Neil Bennun – Myth, Wilderness, and the Narrative Instinct


Neil Bennun
Myth, Wilderness, and the Narrative Instinct

“Myth and music are machines … for the obliteration of time.”
Claude Levi-Strauss

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.
You have tiny rubies and grains of dolerite and quartz in your hair.

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.
I acknowledge that this is half the history of our species but the last fifteen decades, and I understand your objection that this is a span too long to be useful, but I can only say that you’ve woken up in a place where that doesn’t matter, partly because of this desert’s singular climate and geology, and partly because of the prevailing consensus of this desert’s indigenes regarding the congruence of time, land and myth.
More pragmatically, also, it doesn’t matter because without the specialist knowledge of those indigenous inhabitants you will very probably die of thirst, heatstroke or predation within, I suppose, seventy-two hours anyway.
Should you manage to make it home, which is impossible since you haven’t been born yet (the obliteration of time being the other half of a bargain I struck on your behalf to get you here), this will be quite a story.

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.
Picking sharp grass seeds from your socks, you realise you’re wearing the same ones you put on yesterday morning. This is the proof of a kind of narrative consistency that obtains in no dream ever dreamt. So within a few minutes of waking up, it’s obvious that your predicament requires that you find breakfast.
But you’re more lost than you’ve ever been. You must act. This is an inhospitable myth. You’re in the upper Paleolithic, when every inhabited place on earth was an inhospitable myth.

We have countless words for “story” in our language.
This applies for all languages.
Having discounted “dream” you’ve been unconsciously weighing the merits of “accident”, “disaster”, “stag night” perhaps, “danger” and “inexplicable”, all under the arch-descriptor “real”. Your fear is an editorial decision on behalf of your amygdala, and the moment you’re conscious of it, that’s a story too.
We aren’t conscious that we categorise our perception of events according to narrative any more than we consciously notice the brain translating perception into recountable memory. We have stories hiding inside stories, and all are hiding behind common nouns.
If you survive long enough to make it out of this myth, the next days will make an excellent book, or a miniseries.

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.
The desert in question, the exact desert, exists. Here is its picture.


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.
But on what will you base your decision? Are you desperate enough to consider auspices? Or attentive enough, rather, since it’s attention that alchemises circumstances into narrative (and consider what that means, incidentally, to a people who survive by hunting and gathering in a desert where nothing has ever been built, no land has ever been “owned” and time is conceived spatially — in short, a place outside the farmer’s understanding of “history”, a species of narrative concerned with the ownership and inheritance of land, antithetical to myth).

Attention, then.
First notice the sun, and your long shadow, and the nearby hill of boulders, each one patinated densely black by the sun. Notice also the fat, bitter stems, scorched thorn bushes and tufts of silver grass.
The lions are asleep, so don’t worry about them yet.
But on no account name those animals out loud.

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.
Whenever he dreams, he believes his dream.
This is something the lion has in common with the men and women known here as !gi:ten, “possessors-of-power”: experts in attention and narrative in a place where the margins of survival are very narrow.
All of this is a rather elliptical explanation of why the theatre has one foot in the desert of nocturnal predators and shamans.

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.
Dusk is a long time off. You make an editorial decision of your own and set out for an escarpment to the south.

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.
I don’t know the last time it was in any hand, or even what kind of hand that was. It could have been lost in the early 1800s or before the invention of language. The last person to hold it might belong to an extinct species.
This desert obliterates time, you see, and there are two reasons for this.
The first has to do with its geological antiquity. The central plateau of the southern African subcontinent is both the most geologically stable place in the world and one of the most consistently arid. Archeologists are lost without layers, but the desert floor here is a uniquely old and palimpsestic single, exposed stratum where wind erosion makes it effectively impossible to date anything purely lithic with carbon. If you drop something, in other words, it’ll lie there until it’s picked up. No one will ever know how long it’s been there.
Secondly, this desert obliterates time because it is a myth.

continues on next page…