"The central answer is that myths are permanent. They deal with the greatest of all problems, the problems that do not change because men and women do not change. They deal with love; with war; with sin; with tyranny; with courage; with fate: and all in some way or other deal with the relations of man to those divine powers which are sometimes to be cruel, and sometimes, alas, to be just." Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition
Whether we are aware of it or not, we live by stories, which is another way of saying we live by myths. Some we choose; others choose us. Contrary to the common misconception, a myth is not necessarily a falsehood. It is, rather, a way of symbolically and metaphorically narrating experience so as to give it form, and by so doing, make us feel we somewhat comprehend and somehow control our destinies. Our myths are the stories we have taken to heart. As in days of old when our ancestors heard the inspired, spell-binding tales told round the fire at night, it is only our myths that can give us the courage to live fully. There are even myths that make cowards of us all.
Facts, no matter how many we marshal, are incapable of doing this for us. Facts by themselves are dead; they must inevitably leave us cold. Only a good story, legend or myth, can bring us life, help us live.
Myths are the hidden infrastructure of our outward lives. All we do hangs upon their frames.
Are not lives telling stories? Do we not tell our lives by living stories? Do not others tell those stories about us when we are dead?
It seems to me in essential ways we are all eternal children. We are always eager to hear just one more story before we go to sleep for the night, or for good. The next story might just be The Story we've always been waiting to hear.
When my children were very young, they would be satisfied to have the pictures in their books pointed out to them. Dog, cat, elephant. As the legendary television cop was wont to say, "The facts, nothing but the facts." (A telling myth indeed: as a people we are obsessed with facts, data, information -- as though a thousand facts could add up to a meaningful conclusion.) Soon, however, the facts bored them; they wanted to hear something living. So they soon began plucking story books from the bookcase; wanting to hear how living creatures move and hold together; they yearned for the bright book of life that only tales can tell.
The author Joseph Campbell, when he was alive, published many books (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, etc.) in which he brilliantly explored the origins, meaning, and universality of humankind's myths. Since myths are what people take for granted and do not question since they are the invisible narrative skeletons of their lives, his studies quite naturally attracted a small readership. Ironically, it was only after his death in 1987 that Campbell's message found a large audience through the mythical medium of television in a PBS series narrated by Bill Moyers based on Campbell's book, The Power of Myth. Here was a dead man conveying via videotape a living message that said in effect that the "hard facts" -- including the belief that what one sees on television or at the movies is "real" -- on which many feel their lives and security rest are actually parts of symbolic myths. Our concepts of time, space, God, death, self -- all these and other invisible building blocks of life stories, Campbell maintains, are rooted in myths.
This, of course, is an unsettling message for many people who, against their better judgments and night-time inklings (i.e. their dreams), read life literally and live their lives according to the dead letter or the law of "facts." I am not suggesting that there are no facts; that is absurd and a form of madness. But facts exist within a larger framework of reference and interpretation. Nor do I think that Campbell is right to claim that we don't seek a meaning for life through myth. We do. But he is right to suggest, as he does in the following quote, that we seek through myths something else as well. "I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive."
The rapture of being alive! I am sure that was what my children wanted when they looked up at me with their books in hand, as my young grandchildren do today. They wanted a good story, a living myth, a tale resonating with wonder and, yes, fear. But a fear tamed in the telling, the vital reassurance only a good story can give.
I choose to believe with Keats in the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination. Call it, if you will, the storyteller's myth.
And that reminds me of a good story, "The Illusionless Man," written by Allen Wheelis, who was a psychoanalyst and writer. It is the story of a man who vows to do without all the illusions or myths others find so comforting. One by one he strips them away only to find in the end that he's still left with one illusion -- the illusion that he's illusionless.
In our ends, as in our beginnings, there is no escape. Myths, illusions, stories, call them what you may; they are as vital to us as the air we breathe.
So choose a good one. Your life depends upon it.
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