Sunday, January 31, 2021

Xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths (1).

This entry is really the first one that has to stand on the shoulders of others.  In particular it was the work of the Truth Inside the Lie blog that brought the whole thing to my attention.  I once recall reading that the basic function of criticism was to stand as a mere sideshow for the main attraction of the story itself.  I'm willing to admit a lot of truth in that statement.  At the same time, even if literary criticism can never be the main event, there's grounds enough to call it a vital function, in and of itself.  When a review is written in such a way that it makes the reader decide to pick up their own copy, then I'm afraid the only logical conclusion is that a genuine service has been provided.  That deserves at least some kind of recognition, even if just for a job well done.  That just leaves the main event itself.  The book in question was an anthology collection entitled Xo Orhpeus, by Kate Bernheimer.

The review of that book from Truth Inside the Lie is perhaps best described as an all-purpose overview.  The potential buyer is given a neat and concise series of summaries regarding the anthology, and its contents.  Each item in the text is given its own brief description, along with a recommendation of whether each individual entry is good or bad.  The results for the  review itself are commendable.  The main reason for this is down to the way information is handled in the critique.  All the relevant information the reader needs to know about each story in the collection has been condensed with a skill that perhaps can be considered worthy of actual print journalism.  The critic appears to have an instinctive skill for what needs to be kept in, and what elements can be labeled as secondary enough that they can be left out.  The final product gives the reader enough information, delivered in the right way that is capable of rousing enough curiosity to enable to the reader to want to find a way to get their hands on a copy of their own.  Such then is the basic function of criticism when its done well.

I bring all this up just to highlight the fact that I'm afraid I've had to go at Bernheimer's book in a very different fashion.  For whatever reason, I've found it better to take the text one item at a time, rather than all at once.  This method of approach can have its own advantages.  For one thing, the fact that we are dealing with an anthology, and not a novel, allows the critic some leeway in how they want to handle the text.  The very nature of the material allows you a bit more freedom to pick and choose which is the best doorway into the content itself.  I think my real reason for not tackling the whole damn thing all at once is pretty simple.  For some reason, my mind is better at examining a story when it's limited to just one narrative at a time, rather than altogether.  I just have that turn of mind, the kind which likes to unpack as many details of a story and hold them up to the microscope for a while.  

The more I can limit my attention to just one item of text, all's well.  I seem to have more trouble turning all the trees into a forest.  If that's a weakness of some sort, I'm sure I don't know what to do about it.  I'm not saying its impossible for me to provide the kind of concise summary of the contents of a book.  If that were the case, this blog probably wouldn't even exist.  It's just that the task becomes a lot easier after I've digested a single text.  When it's a question of being asked to perform the same task on a book which is really a number of differing texts, then I can see it as a lot more of a challenge.  This issue just gets compounded by the question of whether or not an anthology can be said to be operating under any possible kind of guiding principle.  The presence of such a main theme can help to make things a lot easier, at least as far as I'm concerned. 

I've said that the short story collection offers a number of differing doorways into its subject matter.  The one I've chosen for my purposes is the front entrance.  I want to focus on Bernheimer's introduction to the whole anthology for a number of reasons.  A lot of it has to do with her main topic of discussion.  Bernheimer's entire book is concerned with the matter and nature of myth.  It is, in essence, an entire, complete short essay on the subject.  What she has to say about the topic colors her choice for the contents of the anthology as a whole.  It just makes sense that her views on the issue might be worth digging a bit into in their own right.  It might be interesting to find out what Bernheimer's views on myth can tell us not just about the topic itself, but maybe also the outlook of the editor.  I suppose the real question, however, is not just whether the anthologist or editor is able to verbalize or state her thesis.  In addition, I'd argue there are two other matters that are involved here.  The first is whether Bernheimer is able to live out her thesis.  The second is how well her main idea stacks up to the reality of everyday life.  There may be some interesting answers in regard to the last of these three questions.

As a result, this essay won't have much choice except to come off as a discussion between a pair of book nerds debating on a pet subject of theirs. This isn't the sort of deal that's going to bother me all that much.  I'm the kind of guy who actually likes to think about literary matters.  I'm also smart enough to know that places me in a distinct minority.  That means the real challenge is how do you make a discussion of myth at least sound entertaining?  If I'm being honest, all I can do is follow the writer's lead and share my own two cents on it.  The good news is Myth is another favorite subject of mine.  Whether the reader feels the same is a different matter.  I suppose the real trick is to learn what is it about myth that is able to hook and reel the audience in.  A lot of it is down to enthusiasm, and the proper ability to convey it.  This is something guys like Tolkien or Joseph Campbell were good at.  They knew how to talk about myths in a way that managed to engage a sizable cross-current of the world audience.  Whether Kate Bernheimer or I can do the same remains to be seen.

The Main Thesis.

Bernheimer starts her introduction off with a recounting of the myth of Orpheus.  It's the one about the divinely talent musician who loses his one true love though a mixture of tragic fate and personal hubris.  After providing a kind of half-capsule summary of the myth itself, Bernheimer then goes on to draw the following, curious lesson from it.  "Thus Orpheus, arguably the most prevalent symbol for Art in the Western world, shows us both the power and limitations of the whole venture...Yes, you might experience the sensations of escaping  the everyday world, perhaps even your own mortality, upon hearing, watching, and reading the best artistic examples.  But the feeling is illusory, Orpheus tells us.  The feeling is, after all, just a feeling (xxi)".  The very nature of Bernheimer's claim, in particular its relation to the Orpheus, is perhaps something we'll definitely have to circle back to in time.  For now its enough to note a number of elements are evident in that statement.  All that remains is to see whether or not they make sense, or are capable of standing up to any kind of critical thinking.

For now, however, there is the remainder of the introduction to contend with.  Bernheimer uses the Orpheus myth as a jumping off point for her main thesis.  I suppose if you need to give Bernheimer's concept any kind of legitimate name, then perhaps a good label might by "The Idea of Literary Anthropocene".  It's the sort of phrase that's easy enough to write down on paper.  Trying to wrap your head around it is something else.  Which I suppose is a polite way putting the question from the man on the street.  The original phrasing goes something like, "What in the hell did you just say?"  To be fair, it's a good question.  The best definition for the term I've been able to find describes it as follows.  "The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change (web)".

Put in layman's terms, Bernheimer holds with the idea that geological and evolutionary history has brought us to a point where myths no longer hold any substantial cash value in today's climate.  It's not myths people want these days, she seems to be saying, but rather just good old fashioned human interest.  To be fair, that idea does at least sound a bit familiar.  I wonder where I've heard it before?  In any case, Bernheimer then goes on to make one further claim.  That the mode of storytelling once associated with figures like the Greek pantheon must now be applied to humans.  In other words, if Olympus is empty, then we must claim it for ourselves.  Well, it's a thought that someone had.  Got to give her that.  Maybe it's best to just come back to this one somewhere down the line as well.  

Bernheimer herself gives us a summary of this state of affairs.  "What is Myth in the Age of Anthropocene?  Based on the stories gathered here, the early answer is this: sad...A profound sadness, yes.  Oh, you may find a whimsical story here and there in the bunch, and you might be struck by the violence too.  Yet "XO" Orpheus wrote to his beloved, and "good-bye" this book says to the old relationship of literature and myth, of myth to the human.  even the whimsical stories in here, even the most violent ones, reveal a gaping anxiety, a primal fear, leading to sadness about what we have done (xxiii)".  That's a very heavy charge, and an equally strong comment to make.  It almost sounds as if the editor wants to throw some sort of metaphorical gauntlet down on the current debates surrounding literature and the arts (at least wherever you can still find them).  If this should be the case, then it becomes a question of clarifying, and then either confirming or denying her critical terms and conditions.  All that remains now is to unpack the editor's thesis, and see how it hold up in real life.

Some Critiques.

The key charge that Bernheimer lays on the table is that the relationship between human beings and literature (in particular the ill-defined artistic expression known as myth) has been irrevocably changed thanks to scientific advancements.  At least, that is the closest I was ever able to get to her main idea.  The thing is if this is what she was getting, then it's also kind of funny, more than it's in any way convincing, at least as far as I can tell.  The whole thing is couched in a kind of grand statement, just based on a simple sleight-of-hand in the editor's style.  The trick here is that if you're going to make such a grand, all-encompassing statement, then perhaps it really is for the best if you are first able to marshal as much legitimate evidence before sending your idea out into the world.  I'm afraid I'm not at all sure that Bernheimer has done enough of the necessary effort that would entail. 

Let's take the idea that mankind is leaving myth behind.  She posits the theory in terms of evolution.  Her basic concept is that there is a kind of undefined purpose going on in the evolutionary process itself that is somehow cutting the human mind off from the myth making faculty, or else that the shaping nature of evolution itself renders myth superfluous.  At least I think that's what she's getting at, anyway.  To be fair, I'll probably have to admit this idea at least sounds novel.  However, this sense of novelty is soon shown up as a chimaera the moment you do a little digging into the history of literary criticism itself.  I asked up above if I'd ever heard of that argument before.  If so, then it might be possible that all Bernheimer was doing is to repeat an argument that might date all the way back to the Victorian Era. 

This will take a bit of explaining, so bare with me.  In order to understand how the editor's argument might not be all that original, I'll have to bring some outside help in the form of Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien.  In addition to being a damn good writer, what many casual fans seem to overlook is that he was also a legitimate professor of literature at Oxford University.  He was, for a time, at least, something of an expert in his field.  That area of expertise included the study of mythology in both its literary and anthropological/cultural aspects, but also the history of words.  In other words, Tolkien's actual day job, the one that he had to depend on for income a lot more than his most famous work, involved an awareness of the changing and reforming nature of both human language, and the impact this had on the nature of the great world mythologies.  It's a skill that probably doesn't hold much cash-value outside the halls of academe.  However, what can't be denied is that the professor was as serious about his scholarship as he was about storytelling.  It was this very sense of well researched background knowledge that was able to give Middle Earth and its legends their sense of scope and depth.

The curious aspect is how this in itself might help to shine a light on Bernheimer's claims.  The reason I say that is because I'm fair enough certain that she isn't the first writer to try and make the claim that human beings and myths cannot occupy the same space.  There was at least one other critic who tried to make an argument that sounds eerily similar to Bernheimer's claims in retrospect.  It is just possible that Tolkien considered the matter important enough to create an entire essay on the topic.  In the course of this treatise, entitled On Fairy Stories, Tolkien brought up the name of one critic in particular whose argument may share a curious kind of lineal ancestry with the mindset of Bernheimer.  His name was Max Muller, and Tolkien considered him important enough to devote a certain amount of space in trying to refute his claims.  In order to understand why Tolkien was so adamant to find the correct critical response to this older writer, and how it might tie in to the intro of Xo Orpheus, then I'm afraid some context is in order.

"Friedrich Max Muller (1823 - 1900) was born in Germany but lived his adult life in England, where he did the bulk of his work in the burgeoning field of comparative philology and mythology.  Muller was a major proponent of "solar mythology", a theory based largely on Sanskrit and Greek texts, proposing that the gods of mythology were originally celestial phenomena.  Over time, so went the theory, the primary referents were forgotten although the names survived and developed through a "disease of language" (that is, a deviation from an original condition) into stories and myths.  Thus, for example, the nightly descent of the sun below the horizon became the story of a hero's descent into the underworld.

"The earliest appearance of Muller famous phrase appears to have been in the first of his Lectures on the Science of Language (1961), where he elaborated: "Mythology, which was the bane of the ancient world, is in truth a disease of language.  A mythe [sic] means a word, but a word which, from being a name or an attribute, has been allowed to assume a more substantial existence.  Most of the Greek, the Roman, the Indian, and other heathen gods are nothing but poetical names, which were gradually allowed to assume a divine personality never contemplated by the original inventors (Anderson, Flieger, Tolkien on Fairy Stories, 102)". 

The fundamental problem with this line of thought is that it denies any possible categorical value not just to myth, but also to storytelling as a discernible phenomenon of daily existence.  The flaw itself becomes evident if we approach it from a question and answer format.  Imagine, for instance, that you were to ask Muller the following question: What is a story?  If Muller were to answer that, "It is a word," then I don't see how the initial reaction to such a response isn't along the lines of, "Yeah, okay.  Then what?"  It would be very interesting if the final reply amounted to "What else is there?"  If that were the case, then an extraordinary thing has happened.  Muller would not just have discounted mythology as a topic worthy of serious intellectual consideration.  He would have, in effect, declared that the art of storytelling itself is an accidental, non-essential byproduct of evolution.  A book, then, would be something of no intrinsic value.

To be fair, this perspective may not be as uncommon as it sounds.  It's just that most readers never take it into account because it never gets as much expression in our surroundings.  This can lead to the misapprehension that the value of books and stories are more understood than they are in real life.  The difference is Muller seems to have been one of the rare types who were able to articulate his lack of interest in fiction with a clarity that can only come from a misspent college education.  The result turns him into a peculiar and fascinating curiosity.  There is a sense in which he can be said to be a type of reader.  However, it seems he can never be a genuine Bookworm.  Muller doesn't have it in him to be a reader's reader, in other words.  He can't make the connection between myth, culture, literacy, and social sustainability.  The idea that a civilization can only exist on the stories it lives with and the literacy it instills in its citizens is sorely lacking from his considerations.  

Besides this, there is also a questionable choice of phrasing in his sentences which could leave him open to the charge of cultural insensitivity towards others.  This is a fact which is evident in the quotations above.  It might also have been something that didn't escape Tolkien's attention when he read through Muller's works.  If that's the case, then his opening critique on Muller could be said to carry a very carefully hidden jab at the potential for racism.

The Current Status of Myth.

What has all this got to do with some introduction to a short story collection?  My concern is that (perhaps more through ignorance of source material, rather than through any kind of outright malice) Bernheimer is repeating the mistaken, and perhaps somewhat questionable claims of a previous century.  Max Muller's view of Myth as a disease was first launched way back during the Victorian Era.  That decade is somewhat relevant to this discussion, because it was sort of during that time when people began to try and re-establish the modern system of education.  Believe it or not, up until then, it's difficult to say that there was any kind of learning curriculum in place.  There might have been early attempts at it during the Classical, Renaissance, and possibly even the Middle Ages.  However, these were the years before Democracy, and politics kept getting in the way.  The Victorian Era marked the first period with enough stability in it to allow even the first glimmerings of a school system.

Since everything had to be created (or is it re-created?) from the ground up, it should come as no surprise that a lot of the academic subjects that we now take for granted would begin on somewhat contested ground.  This seems to have been true for the study of myth and folklore.  Scholars like Max Muller and others, such as James George Frazer took a kind of minimalist perspective that tended to denigrate, simplify, and in some cases flat out misrepresent the beliefs of older Non-European generations.  Anthropologists like Alexander Scott and Andrew Lang, meanwhile, kept arguing for a more careful, understanding, sifting, and sympathetic approach.  There may be a sense in which time has proven the latter technique as the correct method of exploration, though perhaps this stability has become precarious in recent years.  The crux of the matter for that department seems to have centered around what was the proper perspective from which to view the phenomena and content of myth, and ancient folkways and customs.  This is a debate that time has played curious tricks with.  On the one hand, it all happened so long ago that the names of the people involved still exist after they've been forgotten in obscurity.  On the other hand, those same debates may make up a part of our current situation in various volatile ways.  

It's doubtful that myth, just as a topic, will ever find much conscious traction in or current public discourse.  A pretty good rule of thumb is that if you want to discuss the origins on Grimm's Fairy Tales, then the last place you should look for it is on CNN.  It's the stated goal of companies like that to always have bigger fish to fry.  On the surface, it looks as if the only places  you can find out about folklore is limited to either the classroom or the bookstore aisles.  It appears as if we've managed to take mythology and its debates, and tuck the whole thing away in an out of the way corner.  One could make the case that this is the basic nature of pop-culture, a way of fixing things so you can forget about them, because it's better that way, safer.  Unless of course it isn't.  

I can't help wondering if a lot of Bernheimer's pronouncements stem from taking this surface appearance at face value.  If that's the case, then at least it might be possible to establish some of the further logic behind her choice of words.  I would like to make the case here and now that another, more essential part of her thinking has been established above.  I can't help thinking that a lot of Xo Orpheus's introduction has been influenced (maybe not in any real beneficial sense) by the kind of positive and negative debates held by Muller and Tolkien, or Frazer and Lang.  Her arguments seem to me like a kind of natural outgrowth of a text like The Golden Bough, more than anything else.  She's taken at least the positivist stance of that book and brought it to its perhaps natural end.  If this is the case, then the question becomes whether Bernheimer and Muller are correct?  On the surface, I can understand how appearances might be argued in support of her assumption.  I also said this is what seems to be happening on the surface of things.  It's on a much lower level that things get interesting.

I said above that it is often hard to find proof that myth has any conscious traction in our society.  I'm also willing to maintain that our system of values doesn't have any great awareness of the topic as any sort of important subject.  The problem is just this.  So far, there has been no proven way for life to get away from, or avoid the inevitability of the human mind.  As any good psychologist such as C.G. Jung could tell you, man is just as much at the mercy of his own psyche as he is to the tug-of-war known as politics.  Perhaps its even possible to make the case that the former constitutes an even greater challenge than we realize.  The real challenge lies in the fact that the mind is faceted, and multi-layered.  It's a fundamental fact of the psychological sciences that there is a lot more going on than just what we are able to perceive at the topmost level of our thoughts.  Under the hood, way down in the cellar, or maybe even at a sub-basement level, a lot more is going on than most of us will ever be aware of.  Or perhaps it helps to invert the order?  Maybe it makes more sense to view this level as a kind of attic that is so far up that we can't quite reach it through the normal levels of cognition, though we might get close to it in dreams.  It's like a hole, passageway, or unreachable skylight in the mind.  You may be able to see the skies, even you can never quite reach for it.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that this is the level where the imagination resides.

One of the things I find so interesting about the creative imagination is just how inaccessible it is, even under the best of circumstances.  Like everything else, it's just an inescapable fact of life.  The fascinating part is that it's one of the few elements of existence that you just can't manage to lay a hand on.  Instead it's like always just there like a background visitor or observer.  It can't seem to think like the normal mode of conscious human thought, however (a fact which just seems to deepen its mystery, rather than subtract from it).  Instead, if I had to give a description of its processes, then the best I can do is to compare it to a solitary game of ping pong.  The imagination seems to be like a natural force which acts as a wall that our thoughts tend to bounce off of on occasion.  Sometimes when our thoughts ricochet off the imagination, what happens then is that sometimes it can take that idea, and reflect it back to our conscious thought a manner that is best described as heightened, or caricatured.  It's the collective part of our minds that can't think in concepts, and so any idea it is capable of presenting has to be displayed more as an image, rather than a complete thought.  

These fictional images are the main product by which we are able to infer the existence of a creative faculty.  Their basic nature is to be found in the kind of impact they leave in our minds.  It is a type of stimulation, a rising and organizing of the emotions into an arrangement which, when delivered in just the right, or at least some form of proper imaginary presentation, is capable of producing a sensation or experience that, aside from being described in various terms such as pleasing or cathartic, is perhaps best encompassed under the umbrella term of the aesthetic reaction.  It is the ability to produce this particular reaction that appears to be one of the imagination's main purposes.  One undeniable conclusion to reach is that both the function and its products do tend to produce an aspect of life that seems to be unavailable through the rest of life's regular outlets.  This is the inescapable fact.  The fact itself has not prevented others from labeling it as unimportant.  Nor has the presence of this disdain ever been enough to prevent the imaginative function from having its way with us, in a number of methods.  Sometimes these can be pretty darn funny.  At other times, the result can be downright dangerous.

That highlights another great stumbling block Bernheimer has failed to take into account, the basic contours of human psychology.  Nor is she the only one, based on how little value is placed on the mental faculty by a culture focused on the cash value of daily existence.  This is a fact both Lang and Tolkien seemed more than aware of.  In addition to it's products, both writer and critic, along with psychologists like Jung seemed to realize that trying to ignore the imagination isn't the same as making it go away.  Nor, as any good clinical therapist could tell you, does trying to ignore the imagination make it go away.  Even in everyday, uncreative types, the imaginative function is still at work on a much more subliminal level.  This can demonstrated easily enough.  As most people go about their lives, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they structure their days in order to reduce all contact with the imagination to the barest minimum.  It may be possible to avoid the imagination during the waking hours, yet there's no real escape from it once you fall asleep.  As a result, it's easy enough to demonstrate that all of us, at one time or another, have experienced the often surreal phenomenon known as dreams.  It's almost like sex in a way.  Everybody does it.  Even unsophisticated animals, such as dogs, have been known to have a go at it.  The difference is one phenomenon excites, while the other just tends to leave us puzzled, at best.  It can terrifying at its worst.

Dreams can also be a source of annoyance for the unimaginative type because of the intractability of their nature.  Like the mind, there is no way you to get rid of them, and they seem to be more a feature, rather than a bug in the system.  I've never known what it's like to be unimaginative, so all I can do is guess at how aggravating the creative faculty must be for someone who relies on a constant sense of realism to get themselves through the day.  Jung, however, often wondered if perhaps this mindset might not be a sometimes fatal mistake.  The very nature of his day job meant that patients would come to his offices complaining about the contents of their dream with pretty decent regularity.  The good doctor was smart enough to know that it wasn't enough to just treat each case on an individual basis.  The course of his regular work as a therapist soon made Jung realize that sometimes the dreams of differing patients, with no personal contact or any kind of literacy, would often display imaginative material that shared ideas, images, or psychological themes that could be found in some of the most famous myths, or greatest works of art and world literature.  More than that, these themes, ideas, and images would sometimes form spontaneous patterns in the dream lives of his patients.

It was this discovery, along with collating and reading through the works of older artists and thinkers on the subject, the led Jung to the conclusion that the best term for the most common products of the imagination was the label of archetypes.  They are the basic mental building blocks of all our painting, films, books, and stories.  The best summation of this phenomena that I've ever read has to come from the late Dr. Erich Neumann, and the introduction to his book The Origins and History of Consciousness:

"The structural elements of the collective unconscious are named by Jung "archetypes" or "primordial images."  They are the pictorial forms of the instincts, for the unconscious reveals itself to the conscious mind in images which, as in dreams and fantasies, initiate the process of conscious reaction and assimilation.  These fantasy-images undoubtedly have their closest analogues in mythological types.  We must therefore assume that they correspond to certain collective (and not personal) structural elements of the human psyche in general, and, like the morphological elements of the human body, are inherited (xv)".

That's a lot to unpack in the space just a few sentences.  I'm not even sure if most of us will ever have cause to use a phrase like morphological in a sentence.  However, it turns out there is plenty of food for thought in the passage above.  For instance, Neumann's designation of the imagination as an unconscious element, one that is inherited, and not personal, is about the best explanation I've been able to find for why we can only know the function through its products, and never quite manage to lay a hold on the faculty in and of itself.  If the imagination truly is a collective unconscious element of the mind, then is it any wonder that laying a hold of it is like trying to grab smoke?  Neumann and Jung don't leave it at that however.  Both of them seemed aware that the inability to deal with the imagination is a risk with very dangerous potential for the man or woman in the street.  Neumann states the danger in the following terms:

"The archetypal structural elements of the psyche are psychic organs upon whose function the well-being of the individual depends, and whose injury has disastrous consequences: "Moreover, they are the unfailing causes of neurotic and even psychotic disorders, behaving exactly like neglected or maltreated physical organs or organic functional systems (xv-xvi)".  It is this second statement which I think carries a lot more weight than scholars like Bernheimer are willing to grant it.  She views the imagination in fundamentally passive terms.  It is something that exists, yet it is more like a trinket upon which we can exorcise our will at leisure.  Jung and Neumann, however, would tend to view such an idea as a very grave mistake.  A thought like that, in their opinion, would have consequences, not the very good kind, either.  The passage above flat out states that the nature of these consequences could be "disastrous".  What both psychiatrists are talking about is the mental damage that an individual can inflict upon himself if he either tries to ignore, eliminate, or in some way try and control the imagination, rather than learning to cooperate with its normal functions. 

What a thinker like Jung is getting at is that, in his opinion, the ridicule and marginalization of the imagination is not, in and of itself, anything like a legitimate, healthy social practice.  Instead, it's best thought of as an insufficient narrowing of the minds horizons.  Such an outlook tends to stifle the personality, rather than providing it with both an outlet which allows the individual a cathartic release from the struggles of modern life, and a certain amount of open-mindedness which acts as a spark to creativity.  On the other hand, the failure to recognize the value of the mind's creative principle, or one of its products, such as myth, just leaves the individual cut off and isolated from reality.  It's whenever a circumstance like this arises that the danger sets in.  Instead of any kind of logical growth and development, the personality of the individual begins to stagnate.  It's the various forms of damage this decay can have on the sanity that is the real risk factor involved.  Jung, in other words, was quite willing to believe that the devaluing of the imagination could sometimes amount to a form of neurosis.  If left unchecked, the potential for a violent form of psychosis was always going to have to be in the offing.  It's one of those paradoxical facts of life that don't keep it from being any less true.

A good example of this can be found in the way such individuals often finds themselves consumed by their imaginations, being unable to discern the difference between fact and the various fictions of their own troubled mental states.  This is the realm of delusion and hallucination.  There is a fundamental irony involved for anyone whose mind degenerates to such a state.  It may have started out as an inability to acknowledge the value of the imagination, and hence allow room or provide a proper, normal outlet for the faculty.  If this can sometimes be the case, then it shouldn't be too much of a surprise to learn that those who can't or won't reconcile with the imagination often wind up succumbing to it in a lot of unhealthy ways.  The scoffers have not banished myth, they are merely ruled by it in the form of neurotic illusions, deviant private fantasies, persecution complexes, and paranoia.  These are the kind of maladies that are easy enough to find.  All you have to do is turn on the news to know what I'm talking about.  It's a topic most of us would like to get away from, and not without some pretty good reasons.  However, I think it's worth going into at least one aspect of it, as it might help us to determine whether Bernheimer's main thesis is true or false.  Are we saying goodbye to myths, or is the true a bit more complex?

I think the best answer I've seen to that question is provided by a scholar named Jonathan Ratcliffe.  His thoughts on the matter are interesting, to say the least.  I'll admit right up front that sometimes I may not be all that sure of where he's going.  Nor can I say I agree with the entirety of the point his making in the article I'm about to cite.  However, I also can't shake the idea that he has it in him to be one of the few commentator's of our troubled cultural moment to get very near to grasping the core issue of the problem.  I don't say that he has it all figured out, nor even that he's gone as far as he could.  All I know for certain is that I'm convinced he may have grasped at least one major part of the truth.  In the first part of a trilogy of articles, entitled Return of the Reactionary, Ratcliffe devotes a lot of his study to the inner workings of the type of individual that has been making their way into the news a lot in recent days.  What makes Ratcliffe's scholarship on this issue so fascinating is that he is willing to pinpoint the interaction of a disaffected modern or postmodern mind with the contents of myth itself.  What he found there might just be revealing:

"The reactionary is a creature of obsessive order, dredging up totems from the past in the hope that these might plug the hole in a world he views as balancing precariously on the brink of chaos. A saturnine being, doomed mostly to Gnostic escape fantasies and at worst millenarian obsessions with renewing some cyclic Age of Gods through force, a “back to the future”. We might be able to laugh at Ignatius J. Reilly wailing about “decadence” in The Confederacy of Dunces, but we have trouble finding the sense in and compassion for the theocrat, the Hobbesian brutalist and especially the fascist because their confected primordiality is no longer cute. It has become a dangerous attempt to reverse things which may not be reversible – a desperate psychosis before the Ground of Being. Yet, as Bruno Latour has suggested, perhaps no matter who we are today, we are all reactionaries of a sort trying to mine the symbols of the past for a future based not upon time but upon locating things in shared global space.[5] There is room for everything and an audience for everything, just so long as it has been done before. A quick glance over what fills the cinemas, publishing houses and record labels at present – the mania of absolute nostalgia – is enough to leave one a little cold. But is it all just hypnotic, comforting rerun?

"As much as it might annoy someone like Latour who likes to claim “we have never been modern”,[6] not so long ago now it was touted that we are in fact becoming “metamodern”...Western culture is in an interregnum. On one hand for the past thirty years or more we have loured under the cynicism of post-modern mash-ups – all that can be done has been done, and any attempt to “restart” history will never happen. On the other we desire to have the “grand narratives” of modernity back, big stories of human destiny. We want a second naivety, but we cannot quite bring ourselves to commit or create something beyond our comfort zone of pasts that were fleeting or died so long ago no one else is interested in them. The “alt right” reactionary’s reworking of the grand narratives of fascism and Christendom are perfect for this strange betweenness because they are so “outsider” and long discarded that they have become invitingly new again. We are nearly a century from World War Two. The moral power that flows from imminence to this pivotal event is beginning to fade into mere “history”, whether we are comfortable with this or otherwise. Most people are not, and this fuels the idea that one has discovered something powerful in an age that is disinterestedly accepting or dismissive of just about everything (web)".

If there's anything to fault Ratcliffe for, part of it might be that his thought and the cultural references that go along with it might be too damn fast for the reader in the street.  Still, the main point of those two paragraphs is sound enough, so far as it goes.  Far from the times having changed as Bernheimer claims (xxii), it seems like the hunger for myth hasn't really gone much of anywhere over the last few decades.  There is a major aspect that sticks out like a sore thumb in all of this. A lot of it is one, big, continuous negative use of old tropes and themes from a series of artistic works that were never designed to support this kind of blatant and rampant abuse.  It's one of the oldest tactics in history; the taking of a nominally good idea or concept, and then turning it towards negative or harmful uses.  I've got to admit, as a lifelong bookworm, this is the part that is easy to get under my skin.  There are a lot of sad sights out there.  One of them is seeing a good book spoiled.  

If I had to provide a summation for why any of it is possible in the first place, then part of the answer might come from an argument that was made at least seven decades ago.  A think another Jungian, P.W. Martin, gave a better summation of the facts than Bernheimer has ever been able to.  Her mistake is in thinking that science is faultless.  It may be exact, though it's abilities depend on who's at the wheel.  In that sense it can be either a benefit or a hazard.  This is something Martin knew very well.  In his 1955 study, Experiment in Depth, Martin observed the following: "Science has immensely increased the possibilities of power - productive power, destructive power, administrative power, power of propaganda, power over others generally.  On this the ideologies have flourished.  Use the living myth to grasp power, use power to spread the living myth, is the short formula for world dictatorship.  And in the ideologies the caustic power of quickly dealt with.  Dictators write their own science.

"As a consequence, at the present time we have a world in which the living myth comes to men...very much by way of ideologies.  From this it results that the peoples...find themselves, in a fashion, cut off...uncertain, undecided, unsure of themselves and of life.  Against them are arrayed fanatical faiths, which to them seem madness or worse, but in which the living myth unquestionably moves.  Hesitating between these two ways of life are the great illiterate masses of the world, now moving into a...technological age.  To which side allegiance is likely to go still remains an open question.  But this much is certain.  Men need the living myth as surely as they need bread.  Bread sustains life, but the myth gives life point (4-5)".  In that sense, it seems like part of the real challenge moving forward is figuring out the difference between a pocketful of complete lies, and those with at least a given amount of truth in them.

Conclusion: A Poor Premise.

A careful examination of the current status of myth in contemporary culture seems to reveal a lot of things.  For starters, it proves that the theories of critics like Bernheimer may have shot wide of the mark.  Far from vanishing from the face of the human mind, it seems as if the phenomena remains as prevalent as ever.  The one element that stands out like a sore thumb in all of this is what I have to maintain is the constant misuse, or outright abuse of myth.  If the work of commentators like Jon Ratcliffe are able to provide a useful catalogue of the various types of abuses applied to a lot of old mythic concepts, then I'm almost compelled to highlight the other service it throws into the bargain.  In addition to describing the lengths some will go to in order to gain a private sense of power on a very public scale, one more lesson to take away from Ratcliffe's article is that there is something inevitable about the myth making function of the imagination.  It really does appear, for all intents and purposes, to be as inescapable as oxygen or even thought itself.  All that does is leave human beings with the task (unenviable or otherwise) of trying to make sense of it all.  

This amounts to a number of discernible facts.  Human beings are born with (1) an unalterable storytelling function.  This function (2) is capable of producing narratives, some of which are classified as myths.  These two obvious enough facts beg the final question.  (3) Is there any general or specific meaning to be found in all of this?  A good way to rephrase that last question, in light of a lot of current controversy, might go like this.  Is it still possible to say that there is anything positive to be taken away from the phenomenon?  What good is myth for, anyway?  The curious thing is that it's a question Bernheimer never really decides to bother with.  To be fair, she was writing at a time when there were none of the current headaches to deal with.  This might be enough to leave one with a sense of security that, in retrospect, comes off as bit naive, as well as premature.  All the recent controversies have done, however, is force everyone's hand, and demand that the question be asked afresh.  

Is it possible for there to be a place for myth, even after what amounts to a parade of all the ways it can be misused in the name of everything that can be described as wrong?  I think the start of the answer to that question was put best by Tolkien.  "Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased (web)".  If that is the case, then it leaves us having to distinguish between the proper and improper functions of myth.  If trying to use Mt. Olympus to build up a false and unscientific concept of race is an improper use of myth, then what was the phenomenon even trying to do in the first place?  I'm willing to argue there's a more or less definitive answer to that question.  It can be expressed in both simple and complex ways.  Since this isn't an encyclopedia, and not much in the way of a philosophical treatise, perhaps its best to keep it simple, stupid.  The best answer I've got is that myths seem to be there for our own sanity.  In addition, when used properly, they may just help us wind up a bit wiser and overall healthier than when we started out.  That, at least, is how and where I would begin the first discussions of the proper functions of myth.  

It's possible to go almost everywhere from that starting point.  It's also just as easy to get lost after going no more than a few feet.  This also something that Tolkien understood.  The realm of myth is "is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold".  It is a subject that "is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them (web)".  I guess the real trick then amounts to this.  Just how do you avoid pitfalls when talking about myth, and the faculty that produces it, anyway?  I think we've been provided some of the answer through current events.  It's probably more than just a mistake to try and graft myths onto dangerously false notions of race and politics.  On the same note, it probably would help to see if its possible to recover a saner ground of context when it comes to having an intelligent discussion of the topic.

A good way to start recovering that ground might be to look into what happens when myth is able to generate an actual positive reaction in its audience.  The most common fact I've been able to observe, uncover, or read about with regard to the genuine uses of myth concerns the way it can produce a healthy effect on our emotions.  It's a subject that Bernheimer refuses to attach any importance to in the course of her introduction.  For some reason I can't shake the idea that this could have been a mistake on her part.  For her, it all hinges on whether emotion, just as a fact of life, can be said serve any vital function.  It would be interesting to find out whether or not the editor held out some kind of place for the emotions in the obvious realm that exists outside of the arts.  However, this is another aspect where clarification is not forthcoming.  One almost wishes that Bernheimer had seen fit to expand on her thesis with a bit more space.  Instead, all I can infer with certainty is that it at least "appears" as if she's saying that it's impossible for her to see the value of emotion in relation to the arts.  The overall picture she keeps presenting is of a general low view of literature, and of the responses it creates in the audience.

To be fair, there may be nothing new in all this.  It was a viewpoint in the writings of critics like Max Muller.  If there is any possible truth to that statement, then it's sort of useless to be surprised if one critics several decades down the timeline finds herself in agreement with a similar conclusion reached all the way back in the Victorian Era.  This is merely drawing to a conclusion, however.  It does nothing to tell us whether the findings arrived at have any essential merit.  For my part, I have to admit that it's difficult to see how the idea of Muller and Bernheimer don't amount to a critical poison for the imaginative capabilities of the human mind.  They do this by posing a threat not just to man's creative faculty, but also to our abilities to even reason in the first place.  It's true that emotion can sometimes be a hindrance.  This is easily seen in the case of hysterics, where the individual's heightened condition has made it difficult for them to think.  All that can be experienced is a negative emotion that clouds the very possibility of judgment.  

However, is this all that an emotion amounts to?  What about the feelings of Einstein when he discovered the Theory of Relativity?  Was the discoverer of the cure for Polio incapable of feeling joy, or any kind of sense of gratitude or relief when he made his breakthrough?  Did Amelia Earhart not understand the sense of exhilaration when she first learned how to fly?  Was Martin Luther King incapable of conceiving any type of human sympathy?  If such is the case, then it's a wonder any of them accomplished what they did.  And maybe it's here that the flaws of Bernheimer's argument becomes a little more clear.  Her main issue, as far as I can tell, is that she spends so much time narrowing, or defining down her description of what an emotion is, not just in relation to art, but also that of life in general, that she tends to overlook a lot of the other applications it has in real life.  The result is a definition that can't help sounding just a bit warped, like a painting of the Mona Lisa where the smile is off, rather than pitch-perfect as it should be.  

This all sort of points to the major flaw at the heart of Bernheimer's premise.  Each one of her talking points just winds up being too shallow for its own good.  She's always leaving certain vital elements out of the discussion, which creates a skewed lens of perspective.  If the critic wishes to have a proper discourse on the arts, then one of the prerequisites is a more expansive definition.  It has to be one that is capable of taking into account all the various modes and manifestations that the imagination is capable of producing, or else has created over the course of human history.  Since the arts have spanned over numerous and varied cultures across time, it only makes sense to keep an open mind.  It's a good rule of thumb as far as criticism goes.  So it's kind of a regret to find that Bernheimer doesn't quite sound like she wants to go there.

More than anything else, I just find myself unable to buy into the idea that the experience of art can be reduced to "just a feeling".  If you want to say that emotions have their part to play in the artistic experience, then all I can do is admit that of course, you're correct.  One of the key ingredients of art is enjoyment, after all.  That in itself requires the experience and actual presence of positive aesthetic emotions.  If human psychology was incapable of such reactions, then it would be an open question of whether or not artistic creativity, in and of itself, would even be able to exist.  However, I think the real issue which Bernheimer has difficulty approaching can be stated in the form of another question.  It's whether or not those emotions mean anything?  She holds that they do not, and also cuts her own argument off at the knees in the same instant.  Rather than stop and make a critical examination and exploration of the proper aesthetic emotional reactions, she consigns to them a kind of accidental status.  It's a judgment made worse in opinion due to the fact that she approaches it as a fait acompli, rather than an open topic for genuine, open-ended consideration.

The editor prefers to leave it as a statement that hangs in the air with little verification to back it up.  It is at least possible for me to say I know where I'm coming from when I advocate for a more expansive definition of artistic emotions.  It's been on display throughout every sentence in this article.  I guess the best term I've got for it is that of the viewpoint or lens that comes from Romanticism.  At least it could be described as a type, or version of it, anyway.  I do think it's not out of bounds to describe Bernheimer's own take on literature as one that fits the label of naturalistic.  Again, there's nothing new about her approach.  Nor is it one that I'm able to find anything like real common ground with.  I think the topic of myth, and everything that goes with it, is much too expansive for her introduction to encompass.  The real interesting part is that this is just the start of things.  We've been talking this whole time about just the opening host segments to an anthology series.  The stories themselves still remain to be told, and each of them comes from the pen or word processor of various artists with their own views of their craft.  Let's just say that we probably haven't heard the last of Xo Orpheus, and the experience of an actual myth, or story, might reveal itself to be more nuanced than anything dreamed of in the editor's philosophy.


  1. (1) Good lord, has it really been seven years since I read that anthology? Time insists on flying. I had to skim my own review to remember literally anything about having read it, which is not unusual for me; my memory is not the greatest. It sounds like a book with some very high highs, if nothing else.

    (2) I think it's possible that escaping myth is impossible, even if one makes a conscious effort. Maybe that's what myth is: culture that become so embedded that it cannot be gotten away from. If so, we are perpetually building upon it, and therefore in a sense embedding the myths further. Put another way, the mere act by Orpheus of telling us goodybe ensures that he will be sticking around for quite some time to come.

    (3) Ultimately, I suppose I'd say I'm a bit more kindly disposed toward Bernheimer's premise than you are; but neither can I argue much with your own premise, which is that hers is flawed. If nothing else, it's flawed in a manner that causes one to engage with it actively enough to end up being worthwhile no matter what.

    1. (2) Well if that's the case, I'd say that makes the response all the more obvious. Apparently, all anyone can do is to at least try and see to it that we tell each other as many good myths as possible. That and try the ensure that all the best myths never get abused.

      If that's at least part of what it takes to make up a functioning culture, then, given all the cautionary provisos listed above, I'd have to say, yeah, I'm all for it.