Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Deep Impact

In the recent past, the word “myth” was used to denote a story that isn’t true, usually an “unscientific” superstition. But when Picasso said that “art is a lie that tells the truth,” he describes the mysterious power of imagination and story. Fiction and myth tell many truths on many levels. (And it’s now become fairly fashionable to point out instances where old stories or myths, like many American Indian stories, apparently describe actual historical events, like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but in metaphorical language.)

Myth uses the language of symbol and what Carl Jung called “archetypal,” or relating to deep forms in the psyche. We respond to archetypal images instinctively—“They impress, influence, and fascinate us,” Jung writes. Archetypes ”can therefore manifest itself spontaneously anywhere, at any time.”

When a particular mythology is truly alive in a culture, those symbols and archetypes are felt, not necessarily noticed. And even the storytellers are only partly aware of them. The unconscious may be less than conscious, yet provides us with intuitions and insights and information that usually escape consciousness. That’s where myth operates.

Yet myths are primarily stories, set in a particular time and place, with an audience usually of a particular culture. Those first audiences understand the nuances and details that often are lost on later audiences, or on people in different cultures. The stories we’re told in school are great myths may seem confusing, even nonsensical (so the way “myth” is used to mean something fantastically untrue). When there’s little to relate to, they even seem boring. We can’t figure out why they’re supposed to be so great.

But to understand how those first audiences responded to these stories, you only have to listen to fans talk about Star Trek. They know the meaning of the smallest references, the history of the characters and their relationships, what the technologies do and don’t do, and so on. The Star Trek universe is alive to them, just as the mythic worlds were alive to their first audiences.

The experience of early audiences to old myths was probably even richer, especially in traditional cultures that changed slowly, for their lives and ways likely weren’t very different from those in the story. They also probably understood the symbols and the meaning of behavior better, because those symbols and those clues to behavior were still alive.

Mythical stories are full of wonders, rich characters and breathtaking plots. Within them is comedy, tragedy, romantic love, melancholy, hilarity, villainy and nobility, earthy events, and mystery and magic.

They are about the great mysteries of life and death, the questions of will and freedom and fate in the lives of gods and humans, and the roles and stations in life in a given society. They may speak a rich language of suggestion, allusion, symbol, metaphor and ambiguity.

They can be about creation, destruction, the human virtues and, quite often, human weaknesses that lead to sorry ends. Through their explorations, both outer and inner, they are eventually about what it means to be human. This is another identifying feature of Star Trek. It seemed to be Gene Roddenberry’s chief obsession, and his insistence on specifically exploring this question in the early episodes of Star Trek and The Next Generation, set the template for the whole Star Trek saga.

It’s no wonder that Star Trek fascinates those who study mythology, as literature and as psychology. Myths speak to the soul about the soul, and about the soul of the world.

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