07 February 2007

Hesiod, Pigeons and Neil Gaiman

I have been taking a university class in Hesiod this semester. After being treated to a Freudian interpretation, or at least the start of one, of the Ages of Man section of the Works it occured to me that anyone about to embark on reading mythology of any sort should have to read Neil Gaiman.

If, say, you were wandering through the (in)Humanities Building on UW campus one day, and suddenly found yourself transported to a parallel, Gaimanesque world — and who's to say this doesn't happen all the time? — things are just going to run a certain way, and you'll know better than to question it. You take tea with a disheveled madman in one of the music practice rooms. You try to leave when done, and he calmly informs you that you must of course offer your shoes to the door to exit. To do anything but hand your shoes over is pointless. Any attempt to get out of this obligation — and it is an obligation even the gods themselves are subject to — can only turn out badly. So you hand over your shoes to the damn door, and out you go. No explanation will ever be forthcoming.

I was watching Gaiman's Neverwhere again recently, and the Nightsbridge incident seems to capture the essence of this. After Hunter and the dreamy and hapless Richard Mayhew cross the Nightsbridge and find their rat-speaker companion missing, Richard wants to go back to get her. Hunter says, "She's gone. The bridge takes its toll. Be grateful it did not take you, too." And that's that.  No pity and no explanation — just like life.

To the arbitrary hostility of the world now add the human facility for superstition. Any creature capable of learning is probably susceptible to superstition. It seems to be a natural outcome of that ability. In the 1940s B.F. Skinner showed that if you give a hungry pigeon food at random times it will develop a number of overtly "superstitious" behaviors (the paper's a classic, 'Superstition' in the Pigeon). Any sufficiently rewarding experience is a potential creator or reinforcer of superstition, from lucky rocketship underpants to sync; sync; sync; reboot.

The Greeks did have a mania for aitia, explanations for why this or that feature of their religion was so. But I can't help but think that some of the modern interpretations offered to explain, say, oddities of the Pandora story, are just as wrong-headed as the lucubrations of the ancient scholiasts who so often come in for mocking. Some things are just inexplicable.

No comments: