The Survival of Myth: Innovation, Singularity and Alterity Revised edition by Paul Hardwick and David Kennedy (Cambridge Scholars Publishing) What are myths and what are they for? Myths are stories that both tell us how to live and remind us the inescapability and pull of the collective past. The Survival of Myth: Innovation, Singularity and Alterity explores the continuing power of primal stories to inhabit our thinking. An international range of contributors examine a range of texts and figures from the Bible to Cormac McCarthy and from Thor to the Virgin Mary to focus on the way that ancient stories both give access to the unconscious and offer individuals and communities personae or masks. Myths translated and recreated become, in this sense, very public acts about very private thoughts and feelings. The subtitle of the book, Innovation, Singularity and Alterity, reflects the way in which the history of cultures in all genres is a history of innovation, of a search for new modes of expression which, paradoxically, often entails recourse to myth precisely because it offers narratives of singularity and otherness which may be readily appropriated. The individual contributors offer testament to the continuing significance of myth through its own constant metamorphosis, as it both reflects and transforms the societies in which it is (re)produced.
Excerpt: Ovid begins the Metamorphoses, 'In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / corpora', which Arthur Golding famously translated in his 1567 version as 'Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge, I purpose to entreate.' More than 1,500 years after Ovid, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle wrote in The Concept of Mind (1949) that 'A myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another.' (Ryle 2000, 72) Facts in different idioms are crucial to many of Ovid's tales. The nymph lo, transformed into a heifer, is unable to speak and so traces the letters of her name in the dust with her hoof. Myths, then, are closely associated with species of exchange and traffic between different modes of representation; and that exchange and traffic are themselves closely associated with the origin, function and subject matter of myth which, as Robert Segal notes, 'unite the study of myth across the disciplines.' (Segal 2004, 2) Segal is, incidentally, one of the few recent writers who have attempted to say clearly what myth is: myth, he argues, is a story that 'accomplishes something significant for adherents', although he leaves 'open-ended what that accomplishment might be.' (Segal 2004, 6) We might add, however, that the transformations of myth tell us much about the transformative nature of story itself.
The tales in Metamorphoses are re-tellings of ancient Greek versions of even older stories and this speaks to two important characteristics of myth. First, myths are not only stories of transformation but are also imaginative transformations of existing stories. Second, myth has what might be termed an archaeological function. Sigmund Freud, whose study and consulting room were filled with ancient artefacts, made a direct comparison between the discoveries of psychoanalysis and the discoveries of archaeology. Just as archaeology brings to light the enduring influence of older ideas of belief and social organization, so psychoanalysis reveals how our inner lives are moulded and driven by primitive psychological experiences. In the words of Donald Kuspit, Freud's artefacts 'reminded him of the inescapability and pull of the collective past, that is, of the fact that we all exist, phenomenologically speaking, in already sedimented life.' (In Gamwell and Wells, eds, 1989, 150) A myth, reimagined and retold in the idiom and modes of a particular age, puts us in touch with that sense of sedimentation.
It would be very easy to take this convergence of archaeology and psychoanalysis and argue that myths echo the structure of the unconscious and that this explains in large part our enduring fascination with them. However, it is probably truer to say that the physical transformations, supernatural beings, and magical objects have much to tell us about how the unconscious emerges into waking, material life. In this sense, myths might be likened to a residue, supplementary material, that stubbornly resists assimilation into economic and scientific models of human development. Myths may therefore offer another way of thinking about origins and evolution although, as several of our contributors demonstrate, this has often been used to justify nationalistic ideologies.
In marked contrast to the continuing cultural uses of myth, literary critical interest in myth has tended to focus on either psychological and psychoanalytic readings or structural similarities. There has been little attempt to study a range of specific examples of how and why myths are retold and reused. Books on myth tend to fall into three distinct categories: `overview' studies such as Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth; collections of myths from particular cultures; and reimaginings such as Margaret Atwood's recent The Penelopiad. Atwood's book is part of a larger series in which leading novelists, such as Ali Smith and Jeanette Winterson, are invited to retell Greek and Roman myths for a contemporary readership. The Survival of Myth aims to make a particular intervention in the study of myth and literature by examining a range of uses of myth. If writers keep returning to myth then that is because myth differentiates itself from other discourses by speaking to the lives of individuals, communities and nations simultaneously; and by addressing the way that that emotional life is bound up with cycles of birth, growth and death. Crucially, myth often provides a way of dealing with whatever anxieties seem to be challenging the contemporary moment. As the new millennium gets under way, we are surrounded by new myths of otherness and by a range of conflicting stories about the future of the planet. Indeed, it seems that myth for our times has ceased to be historical and has become synonymous with fantasies about the future. After all, what are the conflicting stories on climate change and global warming if not different templates for how to live?
This, then, is the focus of this collection of essays. Our contributors examine a range of texts from the Biblical to the contemporary and some common threads can be detected. Many of our contributors focus on the way that ancient stories both give access to the unconscious and offer individuals and communities personae or masks. Myths translated and recreated become, in this sense, very public acts about very private thoughts and feelings. The subtitle of our book, 'Innovation, Singularity and Alterity,' reflects the way in which the history of cultures in all genres is a history of innovation, of a search for new modes of expression which, paradoxically, often entails recourse to myth precisely because it offers narratives of singularity and otherness which may be readily appropriated. The individual contributors offer testament to the continuing significance of myth through its own constant metamorphosis, as it both reflects and transforms the societies in which it is (re)produced.
We believe that this volume will provide stimulating readings of the cultural and literary uses of myth through presenting a range of interdisciplinary and transhistorical perspectives. The Survival of Myth is, however, is not just a collection of 'case histories'. The common link between its eleven essays is that myths are much more than a collection of readymade stories. Karalina Matskevich's structuralist narratological approach to the biblical narrative of Jacob opens this collection by illuminating the foundational metaphors upon which largely unquestioned gender hierarchies have subsequently been constructed. In contrast, Gillian Alban reaches back further in order to trace the evolution of Melusine, the legendary snake woman of the Middle Ages, and demonstrates how her symbolic power, whether worshipped or abhorred, has remained undiminished from prehistory to her incorporation into popular Christian devotion and beyond. Whilst crossing a somewhat shorter temporal distance, David Annwn shows how geographically distant and isolated communities have functioned according to congruent mythical matrices, both of themselves and in response to outside intervention.
Few figures are as central to the transmission of myth in the West than Ovid. Amina Alyal explores the ways in which Ovidian metamorphoses in the English Reformation period translated proscribed theological patterns of thought into imaginative metaphor which would resonate in poetry throughout subsequent centuries. Focusing upon the enthusiasm for Ovid in Renaissance England, Sarah Carter considers how the figure of Hermaphroditus was imaginatively employed in translations and retellings — somewhat surprisingly, perhaps — in order to support contemporary views of gendered concepts of behaviour in the period. Cliff Forshaw traces a line of translators and adapters of Ovid from the Renaissance to the start of the twenty-first century, arguing persuasively that truth to the spirit of myth is only to be found once slavish adherence to the letter of the myth is abandoned.
In looking at the modern fortunes of the Norse god Thor, Martin Arnold demonstrates the way in which myth may function as an ideological battleground upon which nationalistic struggles may be both fought and legitimised. Alan Halsey, focusing upon a rather different kind of contest — conflicting accounts of Percy Bysshe Shelley's death — offers a fascinating exemplar of how mythological motifs may enter even the most avowedly 'factual' accounts to fill the gaps in which raw facts themselves fail to deliver the required levels of significance demanded by the narrator.
Katie Lister demonstrates the way in which the erotically-charged literary and cultural myth of the femme fatale may be appropriated as an icon of autonomous female power, rather than a dangerously alluring male fantasy figure. Further exploring rhetorics of power and identity, D. W. de Villiers engages with the problems of mythologizing one's own country, whereby such a process may enable the dissolution of the very ideological structure it seeks to enshrine. Maria del Mar Perez-Gil closes this collection by exploring how a number of contemporary English-speaking women writers have questioned the established symbolism of the Virgin Mary as an essentially passive, subordinate role model and instead have presented her as an icon of strength through shared female experience.
This discussion in many ways returns us to our first essay, but each contribution — however distinct in scope and approach — casts light on each other. Together, the essays in this book argue that myth's adaptability and malleability have enabled and continue to enable writers to do three important things: to innovate and invent, to scrutinise and in some cases go beyond the norms of the culture and time in which they are writing, and to explore otherness. Our individual contributors offer testament to the continuing significance of myth through its own constant metamorphoses, as it both reflects and transforms the societies in which it is (re)produced.
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