Myth Introduction

Knatz.com / Teaching / Scholarship / Myth /
@ K. 1999 02 11

Our myths tell the truth.

2014 02 06 I wish truthful interpretation were common.

pk recommends that you think of myth as a kind of algebra. In algebra “x” stands for “any”. In understanding society see that “Jesus” may stand for …

any martyr
anyone railroaded by the hierarchy in power

That “Macbeth” may stand for

any cheating usurper.

Now read the Bible the same way you read Grimms’ Tales:

Cinderella, the wolf: think any.
Caesar, Pilat, Barabas: think any.

And in history, politics:

Nixon: think any lying tyrant, any puppet misleading who pulls his strings.

Sure Julius, Augustus … Caesar had power: but see the power behind the power: it’s always a group of entities: then it was Cruassus and Pompey (and their ilk); now it’s this corporation and that corporation: or that corporation and this corporation.

Lt. Calley: think any lying invading murderer, whether his shirt is brown, black, or olive.
The Temple, the Church: think any power center, any institution where Macbeth’s minions determine facts, establish evidence …
Think Congress, think Harvard, think the New York Times.

resume, 1999:

The institutions pretend to serve truth while actually making sure that unflattering (that is to say, truthful, non-subserviant) interpretations, do not prosper. The priests of the temple suborned the soldiers to torture the man-god …
The professors, the doctors … do the same to the secular man-gods.

God would weep if he had any tears.

I was about to add the word myth to my Glossary when it occurred to me that concept is so multiple, so complex, so deep (and so much up my alley) that it deserves a directory of its own.

I’ll merely kick it off with a brief introduction and a sketch of what I intend it to become.

Fiction & Non-Fiction

Those with liberal arts educations may well be startled to notice again and again what seems to be the most current use of the word: “It’s a myth that …” Meaning something not true: myth as error, falsehood, if not outright stupid falsehood. At the library you’ll find books sorted into “fiction” and “non-fiction.” In one household the Bible might be on the shelf with “history” books and the I Ching on a shelf with pamphlets on UFO abductions. In another household the Bible will be on the same shelf as the Iliad. That or another household might have the I Ching, pamphlets on UFO abductions, and Harry Houdini’s exposé’s of séances on the same shelf. Another might place the Bible next to Tolstoy or Shakespeare. Is anyone, including the library, “right”?

In Sebring, Florida as in New York City, if I say “Greek mythology,” more than a few people will understand I’m referring to Zeus (and Achilles), Athena (and Jason, Medea, Oedipus … and Sophocles, etc.). If I refer to “Christian mythology,” I’m likely to get a black eye pronto, twice if not five times more likely in Sebring than in New York City. For much of my own life I regarded the Bible as Truth: indeed, as more than Truth: revealed truth, unimpeachable truth … That’s been the training of lots of us. Now I see that it has truth in it. (So does the phone book.) It’s also full of errors. (So too the phone book.) I also see it as history, story telling, fiction, science fiction, folk wisdom, old wives tales, evolution (multiple evolutions) … I also see it as myth: myth in its degenerated modern sense of falsehood — and — myth in its classical sense of cultural truth: truth beyond fact: the essence of a world view.

The function of myth is to tell the truth:
so simply, so blatantly, that no one gets it.

Humans use myth to digest experience,
then humans use myth to bypass experience.

That latter sense I don’t just reserve for ancient writings and beliefs: I apply it routinely to literature that gets me where I live (or better yet — moves me to a new place where I dwell from then on). (Robert Frost distinguished good literature from great by observing that good literature makes us feel [paraphrase] That’s just what I think; whereas great literature makes us feel I never thought that before but should think that from now on. [note] Indeed, as I believe I’ve already said at this site, I try myself to write fiction that will have mythic stature in the classical sense. Resemblances you may find between my plot and “character” selections to the Bible to Milton, to Dante … are not likely to be accidental. Since my writing has thus far been too much like Bishop Berkeley’s tree falling in the forest (few to none hearing it), let me get right back to established classics. Hamlet: if you ran the library, would you put Shakespeare with the fiction or non-fiction? Fiction? What about the history plays? Julius Caesar? Henry IV? If you ran the library during Watergate, where would you put the New York Times? What the White House offered as “truth” at noon, it had to replace with a new truth by three: the best its staff of writers could come up with (which was never very good at all).

Consider a history book. Say one on the Civil War. Let’s say you’re a civil war buff and consider yourself something of a gourmet of such histories. Let’s say that your most honest appraisal of the particular book is “authoritative.” Now: you consider the books contents to be “true”: it’s history, good, responsible history. Would you then say that there’s more truth in it about the human condition than in Hamlet?

Let’s try something contemporary: Catch-22. If you want to know what the army is really like, will you read the newspaper? An army circular? Military regulations? Or Joseph Heller? How about John le Carré? Mario Puzo? The Little Drummer Girl. The Fourth K. You want to know what power is really like?

I’m discussing an area where misunderstanding is too often the norm. Let me emphasize: these decisions cannot be assigned. It doesn’t matter what your English teacher says: or what such and such a critic writes: you have to see it. My list need not be your list.

Let me also interject: a work being fiction does not give it status in the classical myth sense; people have to see the truth in it. Different ages will have different views just as different individuals do. (One trouble with something like the Bible (Hamlet too for that matter), is that it’s assigned so early (or its stature is so strongly given), that no one can exercise anything like “normal” objectivity with regard to it.

One more example: one where both senses of myth mix freely. In Stephen King’s Carrie, his protagonist finds herself bleeding in the shower. Her school mates torment the retard, terrified in discovering her first period. Their mistake, since she can set things on fire just by being mad enough. The novel is one of many masterpieces by the shameless millionaire. (The movie was great too: genuinely, despite being by another whore.) The human relations, the psychological depth is the equal of anything. (If the relationship between Danny and his father in The Shining doesn’t resonate your heart strings, you don’t have any.) But apart from what makes it great, what’s the novel about? Bullshit. Delusions of grandeur and power, but reified by the author. Hamlet pairs maturity with immaturity and puts them in conflict — within one individual (and his culture!) Decision and indecision. A willingness to sacrifice self for justice restrained by the natural will to preserve the self. Loyalty and treason. Treason to treason restrained by loyalty. … Where’s the bullshit? There isn’t any.

Here followed K.’s Myth Menu and Myth Scrapbook; different format here at the K. blog.

Notes

Robert Frost:

2005 11 23 That’s why I’m so pleased with a comment at my IonaArc blog. The post, Woody Allen Was Wrong, I’ve duplicated here: with the comment, which I also cite here: the reader said:
“I really like this statement. … while I will never remember it well enough to quote it, it will color my thinking from now on.”

Scholarship

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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