17 February 2010

Shoreline of Wonder

Mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987) said all great myths, all ancient and archetypal stories, have to be re-generated with each passing generation.

Journalist Bill Moyers mused to Star Wars creator George Lucas, "You are taking these old stories and putting them into the most modern of idioms, the cinema." Moyers asked Lucas
Are you conscious of doing that? Or are you just setting out to make a good action-movie adventure?
Lucas said
With Star Wars I consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs.
Myths and religions react to (and are born from) the same reality. Myths and religions convey the same messages. Stories differ across cultures and across time because different languages were needed and because the stories emanated from different contextual paradigms.

Yet when distilled, these stories express the same hopes and fears about how one lives in this world.

So we have these unmistakable commonalities - archetypal stories - that cross-cut time and cross-cut cultures. This might be explained if we could follow a red thread to a common source - a single god or creator.

Or these commonalities might have evolved from an independent aggregation of existential thought by diverse peoples bridging time and cultures.

Common myths emerge from common human experience. Common myths address thoughts and existential fears from the same human psyche connected with a transcendent reality.

This is my bias, but it can't be proved.

Religious icons are a curious expression of this. It is also curious that cultures pray to and appeal to these objects - objects that, somewhat ironically, were carved, cast, or painted by human hands.

Today's most ubiquitous religious icon is the double-door refrigerator. Don't laugh. The contemporary refrigerator has the gravitas of a travertine marble statue in a Renaissance cathedral. The ice box is like an alabaster figurine overlooking the tranquil nave where the fearful and spiritually unfulfilled worship, pray to, and beseech a higher power -- in our case the higher power is a TV set, but you get the point.

Our refrigerators are often festooned with pithy existential quotes on magnets. I found a quote on a refrigerator magnet on a revolving display rack at St. Paul Corner Drug that said
As the island of knowledge grows, so does the shoreline of wonder
I have been unable to attribute this quote to an author, but I did find a variation where the word wonder is replaced with the unknown. (All of the world's philosophy majors must have ended up with low-paying gigs word-smithing refrigerator magnets or penning up the life-cycle lamentations schlubs like you and I can't conjure up for a sympathy card).

I like the shoreline of wonder quote because, among other reasons, I have considered the concept of measuring the circumference of an island (or a lake), then marveling at the notion that the length goes to infinity as one measures in finer and finer detail (e.g., the molecular level). By extension, the island of knowledge and the shoreline of wonder are both infinite (depending on the scale of the topological assessment and one's point of view).

Many of us - most notably me - find hollow comfort in apparent truisms like this. Truisms on refrigerator magnets have become part of the mythology that brings comfort to our shared existence.

It's crazy, it's absurd, but it's that shoreline of wonder that keeps me bounding out of bed each morning. Depending on how you look at it, life can be addictive.

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