Saturday, January 12, 2008
The Two Worst Things to Happen to Mythology, Part 1
I'm having a hard time trying to figure out what to call it. I don't think there's a single, pithy catch phrase to cover the entire concept and much of what I'm thinking about covers too much ground I'd rather avoid. So as I handle the first of my two major problems for mythology I feel the need for circumspection. Call it the Enlightenment. Or maybe scientific empiricism. The rise of literalism might be a good option. Modernism. That could do it, too. Any way I slice it, this is a tough one to explain. I'm a big fan of the Enlightenment and empirical science. They're good things, really. But they ushered in the modern world, which holds at its core a hyper-literal mind set which cannot coexist easily with mythology. My sophomore year of high school I took an American literature class, mostly because that was what was on tap for sophomores on the honors track. We covered Hawthorne, Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, and most of the other authors in the American canon. While reading the Grapes of Wrath, my English teacher made a point to draw attention to every single instance of the word "red" and point out how it symbolized Communism. Whenever I took a test, then, I knew that the right thing to do was equate "red" with "Communism" in order to get a good grade. Two years later I was taking Humanities as a senior. We were reading Voltaire's Candide. When I hit the part where Candide and his compatriots leave El Dorado loaded down with treasure and leading a couple of large, red sheep I thought, "Aha, red. Communism." It took a moment for my budding historian brain to kick in and say, "No. That's not possible. Voltaire pre-dated Communism." It took me several years to realize that I taught myself an important lesson that day. Not everything has only one meaning. There are a few things that have only one meaning, but I'm not a mathematician, so that's not my job. Still, a 2 is always a 2 and a2 + b2 always equals c2. Furthermore, the Pythagorean Theorem always explains how to find the hypotenuse of a right triangle. This, plus the applications for science and engineering that mathematics offers, is a good thing. Should we wake up tomorrow in a universe where Planck's Constant, the power of gravitational fields or the speed of light have suddenly changed, that would probably be a bad thing. Like, cataclysmically bad. But red doesn't always mean Communism. Holding on to that idea while reading Steinbeck might have made sense and, at the very least, meant I could get A's. But had I tried to argue for Communist symbolism in Voltaire I would have failed. One of the things I remember from high school was the students sitting around, waiting for the teacher to give them the right answer. On some level, I believe it's because the students are only interested in figuring out what answer they're supposed to give on the upcoming test. On another, I believe it's because the students around me were waiting for the teacher to give them the definitive answer. I've actually noticed this a lot. I've run in to enough people who claim to have missed the subtext in, say, The Chronicles of Narnia or The Golden Compass that I've started to think there's a pervasive lack of thoughtful exploration of underlying themes. Moreover, take the wild, runaway success of something like the Left Behind books. It's nothing but masturbatory exposition that glosses over narrative in favor of jerky, asinine sermonizing. But it sells. Worse, people believe that it offers a true interpretation of how things will be because, y'know, it says it has a true interpretation. Mythology cannot live in an environment like this. The myth lives in a place outside of the confines of empirical study and is destroyed as soon as someone tries to dissect it and study it under a microscope. It makes no more sense to argue about where on the map Thor and Loki traveled to confront the king of the frost giants, the location of Brunhilde's flame-wreathed bed, or where, exactly, the entrance to Hades Aeneas used is than it is to argue whether Babylon 5 or Star Trek is right about the next few hundred years of human development. We won't receive news tomorrow that a satellite detected Prometheus chained to a peak in the Ural Mountains and can confirm that yes, an eagle is eating his liver. Even though there are occasional TV specials on the subject, no one is going to find Noah's Ark, either. It makes no sense to try to evaluate these things on the same level we try to evaluate the score of the Super Bowl, how to find a friend's house, or whether or not a politician is telling the truth about a proposed policy. Moreover, it doesn't make any sense to try to apply fantastical but real-world explanations to the issue of trying to find out it mythological stories really happened. Sure, you could argue that Grendel was actually a dinosaur that somehow managed to survive by hanging out in Denmark by itself for millions of years, only to attack the Hall of Hrothgar because he was bored and fed up with his neighbors and their loud rock music that just played all hours of the day and night. But why would you? Just let the story stand on its own. Monsters are a part of myth and will continue to capture the imagination of the human race (consider the Loch Ness Monster, the yeti, and the chupacabra). It seems to be a part of the human psyche that we're always searching for a mystery to solve and a larger power to overcome. This, I think, is the brilliance of Campbell's use of psychology to explain mythology and vice versa. No matter what happens, no matter what parts of the universe we uncover, explore, dissect, and otherwise come to think we can reduce to a single answer, there's always a mystery. But the biggest mystery any of us face is the self. As I've grown up I've made great leaps in my understanding of myself and the way I interact with the world. I've seen the people around me make similar leaps. But one of the most important things I've realized is that each generation has made the same leaps. We start as blank slates, surrounded by a world that is big, complicated, and scary. First experiences are big, scary adventures, whether it's the first trip to the store, the first day of school, the first date, the first kiss, or the first time skydiving. That thrill of fear, the exhilaration of casting out in to the unknown, the rush of making it through intact, and that childlike glee that says, "That was fun, let's do it again," is a progression we all share in common. It's what drives us. It's what makes us who we are. It can't be taught in a classroom, nor can it be explained by science. It's neither right nor wrong. It just is. Mythology has been trying to tell us about it for as long as we've been able to tell stories. Up next: Part 2. Duh.