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Monday, 21 May 2007

Myths : Personal and Public

The May edition of "Acumen", a quarterly periodical of New Poetry and Reviews, carried the response to a call the editor had sent out for the views of poets on the question of whether we (poets, presumably) still need myths. Seventeen, mainly short, replies which occasioned a change of title from "Myths: do we still need them?" to "Myths: why we still need them".

It seems to me that if we are to talk about myths and their place in the creation of art works, then there are three distinct classifications of myth that we might consider: there are the living myths that are the basis of our world's faiths and cultures, vibrant influences in the lives of those who hold them; there are what many would call the dead myths of past faiths and cultures, those of ancient Rome, Greece, China, Egypt or wherever: and there are those that for me at any rate are responsible for the most profoundly resonating works of contemporary art, the private and personal myths that the artist has hammered out for his or herself. I am thinking. for example, of the poems of William Blake and his myth of Albion (and would The Women's Institute sing his Jerusalem as lustily - I use the word advisedly - if they knew what the words meant? ), of Stanley Spencer's myth of Christ coming to Cookham (a myth of the future), of Antony Gormley's sculpture (see previous post), of the "Crow" myths of Ted Hughes and of the myths of absence in the poems of John Burnside, but I could go on indefinitely. You, no doubt could add as many more.

It was not always so. Once the most profoundly resonating myths would have been those that were shared by the vast majority, the myths that had to do with a shared faith. Why the change? There are many reasons. Some no doubt have to do with the cult of individuality and personality, but perhaps also it is that, whereas once the artist would have been a man (usually a man) of faith who just happened to be an artist by trade, working in an artistic tradition which incorporated the shared faith of his people, today he (or she) is more likely to be an artist who just happens to hold a particular faith. One other possibility I have already mentioned: that of the artist who has forged for her or himself a personal and private myth. Where that is the case I often think I hear the hammer blows of that forging resounding in the resulting works.

One of the great myths has to do with descent and rising again. We find it in the Orpheus narrative and, of course, in the Gospels of Jesus Christ. When our western cultures first signed up to the latter, the stage was set for a rich development of a powerful myth that could have taken the new learning which was to come effortlessly in its stride. Science and technology (which it helped to midwife and nuture by insisting that the world was planned, that there was order, logic and explanations to be found) would have fallen into place alongside the ancient elements. There were perhaps three reasons why this did not happen: the obsession of academia with Greco-Roman culture and its myths, the insistence of the Roman Catholic Church that only the inner cabal of Pope and cardinals could interpret the myth to an ignorant populace (which they did without ever allowing the slightest breath of change), and the insistence of the Protestant churches that the Holy texts were immutable. In the face of these three stone walls what should have been a poetic drama featuring the representative of both God and man, the folk hero, achieving for the race the potential of the race, became instead an unimaginative stasis, a drying-up of what Coleridge referred to as "the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment".

The personal myth (think of the myths surfacing in the poems of Edwin Muir) and the "borrowed" myth (as in the use made by Seamus Heaney of Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, the bog people and the Sweeney myth) often have much in common with dream - as do all myths in their vibrant days. It is the dream that provides the wind in their sails. Neither scientific analysis by itself, devoid now of any link with faith or myth, nor philosophical discourse, can do full justice to either the great verities of life or the eternal clash of goood and evil. People's fears and hopes, real or imagined, are often irrational to the extent that the hopes cannot be channelled nor the fears assuaged by the wholly rational. But myths are not the product (as that last statement may appear to suggest) of primitive or deranged minds (not even of irrational minds), but rather the prism in which the rays of the natural world and those of the the transcendent show themselves in their true colours. As is well known, cultures from man's first post-tribal times to the present day, and from all round the world, have independently found for themselves myths which in some cases are identical in their essentials and if not identical, bear strong family resemblances both to each other and to dream. But the dream may die, for though myths embody timeless truths, they are not themselves timeless. They are continually being created (think only of the Faust myth and The Lord of the Rings) and like all created, living things must be enabled to change and adapt in order to hold on to life. If that is denied them, they will cease to be that which a myth must be: the essence of a profound truth concerning the human psyche or condition, embedded in a story that makes it usable and memorable.

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