“Myths of the Near Future”: Contributing to a Modern Mythology

Ruth Hartle

In Kathy Acker's novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, one young female character turns to the other and tells her that 'myths mean something'. It quickly becomes obvious that she doesn't know what, but she knows that they matter. This paper will seek to explore the concept of modern literature as modern myth, using the example of American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and the role of the author as myth-maker.

For modern readers, a 'myth' may difficult to define at all, let alone to explain. Surely, in the age of “download”, where television is privileged over literature by many, when you can receive gratification before you even know you're wanting, we've moved away from myth. Who needs a story to tell them how to live, anyway? That's what school is for, isn't it?

It is not, and never was, as simple as that. In her book A Short History of Myth , Karen Armstrong describes human beings as 'meaning seeking creatures'. This notion echoes Joseph Campbell, who argued that we are at birth cast adrift in a great sea, a darkness that we are unable to fathom, let alone actually navigate, alone. We must find something to carry us. We must find a structure to cling to, that will, in time, come to sustain us. Myth is just such a structure. Without it, we are 'brain injured' , floating on the surface of the world, and unable to enter in. Quite literally, if read properly, myth should provide a map, 'a field in which to locate ourselves' (Armstrong). Without myth, we're just lost.

Not all literature is mythic. It isn't as simple as drawing some kind of literary Venn diagram. What we have to do is become savy to the language of myth; know what we're looking for. A myth should be somehow instructive on a spiritual level. We should gain from it some knowledge, some guidance on how to live. A map, remember. A craft to bear us. Elliot wrote about “fragments…shored up against [his] ruin”. A good myth guides and protects, while a good story merely entertains. A myth should save.

There has always been good business in rewriting myths, reinterpreting them to “speak to the new conditions” (Armstrong). A modern reader is unable to accept the same things as an Ancient Greek, for example. While the Greeks might have been content to see their heroes as pawns of their gods, a modern reader is going to have some pointed questions for Helen of Troy. Tastes change, and so do belief structures. In part, this is what I'm trying to address in my own book. In retelling myths, stories and historical events from the perspective of female witnesses, I'm hoping to gain a new, more modern perspective on their experience. Campbell noted that the 'new' mythology was, in fact, the 'old' mythology in new clothes, “poetically renewed in terms neither of a remembered past nor a projected future, but of now.” Myth is of the moment. Myth is as much a part of us as breathing, and there is no clear distinction between the modern novel as myth and myth's more familiar forms. We must take our myths where we find them.

A strong example of the novel as myth is American Gods by Neil Gaiman . Preceded by the disclaimer that 'only the gods are real', the book plays out as a regular Urban fantasy novel, featuring a pleasing Everyman-type hero in the form of Shadow, an ex-con who is employed by the mysterious Mr Wednesday, and taken on an increasingly strange and demanding journey. Campbell talks about the hero's journey as being easily divided into three stages; 'separation', 'initiation' and 'return'. Separation occurs when Shadow is taken into Mr Wednesday's service and away from the life that he knew before; initiation is the moment when Shadow takes up the vigil for Wednesday (who we by then know as the Norse God, Odin) and hangs on the World Tree for nine days; return is when Shadow returns to being 'Mike Ainsel' in Lakeside and finds the body in the clunker under the ice, returning a century's worth of lost children to their mourning town. Shadow's struggle with faith, with belief, could be seen as emblematic of modern society's struggle with the same. The reader may see themselves in Shadow. Christopher Stoker relates the words 'hero' and 'heroine' to the modern word 'heir', implying that the hero is someone who was born to 'take on the torch of life from those who came before'. This etymological hunch is particularly satisfying when applied to Shadow, who starts off the perfect Everyman, and, by the end of the novel, is the very opposite of that; he is literally forced to inherit his destiny by a Goddess. Thus, one instance of how American Gods can be read as a myth is as a sort of blueprint of how we can inherent a previous generation's greatness; of how we can become our own heroes, and walk on the path revealed by the light which we, ourselves, cast.

In his notebook, Mr Ibis writes, “The important thing to understand about American history…is that it is fictional, a charcoal sketched simplicity for the children, or the easily bored.” (80). Just as the myth of the hero often becomes a myth of the homeland, so American Gods can be read as a myth of America. Lois Parkinson Zamora notes that “[America] is a place without a past, a place with only a future”. The old gods in American Gods are going to war so that they will not be replaced by new ones; “gods of credit-card and freeway, of internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon." (118). The America presented in the novel is in the midsts of a crisis of mythological identity. Mr Wednesday tells Shadow that “[America] is the only country in the world…that worries about what it is.” A country which was designated 'The New World' while already inhabited by indigenous population was always going to have problems. Geography is not wiped clean. 'Old' worlds become 'new' worlds, and things must end, before they can begin again. Reinvention must occur. In American Gods, there are a muddle of myths, European and African, myths from behind the iron curtain, and, in the end, Shadow dreams of Thunderbirds. The old myths are always there, waiting. We just have to have the patience to tease them out. “Myth is moss,” says Joseph Campbell, and America has long been a society in transition, obsessed with change, striving for betterment. A rolling stone gathers no moss, and myth is hard to come by for a society that never stops moving towards the future. The America that Gaiman creates is not a good place for gods. It is a place striving for something just beyond its reach. It is a country in the midsts of becoming while, all the time, disappointing the people who were born there, and fought with the spectre of the American Dream all of their lives. For some people, for people like Shadow, America was never a new world at all. And this is the myth of America; that there is a new world, a shining city, that things are easy on the other side of the ocean. On the other side of the ocean, you turn around and all that you see is more sea, and you have no map to bring you home again. We lose our maps when we lose our myths.

In terms of my own work, provisionally titled Our Lives Apart, I'm dealing in retold stories. I'm working with the myth of the Heroine. In Myth , Ruthven states, “You are free to invent your own myths…or you can pretend to set the record straight”. What I'm aiming for with this collection is a mixture of the two; as a young woman, these stories, stories which I didn't always know before I started my research, are my heritage. They're my myths, and it's collections like this one which record them so that, one day, I might be able to take on the heroine mantle myself, or give to my daughter.

“Myths are permanent…They deal with love; with war; with sin; with tyranny; with courage; with fate.” There's no getting rid of myths, so you might as well work with them. The biggest mistake would be to assume that, when we say 'myth', we are exclusively talking about Medusa or Eurydice, Helen of Troy or Guinevere or Isis. Your myths are where you find them. In Our Lives Apart, I'm trying to find myths that apply to me. Campbell defined the functions of a properly operating mythology as awakening and maintaining a sense of awe in the individual, offering an image of the universe cohesive with “the knowledge of the time”, validating and supporting the 'norms' of the current moral order, and acting as a guide to the future. A properly functioning mythology, therefore, needs to be all accessible, and it needs to be something of which we are not ashamed. In terms of mythology, sometimes, retelling is not enough. Sometimes, you have to set fire to things so that you can pick through the ashes and present something new. A reinvention of an old story. I love these women. I love these stories. I love the idea of Eurydice in her wedding dress, and Eve at a garden show, Marilyn Monroe fifty storeys high in Bangkok and Anne Bonney, star of many seas. The myths grew old with men in the foreground, but women inherit their own stories. No more bystanders. No more trail of dead girls. No more nymphs turning into trees, and no more passive wives. Enough, now. Enough. This is not how the world is, not for me. I need strong women. I need women who travel, who explore, who discover and dissent and design. I need a woman in possession of her own story. I need myths about women who shout, and that is what Our Lives Apart is all about. “The tale is the map is the territory,” writes Mr Ibis, who was once the God Thoth, but is now the owner of a slightly down at the heel Funeral Parlour. The story is the myth which becomes the map. And it's everywhere. You just need to know where to look.

In conclusion, I want to share something. The world is singing to itself. The earth makes a constant, musical hum, “countless notes completely imperceptible to the human ear, like a giant, exceptionally quiet symphony” . Scientists discovered it, and they're monitoring it, but they can't explain it, not yet. Campbell called myth 'the song', the one that's always in the back ground. The one that guides us, and inspires us. The voice of God, perhaps. There is a speech in American Gods in which Sam Black-Crow, Shadow's sometime road-trip companion lists all of the things that she believes in in order to get herself through the day. More than once, Shadow is told to 'believe everything'. You have to be open and receptive to myth, in order for it to function, and you have to believe that myth is everywhere, even in that book you bought to pass the time on your flight to wherever it is that you're going.

In his 23rd April column for the San Francisco Chronicle , Mark Morford wrote:
I like to think of the Earth as essentially a giant Tibetan singing bowl, flicked by the middle finger of God and set to a mesmerizing, low ring for about 10 billion years until the tone begins to fade and the vibration slows and eventually the sound completely disappears into nothingness and the birds are all, hey what the hell happened to the music? And God just shrugs and goes, well that was interesting. Or maybe the planet is more like an enormous wine glass, half full of a heady potion made of horny unicorns and divine lubricant and perky sunshine, around the smooth, gleaming rim of which Dionysus himself circles his wet fingertip, generating a mellifluous tone that makes the wood nymphs dance and the satyrs orgasm and the gods hum along as they all watch 7 billion confused human ants scamper about with their lattes and their war and their perpetually adorable angst, oblivious. But most of all, I believe the Earth actually (and obviously) resonates, quite literally, with the Hindu belief in the divine sound of…that single, universal syllable that contains and encompasses all: birth and death, creation and destruction, being and nothingness, rock and roll, Christian and pagan, meat and vegetable, spit and swallow. You know?

And the most marvellous thing about it, about the whole mythic mess, is that I really think that I do.

Copyright Ruth Hartle 2008



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