Saturday, November 26, 2005

Modern Myth

In the introduction to A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong asserts:

Our modern alienation from myth is unprecedented. In the pre-modern world, mythology was indispensable. It not only helped people to make sense of their lives but also revealed regions of the human mind that would otherwise have remained inaccessible. It was an early form of psychology. The stories of gods or heroes descending into the underworld, threading through labyrinths and fighting with monsters, brought to light the mysterious workings of the psyche, showing people how to cope with their own interior crises.

A few sentences on, she follows with this:

There is never a single orthodox version of a myth. As our circumstances change, we need to tell our stories differently in order to bring out their timeless truth. In this short history of mythology, we shall see that every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions.

I wonder, are we truly experiencing an unprecedented alienation from myth in the modern world? Or are we simply “tell[ing] our stories differently,” perhaps using new mediums to do so thereby making it difficult to recognize them as akin to traditional myths?

This train of thought brought to mind one of my favourite episodes of Northern Exposure. In it, Native American shaman Leonard Quinhagak embarks on a research project. He seeks to expand his practice by learning some of the healing stories of white culture. He wants to tap into the “white unconscious.” He interviews several residents of the town of Cicely but when he asks for stories all that his interviewees can come up with are urban myths: a beehive hairdo infested with spiders, or an amorous couple in a parked car set upon by an assailant with a hook for a hand. Stories, Leonard says, which are for teenagers and which don’t appear to have any healing properties at all. He nearly abandons his project. But then he happens on Ed Chigliak (shaman-in-training and aspiring filmmaker). Ed describes a recent crises in his life with reference to the plot of the movie Citizen Kane. When pressed by Leonard, Ed reveals that he has watched the movie several times and he articulates things that he has learned from it that he has been able to apply in his own life. Leonard concludes that perhaps the healing stories of mainstream American culture can be found in movies.

I don’t think of movies as the sole repository of modern myth, but some seem to serve the functions that Armstrong associates with myth. Perhaps modern myths are disseminated in a myriad of ways and different people are able to access them in different guises.

Then again, perhaps this fragmentation (within cultures, not just across them) undermines the sense of universality required to elevate particular stories to myths. It has been argued that the proliferation of television channels has made it difficult for us even to come together over water cooler conversation. On the day that the most recent Harry Potter book was released, I remember feeling quite awed at the idea of millions of people reading the same book at the same moment. There seemed to me to be some magic in that. But that is a very rare occurrence. If we seldom share cultural touchstones in fragmented modern societies, what are the prospects for enduring myths?

What do you think? Are we hopelessly alienated from myth? If not, where would you locate modern myths?

I'm curious to see how Armstrong addresses this question in the final chapter of A Short History of Myth (“The Great Western Transformation (c. 1500 to 2000)”). I will read on.


Chris Borowski said...

Interesting point about movies and myths. But couldn't we cast the net even wider. I have not read the book, but I'd imagine that one of the main purposes of a myth is to explain the universe to ourselves at a level we can understand. Hasn't science, in some ways, replaced this? And, as with traditional myths in the old days, most of us simply accept scientific explanations as true. And some are simply theories. Think of Big Bang. Just a different story.

OK, OK, of course I am not saying that I don't believe in scientific explanations and that approach to inquiry about the world. I'm simply saying that modern science has taken on some of the key roles of the old myths.

marlyat2 said...

I was thinking about how Tolkien has swept the popular laurels (as, for example, the British vote for "Author of the Century," a thing that irritated a good many critics) of late... It's hard to claim that his immersion in stories and legends told in Old Norse and Old English and Old Icelandic, as well as his Christian foundation, isn't evident. It's hard to say that it isn't attractive to readers (or movie-goers.) Doesn't the "return" of the "king" appeal to fans on religious and mythological grounds--stirring up the power associated with both Christ and the second coming and with Arthur, the once and future king, and the holy grail?

I also note that my children are very interested in all sorts of mythologies. Just yesterday one asked me if Hera helped Jason and the Argonauts...

So I dunno. Perhaps we're not quite so ignorant of religion and myth after all.