Mythquake (an Introduction to an unfinished book)

Mythquake is a book I’ve been trying to write for well over a decade, and I guess it’s time I accepted that I probably never will: I’ve kinda moved on from there onto other things, and my heart just isn’t in it any more.

Yet the underlying ideas seem, if anything, to be even more urgent today than they were back then. So it seems worthwhile to summarise those ideas in a short blog-series – will be either 11 or 12 posts in all, including this one. (I’ll add cross-references between the posts when they’re all up on this site.)

A quick bit of history first, then back to the core theme.

Way back in the late-1980s, I was asked by one of my publishers to write a book for the then very-active self-development field: the exact brief was “we want a book for the self-help market that doesn’t insult the intelligence”. The end-result was Positively Wyrd, which used the old Nordic concept of wyrd to explore the core theme of “there’s always a choice, but there’s always a twist”. It even sold quite well, for a while, and still has a fair spread of fans – all of them happily wyrd, of course. 🙂

That book focussed on the personal layer; there was a sequel – Wyrd Allies – which came out in the early 1990s and which explored the interpersonal layer; and there was supposed to be a third in the series, called Wyrd World, which should have looked at the transpersonal layer, but courtesy of the usual life-chaos I never did get round to writing it.

One very good friend, Linda Moore Gentile, continued to badger me for years about this gap in the trilogy, until I literally woke up one morning with the word mythquake ringing through my mind.

There’s a direct analogy between what happens physically when the earth moves beneath our feet, and what happens socially when the fabric of stories that underlies our society and milieu undergoes any kind of change. Hence the metaphor of a mythquake, as a personal or societal equivalent of an earthquake.

The idea worked well, but the writing didn’t, and each time I tried to make it work, I quickly found that I was writing myself into a corner. Trying to force-fit one new idea with an older one probably didn’t help, either. I’ve probably made half a dozen attempts to get restarted, but it’s time to accept that it ain’t gonna happen. I can’t write it: but perhaps someone else can. That’s my hope here, anyway.

So here it is.

(I wrote this particular version of the text to line up with the Wyrd series, so in part it’s still somewhat written for that market, with direct questions and the like – but that’s just detail. I’d much prefer you to look at the ideas behind the surface text, because I believe they’ll be very useful as we head into what are clearly going to be turbulent times.)

The current chapters are as follows:

The following is the full content of the first chapter, which introduces the idea of ‘mythquakes’. The subsequent posts in the series will describe or summarise some example sources of mythquakes, each of increasing intensity; the final post will discuss the need and the options for ‘mythquake preparedness’.

More after the ‘Read more…’ link here, anyway: the text starts with the ‘Fractured stories’ heading.

Fractured stories

What is reality? What, if anything, is really ‘real’? For much of the time, this might seem no more than an academic question, an irrelevance to everyday life. But given that we’re likely to base most of our decisions on what we think of as ‘real’, perhaps it’s not something we can quite so safely ignore… Sometimes, just sometimes, might it be wise to look a little deeper?

What to you is ‘real’, in your everyday life? Before we move on, it might be an idea to scribble some notes to yourself about this. This’ll give you a baseline to compare against later.

A good place to start any exploration is the idea that ‘reality’ is not something fixed, permanent, pre-ordained, but more a kind of story – one that mutates and evolves over time, in much the same way as language itself. (You might also recognise this in academic notions about ‘social construction of reality’. But there the com­bin­ation of impenetrable French-style theory and abysmal feminist-style practice renders the academic route almost impassable – at least, impassable for any normal human being! I think you’ll find this route a fair bit easier – and probably a fair bit more usable, too.)

Not so much a story, though, as stories – layer upon layer of them. The little stories that we tell ourselves about what happened in the day, about what we expect will happen in the day; the small stories that weave together to make up our family’s larger story; the shared stories that form the ‘history’ of our street, our region, our country. And deeper, and deeper again, to the near invisible core-myths, the deep stories that are so ingrained in everyday language and everyday practice that it’s easy to think of them as ‘the truth’, “just the way things are”, have always been, will always be. Yet still stories, nonetheless. Each just a made-up story. A story that might change at any moment…

So what we think of as ‘reality’ is, in reality, a ramshackle ‘social construction’ of story upon story (pun intended) built up over mythic foundations. And as our everyday experience of everyday chaos demonstrates only too well, none of this structure is stable. The catch is that almost everything in our society assumes that it is stable: the myth of ‘control’, of certainty – a myth that might perhaps seem highly desirable, but is certainly not one which is in any way real!

What are you certain is true, is indisputable fact? How do you know it’s true? Who told you so?

With perhaps a little less intensity, what do you assume is true, even if you don’t know for a fact that it’s fact? In what ways do you trust that it will remain ‘true’? And why?

What would happen to you, and perhaps to others, if you find out that it’s not true, or is true only under particular circumstances? What would change? And what, if anything, would remain the same?

There’s a direct metaphor here of seismic forces in the social soul: teleology as geology, psychology as seismology. At the surface there are everyday upsets; but deeper, far deeper, are tectonic plates of ideas, assumptions, myths, beliefs. Stories. So what happens, then, when the mythic ground beneath our feet slips, slides, jolts, moves? When stories collide?

When the earth moves, we call it an earthquake; when myths move, we have what we might call a mythquake.

So follow that metaphor of mythquake a little further, to see what it shows us. For example, what great tectonic plates of myth can we identify? What mountains are formed, oceans created, where they slide over or under each other? In what ways do they move? In what regions are the impacts of those movements most evident, in fault-lines of uncertainty, perhaps, or volcanoes and lava-flows of molten anger? In what regions have a change in story changed the whole climate, from desert to fertile land, perhaps, or from forest to desert?

“Forests precede civilisations; deserts succeed them”, wrote a Roman philosopher more than two thousand years ago. From what you see around you, would this still be true today? If so, why?

And in what regions do the stories only seem stable, yet in reality are ‘stuck’, jammed against each other, building up more and more energy towards an explosive release, a much-feared, much-anticipated ‘Big One’?

We know all too well what damage a big earthquake can do. So just how much damage could a big mythquake cause?

And if mythquakes are indeed as inevitable as earthquakes, what can we do beforehand to reduce that damage?

Earthquakes aren’t dangerous

Back in the 1980s I lived for a while in mid-California, near to San Francisco. A place where minor earthquakes, even if not an every­day experience, were certainly common enough: one on my first day, in fact, and strong enough to send the clerks in the airport car-rental office diving under their desks! But for the most part, the earth­quakes were more exhilarating than frightening – even the ‘fairly Big One’ in 1989. One friend’s main memory was of every car-alarm in the city going off at once; another friend, in the quieter suburb of San Rafael, had watched the parked cars bouncing up and down all along the main street; and another, out in the country at Point Reyes, said she’d even seen the land itself moving in waves.

Have you experienced an earthquake? If so, what are your memories? That weird feeling, perhaps, of “is it me that’s gone crazy, or is the ground really moving here”?

Another friend, though, was far less amused: she’d been packing her glassware, she said, ready for her move to Australia, and every single item had been smashed. And for a few hundred people, perhaps a few thousand, the experiences were worse, some­times far worse: for a significant few unfortunates, caught in the fatal collapse of the freeways, there was no further story to tell – a roller-coaster that was certainly no carnival ride…

Yet it’s only in those places where there’s a risk of an eruption, tsunami, avalanche or mudslide that earthquakes are inherently dangerous. And there aren’t all that many places like that. Every­where else, what makes earthquakes dangerous is not the earth­quake itself, but the buildings – especially multi-story build­ings – that we construct on top of those unstable foundations.

When buildings collapse, fire and flood will frequently follow, so a great deal also depends on how those structures are built. If they’re flexible, can move and sway with the waves, they can withstand all but the most serious earthquakes. For example, it was primarily because of strictly-enforced building-codes that so few people died around San Francisco in the major earthquake of 1989. But if the structures are rigid, there’s nothing to take the load – and everything falls apart, with lethal results. So in regions where earthquakes are rare, or the need to design for the risk is either unknown or ignored, even a minor earthquake can be devastating: here in central Portugal, for example, I can still see frequent evidence of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which literally decimated the population of the city and the surrounding regions. Whether we like it or not, earthquakes are part of reality: we need to be prepared for them.

What kind of earthquake-preparedness – if any – is common in your area? If none, what about preparedness for other ‘natural disasters’: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, bushfire and the like?

Exactly the same is true of mythquakes. It’s true that there are a few mythic ‘places’, a few deep-stories, that do seem inherently dangerous, creating havoc every time they move. But for the most part, what makes mythquakes either more or less dangerous are the stories we build above those inherently unstable foundations, and how well – how flexible – we make those stories. As for earth­quakes, preparedness for mythquakes depends in part on our willingness to understand and accept that need for flexibility.

Richter and Mercalli

With earthquakes, it’s usually the deeper seismic structures that have the most potential energy – and hence greater potential for destruction whenever they move. In the same way, the deeper and more unconscious the story, the more energy there is likely to be locked up in it – and hence potential for social damage. So, as with earthquakes, we also need some means to measure the probable risk of mythquakes, by scope and by depth.

For earthquakes, we have two different scales, the well-known Richter scale, and the lesser-known Mercalli scale.

The Richter scale describes the energy of an earthquake. For each individual earthquake, there should only be one Richter value, and it can be measured precisely by comparing the results from different seismometers scattered round the globe. It’s a logarithm­ic scale, with each 1.0 unit increase representing around thirty times more energy released. In theory the scale is open-ended, but earthquakes much above Richter 9.0 are almost un­known, whilst a Richter 12.0 earthquake could tear the whole planet apart – not exactly an everyday occurrence!

But whilst the Richter measure of an earthquake is fairly objective, and tells us a fair bit about the physics of the earthquake, it tells us almost nothing about what the earthquake means – its impact on the people and landscape above. This is where the Mercalli scale comes in: it measures not overall energy, but local intensity, in terms of the level of damage in each place. So although it’s some­what subjective, and by definition there are an infinite number of Mercalli values for any given earthquake, the Mercalli value at each location is what rescue-workers and others most need to know. To differentiate it from the Richter scale, Mercalli values are shown as Roman numerals, on a scale from I (one – trivial impact) to XII (twelve – almost total destruction).

There’s no direct link between the two scales, because a great deal of the effect of an earthquake depends on geology, topology, morphology and much else besides. But close to the epicentre of an earthquake, we can usually match the two scales fairly well: the minimal Mercalli I matches a Richter 2.0, say, whilst Mercalli IX impact (“damage to foundations; ground cracks, sand and mud bubble up from ground; considerable damage to well-constructed buildings”) commonly occurs in an earthquake of around Richter 7.0 or so.

And because the Mercalli scale doesn’t depend on instruments, we can often use historical eye-witness accounts or archaeological evidence to work backwards from Mercalli values to Richter ones. So we can estimate, for example, that the 1755 Lisbon earthquake would have somewhere in the high 7s or, more probably, low 8s on the Richter scale: a significant earthquake indeed – and all the more serious because it occurred in a region not previously thought to be earthquake-prone.

Which brings us back to mythquakes. The science of mytho­seismology barely exists as yet (as of now, it does – and you saw it here first!); neither do we have mythoseismometers to provide us with objective measurements of the energy of myth­quakes. But we do have an unlimited amount of anecdotal evidence of the impacts of mythquakes, at every level from the individual to the societal and beyond.

We’ll look at this in more depth as we go along, but for now, note down some personal anecdotes about the damage caused by mythquakes. What are your own eye-witness accounts of the chaos caused when some story falls apart?

On a simple scale from one to nine, how serious would you rate each of these mythquakes?

And in each case, to what extent was the damage only local – affecting only a few people, perhaps – or more widespread?

Once we have a Mercalli-like scale for mythquakes – labelled from MQ-1 to MQ-9, perhaps (because to call it a Graves scale would be a little too morbid, even if all too accurate at times…) – we could also derive something approaching a more objective Richter-like scale as well, by cross-referencing the Mercalli-type values to build an overall picture of the mythquake. And that’s what we’ll do here.

What follows is not only about mythoseismology, but also a kind of first cut at a formal mythoseismography – the systematic measure­ment of mythquakes. By definition it’s going to be some­what subjective – you may well disagree with my taxonomy, for example, the ordering of the different types and intensities of myth­quakes – but the basic framework is there.

So come walk with me a while, as we wander through the morphology of the mind, the fractured strata of the soul: there is much to see and explore…

3 Comments on “Mythquake (an Introduction to an unfinished book)

  1. Tom – I noticed that you’re using my scale in a completely different context with a different meaning. You’re creating a new scale Tom, it may have been stimulated by the Mercalli scale but you have moved so far away from the concept that you need a new name 🙂 Please exhibit some intellectual honesty and we might then be able to move forward.

    • Iyigun, that was definitely cruel… 🙂 🙂

      Okay, I admit it, you got me on that one… 🙂 Would have been a lot better if I hadn’t taken you seriously for way too many seconds – these past few days have not been fun, so I was way too bruised and scarred to notice straight away that it was a wind-up. 🙁 But thanks, it definitely does help to laugh at the end 🙂 – even if the laughter is somewhat tinged with a certain amount of trepidation and sadness.

      On a slightly more serious note, thanks for the reminder about Mythquake – I do need to get on with posting the rest of this series. More later, either tonight or (more likely) tomorrow morning.

      Thanks again, anyway.

  2. Tom – I followed the discussion between you and him. I can imagine how demotivating and destructive it can be on you, especially considering his style and how valuable your work is. On such an event of publishing a book which you should be celebrating, all the pleasure can be destroyed very easily. I congratulate you on your new book. As soon as it’s available online, I’ll order my copy. You can expect a review from me.

    I hope I could cheer you up a little with this small joke 🙂

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