Editorial: Burke on the Persistence of Myth and Ritual

The View from Andy King’s Camera Obscura

“MALCOLM COWLEY AND I CAME LATE to reading Alan Fraser’s famous work, The Golden Bough; Malcolm wondered why a man like Alan Frazer who dismissed all myth and ritual as superstition and primitive survival would have  spent so many years recording all those sacrificial and ceremonial practices if he thought they were so stupid," said Kenneth Burke to Bill Bailey and I as we picked over the remains of a meal in Tucson in 1971.  I don’t remember much of the rest of our late night conversation because at that point we had just broken into Bailey’s second bottle of claret.  Although we weren’t exactly legless, the rest of Burke’s wonderful language has long faded in my memory but I can still pretty well recall the general outlines of the conversation.

Burke said that while Cowley and some of his other friends had experienced The Golden Bough as an emancipatory and liberating experience, he felt that Frazer’s core idea was utterly and crudely false.  Fraser, a proudly lapsed Scottish Calvinist and rationalist, argued that myth and ritual were remnants of our primitive and superstition-laden past.    Burke on the other hand felt that the hardy survival of so many myths—creation, redemption, guilt and sacrifice, and charismatic transformations of spirit—proved the opposite.    Burke believed that myths were not illusions and mistakes, but rich systems of understanding human experience and powerful generators of social behavior.   His famous Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle with Hitler as tribal medicine man and cunning magician came out of his understanding that myth and ritual are brutally alive in the present.  Perhaps as a result of his translation of Thomas Mann’s works, Burke further rejected Max Weber’s then received wisdom of the disenchantment of the world and the triumph of Enlightenment mechanistic thought.  So much of Mann’s work was founded on the myth of the questing hero and his work was informed by pagan ideas of the spirits of locale and middle air.

One could speculate that Burke’s reconnection with myth and ritual eventually led him out of communitarian politics and toward the ecology movement.  Burke himself had been in the grip of the agrarian myth as had Alan Tate and the Agrarians of the 1920s who sought an intermediate place between civilization and wilderness—Robert Penn Warren’s “cultivated state of grace.” As there is a piece by a Thoreau scholar in this issue I am reminded of Burke’s mixed feelings about Henry David Thoreau.   Burke had sought Virgil’s “unbeastly pastoral” in Northern New Jersey in the 1920s and his difficult experience there allowed him to expose Henry David Thoreau as a “fraud who mistook suburbia for wilderness.” Burke described   Walden Woods in Concord in the following manner:   “I think it is not a hell of a lot more than a big grove of oak trees added to a couple of orphan wood lots.  And I am told that what Thoreau lived on was supposed to be the twelve acres owned by Emerson.”  But in the long run Burke forgave Thoreau’s wilderness fantasy reminding us that it was Thoreau who had written that the wilderness was really an imagined realm inside ourselves.  I hunted down Burke’s long ago reference and found it in Thoreau’s book American Landscape (New York, 1991).  “It is vain to dream of a wilderness distinct from ourselves.  It is the bog in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of nature in us that inspires the dream” (pp. 126-27).

Burke’s genius was that he was able to take myth seriously without being utterly dazzled by its poetic power. He could appreciate myth without debunking it and yet without surrendering to it blindly.  This wonderful sense of balance is illustrated throughout his Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle, surely one of the grandest pieces of rhetorical criticism ever written and a style model for the ages.

Despite Burke’s harsh indictment of Southern agrarian literature as “a kind of gritty Sociology”,   he always admired their keen portrayals of the survival of myth in the modern world. It has become a literary commonplace to note that Faulkner’s Flood story recalibrated the river legends of Isis and Osiris, and Tate’s Ode to the Confederate Dead reanimated sacrifice and resurrection.  For him the work of Tate and Warren and Faulkner and Welty illustrated the generative power of myth in shaping our social relations and providing what the artist Bailey called “the narrative night music that helps us make sense of this buzzing burbling  daylight  world.

Creative Commons License
"Editorial: Burke on the Persistence of Myth and Ritual; by Andy King is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.