Myth, Wilderness, and the Narrative Instinct
“Myth and music are machines … for the obliteration of time.”
I would like to insert you into a myth, here, by having you wake up in a desert.
I’ll explain as we go — but this morning, you woke up on the vast flats of a dry place scoured by glaciers when southern Africa was directly on the pole. Three or four days walk to your north is an unlikely river that flows away from the coast nearest its source to drain into the Atlantic, which might as well not exist.
This myth has a date: it’s anything between the advent of modern human cognitive capacity — which we’ll reckon at 110,000 years BCE, because we have to draw a line somewhere — and 150 years ago.
This is a dream you think to yourself, deciding on the most desirable species of narrative operating on your new circumstances and the order and cost of that narrative’s truth.
We have countless words for “story” in our language.
Both the pleasure taken from giving ourselves to a story and our shared capacity for giving ourselves to a story at all (a capacity for the suspension of disbelief on a continuum from listening to a joke or remembering a constellation to detonating a suicide belt) commemorate a time when questioning certain kinds of narrative was inimical to one’s prospects of surviving a season in a desert.
Of course you recognise it. It’s the desert in which you woke up this morning, where you’re rubbing little rubies and grains of quartz from your hair and asking yourself which horizon offers the best prospect of rescue.
Our parents used to say that he is a thing which dreams when he lies asleep that people have seen his footprints, people have made free with his name, say the people who live here.
The isolated hills you see are volcanic plugs, narrow mounds of black dolerite boulders, each one level at its summit. Underfoot is a kind of rusted igneous grit between tufts of bleached grass. Nothing grows higher than the waist apart from rare thin trees and, to the north if you make it that far, fleshy succulents that might be mistaken for men in the dusk.
When I was last in this desert, I picked up a tool. It was a scraper, a wedge for skinning and jointing game, struck from a core of foreign green stone. Comfortable in the hand, its edge was knapped into crescents like overlapping fingernails.