They Called Me Mythter Webster

As an INTP, I hate it when an idea seems important but I can’t fit it into my worldview, into my personal philosophy. Of course, that discomfort is often balanced by an equal fascination because the best part of any puzzle is trying to figure out where the pieces go.

Tuan’s “mythical space“ is such an concept. The chapter entitled “Mythical Space and Place? suggests we can only directly know our own immediate neighborhood, that our understanding of the larger world is largely mythic:

Myth is often contrasted with reality. Myths flourish in the absence of precise knowledge. Thus in the past Western man believed in the existence of the Isles of the Blest, Paradise, the Northwest Passage, and Terra Australis. Now he no longer does. Myths are not, however, a thing of the past for human understanding remains limited. Political myths today are as common as weeds. Geographical myths, it is true, are less in evidence; we do know much more about the physical characteristics of the earth now than we did before A.D. deal But that knowledge is collective: it lies embedded in the great encyclopedias and in works of geography. The knowledge we have as individuals and as members of a particular society remains very limited, selective, and biased by the passions of living.

My army tour, particularly my experience in Vietnam, would seem to support this idea. Despite a good liberal art education, I was appalled by how inaccurate my view of my own country was and devastated by what I learned about America while fighting in Vietnam. If many of my beliefs were naive, the same is probably true of most people.

Much of what we know about our own neighborhood is an emotional construct, build by the heart, whereas:

Mythical space is an intellectual construct. It can be very elaborate. Mythical space is also a response of feeling and imagination to fundamental human needs. It differs from pragmatic and scientifically conceived spaces in that it ignores the logic of exclusion and contradiction. Logically a cosmos can have only one center; in mythical thought it can have many centers, although one center may dominate all the others. Logically the whole is made up of parts, each with its characteristic location, structure, and function. The part may be essential to the functioning of the whole, but the part is not the whole in miniature and in essence. In mythical thought the part can symbolize the whole and have its full potency.

Because it is an “intellectual construct,? mythical space begins as the domain of education. As a teacher I was all too often aware of just how that mythical space was shaped by teachers who seemed more interested in teaching patriotism than providing an accurate portrayal of history, a tendency more often than not reinforced by our media.

Our perception of who we are and how we lead our daily lives is influenced by this mythic space:

… people in one neighborhood know their own area well but are likely to be ignorant of the area occupied by a neighboring group. Both groups, however, probably share a common store of hazy knowledge (myths) concerning a far larger field the region or nation in which their own local areas are embedded. Knowledge of this hazy field is not redundant. Though inaccurate and dyed in phantasms, it is necessary to the sense of reality of one’s empirical world. Facts require contexts in order to have meaning, and contexts invariably grow fuzzy and mythical around the edges.

In other words, one’s “sense of reality? may well be undermined if this mythic space is shattered by unexpected revelations. I would argue that it is precisely this that happened to many Vietnam veterans. Faced with facts that could not be reconciled with their mythic view, they struggled to make sense of a world turned upside down even after returning to old neighborhoods. Of course, it doesn’t take events nearly as dramatic as fighting in a war to shatter this mythic view. Economic changes can dramatically alter our view of the world.