Against ‘The Key To All Mythologies’

A character in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1871-2), Causabon, has been doing research, fruitless it turns out, for a book provisionally entitled The Key to All Mythologies. What if we too are Causabon?

Here’s what I mean. Have we not been searching for the conceptual framework, all-encompassing religion, meta-metanarrative, behavioral economics tome, personal philosophy, personality tests, astrology, physics, evolutionary biology, organizational theory–that is, for the key to all mythologies–to answer, in a moment, all of our questions? To put an end to all of our sufferings? To lay to rest all of our fears? To help us make sense of all that we want–now and indefinitely–to make sense of?

“This is how the world works. Fullstop.” “This is how human beings are. Period.” “This is the reason people do what they do. End of story.” “This is how life emerged and what it’s here for. Stop the tape.”

At some point, it may come as something of a shock to realize that we’ve been trading one key to all mythologies for another and this too for another…

What if our approach were all wrong? What if no single theory, view, worldview, model, or structure were large enough and nimble enough to encompass all of pulsing reality? What if everything can’t, in the end, be reduced to one kind of thing or to one model of things?

Suppose you’re a Buddhist. Buddhism may, as it does, have much to say about mind and metaphysics, yet woe to the person who believes that Buddhism will give him a sufficiently good understanding of politics and economics. Or suppose you’re a psychologist. Woe also to you if you believe that society can be completely reducible to psychological categories (social psychology). Or say you’re a spiritual person. Woe to you should you seek to turn everything into “energy.”

What if reality, itself unified and limitless, nonetheless requires, at least conceptually speaking, a plurality of disciplines and understandings in order to get as much of us around it as we can? Then would we give up, finally, on finding the key to all mythologies and instead would be satisfied–somewhat anyway, begrudgingly perhaps–with seeing how various models can be seen, not without fault or blindspots, to hang together as much as they actually do hang together. This and no more.

It seems, then, that we are destined to keep making sense of the world and of ourselves in whichever honest ways we can. Negative dialectics, you might say, all the way down…