Wordsworth’s Creation Myth (Boy of Winander)

The word myth suggests a condition when the forces of creation are still at work in the world — myth producing cultures are also mythical places. By creation I don’t mean the creation of the world but rather the creation of the present condition, a better word might be mobilization. Now, I mainly have in mind something like “understanding” or even “doing”, the two being pretty much the same, but notably, we don’t mean technical mastery. This sounds confusing, but for example: if we think about understanding a mathematical theorem, like, “there are infinite prime numbers”, then we are thinking about what needs to be mobilized in order to understand / do. This is not merely understanding the definition of words, since that does not us allow to “do” math — so we can say that we are really talking about understanding as in, “understand as interesting“. Nor are we talking about the technical mastery necessary to “mobilize” the person towards this understanding. It is certainly true that high and low culture is separated — and this sounds cynical — by the amount of technical experience required to understand something as “interesting” — and this is something that Burke pointed out. But in both high and low, the feeling of the “interesting” seems similar.

By this understanding we should — “should” — never not live in a time of myth. Myth is not mysticism but simply the exposure to and the possibility of thinking about the self. The mythical understanding of the self — if it even exists, if it is worth thinking about — is highly non-technical and non-psychological — but nor is it mystical. It is related, in fact, to negation, to metaphysics, and to rigor. The paradox of the myth is that it is at once related to an understanding and before that understanding — we have to reach a certain point, we have to be a part of something, in order to feel the power of myth which then directs us towards the forces of creation. Yet these forces of creation, these forces of mobilization — we want to say — are not therefore merely cultural, of this culture.

One more thing about myth: it is known to us that we never get to the world as such, the world in itself. But the consequence of the above limitation is often thought to be that we live in a constructed world. We in fact live in a world where constructions are constantly being constructed and torn down: construction are fragile places ever ready to fall apart. Thus, we live in exposure, we are ever exposed to mythical elements, elements which are related to death, memory, forgetting, survival, starting anew, and so on. But the idea here is that we should not merely be content with studying the internal structure of a construction. That is, the retort would be: fine, so we live in a constructed world, but doesn’t such a constructed world, such as math, have it’s own internal order? Myth wants to think about how every construction is related to “death”, or at least, to the “forces of construction”, which are never technical or scientific — but then what? We will attempt to answer this below.


Let’s talk about Boy of Winander, which is really like a theory of history, by which I mean, that it is something that Wordsworth is claiming about mobilization. There are two gaps in this poem which we should point out, basically because these are the gaps that we will “fill in” via reading. First is the gap between the poem itself and the present world. This gap is also the gap between the two stanzas, between the boy and the visitor to the grave of the boy, and is the gap that we here attempt to bridge in claiming that this poem is a theory of history. That is, the question is, why is Wordsworth even writing this story? What’s the point? Let’s be explicit here that, like Bartleby, this question cannot be easily answered by feeling or by familiarity, that we, like the visitor to the grave, “stand mute” at this experience, we are haunted by it, which means that our experience is not emotional but rather metaphysical and phenomenological.

The second gap is between the hooting of the boy and the “shock of mild surprise”. The boy, in a moment of “silence” — a silence which is not really silent — suddenly, and quite inexplicably — feels a “shock of surprise” and, in probably Wordsworth’s most famous passage:

Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

So here, we are taken from a mythical world to one that is somehow related to it, this “somehow” being the gap. The spirits that the boy senses here are metaphysical spirits, their existence offer an understanding of one’s mobilization — a creation that is ‘negative’ (in relation to mobilization) precisely by virtue of this ‘gap’. That is, we are speaking of a metaphysical experience whose power — the gentle shock of mild surprise — comes precisely because this gap means that it *does not* concern itself with the mechanics of the mobilized, or even the ‘mobilizing‘, to the extent that this latter term indicates a history of how the mobilization reached such a state, and would therefore still be connected to the mobilized, ie, would still be teleological. Rather, the relationship would be guaranteed by the mystical process of the mind itself.

The above is a big idea: basically, creation myths must be felt *independently* and not logically, but at the same time, they are negational. We are speaking of the paradoxical *pure negational*, negational means, negative in relation to the mobilized, pure means, independent, without any relation. Consider how dark and mysterious a place the mind is, something we’ve known for a long time but which we ever have trouble living up to in our writings, where we are ever analyzing the mind (and history) as if it were a simple chain of causes and effects. I call it in my notes ‘the opacity of the mind’. The gap here is Wordsworth’s way of forcing us … to *see*, if you will (or, to stand mute before), to make this connection without reference to this simplifying chain, which is (one would hope) the same leap being made in history itself.



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