Monday, August 20, 2007

Uses of Myth

On his blog, Reginald Shepherd has posted an essay on “Mythology in Poetry” that will be of interest to anyone interested in myth and/or poetry and literature in general.

The following paragraph is from Shepherd’s post:

“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.”

The following paragraph is from a later point in Shepherd’s essay:

“There are three main ways in which writers engage with myth, though of course these modes aren’t mutually exclusive, and all can overlap with one another. A writer can retell the myth, staying within the terms of the myth and basically giving another version of what’s already been written and handed down. This is, from my perspective, the least interesting way to approach myth—it adds little new, doesn’t explore very much or investigate or question. A writer can relive the myth, entering into it to explore a moment or a character, perhaps opening up an underdeveloped element in the myth, while still accepting the overall terms of the myth. Or a writer can revise the myth, questioning its terms, bringing out what it represses or excludes, giving voice to those whom it silences, giving presence to those it makes invisible. The German critic Walter Benjamin called this reading against the grain. This approach has been especially popular with women writers exploring and interrogating the role of women in classical myth, who are so often objects but not subjects of desire, spoken of endlessly but rarely getting to speak on their own behalf.”

I’d simply add that each of these ways of engaging with myth can also be found with other literary and artistic endeavors. Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh is a retelling of The Epic of Gilgamesh and other texts telling the Gilgamesh myth, it’s a new version of the myth – it doesn’t add anything new to the myth, but it is a very nice retelling.

Alessandro Baricco’s An Iliad seems to me both a retelling and a reliving of Homer’s Iliad, (see my earlier post, “Troy and the Purposes of Art”) – the written text is mainly a new version of the tale, while the series of public readings associated with its initial publication was an intentional reliving of the orality of the original sources of Homer’s written text, and also, in the context of debates over the war in Iraq, involved an enactment of the text with a differential emphasis, enacting a text that still entails a glorification and aestheticization of war but which also emphasizes the way in which the text is doing so.

Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, like Glück’s Meadowlands mentioned by Shepherd, revises the tale by telling it primarily from Penelope’s point of view and perhaps even more radically by introducing the voices of the twelve maids hung by Odysseus upon his return.

In a fantasy novel of potential interest to anthropologists, Tales of Neveryon, Samuel R. Delaney engages in a still more radical exercise of transforming myth that had been changed into theory back into something like myth. A character living on an island chain (pretty clearly modeled on Malinowski’s account of the Trobriands – which has taken on something like mythic quality [in a true Lévi-Straussian structuralist sense] among anthropologists) hypothesizes about the role played by certain objects exchanged among men (essentially kula items) in producing their social roles as masculine and powerful, reproducing the Lacanian recoding of the Freudian Oedipal narrative of the phallus, castration anxiety, and the Oedipus Complex. (Any worries that I might be over-interpreting Delaney’s fantasy novel should be allayed by the quotations from Derrida, Foucault, et al. that begin each chapter. Delaney clearly knows exactly what he’s doing, and it’s both insightful and hilarious.)


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