“When they told him this, Ransom at last understood why mythology was what it was -- gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.” - C.S. Lewis Perelandra
I have been thinking about myth again recently. It is a particularly special kind of story, myth, neither history nor fiction, nor—quite—a mere combination of the two. Myths are not properly understood to be lies about history, nor are they fictional histories. Despite some of the rather bigoted and paternalist theories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it looks more and more as though the great tellers and recorders of myth never believed their stories to be historically true. But they did believe them to be true nonetheless. If you will excuse the circularity I think the answer to the question "what could be more true than facts" is "myth'.
It is, after all, the case that story is the instrument we use to access reality. Without story our experience of the world would be nothing more that incoherent data. It is story which turns the collection of shapes, colors, sounds, smells, and sensations into a child. Every thing with which we interact is its own story a story we write and are told. To spend much time thinking about this will open you to the twin shocks that the story of this life which you think you are writing is really one which you are being told and that the story you think you are being told is really a story that you are always writing—existence is a collaborative piece of art.
These are stories which are neither fact nor lie but are often deeply true. Because myth is the exploration of meaning, it can neither ential perfect correspondence to facts, or utter independence from them. The hard bitten empiricist reduces myth to lie (though that conclusion will never be found in their accumulated data) while others attempt to harden myth into brittle fact thereby exposing it once more to the attacks of the empiricists. But myth will not submit to any enforced metamorphosis and, to my knowledge, only one myth has ever become fact, and that was of its own volition. This is all a rather round-about way of saying that our myths are our attempts to find the meaning behind our existence. Without them we would be beyond lost, we would be without meaning.
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God's mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker's art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.
Selection from Mythopoeia by J.R.R. Tolkien
There are two myths which I have been particularly thinking about recently and I hope that by thinking about them together I might be able to shine a little light on a few of the healthy and dangerous uses of the art. Specifically I have been thinking about the recent musical The Greatest Showman and also the myth of America.
The Greatest Showman
The Greatest Showman is one of those wonderful movies which was panned by the critics and embraced by audiences. The movie does not represent the facts of the history on which it is based instead the movie is a myth about community, humanity, acceptance, diginity, ambition, and right relationship. It is a hero’s journey (actually it is several overlapping hero’s journeys) and it pierces right to the heart of the tension between and unjust society built for the comfort of the rich and powerful and a just and joyful society built by and for those marginalized by the rich and powerful. In Christians terms, it is a myth all about the difference between the Kingdom of God as described in the Beatitudes and the Kingdom of this world. The loud secret of The Greatest Showman is that the life of joy and dignity is to be found only when we celebrate the humanity and worth of not being safe, secure, and privileged. It is a well told, and beautiful version of the story all of our hearts desperately long to live and most of our hearts are too afraid to ever try. The quote, often attributed to Thoreau that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them” represents a dark magic which The Greatest Showman works to unravel—story and myth are, after all, the good magic which sets us free from the dark lies we tell ourselves about this world, and The Greatest Showman is a story of singing the song in the face of the dark.
But the history is not the same as the myth. In real, factual history P.T. Barnum simply was not the man we see as the protagonist of the myth. In real, factual history his circus was not the full celebration of humanity in all of its glorious diversity that we see in the myth—actually there was some serious exploitation and racism going on there; Barnum was pretty terrible with his animals as well.
The man on whom the myth-story is based was a broken, messed up, guy. He was wildly imperfect and sometimes evil. That isn’t a problem for The Greatest Showman unless we make the myth for the facts, unless we try to replace history with myth. Because the history is also important. The real history of racism, bigotry, animal abuse, exploitation, and the other wretched sins Barnum committed matters. The facts matter. When we pretend that the myth is the history we turn good magic into bad magic. We have a term for doing that: “whitewashing”. The spell which could work to liberate us, becomes a curse binding us more tightly to the sins of our past. Because the facts of history will remain regardless of whether we remember them. And history always has its effects.
The world is the way it is because of its history. When we whitewash our history it is like trying to tell a good story but changing all of the unpleasant parts at the beginning—it won’t work. The prince cannot search the kingdom for the girl whose foot fits the glass slipper if Cinderella is never kept from the ball in the first place; there would be no fairy godmother and the story would end with her having a pleasant time at the ball. Once the darkness is erased from the story, the happy ending (what Tolkien called the “eucatastrophe”) becomes impossible. So to with the real story in which we live. If we do not know our own history any real improvement on our current situation will be impossible.
As C.S. Lewis is want to remind us, it is the highest angels who make the most terrible demons. Myth known as myth highlights meaning and draws us towards progress and joy; myth mistaken for history blinds us to the ability to ever improve.
The Myth of America
The myth of the United States of America is a beautiful thing as well. The myth of America is one of freedom for and the equality of all people. The myth of America is a story of a wild, empty land slowly tamed for the good of all people by the rugged determination, the blood sweat and tears of fiercely determined regular people. It is the story of tough people who struggled to overcome oppression and tyranny and succeeded by strength of their grit, faith, and families. The American myth is the myth of a people enriched by and ever enriching their land. It is the story of the downtrodden of many lands who find sanctuary, overcome, and rise up to protect the downtrodden of the world. The American myth is hard work, hard living, and the simply joy of well earned safety in a healthy home with a loving family. The American myth is not a perfect vision of human flourishing but it is an honest and joyful representation of that ineffable spirit which is the United States.
But the Myth of America is not the history of America.
|The land was not empty|
The history of the United States is much more complicated and far, far darker. The history of the United States is the history of slavery and oppression of the poor and those who were not “granted whiteness”. The history of America is the history of a land cleared of its inhabitants by disease and violent genocide for the sake of those who believed that land is a thing to be owned and exploited. The “wild empty land” of the myth was, in fact, the land of the Susquehannok, the Cherokee, the Lakota, the Iroquois, the Creek, the Seminole, the Comanche, the Chinook, and so many, many more. Some little of it they have kept, their blood stains the rest. The history of America is a history of liberty won and liberty denied. There has been progress, yes, but that progress has been always too slow. The history of America is a history of stolen wealth, of robber barons and a civil war fought to retain a “right” to keep others enslaved. There have been plenty of tough and hardworking people in America’s history and they have accomplished great and unprecedented things. But the system they used to build those things, the institutions which enabled them to do what they did, can not be separated from the genocide and slavery out of which they were born. There is no America without those sins.
The history of America is a history of poisoning our land for money. The history of America is the history ripping apart the atom in order to slaughter our enemies. The history of America is ending slavery with one amendment and recreating it as mass incarceration with the same amendment. The history of America the strong prey on weak and throw their bones to their brothers to buy their complicity. The history of America is one hand stretched out to immigrants while the other pens “Chinese exclusion acts, the US vs Baghat Singh Thind, executive order 9066, and a million other words of exclusion. The History of America is Wounded Knee and Jim Crow. The history of America is the history of “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and then treating one million flavors of “Christian” as the only religion that counts. The history of America is the history of not worrying about an epidemic which “only affects gays and Haitians.” The history of America is 200+ years of marriage and identity denied to those unlike “us”.
The United States has accomplished great things, but each great accomplishment has grown, in some degree, out of the corpses of those who were walled out of the myth.
Take a moment and stare the tragedy of America right in the eye. Don’t blink.