Tuesday, January 29, 2008
An Attempted Synthesis
Today we too easily assume, without giving it much thought, that concern with history is a natural human activity. All men have memories and "live in the past" to a greater or lesser extent. Is it not natural that they should be interested in their ancestors and the past of their community, people, nation? Yes, but such a thing is not necessarily the same thing as history. It can be satisfied entirely by myth, and, in fact, this is how most of mankind has customarily dealt with the past (and, in a very real sense, still does). Myth serves admirably to provide the necessary continuity of life, not only with the past but with nature and the gods as well. It is rich and vivid, it is concrete and yet full of symbolic meanings and associations, it explains institutions and rites and feelings, it is instructive -- above all, it is real and true and immediately comprehensible. --M.I. Finley, from the introduction to The Portable Greek Historians At some point in the middle of the process of doing a project like this one simple idea must come up, specifically that mythology and history are independent and opposing ideas. Mythology should be the province of the priest or the storyteller, not the historian. The historian searches for place and date and attempts to fix the past in place. But mythology cannot be fixed. It exists in a time outside of ours and at a place that cannot be found on a map. A storyteller friend of mine pointed out the difference succinctly recently. She mentioned a mythological Greek character I'd never heard of and I expressed my surprise, pointing out my historian's background. "That's not surprising?" she replied, "Those are two totally different things." She was absolutely right. So why do I concern myself with myth (I mean, other than the fact that I love the subject and am working on becoming a professional storyteller)? The Chinese looked at history as a cycle. Dynasties rose, peaked, and fell with a certain level of regularity. Those interested in historiography place this in contrast to a Western ideal of history as an ever rising line of progress. Reality lies somewhere in the middle. The cyclical theory of history stifles innovation while the constant progression theory offers an unintentional ideal of a final, perfectable humanity. Some days it's impossible to consider such things without feeling as though someone, somewhere, has been lying to us. We stand just beyond the turn of the 21st Century, the long-anticipated point known as "the future" with a feeling of disappointment. Where is all we were promised? Why does today feel so much like yesterday? A hundred years ago Henry Ford famously said "History is bunk" at the beginning of a century that began with almost unlimited hope for the perfectibility of the human race. Ever since that moment we've taken few steps forward and giant steps backward. Shortly after the the most horrible war in history nearly destroyed an entire generation of Europeans. The Great War, called the "War to End All Wars," was followed by the worldwide malaise of the Great Depression, then the horror and violence of the Holocaust and the Second World War. These events provided the low points of the most violent century in human history. At the height of this tragic century came the moment when all history seemed to come to an end. I can scarcely imagine the horror of the first atomic bomb (although I very much want to see Doctor Atomic. For the record, the link there is one big, fat spoiler. But it only made me want to see it more, so whatever), but I know it has overshadowed everything that has come since. For the first time humanity had the ability to wipe itself off the face of the Earth. And it's not just the grim prospect of a gigantic mushroom cloud we have to worry about. Bioengineered weaponry, super plagues, and mutated viruses have wormed their way in to the collective human consciousness. Some seem to react to reports of an outbreak of SARS or West Nile Virus as if it's the trailer to I Am Legend and we're only steps away from a devastating global pandemic. The whole thing is, at times, overwhelmingly depressing. Against these horribly proclamations the historian can offer cold comfort at best. History can only give us the good news of the big picture. Everything will be okay, eventually, for somebody. We know that new empires and new civilizations always rise, but we know that old empires and civilizations always fall. Living during the upswing may be exciting and during the middle idyllic, but living at the end or in the between times can be downright brutal and terrifying. Mythology acts as a sort of propaganda arm for civilization. It provides the glue that holds everything together and points to a sort of ideal that allows those inside the civilization to believe they are participating in something epic and wonderfully good. It's optimistic, heroic, and pure. The work of the historian, on the other hand, is seemingly focused on breaking down mythology. It points out that a King Arthur, say, was probably a simple warlord or composite of several post-Romanic British warlords -- assuming he even existed -- and not the paragon of virtue passed down to us through legend. Most legends, heroes, and virtuous nations undergo a similar transformation at the hands of the historian. Some reputations are completely destroyed and few remain untarnished. It's the inherent danger of exploring the reality behind the story. No reality can possibly stand up to the ethereal standards of the myth. It is those opposing ideals that make considering both historical fact and mythological ideal important. It's why Herodotus and Thucydides are equally as important as Homer. Those who consider only the mechanics of the rise and fall of civilization, who look only to the mundane hows, whens, and whys risk a sort of fatalism. Or, at least, a pessimism. Empires rise and fall for reasons we can break down and explain. Heroes rise for selfish reasons and rarely leave closets completely devoid of skeletons. More than that, history is depressingly full of end points. All empires fall, all heroes die. We're disappointed by reality far more often than we really should be. It's a lesson we all learn as societies and that we learn as individuals. I know of no one who has not been touched by loss at some point. We've all lost games, gotten that letter in the mail that says someone else got the job, or been turned down for dates. We've all hit that point where we've realized that this moment is perfect, but it is ending and will never come back again. We've all had friends or loved ones die, move, or decide that maintaining the relationship isn't worth it any more. We've all seen the defeats pile up and bury the few victories under an overwhelmingly immense pile. In those moments history can offer no help. In fact, it often adds to the pain with reminders of past failure and loss. It is in those moments that we need mythology. Mythology is ultimately hopeful. It offers us tales of overcomers, of heroes who stood against overwhelming odds and lived to tell the tale. It tells us of gods who stand above it all but look down upon the struggling masses with compassion and a genuine desire to intervene. It allows us to say that we've lost every time before now, but this time we will win. It allows us to say that everyone else has left, but maybe this one person who matters most will stay. Moreover, it allows us to believe that even if Arthur leaves, the Once and Future King will, indeed, return to make our joy complete. That hope is important. Sometimes it's all there is to lean on. That's why I'm working on this little project. It's why I think it's important to look at how we update our mythology, too. If we think of mythology as a static, ancient concept best left Homer or Virgil, we miss seeing how society has evolved and how we have changed our sources of hope and enlightenment. Mythology has changed just as history has changed. We impoverish ourselves and limit our capacity for growth if we don't recognize that. Up next: women and mythology.