THEMES, TOPICS, ISSUES
The introduction/Myth, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.
Myth in Primitive Thought
The Collective Unconscious
Myth and Literature
Myth - Introduction
In various ways, the idea of myth points toward the realms of nature, of cultural history, and of unconscious thought.^ The modern return to mythical forms is in part an attempt to reconstitute the value-laden natural environment that physical science has tended to discredit. At the same time, it is a repossession of a cultural heritage. Though history itself has produced the increasingly rational, disinherited mind of modern man, history may also be invoked as a non-rational, mythical memory, a man-made record of menÍs intuitive conceptions of themselves. These mythical forms are still available because in another sense they are outside of history, residing in a timeless world below the threshold of consciousness. Myths are public and communicable, but they express subliminal mental patterns that come close to the compulsive drives of the unconscious.
The most influential name associated with the study of myth early in this century is that of Sir James G. Frazer, who begins The Golden Bough by conjuring up an extraordinary scene that took place for many years in ancient times at Nemi, south of Rome. There, circling about a sacred tree, was an armed priest ever on the alert to ward off his successor, who could take office only by murdering him. Nothing could be more absurd to the reason than this behavior, but the sanctioned succession of murders and vigils swayed the minds of generations of men. Frazer explains that the weird custom originated in a vegetation myth, and he demonstrates that comparable myths have existed not only in antiquity but also among contemporary savage tribes. Yet Frazer is essentially a rationalist. Though he recognizes and fully illustrates the workings of myth in human culture, myth for him is a primitive habit of mind that we have largely outgrown; it is an addiction to magic. He grants that religion is not so far removed from it, but he hopes that science will succeed religion in the same way that religion has succeeded the magical habit of mind.^
Malinowski, while he is respectful to Frazer, is not so much disposed to insist on the distinction between primitive and civilized societies. He assumes [p. 617] that the myth-making function is universal, though seen most clearly among savage peoples. This function, according to him, is neither quasi-scientific nor quasi-historical, as other interpreters have maintained: myth is not a fanciful way of describing natural phenomena or a disguised chronicle of actual persons and events. Rather, mythical stories serve as a practical cultural force, completely shaping and motivating the moral and social life of a group. The "primitive" does not feel his myth as a fiction referring to something other than itself, but as an articulation of cultural values. Sanctified by its archaic origin, the living form of myth gives warranty to every individual act, thought, and ritualistic performance.
Cassirer takes this interpretation a step further: he considers myth to be one of the basic forms of all human thought, co-ordinate with science, art, and language.^ To indicate the character of mythical thought, he contrasts it with "discursive" or theoretical thinking. Facts offer themselves to the theoretical mind to be co-ordinated with other facts within a large scheme and so to lose their isolation and immediacy. But intuitions present themselves to the mythical mind directly: the momentary apprehension subordinates everything else to itself. Even the thinker is blotted out by the intensity of his thought. The resultant concentration of meaning is so great that the sacred object is felt to be identical with the whole of reality. It has "mana," it is embedded in a "field of force," and its relation with other objects is not logical, but one of metaphorical identity.
Once we accept mythical thought as having a validity of its own, we are prepared to find that something very much like myth is still at work beneath the surface of the rational or "civilized" mind. Freud often touches on this affinity between myth and the unconscious, notably in his account of the Oedipus complex; but Freud primarily confines himself to analysis of the individual unconscious, and he conceives of the universal patterns of the unconscious mainly on the analogy of organic functions of the body rather than poetic forms.^ For Jung the idea of myth is more important--indeed, all-important. He postulates a "collective unconscious" beneath the individual unconscious, and he maintains that it is "an ocean of images and figures." These "archetypes" are instinctual, primordial; they are the radical elements of all myth and of all the fantasies and dreams of men. Strictly speaking, they are inaccessible to consciousness--mere predispositions of the psyche, unfilled outlines, formal laws. We know of them only by means of the overt myths, fantasies, and actual behavior that give them specific content in individual instances and that are the conscious embodiment of the unconscious archetypes. [p. 618]
It may be asked what attitude consciousness should take toward the unconscious myth-making forces and toward the universal archetypes that subsume even the individual unconscious. Jung replies, somewhat like Freud, that consciousness has grown out of the unconscious as a very late development in nature, but nevertheless it can claim to be a necessary condition for any truly human life. It is a method of direction and control of archetypal compulsions.^ Yet Jung is as much concerned with asserting the inherent value of the archetypes, and hence of the myths in which they are revealed, as he is with supporting the uneasy rule of conscious thought. Though baleful and destructive in many of their manifestations, the archetypes are the essence of man; in them the whole nature of man strives to realize itself. If they are reflected in psychic disturbances, one of the functions of spontaneous art is to relieve these disorders by expressing the mysterious inner forces of the psyche.
Jung denominates the most disturbing of the archetypes as the shadow, the anima, the animus, and the mother. The shadow is the archetypal dark self, obsessively driven toward evil; the anima is the male's archetype of the female, the animus is the female's archetype of the male. The mother archetype, one of the most important, has a multitude of mythical dimensions, both positive and negative, good and evil. Such pre-existent forms assume various contents as they emerge into the individual experience of life and are projected outward by the psyche. Since they often have disastrous effects upon the individual's apprehension of the world, Jung's therapy aims at making the patient aware that his world consists of projected forms. In this way he is saved from damaging illusions and at the same time regains a precious part of himself, his portion of the racial unconscious.
If myth-making is as fundamental a human function as Jung asserts, the persistence of myth in all literatures is readily explained. Even without falling back on Jungian psychology, however, we may be tempted to identify myth with art in general and particularly with the art of poetry. Friedrich Schlegel was one of the first to perceive that such a premise would give a new strength and purpose to the creation of poetry. He proposes that poets of his time should conceive themselves in the role of myth-makers engaged in a communal enterprise. The spontaneous mythologies of ancient or primitive peoples would then find their correlative in an artfully constructed modern mythos. [Yeats developed A Vision on a similar theory.] The ideal and the real, which tend to fall apart and oppose each other in modern literature, would be co-ordinate dimensions of the created myth.^ Victor Hugo does not call for a return to the mythical ground of poetry but proclaims that this has never been lost. Poetic creation is a constant reshaping of the mask of man [p. 619] into human types, an evocation of the infinite latent forms of mankind. The great figures of literature are substantial phantoms, "the ideal realized." Neither Schlegel nor Hugo is interested in the revival of archaic or classical materials; both affirm that myth is not a particular content but a persistent way of thinking. Wagner approaches the union of art and myth in a different way. For him, the spontaneous myths of folk culture, which are communal and artless expressions of a shared life, are the source of all higher aesthetic value. These folk creations dictate the form and meaning of the most sophisticated art of later eras. The individual artist is not the maker or discoverer of the myth, but its completer, eliciting the order already implicit in his materials and compressing them into a compact, plastic whole.^
The view that myth is art is not sufficient for Blake, who declares that myth is the inner structure of all human history. The artist, who dwells in Eden, apprehends history as a visionary pattern that was written out before time began. Blake denies any truth to the scientific analysis of history in terms of causes and consequences; historical actions can be understood only by the mythic imagination of the artist and in terms of their inherent mythical meaning. On quite similar grounds Berdyaev denies that the real stuff of history consists of objective empirical data. Such history has some limited validity, but true history is a mythical reality, an ideal world created and perpetuated by popular memory. Berdyaev sees each man as a microcosm in which all the great historical epochs co-exist and are accessible. By turning to this inner memory men can apprehend the inner flow of history, which is essentially the drama of God's love for the world, "celestial history," a great concrete myth.^
The role of myth in modern literature is associated by Thomas Mann with the psychological revolution announced by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, formulated by Freud, and carried on by Jung.^ All these writers, as Mann reads them, share the concept of a specifically human world of freedom and determinism, a psychological cosmos. The Freudian psyche, though it seems in one way wholly predetermined, is nevertheless a human arena where man makes his own conditions--as is even more apparent in the collective unconscious of Jung. Myths claim the same kind of psychological reality. Known or unknown, they lie within us; we fancy ourselves original, but are really imitating or performing, for life is a steady mythical identification, a procession in the footsteps of others, a sacred repetition. Yet this world of man is reborn through us; we remake it at every turn. It is at once passively experienced and actively created, at once historical and prophetic, timely and timeless. Sustained by his faith in "lived myth," a faith that in itself is [p. 620] primitive yet validated by the most modern of sciences, Mann gains the subject and the method of his Joseph novels.^
Mann espouses myth as neither a traditionalist nor a modernist but a humanist. T. S. Eliot's commendation of Joyce's Ulysses, on the other hand, is explicitly based on the tenets of a modern "classicism." He treats Joyce's use of the Odyssey as an effort to find an external order and a source of meaning that will lend form and value to the confusion of modern life. In point of fact, Joyce's book is probably closer in spirit to Mann than to Eliot; but Eliot's posture in this essay is characteristic of his own approach to mythical materials. The "classicist" in myth would avail himself of the depths of meaning within the forms of ancient story, but he wants the form more than the meaning, the discipline of orthodoxy more than the fullness of tradition.^ And the element of myth in his art is not so much a creative method, a resumption of the role of mythic poet, as it is an intellectual strategy, a device for gaining perspective on himself and on his myth-forsaken time. [p. 621]
[The introduction/Myth, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.]
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