Friday, September 19, 2008

Good Myth/Bad Myth: A Rambling Rumination about How Stories Creep Beneath the Skin

Many years ago, I had an unforgettable encounter with that most famous popularizer of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell. Campbell was lecturing a group of educators about how to integrate mythology into their curricula. He concluded with an old Hindu fable about a baby tiger raised by goats. As a “goat,” the cub learned to bleat and eat grass. Although he did both well and dutifully, something still was not right. At last, along came a fellow tiger and showed the little cub his birthright. They ate the goats. The tiger bleated no more. He roared. “And now,” roared Campbell to the assembled teachers, “go out and be tigers!” His words were drowned in applause.

As one who also lives by stories, I could not believe my ears. Was Campbell really suggesting that we go out en masse and eat our benefactors? “He doesn’t have the slightest idea what he just said,” something inside me protested. Suddenly I was filled with images of predatory mass cultures, of Nazi soldiers, given permission to be tigers, marching to the roar of triumphal music. I rose to my feet and cried, “Dr. Campbell, what do you have to say about the six million Jewish goats devoured by Nazi tigers?”

Campbell paused, looked at me, cool as he could be and said, “Now that’s your problem, isn’t it?”

I had not even been alive when the holocaust happened. How could he call it my problem? But in the way of myth, it did become my problem, and ever since that night I have wondered what the encounter was really all about. If I can describe it at all, it was as if, when he told us to “go out and be tigers,” I was plunged into some strange and terrifying dream. All I could do in the moment was to jolt myself awake and speak my own raw images. I later wrote about this in a letter and ended up as a footnote in three articles trying to prove that Campbell was against the Jews. This may be true, for while Campbell loved myth, he did not like the Bible, not at all.

One of the powers of myth is the ability of its images to stir up hidden emotion. It is one reason why the pundits of mass culture like it so much. Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s classic book The Morning of the Magicians, first published in the 1960’s and still in print, is all about how all this manifests in history. One of its central points is that Hitler built Nazi Germany not as a rational state, but as a great, collective myth, the myth of Siegfried, the solar child, the blond boy of an incestuous union whose fiery marriage to the Valkyrie led to betrayal, death and the great heating up of the world in Ragnarok’s fires. All who joined with the Leader could become this numinous hero, lifted out of a wrecked economy back into forest purity. In this story the Jews were like the wealthy dwarves who forged swords and renounced love. Their eradication was necessary to the bright future. Hitler’s myth gave the dull old German people a new cosmic meaning unbounded by time and space, a thousand year Reich. Hitler so believed in his myth that he did not equip his troops with adequate winter gear for the Russian invasion because he knew that the sun of German manhood would melt the Russian snows. As a result, real flesh and blood boys froze to death.

Hitler was not the first to manipulate myth, nor will he be the last. Hundreds of American boys died of Yellow Fever while building the Panama Canal, because someone told them that pure American boys could not get sick, unlike their dirty, sexual, French counterparts.

As a storyteller, as a preacher, as a child who grew up with Aslan, Gandalf and Frodo Baggins in addition to all the wonderful stories of the Bible and Greek and Norse mythology, I know very well that, like anything powerful, myth has a great capacity to do good and an equally great capacity to work mischief.

The story of the tiger raised by goats is a case in point. It is, of course, a story about finding ones true identity. Every child is raised according to someone’s conventional wisdom. To be a child is to experience, like a goat, powerlessness. But as the child grows, she internalizes all this conventional stuff, and as she digests it, she transforms it. The result is the roar of her awakening self. Authenticity is never without risk, and this is one reason why the story must contain elements of violence. Taught by a spiritual master, it becomes a story on a par with the transfiguration. But told to a group of teachers over a dinner of rubber chicken in a Hilton hotel, it comes across as something very different. It resembles a kind of mass baptism, like those that happened at the point of a sword when Christianity invaded the northern forest. Such a baptism, the same thing happening to thousands of people, is glamour and illusion, not conversion. Conversion is a very one on one experience. My heart breaks to receive God. Mass culture is about breaking the collective heart and bolstering the collective’s power. On a November night in 1983 when everyone was tired, Campbell abused his shaman’s power of naming. He could not possibly have known which of us in the crowded room were tigers or goats or hummingbirds or mouse mothers or chickadees or beavers. Although I don’t think he was inciting us to take over the world, he was still using the story for effect, to wake up a room full of sleepy teachers and provide a dramatic conclusion for his evening lecture.

But now that I think of it, the fact is, at the time the lecture was given, America was three years into the Reagan administration, and very intent upon taking over the world. It needed tigers, not teachers.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythic epic The Lord of the Rings pits good myth against bad myth, the grace and courage of self-sacrifice against the transmogrifying power of acquisition. If the heroes risk all that they are, the villains always risk others. Saruman orchestrates destruction from his distant tower. His orcs are fallen elves, enslaved, forcibly bred, cloned, as they lack women, their immortality twisted into a hell of misery and vindictiveness. Sauron the dark lord only appears at a distance, protected by gates, towers, flying reptiles, magma, and all the powers of hell, guarded by numberless forces and accessible only through the palantiri, farseeing stones which he controls. Evil in Middle Earth is ultimate unhappiness. The dominators can end your pain, but only if you obey, and only temporarily, because pain is how they control. Thus torture is the norm, and Nature is to be exploited. The analogy between Sauron’s and Saruman’s attempts to control the world through sorcery and the persistent, machine driven ethos of industrialized civilization is impossible to miss.

Politics are not uncomfortable with myth. The deity emperors of Rome, the divine right of kings, the worker state, the democracy, all of these are social narratives. They are the truths that are “self-evident,” culturally binding and invoked in the liturgies of state. As long as a culture understands its narratives, it can live in creative tension with them. But the moment we cease to acknowledge the often arbitrary nature of our collective tale, it goes underground and becomes the hidden agenda: the unthinking response, the “knee-jerk,” the screaming rally, the irrational hypnosis of entire peoples in the name of “freedom,” “patriotism,” “the medical miracle,” “market forces,” the names are as legion as the Garasene’s demons.

The United States is “the city built upon a hill,” “the light to the nations,” “the land of the free.” We are also a nation founded to shatter the power of myth with reason. We were the first Enlightenment Republic, the first what I like to call “composed” state, in the sense that people actually came together and created a society as deliberately as Plato created his Republic, Benedict his Rule, or Sir Thomas More his Utopia. When, at the nation’s darkest hours, Lincoln invoked our myth at Gettysburg with the words “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth,” he was tapping a deep well of hope.

If Alexis de Tocqueville warned that all this self-representation could explode into narcissism and demagoguery, the Civil War convinced us otherwise. War was our nation’s shining hour. We focused on the victory of the Union, not the demonic divisions and cruelties that led us to fight that war. The darkness of slavery did not fit the myth of “the city built on a hill.” It was a “peculiar institution,” an aberration that could only happen once and therefore in no danger of being repeated. It resembles in some ways the manner in which I have seen conversation about Hitler evolve. Once Nazism was a failed state from whose errors we had much to learn. Now it is only a monster, a one time event. No need to ask any questions about it.

I am aware that political forces are afoot in this country that do not want me to ask questions. They don’t want me to think about the Nuremburg rally, or about what happens when education is politicized. They don’t want me to ask why I am subsidizing with my work and my taxes the oil companies and mining concerns that are poisoning the earth. They don’t want me to ask why we can afford a war in Iraq and why we can’t afford medical care for our citizens. They want me to pinpoint germ plasm and not ask why girls want abortions. Since I cannot answer any of these questions, being neither economist nor analyst, let me share with you three American myths that I see stirring us up at the moment. The first is the Hero Quest. The second is that we are the Chosen People. The third is the myth of the frontier.

The Hero Quest, popularized by Joseph Campbell, turns up in ‘50’s westerns, Star Wars, super hero and berserker movies, celebrity culture, and “American Idol.” This is rugged individualism, “you are not the boss of me,” personal destiny, fame, the shining person who rises above the seething, meaningless mass, remembered while the rest of us lie forgotten. In this myth, the collective exists to be saved by the Great One. Government is a fussy “nanny,” or ruled by an evil emperor, or always taking away the fun. Success is what I take out, not what I put in. This hero myth is all about attainment. If sacrifice is involved, it is small. It only cost Luke Skywalker a single hand to save the entire universe.

Although Campbell states, quite rightly, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces that the hero is a generative figure, meant to return from his adventures and give the gift and wisdom of his quest to his community, the American hero myth parts company with this self-giving part of tradition. The American hero saves the town (usually violently) and rides off into the sunset, leaving the grateful masses to clean up after his mess.

The second myth, the Chosen People, is related to the Hero myth, but in this one, the hero has company. Like the Hebrews singled out by God in the Old Testament, so, too, were Americans singled out by God to be the light of the world, the light to the nations, the moral and spiritual leaders of humanity. Again, war brought out the best in us. After World War II, we rebuilt the world and showed that collectively, we were everyone's friend. Chosen People are capable of great good, but the danger is that they will come to idolatrize themselves and their goodness, which leads to complacency and worse. Sixty years later, the building up of the world has turned into the building up of the very rich. Corporations underpay their workers to bolster profits. The rhetoric of health care, building a network of cure, conquering disease, has turned into a cover letter for a self-congratulatory industry that gouges government and citizen alike, racking up profits while denying the sick their care. Still, as long as people can convince us all that we are chosen, that what we do is good, we won’t look too closely, for America, land of the free, can do no wrong. We are even surrendering our freedom to the idol of security as eagerly as the ancient Israelites sacrificed their children to Moloch. We want the tiger, but we don't want the risk.

Next time you are feeling chosen and set apart, go and study the history of the Jews. That story says that to know God is also to enter into the mysteries of suffering. But just as the American hero doesn’t want to clean up after the adventure, the chosen people pour another drink, pop another pill and say “no thanks” to suffering, unless it leads directly to personal success. War is OK as long as it validates us. And as was the case in Ancient Israel, we ignore the prophets who tell us we might be sacrificing at the wrong altar.

The two myths: individualism and Chosen People now combine into a third myth: the myth of the Frontier. This, too, has its roots in scripture, for the Frontier bears many resemblances to the Promised Land of the Hebrew Scriptures, the gift given us as a benefit of our being Chosen. The classic description of Frontier comes in Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 Atlantic article “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner makes a distinction between the American and European concepts of frontier. He writes: “In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave -- the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” the boundary between owned land and free land.

The dream of free land, of something large in return for very little, once a reality for pioneer settlers like my great-grandparents who emigrated from Sweden to Minnesota, has embedded itself deep in the American psyche. During the California Gold Rush of 1849-1852, miners, hungry for instant wealth, grabbed whatever they could and dug without ceasing. Physical possession became the law. Without any consideration of who might have lived in, loved or found life in those lands, miners now staked their diggings with guns and posses. Indigenous Californians were wiped out by this gold fever. The Spanish and later Mexican ranchos and the culture that went with them were shattered. The lure of free land proved that greed was stronger than decency. Parts of California still lie scarred and sterile because of the deadly nature of gold extraction.

Rugged individualists, a Chosen Race, the Frontier – these are not the only archetypes that have shaped the American soul, but are important nonetheless. Although I rarely see these myths named as myths, I feel their effects in a rich variety of ways. I feel it in my own rugged individual resistance to and lack of trust toward a dominant culture that claims to speak on my behalf without consulting me. I feel a corrupt sense of being Chosen when conservatives seek to manipulate my individual fear with their group glamour of “freedom” and “patriotism” as an excuse for waging war and tightening security, using their “chosenness” to “protect” my individual rights. I see it in the preaching of some churches that equates being chosen by God with the right to be wealthy and consume, that being chosen is to be entitled to what I want rather than serving what God wants. As a Californian, I see the tragedy of frontier expansion in a relentless real estate and remodeling boom that has decimated forests and farmland, consumed unprecedented amounts of petroleum and created a culture of fear and now, foreclosure. I see more people working harder and longer to achieve the so-called American Dream and only ending up more medicated and unhappy. These very personal obsesrvations tell me that the archetypes may be beginning to stink.

Biology says unequivocally that the only creature that fouls its own nest is one so sick that it has lost all self-respect. That is what industrialism, led by American capitalists, is doing to the earth that all species share.

“Drill, baby drill!” Is that the cry of a vibrant political system, or a demented animal in its death throes?

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