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Re: american myths

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  • Chris
    Some thoughts: Particularly in light of 9-11, the Spiderman 1 movie had some interesting shots of New Yorkers on a bridge throwing stones at the Green Goblin.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 31, 2006
      Some thoughts:

      Particularly in light of 9-11, the Spiderman 1 movie had some interesting
      shots of New Yorkers on a bridge throwing stones at the Green Goblin. When I
      saw this scene, I had the distinct feeling it would never have made it had
      it not been for the New Yorker solidarity wrought by 9-11. It reinforced the
      sense that "united we stand".

      Spiderman, it should need no mention, is a familiar trailing "hero" in the
      background of everyday American lore. Less than Superman since he cannot
      fly, he is at the same time more down to earth because of this (like
      Daredevil). I daresay the recent surge in comic-book based movies is due in
      no small part to the resurging sense of individual heroism that is being
      thrust upon Americans.

      I also point to "Z", Woody Allen's character in Ants: the "individual" hero
      in the midst of the mob/mass of ants. While I don't particularly subscribe
      to the typical rags-to-riches view (of which this nobody-to-somebody
      storyline is an offshoot), I do think it is prevalent in the
      subway-and-graffiti mindset we see around us all the time.

      For individual heroism, one need look no further than Hollywood: John Wayne
      in Shane; Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Captain Kirk (Star Trek), Neo (The
      Matrix), Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon, Braveheart, The Patriot), Sylvester
      Stallone (Rambo), and Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven). It is even true of Disney
      productions (The Lion King). Note that I don't even need an argument here;
      the collage of imagery brought on by this simple litany of names is almost a
      argument in and of itself.

      So by individual heroism I would agree with your initial instinct in
      reference to the "cowboy gene" in American life.

      That said, the thing I find most untenable in your approach to myth is your
      basic "one size fits all" approach. Ironically, much as you pooh-poohed the
      mish-mashing of our lay views on the philosophy of science, I find your
      understanding of mythology a bit naïve. No professor would ever categorize
      urban myths as "mythology"--they serve vastly different ends! Also you seem
      confused about what a fable is as opposed to a myth.

      I think what you are really struggling with is the more the concept of story
      itself, than mythology in particular. Story telling in general does observe
      this one-size-fits-all methodology; but not mythology itself. For that, more
      rigour and clinical distance would serve you better.

      > Another interesting point that has come to the surface follows from Plato's
      > severe criticism of myth as 'poetry' - the work of the 'poets' Homer and
      > Hesiod and their followers. This characterises myths as conveying 'poetic
      > truths'
      > (something which Plato does himself) that is (at least in part) the
      > expression of fictitious ideas that might educate, explain or simply
      > entertain
      > despite their factual inaccuracy. Modern myths also do this.

      Plato, and most classical philosophers for that matter, are obsessed with
      "truth" and it is for this reason that mythology falls into disrepute. Yet
      when you come to the 20th century, our views of what constitutes truth have
      been bent and swayed so much that it hardly causes us to bat an eyelash at
      the thought that truth *is* a story. As Virginia Woolf aptly said, "Fiction
      here is likely to contain more truth than fact." Again, the mish-mashing
      continues, but note that I am referring to story-telling rather than
      mythology (a more limited subset of story telling) in particular.

      > I haven't come up with a mirror-image couple yet - though I do like yours
      > Chris I'm not sure the founding fathers qualify as mythical beings,

      You missed me: founding stories. Think: the "Aeneid" to Rome (which Virgil
      based on one innocuous Trojan that escaped out of the escapades of the
      Illiad); the Song of Roland to Gaul; or even King Arthur to your countrymen
      once upon a time. It is not the writer I am referring to but the foundation
      of their story. In "writing" the country into being (through the Declaration
      of Independence), what were they doing but fashioning that model after the
      living myth as they perceived it?

      >or a
      > mythical story - in the sense of a fiction living in the popular imagination.

      Oh? I would say what we perceive to be "rights" and "freedoms" are in many
      ways "popular imagination". By virtue of the very phrase, "god given right",
      I suspect these ideals change with the times, pass with the centuries, and
      indeed bend from the blowing myths of the day.

      A "right" is an illusion; but it is one we fight for. Go figure.

      > Stealing fire/ atomic fission may have some milage, though in the sense of
      > the
      > clear myth that we would have energy 'too cheap to meter'. I'm not sure the
      > intentions of the story coincide - but I'm looking for contrasts as well as
      > similarities that might work. Now if there were a 'Promethius gives fire to
      > men, who then burn their houses down' myth we'd be in business!

      Burning down the house is exactly what I was referring to figuratively. Wait
      till the world explodes...oh, that's right. It will be too late.

      "How can we sleep when our beds are burning?" -Midnight Oil

      > What about the sense in which Pandora's opening of the box relates the curse
      > of having meddling women around, making men's lives endless misery?

      This never occurred to me: though it does fit the generic sinister-female
      motif (a la Tiamat et al.).

      >Is that
      > just a side-issue, a way of conveying the idea that too much inquisitiveness
      > can be a dangerous thing? Can we not relate that to anti-sciencism?

      > You are quite right - I'm playing with ideas of what 'myths' _are_
      > deliberately. In many ways they are what we make them - that is, are what we
      > define
      > them to be.

      Now we return to other troubling topics involving greater and lesser uses of
      story-telling, myth-making or metaphor-generating: namely, the "sacred" in
      "sacred landscape" has no meaning, or rather, it has what meaning we imbibe
      to it; likewise, "science" is an emergent system more than any one thing--
      it is a sum that is greater than its parts.

      To talk about any one of these issues involves the use of communication; and
      in communication we use turns of phrases, metaphors, we refer to allusions
      (biblical or otherwise) and quite often call upon the general framework of
      "myth" currently in place to spade our ideas to.

      So I would agree with you conceptually that story-telling is what we make it
      to be, and I would include all communicative acts under that umbrella term.

      But not the "scientific method" per se (a more precise subset); not
      "mythology" per se (a more precise subset); and not "sacred landscape" per
      se (a more precise subset perhaps more aptly labelled "mythic geography").

      >I think my broad analysis of stories that sit in between
      > knowable
      > and undisproveable, yet serving a purpose is fine - as far as it goes.

      But not if you wish to study "mythology", and not if you wish to discuss an
      "American mythology" in particular. But if you just want to shoot the breeze
      about belief in general, than that is fine by me.
      > Not only that - according to the OED the term was first employed in english
      > in the early 19th C, to describe 'purely fictitious stories involving the
      > supernatural'; and is 'properly distinguisher from allegory and legend, which
      > have elements of fact.'

      Its real meaning is simply how it is used now, regardless of what it once
      may have meant.

      > My 'urban' etc 'myths' borrow the fictitious part of that meaning without
      > the superstitious parts.

      An urban myth is a far cry from a mythology.
      > If you want to refine your own definition according to Cambell's ideas
      > that's fine too. I agree that Campbell - but others too - have helped us
      > understand that some myths may refer to historical events, and that most
      > serve some
      > kind of purpose - they are not pointless.
      > A few thoughts:
      > I can never see any myths as they might have been seen to the ancient
      > storytellers. My standpoint is massively distant. I can gain ideas from
      > studying
      > living myths - preferably of aboriginal peoples, but will never 'connect'
      > with the stories. You may - if you are religious - find things different.
      > If
      > you are a Christian then you can believe in the myths of the bible for
      > example. More than anything, myths serve as the foundation material of
      > religions.

      Myths serve as the foundation material for *society*, Mike. Religion is a
      by-product of society, not the other way around. Stories are the
      social-cement that glue our interactions together into a meaningful and
      ordered whole. It is a gestalt, not a discrete thing.

      By the way, I have the opposite experience: by studying myths I am able to
      distance myself from the prevailing mythology of today. By staring at Isis
      and imagining Mary's face superimposed upon it, I can see the glue in our
      society as it must have been in Egyptian society; and seeing both, lessens
      the stickiness of either, freeing me to think even more what I want to, and
      less what I am told to by my culture.

      > I think it is probably _usually_ the case that within any society the
      > religious foundations are believed more by some than other, and some will
      > disbelieve some of the stories entirely. A few 'fanatics' will believe the
      > whole
      > lot, despite obvious disconnects and contradictions.

      It isn't about "disbelieving stories", and I feel like you miss so much
      because this is probably how you really think. It is about making
      connections among disparate cultures and centuries; it is about the golden
      rule as I see it: observe yourself in others.

      > We know very little of the uses or meanings or whatever of the original
      > myths. Our written sources are not myths at all, but frozen accounts of
      > living
      > stories.

      History as we "know" it is a mythology told by the victor, with the moral
      "might is right".

      Side notes and summary:

      (1) The only thing that is new is the history you don't already know;
      (2) the only thing that history has taught us is that we have learned
      nothing from it; and
      (3) there are no answers; there are only choices.

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