Behind a name

Even in the smallest social units, man does not live directly and nakedly in nature like the animals. Human societies live within a semitransparent envelope that we call culture or civilization, and they see nature only through it. Societies vary a good deal in the extent to which their cultural assumptions distort their view of nature, but all views of nature are conditioned by them. There are no noble savages, in the sense of purely natural men for whom this cultural envelope has disappeared, nor any form of human life that does not restructure the world in front of it into some kind of human vision.

I am concerned here with the role of words in this situation. In most societies, at least, there seem to be traditional verbal structures that are particularly important for the members of that society, or some of its members, to become acquainted with.

This structure of concern is often called an ideology, but I think that that is a rather limited and inflexible term, one that does not allow for all its variety and its capacity for growth. I prefer to call it a mythology, in spite of all the misleading emotional reactions to that word. We tend to think of such words as myth, fable or fiction as meaning something not really true. This is partly because they are literary words, and literature is often thought of as a form of socially acceptable lying. Even more important, they are words for verbal structures, and there is a longstanding habit of mind that associates truth with a content that can be separated from structure. Thus we often say of a doubtful proposition that there may be some truth in it. We mean that if it were restated in a different structure it might become true, but we speak as though the truth could be extracted from the structure, like grains of gold from river mud. Both of these attitudes, in my view, are products of prejudice and sloppy thinking, so I shall keep the word mythology.

The creative arts grow up in most societies mainly as vehicles for carrying the central messages that society regards as primarily important. Hymns of praise to the recognized gods or epics and tragedies about traditional heroes appear early in literature; sculpture developed in Greece because a polytheistic religion needs statues to distinguish one god from another; in the Middle Ages painting and sculpture and stained glass were largely absorbed in producing icons for Christianity. But this introduces a complication into culture: the arts turn out to have structural principles of their own, so a tension arises between what the artist wants to say as an artist and what he is obliged to say as an artist commissioned by a church or government or other agent of social concern.

No art ever gets completely away from its social and historical conditioning; nevertheless it has two poles, the pole of concern, or what society wants from its arts, and the pole of style, or what the poet or painter or composer is discovering within his art. Concern is what makes the artist socially responsible and gives him a social function; style is what demonstrates the coherence, power and influence of the art itself, style being, as Wallace Stevens says in a remarkable poem on the subject (''Description Without Place'') , the quality that makes everything in Spain look Spanish.

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