Thursday, December 27, 2007

Lessons of Modern Mythology, Part 1

Babylon 5 and Boy Meets World are hardly the end‑all‑be‑all of modern mythmaking. In fact, although one is was a serial sci‑fi story and the other a sitcom, they're both part of the same medium and, therefore, far from representative of all that today's myriad avenues of entertainment have to offer. James Bond and John McClane each have certain mythological characteristics and they're far from the only movie characters that could populate the list. There's plenty going on in His Dark Materials to discuss. Of course there's also the ur‑modern mythology: Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Don't get me started on the entire genre of superhero comics (mostly because I don't have much to say that's more useful than bland generalities, what with that not reading comics thing I do). Beyond that, any number of mythological concepts live on in fairy and tall tales. My goal here, however, is to look at both modern entertainment and the notion of mythology in a different way. As such, a couple of examples suffice for the moment. Having offered up my examples, I'd like to take away a few lessons on how we can use the mythology that surrounds us to understand the world we live in now. I begin, as is my wont, at the World Navel. In carrying forward the theme of Mr. Feeny's classroom in Boy Meets World and the eponymous station in Babylon 5 I can illustrate one of the biggest differences between ancient and modern myth. In ancient myth the World Navel was the place where the Divine reached down and touched the mundane. Whether it was the metaphysical Yggdrasil that no one saw or the Holy of Holies wherein Yahweh resided when on the Earth, the World Navel was the realm of the Divine. In the modern world, however, we do not generally wait for the gods to appear to show us where to go and what to do. Babylon 5 was a very human endeavor. There is one episode (and I couldn't begin to say which one) when one of the non-human characters basically lays this fact out, explaining that had any of the other races built such a station they would keep it to themselves but that the humans seek to build community and understanding. It may border on the anvilicious, but the idea carries a certain weight with it. Traditional World Navels tended to become communities. Pilgrims would travel to an outpost in the hinterlands or an altar in the desert and, gradually, a city would form around it. There is a grand human desire to seek places of power, crossroads of the ethereal. In the mythological cycle of Babylon 5, that crossroads was created in a place where none existed before. Well, theoretically. There was the matter of the Great Machine in Epsilon III, the planet around which Babylon 5 orbited (or something. I never did quite figure out if there was orbiting going on or B5 was fixed in space and Epsilon III served as a sweet background). Five Babylon stations were built near Epsilon III before the Great Machine was discovered, however. I read somewhere (I think it was a Gregg Easterbrook "Tuesday Morning Quarterback" column on, but don't quote me there) an opinion that the Great Machine was misused over the course of the show. It was a vast, powerful, planet-sized device that stored all the knowledge of the universe and was capable of any number of things that were never explored. The blurb I read about it indicated that this was a failure of the imagination on the part of the writers of the show. I have no way of proving this, but I believe it was actually quite intentional. As I pointed out long ago at the point I introduced the idea of Mythology in the Third Age, one of the overarching points in Babylon 5 was that idea of growing up and overcoming dependence on those who came before. The Babylon 5 crew had to fight their wars largely without the assistance of the Great Machine. Otherwise it would have become a crutch and ultimately held the same power over them that the Vorlons and Shadows did. The Great Machine, for all its power, was ultimately a secondary player at the World Navel. Babylon 5 was the wellspring of knowledge and understanding. And it was a completely human created artifact. Similarly, Mr. Feeny's classroom was in a very mundane place. But there is a reason that our great colleges are sometimes referred to as "Temples of Higher Education." Mr. Feeny started out herding his charges toward those temples and ultimately joined them. In his role as the educator he took on the role of priest, ushering his often unwilling and usually unfocused students toward all the knowledge of the universe that is available to the human race. This is not to say that secular authority and institutions have completely absconded with the role played by religion. It would certainly do no good to attempt to make that argument to a Muslim on pilgrimage to Mecca or Mormon journeying to the temple in Salt Lake City or Nauvoo, Illinois. Churches and temples retain that power in much of the mythology of the modern world and even the attempts to subvert them, like in Sin City or Dogma, point to the power still held by the traditional World Navel. The power of such places lives on even in Babylon 5, as Z'Ha'Dum was a Holy Land of sorts wherein the Shadows tried to honor and Sheridan met Lorien. The idea of a human built World Navel is not exactly new, either. What was the Tower of Babel if not an attempt to circumvent the need to wait for the Divine to touch the Earth?
They said, "Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth." The LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another's speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.(Gen. 11:4-9, NASB)
The Tower of Babel holds a great deal in common with Babylon 5. They are, in fact, the origin and termination points on the line of human self-determination. At the origin point humanity attempted to take control of its own destiny and be joined with the Divine. The Divine didn't take too kindly to that and struck the impious humans down. At the terminal point the mythological hero found that the gods were not so different as we once thought and ended the Second Age with a rather pithy, "Now get the hell out of our galaxy." Robbed of their power to control through fear and intimidation, the gods backed down. Nothing was impossible for them anymore. This, in turn, illustrates one of the great struggles taking place in the real world. Those from religious fundamentalism of all stripes see the rise of a liberal society that does not wait on the gods as a threat. It's the origin of the battle between teaching evolution and "Intelligent Design" in schools. It's why Bob Jones and Liberty Universities exist and the people who go to those schools reject Harvard, Yale, and Cambridge and the supposedly worthless intellectual worlds within them, completely ignoring the fact that the older schools began as religious education institutions and still hold prestigious divinity schools within their walls. Pat Robertson's call a few years ago that Dover, PA would be destroyed in a divine flood or some such because they had the audacity to teach evolution and not ID in their schools echoes a hope for that vengeful god who destroyed the Tower of Babel all those years ago. There is a level of desperation to it all now, though. In a universe that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 billion years old that contains upwards of six hundred sextillion stars (that’s 600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) spread across a hundred billion galaxies, it seems increasingly likely that we are not, in fact, the center of the universe. What better way to fight against insignificance than to argue that the very deity responds to all your whims and fights against all your enemies for you? Our modern mythology is catching on to that concept. But there’s still plenty of the Second Age interlaced with the Third. Up next: Lessons of Modern Mythology not involving the World Navel. Oh, and the whole Tower of Babel/Babylon 5 dichotomy didn't occur to me until after I decided to incorporate the ToB (which was a snap decision last night) and, obviously, long after I started using B5. Sometimes stuff just works that way...

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