Monday, May 12, 2014

Myth For Our Time

Prometheus' kryptonite is the fact he needs a liver to live.  Image from PulpDen.
In a recent episode of Entitled Opinions, Stanford professors Robert P. Harrison and David Lummus discuss the enduring power of Greek myth.  The series feels like the intellectual equivalent of one of those Food Network shows where the chef-cum-hero pads around the alleys of a European city, huddling in cramped kitchens with rotund celebrated chefs before sitting nonchalantly down to plates of photo-perfect food the viewer herself cannot ever taste.  It's enormously fun, but it's voyeuristic; fun because you know how much better it would be to be there in the room, talking (or sitting at the dinner table, eating).  Consider this post me rudely butting into that conversation.

One thing Harrison and Lummus discuss is how these Greek heroes, and the stories about them, stand as enduring archetypes which we can use to understand our own lives.  Mercury, the ever-shifting messenger of the gods, promiscuous with ideas, embodies one facet of an artist.  Hephaestus, the basement-dwelling, lame perfectionist huddling over his work, embodies another.  Saturn, the world-weary, morose navel-gazing Olymipian embodies a third.  In each myth we see reflections of ourselves.  The whole gamut of ancient texts stands as a rich and 'vast encyclopedia of story and character.'

But why, I wondered, do we think the myth-cache of the Greeks is so special?  Harrison makes a plausible argument: The myths that have survived up until our day are surely the most resonant, the truthiest, because they are the ones that were good enough to survive.  The crappier myths were not retold, they were not written down, they were not copied from papyrus to vellum to paper to Kindle to Disney movie.  Perhaps, Harrison argues, these myths come straight from pre-history--and so represent a best-of collection from the morning of humanity.

This is plausible.  But I also find it plausible that we privilege Greek myths, in part, because they have been privileged in the past.  A hundred years ago, familiarity with Greek myth was a signal that you were familiar with Greek (and Latin)--languages whose facility was a mark of having enough money to learn the Classics.  References in literature and conversation to the incestuous pantheon of Greco-Roman gods and demi-gods served as much as motions to eternal archetypes as they did to crassly proclaim 'Hey!  I know that Aurora means dawn in Greek because I have enough money and time to learn Greek!'  And those who nodded along were nodding along with the eternal archetype of Aurora as much as they showing that they too could afford the books, the tutors and the candles necessary to make an off-handed allusion to Aurora.

And I worry that giving too much credence to the myths of the past ignores the power and the resonance of modern myths.

Our modern myths are comic book heroes.  Our modern archetypes are the character classes from video games.  Our demi-gods are cartoon characters.  These are stories that are told and retold, that set our imaginations on fire, that force us to tear stories apart, to sprinkle them around like confetti.  In the same way that Italo Calvino finds a kind of self-definition in the ancient gods, surely most of my generation have described themselves as a Ninja Turtle.  Just as Jung's archetypes may be ways of explaining otherwise ineffable human qualities, so to do our choice between the triad of warrior, wizard or rogue in the character creation screens of video games.   Just as the ancient Greeks riffed off stories of Orpheus, we now write spin-offs about the home life of Cyclops and Jean Grey.

The heroes of genre fiction have often been connected with their mythical predecessors.  I have written before about some of the similarities between modern superhero origin stories and ancient myth.  Superman, the first modern superhero, was inspired by biblical heroes, especially Samson.  J. R. R. Tolkien, the eminent grand-pappy of the entire fantasy genre, described his work as Mythopoeia, the creation of a mythology.  He even wrote a poem on it.

And now that we have endless reboots of middle-aged super-heroes, endless forums of fan-fiction lovingly detailing B-side adventures and off-canon romances, home-brew RPGs, and cosplay conventions--surely this shows the creative power of modern myth.  We don't just sit there in our proverbial basements, passively consuming the archetypes laid down for us by the Greeks.  We create as we consume--or at least some of us do.

I don't want to come off as too glib here.  Many may think that works of genre fiction are just mindless husks of entertainment, with extended crowd-pleasing action sequences and focus-grouped anti-heroes, and so no match for the timeless eloquence of the Greeks.  I concede that much of genre fiction is dull, paint-by-numbers adventure.  But so, too, was ancient myth.  The Tale of Sinuhe, an ancient Egyptian masterpiece written nearly 40 centuries ago, was long a favorite of scribes.  What sections did they choose to copy again and again?  Why--the action sequences, of course.

Another 20 centuries on, this scene may well be placed beside Ulysses and Prometheus: