In his opening chapters of a comparative study of the classic Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Andrew Plaks18 makes some very interesting statements which challenge assumptions in western thinking which are related to literary forms and mythical material and to the psychological assumptions which underlie literature.
After observing that both native and foreign readers of The Dream of the Red Chamber gain the impression that they have obtained a comprehensive view of the entire civilization of Imperial China, Plaks goes on to speak of archetypes as "patterns of more generalized structure, since it is only in this subsurface level that we can perceive a common ground within the widely varying details of religious belief, historical event, social milieu, and natural environment...that occur over a span of millennia. Just as the spectrum of colors in painting and the tonal scales in music provide internal orders within the materials of artistic creation, so do archetypes of literary structure provide the ground of coherence..." He adds "that the sort of structural patterns we are talking about are nothing more than the cultural preferences shaped by a given tradition during the course of its literary history."19 In the terminology we have used earlier, these structural patterns develop out of the cultural unconscious.
Plaks then goes on to discuss the dependence of Western mythology on narrative sequence, a highly provocative idea for me, since it brings into question my assumption that it could not be otherwise. We learn our mythology from stories of the gods in which they interact with each other and intervene in human events. Their behavior tell of their characteristics which in turn reveal their natures and powers. They are defined by their action as are the protagonists in Western fiction. Plaks speaks of the use of the Aristotelian term "mythos" as referring to "units of narrative shape." Narrative mythos may be valid in the Western tradition but non-Western cultures may communicate their myths in other ways for "Mythical figures appear only occasionally in later Chinese writings and almost never is a full recapitulation or reinterpretation of their deeds..." Myth is not "an organized system in its own right" because "it is treated as an integral part of human knowledge rather than a subdivision roped off by the attribution of divinity."20
However Plaks warns that one must be "extremely cautious" in saying that the Chinese have no creation myth because "the question of cosmogony turns back upon the possibility of an absolute standard of judgment in human affairs" the ultimate accountability of man for his actions." He points to "the conception of Heaven in early Chinese texts -- for all its impersonality and spontaneity -- as a backdrop of moral order against which to judge the deeds of mortal men."21
|[aras-image:7Ln.011,,8,,,Figure 9 Meditation Stage 1.]|
When Chinese texts do refer to mythical figures, events are merely listed. A story line is not developed and figures are described in terms of their ultimate positions rather than related biographical events. Characters are not developed through their personal evolution as in Western fiction. Rather the reader and the characters themselves discover the central core of their being as they strip off the outer layers of personality.22 Mary Jo Spencer observed that one could hazard a guess that this relates to the concept of the "Buddha nature which existed from the beginning."23
By contrast Western literature retells in its literature stories of mythical figures such as Prometheus, Orpheus, and Adam "in order to relive the experiences associated with their names. Whether their actions are frustrated, fulfilled, or visited by dire consequences, it is what they do, rather than what they are, which reverberates through Western literary history."24
Plaks then contrasts the archetypal situations schematized in the hexagram commentaries of the I Ching, with the same problem of phenomenological metamorphosis tak[ing] the form of a mythological compendium. The dying god images of the Tammuz-Adonis-Osiris-Jesus myths relate to seasonal change. Plaks continues, "the tendency towards unilinear narrative treatment of the figures of Mediterranean mythology [are] a reflection of the centrality of syntactic logic, and hence dialectical progression, to many of the most abiding forms of Western Civilization."25
In later Chinese literature Plaks finds the non-narrative use of mythical material "in the fact that allusions to mythological figures generally refer to a specific quality or relation associated with them, rather than to any of the details of their deeds... The case of Yü is perhaps most instructive, since his Herculean labors are almost never presented as anything resembling epic struggle.."26