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Postmodernism and the Deconstruction of America's Epic Mythos
Each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history
of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time.
Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of History
History is a strong myth, perhaps . . . the last great myth. It is a myth that once
subtended the possibility of an 'objective' enchainment of events and causes and
the possibility of a narrative enchainment of discourse.
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation
I suppose that since the first cities were constructed some five thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, and humans began scanning the skies and finding divine relationships between the "heavenly" kingdom above, and the earthly kingdom below, when priests and kings were joined in a symbiotic quest for power, that the beginnings of cultural hegemony probably took root in that distant, ancient time, the origins of mythological power structures that have been in eternally in play, and which today still resonate from Constantine, to Augustine, to Luther and Calvin, to Columbus, Cortez, de Las Casas, and that created mythical dreamtime is one that the West, in particular America, still trumpets as the Christian destiny, of God's historical plan for all of humankind, the church possessing and sole arbiter of all epistemological, teleological, ontological, moral, ethical, and psychological knowledge, Manifest Destiny and Divine Right of Kings alive and well in a Postmodern 21st century.
That mythical origin was almost certainly political, as power and politics are interrelated twins, a type of mythopoetic Romulus and Remus gazing down on the world vista from the seven hills of Rome and finding the two great streams of thought and power in the Western world, one of classical Greece and Rome, of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, the other Augustine and Constantine, The Aeneid and the Bible, uneasy bedfellows that together have constructed the most dominant and powerful patriarchal and ethnocentric mythology that would make even a super alien intelligence nod in admiration for such a hubris. The most powerful object involved in the construction of that mythos, the one motif that all Christianity has in common, is the Bible. From that perceived sacred book, woven like a tangled web over centuries of mythical construction, emerged the Christian world view of a linear time, the Alpha and Omega, of God working in history to fulfill his divine dictates and Christianize the entire globe so that God's kingdom will finally be at hand on a grateful and welcoming planet. America has vigorously pursued this grand epic with a global scheme of righteousness, mission, and manifest destiny. However, something has happened to stem this historic tide, and that event is postmodern multiculturalism. A litany of world voices that have been suppressed for centuries are echoing among us, and within those diverse tongues are found many people who are not mesmerized with the mythic Christian mission, who are not enamored by the history of Western colonization, by its use of power, force, coercion, by its disrupting of indigenous cultures in favor of its own, and contained within this veritable World Tower of Babel is the clearly recognizable fact that the world is full of a multitude of cultures and voices, and contained within those cultures are other epic myths, other epistemological ways of knowing, so that one branch of revealed knowledge can no longer, logically, claim supreme divine authority over all the rest. The Grand Narrative epic myth of Christianity faces grave challenges in the 21st century, and an examination of analytical discourse in regard to the West's Grand Narrative, does provide a needed deconstruction of the locus of power, authority, and discourse contained in its epic work, the Bible.
The majority of the individuals that are heir to the Grand Narrative tradition are immersed in their own cultural mythos and really believe that the only agency that matters is their own, the only cultural worldview that has any import is the Christian. Most of them do not know their own history, or what history they do know has been written from the Christian perspective. They have no idea that both modernity and the postmodern world that they now inhabit has severely called into question many of the precepts of such an ethnocentric perspective, and that other critical modes of discourse, especially postmodernism, have emerged that view the Christian Grand Narrative from a vantage point of deconstructing the story. For example, in an examination of early Christian "explorers," such as Columbus, the old story that "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two," and "discovered" America and began the process of bringing civilization to the savagery of the Rousseauian natives, is really just constructed history that masks the real intent of Eurocentric imperialism. Foucault would say that such an assertion illustrates that "[d]iscourse constructs, defines and produces the objects of knowledge in an intelligible way while at the same time excluding other ways of reasoning as unintelligible" (Barker 18).
The beginning of the American myth can be found in Columbus' own words: "Sir, As I know that you will be pleased at the great victory with which Our Lord has crowned my voyage…I found very many islands filled with people innumerable and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses" (11-12). This passage is taken from a letter sent by Columbus to Luis de Santangel, a court official who had helped secure financing for Columbus' voyage. Two things are striking: the first, of course, is the reference to the fortune that a preferential God has placed upon the European invader, justification of which is found in the Bible, and the second is the idea of ownership, early capitalistic exploitation of a land and a people that are inferior, and Foucault would see this structure as indicative of a "…discourse [that] regulates not only what can be said under determinate social and cultural conditions but also who can speak, when and where…[of] the historical investigation of power and the production of subjects through that power" (Barker 18). To further reinforce this point, later on Columbus writes, "I sent two men inland to learn if there were a king or great cities. They traveled three days' journey and found an infinity of small hamlets and people without number, but nothing of importance" (italics mine) (12). The European view of these indigenous peoples relegated them from initial contact to the status of Other, inferior, and of no value at all except for whatever they could be used for, as a means of capital and production in a Marxist sense. The idea of Other is reminiscent of Edward Said's Orientalism, and though Said was not writing about the Native American experience, the postcolonial critique applies, in my opinion, to the marginal groups under discussion because Said argued that the Orient "…signifies a system of representations framed by political forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and Western empire. The Orient exists for the West, and is constructed by and in relation to the West. It is a mirror image of what is inferior and alien ("Other") to the West" (qtd. in Sered). The Other, in this sense, are Native Americans who were exploited as capital in the Colonial expansion of the West.
The number of estimated "Others" killed either directly or indirectly by the Eurocentric incursion is staggering:
Columbus' programs reduced Taino numbers from as many as 8 million at the outset of his regime to about 3 million in 1496. Perhaps 100,000 were left by the time the governor departed. His policies, however, remained, with the result that by 1514 the Spanish census of the island showed barely 22,000 Indians remaining alive. In 1542, only 200 were recorded. Thereafter, they were considered extinct, as were Indians throughout the Caribbean Basin, an aggregate population which totaled more than 15 million at the point of first contact with the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, as Columbus was known. (Churchill)
In another letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, in 1503 from Jamaica Columbus writes: "The lands which here obey Your Highnesses are more extensive and richer than all other Christian lands. After I, by the divine will, had placed them under your royal and exalted lordship…" (14). These "voyages" were in fact business trips, the "Enterprise of the Indies," and these journeys were legitimized by the authority of the King and Queen acting under the divine precepts of God, but in reality it can be argued that they were anything "godly" at all. Certainly Dr. John Henrik Clarke in his Christopher Columbus & the Afrikan Holocaust dissents for he writes:
On 12 October, the Columbus anniversary is a celebration of mass murder, slavery and conquest .... he was an adventurer, an opportunist and a willful murderer and a liar and that what he set in motion was the basis of Western capitalism and the exploitation of both Africans and indigenous Americans who had committed no crimes against European people and did not know of European intention to conquer and enslave them. Columbus was a thief, an invader, an organizer of rape of Indian women, a slave trader, a reactionary religious fanatic and the personal director of a campaign of mass murder of defenseless people. (Qtd. in Nantambu)
This is hardly the view that most Americans hold of Columbus. They see him as a hero, an adventurer who "discovered" the New World and brought Christianity and enlightenment to the savages that he found there, and indeed Columbus himself thought that this was his divine mission. His name even means "light bearer." However, this metaphor is deconstructed when one examines Columbus' true motives and actions toward Native Americans. Ward Churchill, a distinguished scholar of American Indian Studies certainly published a controversial view in 1990 when he wrote, "celebrating Columbus and the European conquest of the Western Hemisphere that he set off is greatly analogous to celebrating the glories of Nazism and Heinrich Himmler" (Deconstructing the Columbus Myth). It is also noteworthy to relate that according to Andrea Smith, "Europe at the time of Columbus's misadventures was…a completely dysfunctional system wracked with violence, mass poverty, disease, and war. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed in the Inquisition, and their confiscated property was used to fund Columbus's voyages" (Not an Indian Tradition).
Bartolome De Las Casas, early modern Europe's most eloquent apologist for Native American rights, was himself involved in the exploitation of Native Americans before he realized the inhumanity of treatment suffered at the hands of the Spaniards. In his journal "The Very Brief Relation of the Devastation of the Indies," he reports that Spanish slave masters brought to the islands of Hispaniola and San Juan more than two million Native Americans and put them to work at hard labor in the mines where many of them perished. So thorough was the devastation of the Indies that he reports: "…it is a great sorrow and heartbreak to see this coastal land which was so flourishing now a depopulated desert" (17). He details many other atrocities directly related to the Christian "mission." The superior ethnocentric view that the Spanish held themselves in is readily apparent at the beginning of Las Casas' account when he writes, "This was the first land in the New World to be destroyed and depopulated by the Christians, and here they began their subjection of the women and children, taking them away from the Indians to use them and ill use them." His account is brutal: rapes, murders, mutilations, and tortures. The sheer inhumanity to others is beyond the scope of "civilized" "Christian" behavior:
The Christians…attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails….They took infants from their mothers' breasts…pitching them headfirst against the crags…roaring with laughter…saying "Boil there you offspring of the devil!" (16)
Andrea Smith provides some illuminating points in reference to these atrocities, most especially in regard to the rapes of Native American women by the imperialist colonizers. She writes that Native American women were considered "dirty," and in patriarchal logic only a "pure" body can be violated (Not an Indian Tradition). In relationship to the sustaining mythos of the Bible that provides ideological "justification" for such incredible evil, Gramsci's work illuminates the homogeneity of ideology in that "…ideology is understood in terms of ideas, meanings and practices which, while they purport to be universal truths, are maps of meaning that sustain powerful social groups" (qtd. in Barker 80). This is exactly what is at work in these examples, the power of an ideological mythos carried to an extreme as illustrated by Las Casas': "They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles" (16).
I could continue to provide many more examples from the diaries and journals of the early "explorers," but the ones provided are sufficient enough as background material to critically examine the Bible's dictates, using the mythological tools provided by Barthes, and the deconstruction approach gleaned from Foucault and Derrida, as a source of Western epic myth that justifies imperial and colonial expansion and ethnocentric oppression. Let us begin by deconstructing many of the formative principles the good book contains.
If a group of individuals is asked the question, "What is the Bible," or "what does the word Bible mean," various responses will come forth: the unerring word of God, the only book in the world that matters, God's law put down for all time for all people, a book dictated by God to Moses or King James. The enculturation process that began at birth is fully psychologically developed in adulthood so that most individuals cannot logically discuss the Bible. What most do not know is that the Bible is a collection or library of many small books that was actually written over a period of more than a thousand years. The word actually means "little books," and is derived from the Greek biblion, the term itself descended from Byblos which means papyrus or book, and Byblos was the ancient Phoenician city where the papyrus plant was harvested and writing material produced.
Bible believers also either do not know or do not care that the cosmology described in the Old Testament is the cosmology of the ancient world, a cultural paradigm that has long been disproven. For the ancient Hebrews the world was a flat little disc a couple of thousand square miles in size, suspended in space not moving, with all the heavenly bodies circling the planet. The sun was thought to literally engage in battle each evening with the great dragon darkness when it sank into the west, the genesis of the cosmic war between dark and light that is a central archetypal pattern even today of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The individuals that created this mythological world conception knew nothing about modern science, modern geography, modern psychology, modern anything. Their world was one constructed upon, as Foucault might say, a discourse where power and knowledge are joined together, but this particular type of power discourse has been wrong from its inception. It is in the peculiar discourse of the borrowed books of the Old Testament, blended together with the late addition of the New Testament that a Christian epic discourse was created whose power resonates down to this day. And yet that epic center rests upon a mythological epistemology that many followers take as literal, a mythos to be spread over the world, adroitly and charmingly, much like Hannibal Lecter's suave and charming personality that mesmerizes his victims right before he consumes them.
The Bible was really created when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. From that historic moment of the Edict of Milan in 313 and formally established by the Council of Nicea in 325, an earthly king and heavenly priests united together to lay claim to the legacy of God's great plan for humanity, and began formulating the discourse that would shape cannon, doctrine, and culture for centuries to come. The history of Christianity began in the hallowed halls of power and prestige granted by the greatest of all world empires.
This powerful discourse is no where more apparent than in the proselytizing character of Christianity when it carries its mythical message of salvation to other cultures. For another culture to accept Christianity it must give up its own history and culture and embrace a mythological epic that is not its own, to perhaps have its own collective memory completely erased in favor of the new "mind cleansing." As Burton Mack writes,
To be confronted with having two histories, the history of one's own people and the Christian epic from the Bible, requires astonishing mental gymnastics. Think of knowing the history of your own country, people, and ancestral traditions, only to be addressed as a child of Abraham, an heir to the history of Israel, instructed by Moses, judged by the prophets, redeemed by the Christ, and enlightened by the apostles. (294)
Like wise, Kathryn Shanley has pointed out that "…the attempt to destroy a people's history and language figures centrally in destroying or subduing that people, in replacing one worldview with another" (The Indians America Loves). The worldview that was replaced was the Native American pantheistic conception with the West's monotheistic and patriarchal ethos. Such an endeavor is immersed in racism and religious intolerance, in cultural destruction.
How is such a feat accomplished? How does one culture sacrifice its own mythology for a foreign one? There is no one answer to this, but an approach entails examining how Christianity employs the Bible. Two fundamental tools are exegesis and hermenutics. In exegesis, of course, the meaning of the text is brought out or interpreted, and in hermenutics one must discover the meaning and message of the text as it applies to today (Mack 296). In such a way is a Foucaultian discourse of power established when it is wedded with Barthes' ideas about creating myth, especially myth as drama, and the process also establishes a pattern of hegemony, whereby the priests are granted power and prestige by followers.
All of the previously mentioned attributes are absolutely necessary in order for the system to emerge as a smoothly functioning cultural machine, the Grandest Epic Ever Told where, according to Mack the Bible functions as the great cosmic roadmap for its hegemonic paradigm by describing the major functions of the text:
The first is that the Bible functions as epic for the American dream of creating "creating one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." …They create cultural foundations and are dangerous to dislodge. The second is that the Bible is the myth and ritual text for Christianity. Sacred texts of a dominant religion are always taboo and never to be questioned….[T]he third reason is that the Bible functions as an oracle in popular parlance and practice. (296-297)
Within that text and the epic story that it trumpets we find the play of binary opposites, ones that Derrida would deconstruct as providing any type of "stable" meaning. These binaries are: the old, and the new, judgment and grace, law and gospel, constraint and freedom, ignorance and enlightenment, exclusivity and inclusivity, the former ones included in the Old Testament Covenant, the latter oppositions found in the New Testament Covenant. A sense of "Other" is found embedded here just as the sense of Other was carried into any number of countries during colonial expansionism. For Derrida, these binaries are deconstructed from the position of any authentic conceptual hierarchy, and have no meaning outside of the constructed hegemonic value given them by members of a particular cultural group (Barker 18). Of course, anyone found outside these values is swimming in a vale of darkness and is in need of enlightenment and Christian transformation. But that assertion raises many crucial problems: the Christian mission cannot continue to destroy others in order to "save" them, whether that destruction is physically literal, or whether it is the demonization of other deities, of homosexuality, women, feminists, opposing political points of view, etc.
This epic is wearing thin in the postmodern 21st century, for there is no one source of knowledge or discourse. A cultural studies approach certainly can deconstruct the underlying mythos and call into question that Christianity is the single mode of authentic religious or epistemological discourse in existence. There are many voices, many ways of knowing, and though the Bible is a work of genius in creative fiction, that narrative can no longer sustain its world view, for its myth belongs to another time and place, another culture, and as the 21st century wears on it may find itself a stranger in a strange land.
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Churchill, Ward. "Deconstructing the Columbus Myth." 10 Oct. 2002. 1 Dec 2007
Columbus, Christopher, "Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella Regarding the Fourth Voyage." The Norton Anthology of American Literature 5th ed. V 1. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 1998.
Columbus, Christopher, "Letter to Luis de Santangel Regarding the First Voyage." The Norton Anthology of American Literature 5th ed. V 1. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 1998.
Mack, Burton L., "Who Wrote the New Testament?" The Making of the Christian Myth. San Francisco: Harper, 1995.
Nantambu, Kwame. "Columbus and the Falsification of History." 13 July 2001. 1 Dec
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2 Dec 2007 <http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Orientalism.html>.
Shanley, Kathryn W. "The Indians America Loves to Love and Read: American Indian
Identity and Cultural Appropriation." The American Indian Quarterly 21.4 (Fall 1997): 675(1). Expanded Academic ASAP. Gale. Roane State Community College. 9 Dec. 2007
Smith, Andrea. "Not an Indian Tradition: the Sexual Colonization of Native
Peoples." Hypatia 18.2 (Spring 2003): 70(17). Expanded Academic ASAP. Gale. Roane State Community College. 9 Dec. 2007