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  • 24 Apr 2024 by Gerard Naddaf

    To most, myths are merely fantastic stories. But for Luc Brisson, one of the great living Plato scholars, myth is a key factor in what it means to be human – a condition of life for all. Essential and inescapable, myth offers a guide for living, one that illuminates our need for belonging and group identity.

    In these free-flowing conversations, Brisson provides a lucid historical analysis of why the history of his native Quebec is inseparable from that of the Catholic Church in Quebec society, and the links he draws here provide a perfect paradigm of myth and mythmaking. Ultimately, Brisson seeks to explain how his work on myth corresponds with his own biographical path, which, as he shows in these conversations, was itself rooted in Catholic and Quebecois myth. But we soon see that his theory of myth and its practical application is relevant to all people, regardless of one’s particular background.

    Brisson begins these conversations with an overview of his genealogy before turning to the story of his escape from an all-encompassing myth promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church of his youth. The myth(s) that made Brisson who he is are thus front and centre here. We learn of his recruitment by a Catholic seminary as a gifted (but handicapped) child from a modest rural Quebec family at age eleven, the emotional and intellectual awakening he subsequently underwent, and his own “noble lie,” which allowed him to get an education that he would not have otherwise received. There is something for everyone here, but the book offers first and foremost a philosophy of myth that doubles as a philosophy of life.

    The earlier conversations recorded here (with Louis-André Dorion) contain some of the most insightful ideas on the origin of bisexuality. There’s also ample coverage of Brisson’s Orphic research, and a rich discussion of why the big bang is still a myth on a par with Plato’s Timaeus. Brisson’s world travels, his decades living in Paris, and his deep immersion in Quebec culture and politics also occupy a prominent place here, but always in the background is Brisson’s attention to myth and, by extension, politics.

    In our later conversations (part 4), Brisson offers insightful observations on a wealth of topics, including what he sees as the illusory nature of originality; the constraints of the publish-or-perish phenomenon in academia; his experience working in teams; his and others’ interpretations of Plato; the differences between Greek and Abrahamic religions; the place of myth in the modern world; and his theory for why reason will always be tied to myth – to mention but a handful of the themes touched on here.

    It’s the final section of part 4 that brings together the whole. Myth, as Brisson understands it, comprises stories that give us our identity; they offer us a way of unconsciously (until Plato, that is) controlling the individual within the community to which he or she belongs. As such, myths are creators of the self, of one’s identity. The notion of individuality is a kind of mirage, then; it’s as if there is no self independent of one’s larger group or community. For Brisson, myth is a phenomenon that few have given any real thought to, and yet it’s a key to understanding what it means to be human, and to the future destiny of humanity itself.

    This book is meant to appeal to an intellectually curious English-reading public (and not just scholars and philosophers). To this end, the text is interspersed with over three hundred notes adding necessary context. I also provide an introduction and an afterword. The former puts Plato and myth into context, giving readers a sense of what to expect in the conversations; while in the latter, I describe the role of myth in anthropogeny (from the origins of language), in the evolution of the self and of consciousness (culminating in the creation of the Western mind), and in multiculturalism. However, while the book offers copious historical analysis, I also engage throughout with the role of myth in the current political and social climate, including its place in contemporary world events.

    Making Sense of Myth: Conversations with Luc Brisson McGill-Queen's University Press. 9780228020714

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