(picture: ‘la reve’ by Henri Rousseau, Museum of Modern Art, NY)
I have touched elsewhere on our ambivalence about stories and story-related words, in particular that we use a range of them as synonyms for lying and falsehood. The word ‘myth’ falls into the same category, except that its case is perhaps more extreme: for the majority of people now, the primary sense of ‘myth’ is probably ‘something people believe that isn’t true’ or ‘a false, unfounded or mistaken belief’. The TV format is familiar: some statement is trotted out – ‘red wine causes cancer/cures cancer/makes you live longer/improves intelligence’; evidence is presented (or not); an ink-stamp comes down across the screen labelling it ‘fact’ (probably in green) or ‘myth’ (red, certainly).
The blame for this debased usage can be laid largely at the door of the tabloid press, which probably does more than any other organ to promote false, mistaken or unfounded beliefs, not from malice so much as stupidity, its relentless pursuit of circulation which means that every story is sensationalised, so that a sober piece of scientific research which draws tentative conclusions – ‘moderate red wine consumption associated with statistically significant increase in life expectancy’ becomes a blaring, oversimplified, thoroughly misleading headline: WANT TO LIVE FOREVER? DRINK RED WINE!
The pity of this is that a much more valuable and interesting idea of ‘myth’ is being lost, one that tells us a great deal about ourselves, and also frees our minds from the kind of rigid thinking that is increasingly prevalent.
A myth, in this more valuable sense, is a story we tell ourselves about how we choose to see things, how we choose to think of our situation (and that element of choice is important: we are not deluded, we do not deceive ourselves – we choose to see it this way because it works for us). It is, in a strict sense, an act of comprehension, a taking-together of certain features of experience to make a pattern, to impose an order that is useful to us.
Our dominant modern myth is the myth of progress, which sees human existence as a tale of continuous improvement in which the later state is always better than the earlier one: ‘things can only get better’ as the song has it. There is a strong link between this myth and economic growth, so it is no surprise in these times when growth is faltering (and its sustainability is increasingly questioned) that belief in this myth is faltering somewhat too: can we go on living the way we do? or does our way of life not harbour the seeds of its own destruction?
The antithesis of the myth of progress is the myth of the Golden Age, which takes various forms but expresses the same single idea, that once upon a time we enjoyed an ideal state from which we have declined steadily ever since; we were happy once, but now we’re not. The familiar version from the Judaeo-Christian tradition is the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall.
Two further myths can be added to make up an interesting quartet: one is the myth of recurrence, the idea that life and human existence is a perpetual cycle: birth, growth, maturity, decay, death, rebirth; spring, summer, autumn, winter; what goes around comes around; all things perish, all things are renewed.
The last is an odd one, another antithetic myth, the myth of stasis or immutability, the idea that Reality – the true state of things – is unchanging, in contrast to deceptive Appearance, which is in a state of constant change and flux; so that it is, in a sense, the antithesis of recurrence. One of its most famous expressions is in Plato’s theory of Forms (or Ideas) which envisages a timeless world of unchanging forms apprehended only by the intellect (and not the despised senses, which are thirled to the deceptions of Appearance). But there is also an element of the myth of stasis in various views of the afterlife, nicely summed up in the Simply Red lyric, ‘Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens’.
The psychology of these myths is interesting and there is a case to be made that we probably subscribe to all of them (or at least the first three) at various times and in various states of mind. One notable feature is that although they are more often presented as historical myths, i.e. stories that try to comprehend the full sweep of human history, all of them (even the last) are strongly rooted in personal experience.
The myth of progress corresponds to our experience (or expectation) of the greater part of our lives, at least till middle age and probably beyond. As a rule, we progress physically for something like the first twenty or so years of life – every year we get bigger, stronger, more capable; and commensurate with this progress we have a development in mental capacity, education, responsibility and independence. Beyond our twenties the structure of our society (in the ‘west’ at least) still allows for a continuance of progress, chiefly measured by earning capacity and social status; it is only at retirement (well into the sixties now) that the possibility of such progress is halted.
Yet at the same time, as we take on more responsibility and independence, as we move from being an observer of the world from the relatively powerless position of youth to being a participant in it, we may well experience anxiety, disillusion and disappointment (in the words of another song lyric – Peggy Lee this time – ‘Is that all there is?’ ) and look back on our childhood as a golden age when we were happy in our innocence and did not realise what life was like and hoped it would be better than we find it.
Meanwhile, the sense of recurrence is never far away, with the turning of the years and the passage of the seasons, but it comes more to the surface with such things as parenthood, when you experience a sudden shift of perspective and see your children as your own parents must have seen you; and as you grow older and see the span of generations – the new-born baby in her great-grandmother’s lap – and realise that you are progressing through the various stages represented by different people in the room, from very young to very old, the sense of life as a perpetual cycle is very strong.
(‘Evie and the Bear’ – photo by Kate Ward – all rights reserved)
And the myth of stasis? That is an interesting one. It can seem both childish – like wanting the sweet in your mouth to last forever – and unimaginative – is that really the best you can think of, to do the same thing forever? and that perhaps reflects its negative aspect: it is bound up with the fear of loss, the sense that nothing lasts, that ‘here is no abiding city’, that nothing can be relied on – if only we could arrest time, hold the moment –
The thing about eternity is that it does not go on for ever: it does not go on at all – it is not in time; and that makes it unimaginable, since all our imaginings are time-bound. So we experience it as a paradox, a nonsense: making the moment last, stretching it out, alters its fundamental character – it is no longer a moment; it has endurance; we can, as it were, get out and walk around it, look at it from every side, measure it up, quantify it, fit it in to our scheme of things –
and that is to miss the entire point, because such glimpses give us a sensation of something that is not in our scheme of things, something we struggle to express, by saying it is beyond or outside or elsewhere, something we can only approximate to by saying that it is like the very best thing you can think of, forever – which always falls flat because of its inherent contradiction; and yet for all that, we know it when we see it, and we do glimpse it now and then:
‘for most of us, there is only the unattended
moment, the moment in and out of time,
the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
the wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning,
or the waterfall, or the music heard so deeply
that it is not heard at all, but you are the music
while the music lasts.’
– TS Eliot The Dry Salvages V, from Four Quartets.