ignoring it, or worse, by shuffling things which need to be about emotions into the logos part of the evaluation and prodding at people’s bruisedness. Or even worse, we bundle the mythos into a few spun phrases which sidestep ritual and the need for the sacred altogether, and so spin people, centrifugally, away from the heart of the acts and into some distance place to nurse their wounds.

In his work at Cognitive Edge, I’m pleased to see that Dave Snowden makes a place for sacred stories in his categorisations.

I was at a workshop last October at the International Storytelling Centre in Jonesborough, Tennessee. One of the speakers suddenly said mid speech, ‘point to yourself’. Without exception, we all pointed our fingers at our hearts. And he said ‘You see, no-one points at their head.’

Since I came across the distinction I’ve found the logos/mythos divide a useful one to hold in mind. We need to be prepared to hear both parts – the mythical and the logical, the emotional as well as the practical. The mythical parts are inevitably more difficult to hear and digest, they are messy and often challenging, and the ‘truths’ may come to be told through metaphor and analogy that challenge the tidier analytical frames in which senior management feel comfortable conversing. But it will be necessary to acknowledge them even so.

See how I dip my toe in the river of metaphor but still don’t take the immersion plunge.

Soon. Soon.


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