Man lives not directly or nakedly in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe, a body of assumptions and beliefs developed from existential concerns. Most of this is held unconsciously, which means that our imaginations may recognise elements of it, when presented in art or literature, without consciously understanding what it is that we recognise. Practically all that we can see of this body of concern is socially conditioned and culturally inheritedNorthrop Frye “The Great Code The Bible and Literature”. Havest Books 1982.
We are creatures of language. In the Bible God brings order into the universe by speaking forth. He creates man as the peak of creation, in his image. In Genesis 2 God gets Adam even before the creation of Eve to name the animals. Naming distinguishes and he finds no animal that might match him or act as a companion for him.
In a sense if we take the two Biblical creation stories together God makes man to have dominion over the animals because that is made possible by his involvement in language : “He sees before and after and pines for what is not”(Shelley). He lives, that is, in a world of language and is shaped differently by that fact. More, he lives within a narrative. We know that on the commonplace everyday routine level. But according to Frye that narrative is shaped or certainly has been shaped in the western world by a Biblical framework, albeit we are frequently unconscious of its extent.
He sees that Biblical framework as myth. This may worry some readers but need not. Myth is not something opposed to the truth; instead it offers a narrative that gives our lives meaning. We do not need to believe the Genesis creation stories are actual description to recognise that it gives us that they gives us a profound understanding of who and what we are.
Of course we also live within a world shaped by scepticism and scientism which has no room for the divine but would see us as purely natural phenomena , just another species of animal. The search for a metaphysical meaning is disregarded: life is simply explained by science; which provides in itself a mythological explanation or, better, an anti- mythological picture of what we are. Taken to an extreme it is such a view that informs the cynicism of a character like Sweeney in T.S. Eliot :
Birth and copulation and death. That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks: Birth and copulation and death. Fragment of an Agon.
While it is true that all life is deeply inter-related and we are animal in origin- the Bible makes us of dust- I like Frye’s distinction. We may, as humans be of nature but the fact- God- given in my mind- that through language we are seekers of meaning and ever have been, as evidenced by such creations as early cave paintings, means that we have life beyond the sphere of all other animals. Frye’s distinction is between being of nature, which we as humans inevitably are, but not living “in” nature “directly or nakedly like the animals” because we all ” live in a mythological universe” . This seems to me to be unanswerable. It is that mythological universe that among other things gives the lie to the reductionists who wish to see us as just another animal: birth, copulation and death are all given rituals and ceremonies shaped by a narrative, in all cultures and largely created historically for us in the West by the Bible. Reductionists reduce the significance the whole great human co-operative enterprise of language, religion, culture and art through which we become “living souls” to quote Genesis (in the King James Version) as not basic reality but as something added to reality.
Animals do not share a mythological universe. They live entirely-unless they are domesticated as pets, or within zoos- within Nature. True many of them have skills in speed , in hunting down, in finding their ways across vast distances that far exceed the natural propensities of the human being. Some have awesome means of communication, whether they be insects like ants or bees or creatures of the sea like dolphins and whales, They can appear to express joy as when birds sing territorially or crows ride the wind in joyous flight:
The birds around me hopped and played, Their thoughts I cannot measure- But the least motion which they made It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
It is easy for us to delight in Nature (with a capital) as Wordsworth does here but we do so from a level of consciousness, shaped as here by poetry which makes us live in a different sphere. Among other things they do not live in the consciousness that we have of being morally accountable for their welfare.
So Frye is correct : “We do not live directly or nakedly in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe.” We have the responsibility to be as living souls.
(PS . It is only fair to add that Ray Inkster on RAYSVIEWONLINE@ wordpress. com has a radically different take on the Genesis verse than what is argued here.)