Clifford Orwin, Exodus, la Mythologique vs. the Apocalyptic, and Modernity’s Long Apocalyptic Lacuna: Three Questions for Abraham Rotstein’s Myth, Mind, and Religion [2018 C4eJ 11] (Book Forum)


Clifford Orwin*

Abe Rotstein was my colleague for many years; not one whom I knew well, but someone I both liked and admired.  When I was still very junior and he already quite senior, he treated me with the utmost solicitude and tact.  I’ve always regarded him as the very model of a senior colleague.  He was one of our department treasures and we can be proud that he chose to spend the whole of his long and distinguished career with us.  It is therefore an honor to have been invited to comment on the publication of this unfortunately posthumous book.

Unfortunately posthumous because it is such a model of engaged scholarship that you wish you could praise it to Abe’s face.  But also because it is so wonderfully provocative that there are many questions you would have liked to ask him.  I have therefore couched my remarks as a series of such questions, which I will preface with a brief confession.  There is a basic sense in which I am the wrong reader for Abe’s book.  Apocalyptic narratives leave me cold.  You might think that as the loyal Jew that I aspire to be I would respond at least to Exodus which Abe identifies as the first of his such narratives and the most pristine.  Here, however, I disagree with him. However much Exodus may have inspired the subsequent Christian and post-Christian thinkers whom Abe proceeds to present, I would deny that it conforms to the Apocalyptic model itself.   In the first place it is not self-sufficient as a narrative but an episode of a much broader one.    According to Abe’s model, an apocalyptic narrative begins with the binary of oppressor and slave and proceeds to resolve it although only through long travail.  That binary is not primary or originary for the author or reader of Exodus, however, for the servitude of Israel is the outcome of a chain of previous developments of which it forms an intermediate link.  It has been foreseen and forecast by God Himself as an aspect of his general Providence for the world and as a way station on a longer journey for both the Israelites and the peoples whom they will eventually dispossess (Genesis 15:13-16).

Similarly, the perfect consummation which Abe declares a necessary feature of an apocalyptic narrative is missing from that of Exodus.  If the giving of the law had introduced an era of perfect compliance with it, if the Israelites had honored God’s intention that they be unto Him a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Exodus 19:5-6) then perhaps the narrative would have met Abe’s standards.  In fact, however, no sooner have they received the Law than they immediately backslide into worshipping the Golden Calf, the first of many such regressions both before and after they enter the Promised Land, nor does any clear account of the future emerge.  (The book of Esther, for instance, as well as the wisdom literature such as Ecclesiastes and Proverbs and the account of the rebuilding of the Temple in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are clearly counter-apocalyptic.)

Remove Exodus from Abe’s selected texts , then, and you’re left with the narratives of the New Testament,  Martin Luther, Hegel, and Marx, plus the diabolical example of National Socialism.  Here the not altogether unsurprising paradox is that the anti-Christian narrative of Marx and the merely ambiguous one of Hegel both emerge from Abe’s treatments of them as so resoundingly Christian. Indeed, as Abe argues, even the Nazi narrative can only be grasped as a monstrous perversion of the Christian one.  Abe’s fifth and somewhat ancillary example of such a narrative, that of the 1960’s, is the least convincing to me.  Like him, I was there, and while the script of the radicals was both ambitious and hectic, it didn’t rise to the level of the apocalyptic.

Is there then a perfected apocalyptic narrative other than the Christian one?  Here we must confront one of the fundamental and striking features of the book, Abe’s emphatic but also only very partial reliance on the thought of Claude Levi-Strauss.  Levi-Strauss had discerned in the myths of various premodern cultures a common structure which he dubbed La mythologique, a way of looking at the world that reflected the fundamental workings of the human mind.    What Abe calls the apocalypse narrative stands in some relation to this mythologique, but that relation proves ambiguous, so much so that the reader might question Levi-Strauss’s very presence in the book.  Yes, as Abe puts it, “the structure of the apocalyptic narrative bears some resemblance to primitive myth, particularly the reliance on binary oppositions.”  But, as he immediately concedes, “more striking than this starting point is the contrast in the concluding phase.  None of the primitive myths that Levi-Strauss had assembled had their climax in a vision of community of such compelling power and intimate perfection as did these Western narratives (17-18).”

In the decisive respect, then, the mythologique is inadequate to apocalyptic narratives.  Might this explain why Levi-Strauss had never sought to apply it to the Bible?  As for modern times, he had held that the mythologique was inapplicable to them because (as he told Abe in person in a memorable conversation they once chanced to have) “myth has been destroyed by the world of modern science”(x).  On this crucial point Abe determined to prove Levi-Strauss wrong, and to show that mythical categories remain embedded in those modern narratives that he describes as apocalyptic (6-7).

Insofar as the narratives in question are those promoted by modern ideologies, however, their defenders must of course reject this claim.  For modern ideologies claim to rest not in myth but in modern science, which Levi-Strauss had characterized to Abe as the great engine of myth destruction.   In maintaining of modern thought the opposite of what Levi-Strauss had held of it Abe takes a much broader view of the relevance of the mythologique than the great man himself had done.  Yet it remains notable that something as crucial to the apocalyptic narrative as its resplendent conclusion owes nothing to the mythologique even in his telling.

Lastly it seems worth noting how much of modern thought has sought not to perpetuate the apocalyptic narrative but to scotch it.  Here the lacuna in Abe’s narrative speaks volumes: he discusses no thinkers between Luther and Hegel. In fact the great Enlighteners – Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hume, Adam Smith, Kant and others – were determined to establish a view of progress that was non- (and  implicitly counter-) apocalyptic.  So one might ask why they ultimately failed in this or, to put it another way, why Hegel saw fit to reanimate the apocalyptic narrative after centuries of dormancy.  Was it the accident of what Abe presents as his deep personal attachment to Luther and his creed?  Or was the apocalyptic narrative simply too formative for Western consciousness to be successfully suppressed?

Other readers will find other questions to put to Abe’s provocative work, while joining me in regretting that he is not available to answer them.

* Professor of Political Science, Classics, and Jewish Studies; Fellow of St. Michael’s College and Senior Fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.