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Sunday, 5 April 2009

Myth and Me.

Myths are all around us. There are those who think it is not so, that myths belong to a previous age, an ancient, pre-scientific time. But in fact, we encounter them everywhere: ancient myths and modern myths, myths of religion and myths which spring from science itself and from scientific enquiry, myths from business and from politics. Tales to give racial or social significance and cohesion. And there are family and private myths - stories that do the same on a domestic or personal scale. Narratives to maintain the individual psyche. Some may become loose canons and end up fragmenting what they should bind: the myths of racial purity and racial supremacy, for example, which devastated large areas of the world during the previous century.

When I was growing up there were those in the extended family who would tell me of the myth of infinite human progress and perfectibility. That particular myth was already dead, of course: killed by the first World War and buried by The Second, as an uncle of mine would have it, but they still believed it, they had been brought up with it. I found it a seductive myth, even if I never did quite take it in. There were others : the myth of Papal Infallibility was one. I never did get my head around that. Like unto it was the myth of the infallibility of British Justice. Some, I think, thought me almost a traitor because I would not swallow that one - and strangely, I have no idea what prevented me: I had no obvious reason, no evidence at that time not to believe. Years later, of course, when the great backlog of miscarriages of justice began to trail through our High Courts, I felt some vindication. The Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, The Birmingham Six and many, many others. So not all myths are good. Some have served their purpose and now work against it. We have to be careful which myths we assimilate.

It is through myth, I believe, that poetry and religion shake hands. Wallace Stevens wrote that poetry had supplanted religion, but I see it more as a handing on of a baton - perhaps only temporarily. We have to remember, though, that religion is not myth, even if myth is religion. Myths are not stories which are not true. neither are they true stories, they are truths told in stories. They are not fables about non-existent entities, but revelations concerning realities.

We live in a world that we do not fully understand. There are powers at work that are beyond us. This is so even for the scientists at the cutting edge of discovery, perhaps especially so for them. But we - and they - must try to understand. Furthermore, this world that we do not understand is changing in ways that we do not understand, and so we are striving - before it is too late - to create the myth that will look back to remind itself of our origins, even as it looks forward and attempts to tune our hearts (some might prefer to say souls) to that which we are becoming.

To me poetry and myth seem inseparable. Poetry at its best shares the mythic quality that lies at the heart of religion. A narrative becomes mythic when it has a discernable truth running through it like a vein of gold through a landscape. Poetry and religion are the two alternatives, the two main tools at our disposal to mine that vein. What poetry brings to the task is its focus on the vein, its refusal to be led astray by the extraneous, more prosaic facts of the narrative. Poetic truth is mythic truth, and myth, as I have stressed, is religion. Margaret Whyte has said of myths; without them, we were born yesterday. They are indeed, our history, but that is not to imply that they carry historical truth. They express our root,. they picture us as we were and in that picture we see ourselves for what we are.

And the great dynamo driving all these myths is death. People the world over are coming to terms as best they may with what for the individual must be life's biggest fact of all. They have always done so, of course, but in modern times there has been an increasing tendency to find the official myths wanting, and these being Do-It-Yourself times, for the individual to attempt to find a bespoke narrative. To some extent the days of the one-style-suits-all have passed. Possibly people in past times did the same, but were more reticent about it, not wanting to break ranks - or be excommunicated or burnt as a heretic. I have reached the age at which it begins to seem more and more urgent to thrash out an exit strategy. I can recall the moment when the fact of death first became a reality for me. It was war time, so I had heard a lot about death and people being killed, but it was all very remote, like a film that didn't hold my interest. For me and for my friends war was fun. We went out mornings after air raids looking for shrapnel, even bits off aircraft if we were lucky. I was at Junior school, so would have been between 7 and 11, probably somewhere around 8-9. I was walking home from school with my friend - he who was the subject of my poem Pistol-Whipped - when we came upon a dead fox and a dead rat. We said it was a rat, but upon reflection it could have been a large mouse or other rodent. They had both been skinned, the fox, I think expertly, the rodent perhaps not so well. It was a traumatic moment, but the trauma passed very quickly. My friend pointed out how like a map the fox's body was with its veins and arteries and its bumps and blemishes - plus a few scratches which we immediately decided were claw marks. The devil's! - and soon we were concocting stories as to how the two animals had met their deaths and how they had come to end up skinned. I do remember that soon after this there were dreams and fantasies about death, which over the years, as other deaths (and the mythic teachings of Christianity) were assimilated, began to assume the shape of a private myth. At some point in the last 20 - 30 years poetry took over the organising-integrating role from religion. Impossible to say exactly when or how this happened, but soon after that I began to read Wallace Stevens and to discover that he had trodden a similar path. Not the same path exactly, for I did not feel, as he did, that poetry had to fill the gap left by an empty Heaven. It was simply that it worked more efficiently for me.

49 comments:

Butler and Bagman said...

Thought provoking blog -- reminded me of Carl Jung for some reason. Myths seem to arise from the collective unconscious, I think. Thank you for linking this to your poem "Pistol Whipped"...because it gave me a chance to go back and see it. Well done!

Jim Murdoch said...

Having an ongoing fascination with the fact that lies lubricate our lies I found this article quite interesting. I see myths are collective beliefs, agreed upon lies that contain elements of the truth as all the best lies do. The one thing I thought you might have covered is the urban myth (e.g. there are alligators living in the New York City sewer system). Artists create works that are lies; the man in the street creates myths to explain the way the world is. We may not be as gullible as we once were or perhaps we are and just don't see it. It's like consumerism, the myth that we need TVs and DVD players and iPods to be happy. Advertisers sell us the myth and we buy it, most of us anyway.

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff... said...

What a fantastic early morning read Dave. Though I must say....all of your reads are great.
Papal Infallibility has always been a bit of a mystery to me as well. Can't quite work that out in my noggin.
Thanks for always making me think Dave (it's rare but id does happen, lol).

Steady On
Reggie Girl

jinksy said...

How well you summed up the religion/poetry link...basic truths do it for me.

Stephen Dell'Aria said...

You've raised a most interesting point here, Dave. I wrote a very long reply but decided it wasn't right to take up so much space here, so I erased it. I think a thread of hope, no matter how tattered or weak, is probably better than no thread at all. If the poet's words can sooth, out and out, fear than maybe we can get through our fate. For now, I've lost hope of religion ever doing that.

Lady Glamis said...

"we are striving - before it is too late - to create the myth that will look back to remind itself of our origins, even as it looks forward and attempts to tune our hearts (some might prefer to say souls) to that which we are becoming."

That line struck me as the heart of your piece. Quite thought provoking. Being very religious, and having taken a class in college that focused on Myth and Poetry, I find your ideas and thoughts well put, but not sure I agree on all points. Still, I enjoyed the read immensely. Thank you for sharing.

Shadow said...

i'm a myth-fanatic. instant attraction. always has been.

Adrian LaRoque said...

One thing I know Dave. The loss of the myth and its power would also make a society sink. We are loosing everything, including the power of the myth.

Helen said...

You beautifully articulate the thoughts and feelings that lie so deeply buried in my pscyhe .. This was the perfect way to begin my Sunday.

My first experience with death was as a young child .. the most recent as my mother died in my arms. Exit strategy is good.

Jenn said...

Its funny Dave, you mention that you are at the age to start paying attention to the exit strategy but in the past couple days I have come to discover that no matter what age we are it is an important thing to keep our attention on. As we age it seems to get closer but at my age now, mid 30's, I never would have thought it could be as close as it seems. In fact I have not thought about it in such close proximity in many years.

As a kid growing up Irish Catholic I was at my first wake by age 4 so death and the whole concept was presented to me at a very early age. The thing though was that all those people were so very removed from my day to day that although I got it, the reality of it meant nothing to me. It was not until a very close friend took her own life in high school that I truly put a focus on what life & death really meant. I went through the next 20 years with a solid idea of exactly how I felt about it. That is until this past week.

Needless to say your post has made me cry but I really needed it so I am completely thankful.

Rachel Cotterill said...

And of course some of the oldest myths were relayed through the oral poetry traditions - you're following a well-trodden path :)

Art Durkee said...

I immediately thought of Joseph Campbell's book "Myths To Live By," which is all about how living myths pervade out everyday lives. All we have to do to perceive them is to live in mythic consciousness, which is to be aware of the archetypes that in play in every encounter and relationship. One of the last chapters in the book is about how the Apollo program to land men o the moon is a supremely mythic undertaking. It's a fascinating analysis.

We might not call them myths, but the assumptions about the nature of reality that we believe as a culture, as in fact myths. Myths are "the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves." Thus, in our scientific age, we haven't removed myth from our lives, we've just given it new names.

What is the single dominant myth in modern scientific culture that we perceive of as either the end of the world, or an adversary to be fought against?

Entropy.

Lucas said...

A fascinating post, Dave.
I think your memory/analysis of the discovery of the dead creatures and you and your friend constructed stories to explain their deaths is crucial. A good insight into Wallace Steven, too, even though you have differentiated your experience of poetry working better.
I think that to some extent poetry is anti-myth because in modern poetry what emerges so often is a one-off interpretation of an otherwise unknowable event.

Leslie Avon Miller said...

An exit strategy indeed. Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, and now Dave King. All deep thinkers who have impassioned my thought process. What a gift it is to blog; we make our mark, leave behind a piece of ourselves and say “I was here, I thought, and I cared.” Thanks for this visit to the deep well of our collective unconscious. Please Dave, do let me in on your strategy, when you have it formulated.

Michelle said...

I love this!

So glad I don't have to write an essay on it though :)

willow said...

Another thought provoking post, Dave. Wallace Steven's struggle with religion is obvious in much of his poetry.

MuseSwings said...

Wonderful post. I like the "exit strategy". If only someone who has been there would report back. That, however, might be an end to the need for myths at a time when we would need them the most to write poetry against the truth of it.

Jeanne said...

The other thing that's fascinating (at least to me) is the link between mythic structure and the structure of fiction. "Slumdog Millionaire" is, essentially, a mythic quest -- he goes to rescue the princess -- and succeeds because his heart remains pure. We use the same structure, and the same archetypes in fiction today that have been used in mythology for thousands of years. And the best works resound with us because they repeat the time-worn myths we continue to crave.

Aniket said...

I agree with Lady Glamis on all points. Its a very thought provoking post. But I am one who puts science over religion. So I've been avoiding myths till now.

There are things yet unexplained, but I believe its no fun living when you know everything. And poetry is a great mould to shape up ones imagination. So I did love the post, and found it informative and veryt intresting.

Dave King said...

Butler and Bagman
Yes, I think jung comes into these things more significantly than, say, Freud. The collective unconscious is an interesting concept, but I do struggle with it more than a bit. Thanks for your comments.

Jim
Myth is a lie in the way that art is: a lie that gives us truth. Certainly, myths are fictive, but do they lie more than other any work of fiction? If you say a myth is a lie, that is rpobab ly true as far as it goes, but if you stop there it is a half truth, a distortion. I did think of including urban myths, but decided they were not a special case. I also considered mentioning the way in which two world wars have spawned endless myths (Lions led by donkeys etc). Indeed they have to a large extent supplanted the cowboy and indian myths of the American wild west. Folk are deriving something from them. I do not think it all just escapism.

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff
Thanks for that. Have a good week.

Jinksy
When you can find them, of course.

Stephen
Interesting comment. Very sorry you erased your much fuller reply. Can you not recover it and give us the benefit of it - there is no limit on length, you know. I do agree with your end (in both senses) observations.

Lady Glamis
My thnaks for that. The passage you quote has been running around in my head in various forms for a bit. It is probab ly what kicked the whole thing off, it was certainly bound to get itself in there somewhere, somehow. I rpobably read it - or something like it - somewhere. Thanks for your observations.

Shadow
Yes, me too - though possbly less now than when I was younger. And ancient myths have never really resonated with me.

Adrian
That is big enough to have a post - even a book - all to itself. I fear you may have hit a sad truth there.

Helen
I think we all need one - and somewhere, surely, there is one that fits the individual and the present age.

Jenn
My thanks for that very moving reply. I surely did not mean to upset anyone with ti, though I understand your reaction perfectly. My apologies, though, if I spoilt your Sunday. I am so pleased, though, that you feel it has done some good. I am v ery grateful to you for your comments.

Rachel
Absolutely. A valid point which I overlooked. Thanks for pointing it out.

Art
I haven't read Campbell's book, but will try to come by a copy. I agree that we subscribe to myths by different names. Also that the Apollo - I would have said all space programmes - was a mythic undertaking. I think your final observation/suggestion is fascinating. I shall give it extended thought.

Lucas
Yes, that too, is a valid observation, I think. Again, I shall have to give the grey matter an extended run. Thanks for that.

Leslie
Thanks for those rather too-kind words. If and when I get my exit strategy in place I will let you in on it, gladly - though it may not work or work for you, of course. Thanks for your contribution.

Dave King said...

Michelle
Thanks for that.

Willow
Yes, and is one of the aspects which commends it so much to me.

Muse Swings
I often wonder why it was that the good people Jesus raised from the dead didn't report back.

Jeanne
I didn't know that aspect of Slumdog Millionaire, but I would agree with you that there is much mythic material in some of the best fiction as in some of the best poetry.

Aniket
My thanks for that, but science has its own myths, of course.

sudharm baxi said...

So very true David,

Myths are explanations for the unknown; evolution of men is a major one even till date (i don't believe the Big Bang either).
Philosophers, Astrologers(now a days scientists)and so many other men of knowledge came up with bizarre explanations for those.
Here in India, we have explanations for almost every natural calamity and everything around in our holy scriptures, they are full of myths.

sciencegirl said...

Very thought-provoking post; thanks for getting me to think of things I rarely get around to!
As for papal infallibility, if there were ever a pope trying hard to explode that myth, the current one is it.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, I have spent the late seventies and eighties enquiring about myths and their origins, your post has been alluring...have you written any poem connected with myth and your own past as Tunnels of Mind? I have.
Childhood and myth are inseparable in open, public, and hidden personal ways, I have been feel very close to the latter recently...
I have posted a "friend" to your Tunnels of the Mind.
Best, Davide
(Tommaso)

Chef E said...

Nice tie in Jeanne- since I just saw that movie...I enjoyed reading your post, and look forward to reading more...

Karen said...

"Myths are not stories which are not true. Neither are they true stories, they are truths told in stories."

This is my feeling, too, about myths. I have studied myths of various cultures and times, and I find the truths they tell in their stories.

As to poetry and myth -- something for me to ponder. I'm going to reread this one, Dave. Very thought-provoking.

Mairi said...

Were you thinking of Steven's remark "In the absence of a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption." I've been thinking about it myself lately and wondering how you would rephrase it for someone - like yourself, apparently - who doesn't feel the absence of God but still believes poetry has a powerful, if only partial claim on "life's redemption."

Fantastic Forrest said...

Dave -
My son and daughter have the same fascination with the myths of the Greeks and Romans that I did when I was little.

I'm with you on the papal infallibility thing. And I enjoyed your poetry, myth and religion discussion.

Another realm of myth is that of the so-called urban legend. Thanks to the miracle of the Google machine, I'm often able to debunk the myths that my mother sends me. Trust me, the right wing diatribes she forwards from her friends bear little resemblance to poetry or truth, but to them, it is that vein of gold of which you speak.

Urgh!

I guess that is my cross to bear.

Roxana said...

i love this post. "poetry had to fill the gap left by an empty Heaven" reads as an excerpt of Friedrich Schlegel - and Novalis too, the early Romantics had exactly this vision, that it is their task to create a new mythology through their art, which has to replace the old lost one.

have you read Barthes' "Mythologies"? about how myths have survived, in disguise, in our modern society - from Superman to washing detergent, very captivating...

have you written about that traumatic encounter with death in your childhood?

SweetTalkingGuy.. said...

Myths are the stuff of life and I think we are all constantly creating and recreating them in our consciousness whether or not we let them out. I think your 'exit strategy' reference is the key thing - we want to know, we need to know, but who was it that said: No man knows the hour...?

Dave King said...

Sudharm
Welcome. Yes, thanks for that. I think most folk rely on myth more than they realise.

science girl
I do agree with you, there, though as I understand it, the Pope is only speaking infallibly when he says he is!

Tommaso
Thanks for that. I don't think I have a poem specifically to do with myth, though myth comes into not a few of them. I look forard to reading your friend.

Chef E
Welcome and thanks a lot for those kind words.

Karen
Many thanks for the comments.

Mairi
Your quote is very apt, although I had been thinking of his remark in his poem The Man with the Blue Guitar that ....Poetry,
Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns,


My feeling is that poetry can be a tool for redemption. I don't know how you could rephrase it outside poetry as it were.

Fantastic Forrest
It sounds as though to the right wing diatribes of whom you speak, Google might be the anti-Christ.

Roxana
I have read Barthes, but I think it might be due for a rereading. And no, I haven't written about the death encounter in my childhood. I might yet, though.

Sweet Talking Guy
I don't think it's the hour I want to know, more how to square up to it when it comes. Thanks for your remarks.

A Cuban In London said...

What a thorough and thoughtful article. Like you, Dave, I grew up under a myth. That of the Cuban Revolution. And it was a myth that most left-wing intellectuals from Europes and North America have fallen for, sink, line and hooker. It's amazing that they still believe in the infallibility of the Cuban government when it has proved many times that it is capable of the most atrocious acts just to stay in power. Pretty much like the British judicial system. Myths are there to be debated about and analysed closely. Many thanks for such a brilliant piece.

Greetings from London.

your sassy reporter said...

i love mythology; it fills an empty void to understanding things around us only a vivid imagination (thru myths) can explain.

Artist Unplugged said...

Interesting post and thoughts on myths, haunting story of the skinned animals stumbled upon during your childhood.
Odd about the laptop in your last post though I have some powerful virus protector on my laptop that often was too limiting!

Fantastic Forrest said...

Dave - Good one! Yeah, the truth may set you free, but they don't necessarily appreciate having their lies exposed.

delphine said...

Hiya dave, I so wanted to say something exremely intelligent or unique about myths, but I just sat looking at my computer and coouldn't thin of anything else to add to the previous comments. I believe in some medical myths, one in particular ie if you keep trimming hair it grows thicker and quicker -- it really does, I have kept my hair trimmed short for 67 years and have such a thick head of hair ( smile) -- which brings me to my pondering on what happened to the coats of the rat and the fox????

Poetic Artist said...

Dave,
You just have a way of making a person think and then rethink it all over again.

anthonynorth said...

This shares a great deal with my own views on myth. An excellent read.

Sorlil said...

I've just finished re-reading the letters of Ted Hughes, not many more poets as fascinated by myth as he was. I love folklore and mythology of all kinds and as you know I adore poetry. But my relationship with God is so much bigger and more encompassing than poetry or mythology could ever be. Poetry, though my second love, would be a very poor substitute.

Dave King said...

sassy reporter
The vivid imagination is just what is needed.

Artist Unplugged
Thanks for those comments. Yes, I'm almost certain it was the antivirus causing the problem.

Fantastic Forrest
I take your point. Quite!

Delphine
I can vouch for your medical myth: I do know that the more you shave the faster grow s the hair. And yes, I have long wondered about what happened to the coats - and why.

Poetic Artist
Ouch! Is that good?

anthonynorth
Thanks for that comment.

Sorlil
I understand that completely. May it always be so. Thanks for sharing.

Sarah Laurence said...

Dave, interesting reflection on modern myths. I loved this line: It is through myth, I believe, that poetry and religion shake hands.

Dick said...

A very fine post, Dave, both in terms of defining and characterising objectively the substance and function of myth and in applying the significance of myth within your own experience.

For me myth has always been metaphor. Throughout my childhood, from the age of 7 or 8 through into my teens, the 'Matter of Britain' - the Arthurian myths - fascinated and enchanted me. I sensed first and then saw clearly that within the rise, the zenith and the passing of the Realm of Logres is contained the mutability of all things - sic transit gloria mundi. And oddly, paradoxically even, given the vigorous absorption of pagan Celtic myth into mediaeval Christian orthodoxy, this movement towards extinction from the very start contributed to the unbelief that has prevailed. So deep imaginative involvement with myth took me away from belief in God and towards something with much greater substance - an abiding faith in that which draws together and binds humanity within a palpable present.

your sassy reporter said...

tnx for following my blogs.however, I am moving them to one site at http://elishagayhidalgo.blogspot.com/
hope to see you there!Thanks!

Dave King said...

Sarah
Thanks for stopping by to comment. Much appreciated.

Dick
Thanks for that fascinating comment, to which I can relate somewhat. I do remember when quite young - but an altar boy at the parish church - trying to work out whether Christianity's absorption of so uch that was pagan had deepened the meaning of its symbols or somehow tarnished them. I am with you completely with the sic transit gloria mundi bit - and your final phrase resonates well with me.

sassy reporter
Thanks for the info.

LadyFi said...

Myth is a way of understanding the world and making sense of it - just as poetry is.

Annie Wicking said...

Happy Easter, Dave.

Conda V. Douglas said...

I think all writers/anybody creative is fascinated by myths, Dave--and thank you for your intriguing post. I, too, was reminded of Joseph Campbell but also Carl Jung--the whole group unconscious thing, which if such a thing exists, the myths must come right out of.

Cloudia said...

"It is through myth, I believe, that poetry and religion shake hands." YES!! A Gem.

Brilliant and touching post, D.K.
So very well done, and a privlege to read. Thankyou and aloha!

Montag said...

I like your ending about working efficiently.

I never thought of it that way before.
I mean, it's sort of like life is a complex of story-making ( or myth-making) events; of the infinite number of possible stories, each individual finds an optimal or best way of story-telling, and that sort of defines the rest of their lives.

And they do not have to spend an infinite amount of time going through the infinite possible stories that potentially exist.

The more I think of it, the more it has the taste of Truth.
I have to thank you for this.