Sunday, August 26, 2007

Myth, Mythic Literacy, and Contemporary Culture

I recently posted a piece, “Uses of Myth,” in which I discussed a recent essay on Reginald Shepherd’s Blog, “Mythology in Poetry.” I mentioned Shepherd’s discussion of different modes of utilizing mythology in poetry, and I also discussed ways in which myth is used in examples of other sorts of literary writing.

A key consideration in all this is the relationship between myth and contemporary culture, especially contemporary discourse and shared cultural models or knowledge. Consider again a key paragraph I previously quoted from Shepherd’s essay:

“Mythology can serve several functions in poetry. Myths are interesting in their own right as culturally resonant, compelling, amusing, frightening, or just intriguing stories, an engaging realm to explore. They are a reservoir of cultural knowledge, hopes, fears, and passions, of archetypal figures and situations, an inexhaustibly rich lode of charged materials that each poetic generation can mine and remake. Much of Western literature is built on allusions to mythology, particularly to Classical mythology and to Judaeo-Christian mythology, and much of it doesn’t make sense without knowledge of those myths. Myth can also be used to place one’s own experiences, thoughts, and feelings in a larger context, opening them up to realms beyond the individual, making them less purely personal and idiosyncratic, as Louise Glück does in Meadowlands, in which she treats her own divorce in the terms of the myth of Odysseus. One may not have access to Glück’s personal experience, or even care about it, but anyone has access to the stories in which she couches that experience in that book, and the myth opens up beyond the merely private.”

I received an email from a reader of my previous post that essentially raised the question of whether a lack of religious literacy (and I’d expand that more broadly to "mythic literacy") is a problem here.

Certainly for the sorts of literature Shepherd or I were discussing, lack of literacy in or awareness of the myth being alluded to, relived, or revised, can present problems of comprehension, though to varying degrees. Again, “Much of Western literature is built on allusions to mythology, particularly to Classical mythology and to Judaeo-Christian mythology, and much of it doesn’t make sense without knowledge of those myths.”

Take the four prose examples I presented. Even without prior knowledge of The Epic of Gilgamesh or The Iliad, Mitchell’s and Baricco’s texts should make sense to any reader, as they present new versions of those tales. Prior knowledge enriches the experience, but isn’t necessary – I’d even say that anyone unfamiliar with the originals would be well served by Mitchell’s Gilgamesh and Baricco’s An Iliad as jumping off points.

I said that parts of Delaney’s Tales of Neveryon present a complex instance of using myth turned scholarly theory turned back to myth. The section of the book in question is certainly most fully experienced with awareness of the Freudian/Lacanian and Malinowskian allusions, but it probably makes for an interesting narrative even without.

Atwood’s Penelopiad is, I think, a different story – it’s presented in a way that I don’t think any intelligent reader would be too troubled following the story, but at virtually every turn, the narrative’s impact largely depends on simultaneous awareness of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca in The Odyssey.

This is, of course, an issue for allusion in general. Any creative activity utilizing allusion, whether it be poetry, prose, ethnography or other scholarly writing, visual art, or music, by definition relies on prior knowledge of what’s being alluded to for the full experience to register. Shostakovich’s Symphony #15, with its musical allusions to Rossini and Wagner, depends upon a listener familiar with the canon of classical music in order to register the full experience of the music (though a listener not familiar with the allusions would still experience something – perhaps something quite enjoyable or profound to them).

Is there a problem of “mythic illiteracy” in contemporary culture?

In one way yes. There’s broad awareness in the U.S. of a de-emphasis in public education on topics like the arts, religion, myth, and the classics, or increasingly any number of topics not emphasized on standardized tests. (See this news article. This is simply one article focusing on “religious literacy,” but it’s common to encounter accounts of the alleged ignorance or lack of literacy of Americans on a wide variety of topics.)

It’s possible to overdo this, though. I’d say that it’s not that Americans are less literate or knowledgeable with regard to myth, religion, the arts, etc. It’s more that highly educated individuals are less literate in such fields than highly educated individuals in the past, and moderately educated individuals are less literate about such topics than their corresponding peers of the past – and that’s something to be concerned about.

At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that now and in the recent past, a much higher percentage of people in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world have the opportunity to become at least moderately well educated – so that aggregate awareness of mythic, artistic, or other allusion may be at an all time high. Throughout the 19th century and through much of the 20th century, many people in the U.S. were either not served at all or were ill-served by public education, something more strikingly the case for some sub-sets of the population if you take into account social factors like race, gender, or class. Public libraries were unheard of until the late 19th century, and as an interesting study by Paul Sturges, “The Public Library and Reading by the Masses,” makes clear, for much of their early history served mainly a very small, highly literate and highly educated elite.

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