October 19, 2005


The mythless society: Science has not fulfilled its promise, and new fiction provides no more solace than reality television. We desperately need myth again. Can Canongate's new publishing venture provide it? (Jonathon Keats, November 2005, Prospect)

As Karen Armstrong notes in A Short History of Myth, her smart general introduction to the series, the purpose of myth historically has been “primarily therapeutic.” Since Palaeolithic times, myths have been told, in countless forms, to help people understand the world and to guide them through life. Each society, in every era, has revisited fundamental storylines—from the labours of Heracles to the temptations of Christ—not to provide general amusement, but to serve a specific need. Since the Enlightenment, and especially in this past century, that need has ostensibly been eradicated, our anxieties addressed by science, eliminated by technology. And the mechanism of myth, our facility for make-believe, has been channelled into fiction, some literary, most entertainment: innocuous stuff easily sidelined by fact artfully arranged on page or screen.

If society is cracked, however, then science has not fulfilled its promise, and fiction as currently construed isn’t going to provide any more solace than a new reality television series. If society is cracked then we desperately need myth again. Yet, as the history of myth makes clear, not any old telling will do. Canongate has proclaimed that its Myths series, featuring books by Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson, Donna Tartt and David Grossman, Victor Pelevin and Milton Hatoum, will be “the most ambitious simultaneous worldwide publication ever undertaken.” Far more significant, though, and far more challenging, will be the effort to make myth mythic again.

“Our modern alienation from myth is unprecedented,” Armstrong persuasively argues in her Short History. After several hundred years of disuse, myth has lost its entire context. We encounter myth in the way that we encounter any other archaeological artefact, as point of reference to a remote time and place. When we visit the Parthenon, it isn’t out of respect for the goddess Athene, but out of curiosity about the worship practices of the ancient Greeks, or simply to admire the temple’s spectacular stonework. Likewise, our encounters with Athene in the Odyssey are borne of anthropological interest, or appreciation for Homer’s artistry. We know that the Parthenon was a temple and the Odyssey was a song, yet both are held captive by the past tense. As Armstrong writes, “Reading a myth without the transforming ritual that goes with it is as incomplete an experience as simply reading the lyrics of an opera without the music.” For myth to work mythically, it must be integral to the culture, not an escape from it.

But the problem goes even deeper than that. Our culture is not only mythless, but antagonistic to myth. We believe, falsely, that myth is a primitive worldview, a predecessor to science. In truth, scientific reasoning always coexisted with mythic belief, each serving a separate purpose: learning to hone a spear was an empirical process, but psychological preparation for the hunt was accomplished by the ritual enactment of myth. Crucially, stories of gods and goddesses were taken as true, but not factual. “A game of sacred make-believe,” Armstrong calls it, elegantly capturing a degree of sophistication common even in the Palaeolithic age that we’ve now lost: nobody knew quantum theory 10,000 years ago, but even a caveman could have told you that the uncertainty principle wouldn’t help you to reckon with death.

Every mythic system describes a fall from paradise, yet it was the descent from myth that brought us to our modern existential malaise. In a scientific age, myths in the Bible, such as the story of Adam and Eve, had to be taken as factual or dismissed as fraud. As we came to regard the world in terms of astronomy and biology, to the exclusion of wonderment, the Bible became a textbook, from which could be harvested data bound to conflict with observation. Senselessly, people were compelled to take sides. And it is this needless schism between science and religion that cracked us as a civilisation. If myth is to have any hope of healing us, individually or as a society, it must reach a part of us that neither laboratory nor church now satisfies.

To the contrary, America is quite satisfied, still believing in the One Myth and ordering society around it. It's Europe, which bought into the myth of Reason, that is in existential crisis.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2005 2:22 PM

We also have the myth of the Founding, which works for us.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 19, 2005 3:36 PM

Same Myth:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2005 3:38 PM

All the omnipresent Bush-bashing of recent years, the relentless paranoid conspiracies as creative as they are vile; all the political fantasies surrounding 9/11, America and the Jews; all the relentless spinning and media manipulation that have become so common that one hardly notices them anymore; all the BDS-induced psychosis on a massive scale, especially among the well-educated and long-schooled intelligentsia...

...and Karen Armstrong claims that "our modern alienation from myth is unprecedented"?

Oh, right. Karen Armstrong.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 20, 2005 4:09 AM