Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What’s Mything in the Present?

What can mythology mean when it’s applied to the future? It depends on what mythologies represent in the present.

Some believe myths are to cultures what dreams are to individuals. The literary critic Northrup Frye says this explicitly: “Ordinary life forms a community, and literature is among other things an art of communication, so it forms a community, too,” he writes in "The Educated Imagination." “In ordinary life we fall into a private and separate subconscious every night, where we reshape the world according to a private and separate imagination. Underneath literature there’s another kind of subconscious, which is social and not private, a need for forming a community around certain symbols….This is the myth-making power of the human mind, which throws up and dissolves one civilization after another.”

But if myth is a reflection, an artistic retelling of a culture’s dreams, it later functions as a kind of guide. We emulate heroes of our myths. There’s a fine example of how this works in a Star Trek novel, “Gulliver’s Fugitives” by Keith Sharee. On a world where products of the imagination are illegal because stories are not factual, a rebel group of readers and storytellers hides in caverns below the surface. But these people do more than read and memorize the old texts to preserve them, as in Ray Bradbury’s classic story, “Fahrenheit 451.” Each becomes a character, a mythic hero. Their leader is Odysseus. He takes on the characteristics of the Greek hero, and Counsellor Troi spots him going through rituals to reinforce his identity as Odysseus, though he was a minor government functionary in his previous life. (It’s title also refers to one of the mythological frameworks consciously used in Star Trek, Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” But more about that later.)

For it isn’t just Star Trek fans who emulate their heroes, who even don their costumes and speak their words. This in one way or another is how myth works in many cultures. Nor are the Star Trek fan fictions something new under the sun; ordinary Greeks told each other stories about Odysseus that Homer never wrote.

That's really what all the attention to "franchises" is eventually about, and the expectations of merchandizing and business synergy: the hope that the core story takes on a life of its own as a living mythology. As creator of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" Matt Groening observed in an interview, "Audiences expand the mythologies of a creator's world." His first example is Star Trek.

Broadly speaking, myths are stories that help people find meaning in their day-to-day lives. It may be the arc of the story—some people believe a governing American myth is what’s called the Horatio Alger story: “Strive and Succeed.” (The H.A. stories themselves are more complicated, and more like mythic stories and fairy tales; the hero often succeeds by a fortunate encounter, with the help of a mentor, a king or a Merlin of big business.) Or it may be a figure in the story we recognize, that defines our view or relationship with, for instance, the Mother or Father, and gives a resonance, a depth it didn’t seem to have. It may simply validate what we felt but didn’t realize.

But the most familiar response is emulating the hero. It doesn’t have to be the singular or main hero, either. Lots of mythic tales are about groups of heroes, each with a special skill. There are a lot of mythic tales in various cultures that are their versions of the Fantastic Four or the crew of the Enterprise.

Mythic heroes inspire people to emulate their qualities or some aspect of their behavior in their own lives. Someone doesn’t have to dress up as Odysseus or Athena (or even in the soldier's uniform) to emulate bravery, and they don’t have to go to war or the hunt in order to be brave in their lives. Just as it’s not necessary to wear Vulcan ears to examine whether words match actions, and consequences match intentions “logically,” or to honor diversity. And no one has to wait for 24th century medicine or society to learn from watching Dr. Beverly Crusher how a woman might handle being a professional, even a doctor, while being a mother on her own.

Myth provides us with archetypal characters we can use to define ourselves as our age and roles change. You can start by identifying with Harry Potter or Herminie Granger, and later identify with Dumbledore. In Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry personified aspects of himself and the idealized self in Kirk, Spock and Bones. Later he more consciously reflected on his feelings and aspiration as a boy with Wesley Crusher, and his older self in Captain Picard, a combination Hero and Wise Old Man.

In the blizzard and excessive speed of everyday life, beset by time and emotional demands, in a culture that offers only suspicious guidance, we need to find our heroes. "One must think like a hero,” wrote May Sarton, “to behave like a merely decent human being."

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