03 August 2010

The Myth and the Word

Two weeks ago I travelled to [REDACTED], and not for the first time.

In 1999 I spent a few weeks backpacking around from Jerusalem and the Dead Sea to the border with Syria and Lebanon in the north. I traveled through [FURTHER REDACTED] territories and into Jericho, and despite a number of bombings and attacks that took place in my time there I still count that first trip to [REDACTED] as something quite amazing in my life. While an avowed atheist I was only a few years out of college where four years of my life had been occupied with Theology, and to walk down the Via Dolorosa was like stepping physically into the texts you had immersed yourself in, helped in no small part by competing groups of Asian pilgrims intent on reenacting the Stations of the Cross complete with willing penitents nailing themselves to crosses.

This connection with the written historic permeates all aspects of life in [REDACTED], whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim the reliance on specific historical texts to justify and validate contemporary existence is something that seems inescapable. Once again I visited the Shrine of the Book, the museum dedicated to housing portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls; eleven years ago I saw this as a monument to learning, a testament to humanity’s insatiable urge to put sense and order on its surrounds through the permanence of the written word. Today the accompanying commentary highlights the discovery of the Scrolls, the earliest example of written Biblical texts, as being in the same year as the foundation of the State of [REDACTED], and notes that many take this to be a sign of divine approval.

In the beginning was the word, they say, and that word was ours.

The written word has power, and no where is this more obvious than here, where things are named and renamed and every building and monument, every park and park bench in the wealthy neighbourhoods are emblazoned in giant lettering with the names of those who contributed financially to its construction, a nation tagged by foreign Ozymandi whose future (they hope) is forever ingrained in the very land itself through the imposition of their sigils upon its soil.

And there is no shortage of works to carry their names, for [REDACTED] is Mars, a barren empty desert that truly has been terraformed, transformed into Nazca lines of poly-tunnels and Blade Runner/Silicon Valley-scapes that sit below Californian suburbs arching along the ridges and hill-tops scattered across this tiny land the size of Wales. Where once there was nothing now civilization flourishes, the blood and sweat and tears of two generations have created prosperity from the land, the physical embodiment of the Covenant between the divine and the citizenry. This is the myth [REDACTED] writes for itself.

Mircea Eliade writes in “Myth and Reality” that all myths are essentially creation myths. To visit [REDACTED] is to see just such an ongoing narrative, a continuously revised creation myth with a million would-be narrators each seeking to impose their vision upon the land. The Old Testament itself (or at least the Pentateuch), was the first such written myth of this land, with Deuteronomy forming a legal constitution and the monarchy given supremacy by being elevated to the role of conduit between the divine and the people; the people worshiped God, in return God gave them the land, but only through the stewardship of the State in the form of the King. Written during the reign of Josiah in the 7th Century BCE the Pentateuch backdates the formation of this Covenant between the Divine and the citizenry to the mythic age of David, a creation narrative woven to justify existent societal structures through faux-historic events now shrouded in the mists of time (see Rainer Albertz’s excellent “A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, Volume I”). Today almost all the land of [REDACTED] is still in the ownership of the State, though a parliamentary democracy with representative coalitions has replaced the authority of the King. Through this the people themselves now collectively own the Land, and they have enthusiastically embraced the role of myth makers, weaving their narrative across the landscape with the horrors and heroism of the 20th Century intertwined so tightly with Josiah’s calculated political manifesto that it is impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends.

But at the heart of this myth, like those birthing tales of America, Australia and elsewhere, is a tension that imbalances everything: the land was not empty, was not barren, was not a sterile, sleeping Mars waiting to be transformed. Nearly two millennia passed between the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE and the foundation of the modern State of [REDACTED], yet much of the ongoing narrative omits this period entirely. Time and history did not stand still; the land did not sleep, awaiting the return of one group of people. History, civilization and culture moved on, and moved on without them.

The people of [REDACTED] know this, despite virulent protestations and a collective public state of denial, they know the reality of the situation. Private talk of decreasing immigration and higher [FURTHER REDACTED] birthrates feeds a resigned sense of inevitable but gradual doom, replacing the historic fear of instant annihilation at the hands of hostile neighbours still vocal in their contempt and eager to display their willingness to drive the people of [REDACTED] into the sea. Time now is the enemy, not The Other.

Though not often reported by external media, there are many within [REDACTED] that see the harm in existing narratives and seek to write new ones. They understand that History is as great an enemy as Time, and while it should never be ignored one should never be held hostage to either its myth or reality. Thus a new creation narrative needs to be written, and written together by all the people living in the land. It cannot be imposed from outside, and it cannot be written by the few for the many. The more hands that guide the pen, the more voices in the chorus, the greater the acceptance of the myth and the more unifying that myth will be.

In the beginning is the word, and that word must belong to everyone.

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