Metaphor, Myth and Meaning: Reflections on Rereading The Overview Effect, Part III
Written by Reflections on Rereading The Overview Effect, Part 1 on Tuesday, 21 January 2014. Posted in Overview Effect
In Chapter 3, “An Overview of the Spaceflight Experience,” White discusses metaphor as a method used by the astronauts to attempt to explain their spaceflight experiences. Launching from the ideas of Julian Jaynes in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, White concludes that “one result of space exploration is that language will grow as spaceflight is described more frequently.”
White is spot on here. Metaphor is powerful. It is a way for the human mind to strive to express something that cannot be grasped directly, either by the speaker or the listener. In essence, it creates reality by indicating a relationship that was hitherto unrecognized, or even existent. Spaceflight, for example, is a raw experience, but what does it mean? Like all life experiences, it does not have one meaning for all time, but changes in context over time and with different astronauts. White makes the point that “memory of it [the spaceflight experience] acts as a time-release capsule, emitting feelings, insights, thoughts, and ideas over the years after it has occurred.”
White then goes on to describe the active legend-building that orbited the early astronauts. “Societies need heroes who are specially selected to undergo hardship and danger on the frontiers of civilization. Space is today’s frontier, and the astronauts and cosmonauts have become today’s heroes, people who have extraordinary experiences unknown to others in the society, doing something that requires uncommon bravery.”
Deeds are the germ of legend, and legend is the fount of myth. And metaphor is the language of myth. We moderns hear ancient myths, and instantly think “how preposterous,” or “how quaint.” We have even morphed the word “myth” to be synonymous, in some contexts, with “lie”. We constantly feel the need to debunk or bust myths, as if they are some insidious plague of which we must rid ourselves. But that is because we are losing our sense of metaphor, and what it is trying to do in helping shape our reality, and give it meaning.
While we are eschewing myth in one sphere, we are actively building it in another. The early astronauts were indeed our heroes, the strong-willed warriors with “The Right Stuff” who would battle the Cold War by proxy. Even the very name “astronaut” is an evocative metaphor – “sailor of the stars.”
But the context of myth changes over time, and the metaphor which once served so well has now fallen into disrepute. Those noble heroes of that bygone era, the “Space Age,” are now one more relic of the Military Industrial Complex. We don’t need fighter pilots in space anymore – the nature of conflict has changed, and the anticipated space war is probably not going to happen any time soon. We have even gone so far in our popular culture as to parody that “right stuff” mythos in movies like Armageddon and Space Cowboys. Many view the early space program as a dead end, and now say things like “Why go to space until we solve all our problems here on Earth first? The space program is just an elitist escapist fantasy that can do nothing to help the planet.”
But that is the result of our modern myth-busting proclivities. Just because the cultural terrain has shifted does not diminish the accomplishments or worth of those early space explorers, those heroes. The valuable and worthy activity now is to actively engage with our space explorers, to interact with them to reach for new, fresh metaphors that transform our understanding of space from something to conquer to viewing it more as an extension of our environment, which is precisely what it is. The role of the space explorers has transformed from conquering heroes to dedicated, focused achievers of missions, precisely the same shift in dynamics we have seen in many frontier contexts. This in no way diminishes the stature of the early space pioneers, but rather places them in the mythic context of blazing the trail and making it possible for more of us to go, when the opportunities present themselves.
White then goes on to ask whether spaceflight is a spiritual experience. “Spiritual” is now one of those loaded words in our culture, along with “religion” and God” that mean something different to just about everybody who uses them, and are subject to our myth-busting propensities. But space exploration definitely does have an effect on humans that take us beyond our normal context. The renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell discussed the transformative power of metaphor to reach for deeper insights in his book The Flight of the Wild Gander. He tells us that the philosopher Immanuel Kant “offers a four-term analogy (“a” is to “b” as “c” is to “x”), which points not to an incomplete resemblance of two things but to a complete resemblance of two relationships between quite dissimilar things…. Mythological, theological, metaphysical analogies, in other words, do not point indirectly to an only partially understood knowable term, but directly to a relationship between to terms, the one empirical, the other metaphysical; the latter being, absolutely and forever and from every conceivable human standpoint, unknowable.”
Space is that inconceivable unknowable metaphysical condition, that astronauts have experienced directly, albeit from their limited human perspectives, and are continually reaching to find the right metaphors, the right Kantian relationship, to express to the rest of us, to give us a sense, as White points out, of what is was like. That metaphysical reality can never be fully apprehended or understood by even those who experienced it. The astronauts need us as much as we need them, so we can mutually push our communal language to find new metaphors, new ways to understand and communicate that ultimately ineffable experience.
That experience definitely has a spiritual quality to it, in that it compels all of us, the astronauts and the ground observers, to reach beyond ordinarily-experienced reality to a metaphysical sense of participating in something greater than ourselves. As White points out, for some astronauts, that translated into achieving the goals of the mission to the best of their ability, with no attention paid to what is commonly considered “spiritual.” Yet the challenge of the experience called to the fore that response from those individuals which would otherwise not have come to fruition. Space calls out the best in us, and it is our constant challenge to grapple with the shortcomings of our language to strive to create new metaphors which can lead us to a greater sense of context, meaning and myth, as we struggle to understand our place in the universe.