June 10, 2022
I have been content for my entire career to be identified as a “myth critic,” even though that label is 50 years out of date. Myth criticism was a school for a brief period back in the 60’s, appeared like spring daffodils and just as quickly disappeared. Its one abiding name is that of Northrop Frye, and even he is often regarded in academia as one who, however brilliant, is not merely unfashionable but mistaken. I used to warn students headed for graduate school (back when we had any) that their love of mythology, including the literature that recreates mythology for a later era, would most likely be regarded as, at best, naïve, at worst, reactionary. I still believe, with Frye, that literature produces patterns that, if not universal, are at least widespread, frequently cross-cultural, and fascinating to many people, even if they are not sure why they are fascinated. We can call the narrative patterns myths if we keep in mind that mythos in Greek simply means “story,” and does not necessarily refer to religious truth. We can call the recurrent images symbols, or, as Frye and C.G. Jung do, archetypes, without implying that they are like Platonic Ideas existing in some transcendent realm beyond this shifting world in which the only constants are death and taxes.
But, when the subject of myths and archetypes is raised, there are plenty of people who are not only not fascinated but not amused. The idea of recurrent patterns is objected to on two grounds, aesthetic and moral. Artistically, the effect of mythical and symbolic patterns is said to reduce everything to sameness, to safe and predictable but monotonous formula. Even students who have not been inoculated with literary theory are frequently open to this suggestion because it speaks to the individualism in modern culture, especially American culture, that we were examining in the last newsletter. Every work of art is unique, it is said, and we should respect its individuality, not reduce it to an example of a type. While it is true that myths and symbols can become mere formulas, and it is also true that there is a kind of myth criticism that I used to call “the cookie-cutter school of archetypes,” in which all of literature was reduced to pretty much the same sort of thing, the idea that a work of art can be unique and also a recreation of a traditional pattern arouses a great deal of resistance. One reason is that either-or arguments are safe because they do not violate the supposed law of non-contradiction, the problem with them being only that they are demonstrably wrong. The myth of Orpheus has been recreated countless times, up to and including Anais Mitchell’s musical Hadestown, without anyone complaining that it’s the same old thing every time. Because it isn’t—but it is still the Orpheus myth come round again. Like the daffodils. Like Eurydike, if only Orpheus hadn’t looked back.
The moral objection is that, while myths are defended as vehicles of “universal truths” even when they are factually untrue, they are really just ideology in attractive disguise. They impose themselves on people: the theoretical phrase is “the violence of the letter,” and their mental violence can easily lead to physical violence and oppression. The myth of Christianity teaches the “universal truth” that everything but heterosexuality is “unnatural” and therefore accursed of God. Even myths regarded as fictional are violent because they teach violence: Zeus, swooping down on mortal women and boys, is the ultimate patriarchal #MeToo nightmare. To the objection that a myth is not reducible to every ideology that has been attached to it, the response is again either-or: it’s the baby or the bathwater, baby.
My response to such objections to Frye’s theory of myths and archetypes is to point to where he got it from: the work of poet and artist William Blake, not a conservative peddling an ideology of authoritarian conformity disguised as universal truths but a working-class leftist who wrote poems supporting both the French and the American revolutions. In Blake’s view, the function of the imagination was to explode the least-common-denominator consensus that passes for “reality.” His work is full of assertions that we do not perceive alike, that we in fact live in different realities: in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he insists that “A fool sees not the same tree as a wise man sees” (35). In A Vision of the Last Judgment, he says, “What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea [a coin] O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty” (565-66). He does not mean that he sees some New Age subjective fantasy image in place of the objective sun. In Blake’s view, the imagination does not passively record reality but creates it: “As a man is So he Sees. As the Eye is formed such are its Powers” (702). And again: “For the Eye altering alters all” (485). And, returning to the solar image again, “The Suns Light when he unfolds it / Depends on the Organ that beholds it” (260).
The last thing Blake wants is unity, if unity means the uniformity of a consensus reality, which to him means a kind of minimum-level reality imposed as “normality” or “sanity” out of a need for security. Many people want to be reassured that there is one reality, namely, the one that they perceive. But consensus reality is passive: we perceive it out of rote habit. The habit is deeply ingrained—Blake is not naïve enough to think it can be simply wished away—but the first step in breaking out of it into more active and energetic perception is to realize that its stubborn persistence proves only that our conditioning lies deep. Ordinary reality is a bad habit, and the arts for Blake are a discipline for breaking out of it, for cleansing the doors of perception, in his famous phrase. Consensus reality is average and generalized, achieved by smoothing out what Blake called the “minute Particulars” of experience. But “To generalize is to be an Idiot,” Blake replies, although, yes, it’s an old joke that the remark is itself a generalization. To the extent that we break out of passive, generalized perception, reality blossoms into diversity, into pluralism, a word made famous by the psychologist and philosopher William James, whom I have mentioned in a recent newsletter, and whose philosophy has many points of contact with Blake.
Occasionally we recognize that the stable reality in front of us is largely a habitual construct. When something knocks us out of our rote habits of perception, we may suddenly see things that have been in front of us the whole time, unnoticed. In my case, it is all too often when sudden sunlight reveals overlooked dust and dirt, and I wonder with disgust how long all that has been lurking there. But it is not always just trivial and silly. One of the achievements of modern art has been to teach us of what we might call the mysticism of the everyday. In a wonderful poem called “A Hole in the Floor,” Richard Wilbur looks down through a hole a carpenter has made in his parlor floor “As Schliemann stood” looking down into excavated Troy,” and sees his ordinary house transformed:
And here is a cluster of shavings From the time when the floor was laid. They are silvery-gold, the color Of Hesperian apple-parings.
He sees the radiator pipe, but “Here it’s not painted green, / As it is in the visible world.” He asks, “For God’s sake, what am I after?” and answers himself:
the buried strangeness Which nourishes the known: That spring from which the floor-lamp Drinks now a wilder bloom, Inflaming the damask love-seat And the whole dangerous room.
Wilbur is a quiet, unpretentious poet, but make no mistake: as the allusions make clear, this is a mythical descent quest into what in The Productions of Time I call the Otherworld, which is nonetheless our world seen differently. Dangerous? There is a clue in the dedication “for René Magritte,” the surrealist painter. Look through a hole in your floor and your comfortably familiar home becomes strange, surreal. That implies an instability of perception that is threatening for some. What we thought we knew turns out to be a habitual façade, and who knows what is beneath it? I suspect that may be the reason that some people freak out over a mouse in the walls. Nothing could be more harmless than a mouse—but they are denizens of that dark world. If you catch one alive in a humane trap, it is cute—but its eyes are huge, and utterly black.
However, there can also be a fascination with perceptions that are not our own, with perceptions that are not even human. One of Blake’s most famous aphorisms is, “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” (35). Even more daringly, the philosopher Thomas Nagel in a famous essay asked, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”—to live in a world perceived by sound rather than by sight? If I say that I seem to have been unusually obsessed with the question of perceptual diversity when I was young, I assure you it is not to bill myself as the child in Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode,” whom he calls “Thou best Philosopher”—a bit of overkill, that, I have always thought. Still, in high school I wrote an essay from the point of view of an ant, another denizen of a world below the surface. And even earlier, in junior high school—I was what, twelve, thirteen?—in another essay I worked myself into a troubled, peculiar state of mind trying to imagine what the infinite perception of God must be like. God is omniscient, so that must mean that in his consciousness no point of view is overlooked or unknown. I imagined him knowing, paying attention to every single blade of grass, how the shadows of other blades fell upon that grass, changing every moment, and so on. I have no idea what a therapist would have made of all this, but luckily there were no therapists for kids in those days.
Whatever the mouse-eyed or bat-eared experience of the world must be like, it is less disturbing to contemplate than the jolting, unexpected revelation that the world seems radically different to another human being, perhaps someone we have lived with for years and thought we knew. Literature (not to mention life) is full of people who wake up one day and realize they have totally deluded themselves about the partner they are now trapped with. A good number of them are women who glamorize men that everyone but they can see are fakes. Dorothea Brooke marries Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch thinking he’s a great scholar, only to find that he’s a dried-up crackpot. Isabel Archer marries Gilbert Osmond in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady because of his supposed artistic sensibilities, only to find that he is a con artist. Yet perhaps even more painful is the experience of Gabriel Conroy in James Joyce’s great story “The Dead,” precisely because it moves in the opposite direction from disillusionment. Gabriel comes to learn that his wife, Gretta, had been loved in her girlhood by a 17-year-old young man named Michael Furey. The genial and stable Gabriel is shocked to learn, not just that his wife had a lover he never knew about, but one who loved her so much he died for her by coming to see her in winter cold and rain despite his ill-health. Gabriel is a good man, and his response is not stupid jealousy of a “rival” long dead. But what is there about Gretta that he has not ever seen that would cause another man to love her that deeply and die for her? Their own marriage has never been passionate in that way.
One of my favorite bands, the more-or-less defunct Eddie from Ohio, has a song called “Clear and Present Danger,” whose chorus runs, “In the deep blue night I sleep next to a stranger / Honey, open your eyes to the clear and present danger.” Its final verse opens,
And honey I do love you That is one thing that I know But every person has a face That they never really show
In other words, to some extent everyone sleeps next to a stranger. The intimacy of marriage simply exposes the gap of perception. Nathaniel Hawthorne has a remarkable story called “Wakefield” in which the title character leaves his wife one day and for twenty years lives a block away observing her in secret, not because he suspects her of infidelity but to learn who she is when she is not the person she presents herself as being to him.
Human beings in general do not perceive the same way, remember things the same way, have the same tastes or make the same value judgments, have the same sexual fantasies—that last one is a particularly volatile subject. The range of human difference is far vaster than almost anyone admits, including most novelists. If you are a literary critic, you know that people do not interpret texts the same way either. Critics try to back up their interpretations with evidence from the text, but what counts as evidence and how much weight a certain piece of evidence will bear varies according to critical temperament. Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism suggested in 1957 that literary interpretation was stuck in the dilemma of the blind men and the elephant. Each of the going critical methods was valid but limited because selective, basing an entire theory of interpretation on only one kind of evidence. The New Criticism examined rhetorical texture and its “seven types of ambiguity”; realist critics examined literature as mimesis, a reflection of external life; formalist critics examined genres and conventions; myth critics looked at mythical and symbolic patterns. But what is needed, Frye said, is a “synoptic” criticism that looks at the whole elephant. In other words, he called for a limited pluralism.
Nevertheless, if we ask, “What is the meaning of King Lear?”, even putting together a volume of essays on the play from each of the critical schools—and there is a whole series that does just that for the sake of teaching literary theory—we would not have a definitive reading of King Lear, because no such thing can exist. Frye, along with most members of the interpretive school called reader-response criticism, is not suggesting relativism, that anything goes. But even after the demands of evidence and logic have been met, there is no definitive, once-for-all interpretation of any text. Even two critics of the same school will produce individualized readings—unless of course they are simply mouthing fashionable formulas to get tenure—and that is as it should be. The joy of interpretation is comparing notes, and this pleasure is not confined to literary professionals. I tell my students with complete honesty that after teaching some texts for over thirty years I still learn occasionally from student essays, am still saying, “Well, I never thought of that before, but you’re right!” because, even if you are a careful reader, another person’s different perspective might notice something you have missed.
In the past, the arts tried to achieve consensus by the imposition of a common style for contemporary art and a “canon” of great works of the past. But unadmitted disagreements and differences of taste lurk beneath the surface agreement. In A Stroll with William James, Jacques Barzun observes that while, in the modern era, all styles of all periods are for the first time available to any individual artist, there is much ambivalence about this new freedom:
But although artistic pluralism has become possible, it is remarkable how strong is the urge of art lovers to stay huddled together and “admit,” in any given art, only this or that collection of works and masters. The excluded are always far more numerous than the admitted….But equally remarkable, underneath this shifting consensus there persists a dissensus that shows both the radical diversity of minds and the habit of social conformity, spurred by the fear of being wrong. It is simply not true that “there is general agreement” about the classics or the modern masters. (75)
Barzun adds a footnote: “I have given a sketch of the state of dissensus on Shakespeare…in The Energies of Art” (75). In the latter work, he speaks of “the paradox of Lear upon which critics divide so violently, some finding it the supreme work of Shakespeare’s genius and others (like [Andre] Gide) an execrable play” (158). Barzun is right: it is simply not true that there is a consensus about the so-called canon. We have become highly aware how much factors like racism and sexism are involved in in process of canonization, but decades of conversations with my students plus conversations with friends whose opinions I respect convinces me that much disagreement is rooted less in prejudice than in fundamental human individuality. I can even differ from my own perspective: on rereading a work much later in life, my experience of it may greatly differ because I differ. Sometimes it is not a matter of disagreement but merely of seeing more than I used to be capable of.
Despite the rather appalling amount that has been written on King Lear, the play is inexhaustible. Later ages will find new patterns in it to which we are blind, not necessarily because they are wiser but because their own experiences will sensitize them to aspects of the text that we pass over. Readers from other cultures will respond to it in ways fascinatingly unlike our own culturally delimited responses.
Not only may future criticism keep recreating canonical works in ways that are new and different, but I have some hope that critical pioneers may return from exploring the vast wilderness of literature that is not only uncanonical but largely untouched and tell us of treasures that have been lost or disregarded, perhaps for centuries.
The word “canon” comes from Biblical scholarship and refers the works accepted as part of the Bible while many other candidates were excluded. The process of decision was fiercely contested, and of course even after it was finalized there was the question of the meaning of the canonical text. The fundamentalist insistence that the Bible has one clear literal meaning does not hold up even among fundamentalists, who disagree about the meaning of Scripture. Fundamentalist literalism is an attempt to deny the obvious fact that the Biblical text is astonishingly heterogeneous. Unlike, say, the Qur’an, it was written by multiple authors over centuries. Reading it is like Satan’s attempt to journey through Chaos in Paradise Lost: at one moment he is crawling, at another swimming, at another flying through a substance in constant metamorphosis. Indeed, any reading of the Bible is a kind of Creation myth, a bringing of order out of chaos. “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” and sees not the same Bible either. Nowhere is Blake’s dictum that “As the eye is formed, such are its powers” more obvious than in the interpretation of the Bible, and Blake would be the first to say so. There are foolish and wise interpretations—again, this is not relativism—but there are also diversely wise interpretations. The freedom to interpret Scripture individually rather than being coerced into accepting the uniform interpretation of an authoritarian Church was one of the original tenets of Protestantism, its great proclamation being Milton’s pamphlet Areopagitica. The Catholic Church had its own method of incorporating diverse readings, however, expounded by Dante in a famous letter to one of his patrons, in which each passage in Scripture may be interpreted on four different levels: historical, typological, moral, and mystical.
The complaint of religious conservatives that you can’t just make up your own interpretation of the Bible is a pseudo-argument. All interpretations of the Bible are “made up”: that is to say, they are creative constructs of a highly interpretable text. The “obvious meaning” is merely a construct that has been institutionally sanctioned and unquestioned for so long that it seems natural and inevitable.
Praise of diversity and difference sounds virtuous, but how much diversity can a society allow without dissolving into chaos? For that matter, how much fluidity can an individual psyche allow without dissolving into madness? Even if I defend the freedom to choose my own identity, my unique way of perceiving and understanding, how shall I choose amongst the many possibilities? I think this is an acute problem among young people today. They have an unprecedented freedom to be who they really are—but they often do not feel they “really are” one coherent identity. They are, rather, a flux of possibilities. So are we all, but at a formative stage this provokes intense anxiety. The easy way out, of conforming to the status quo, is more difficult than it used to be because both one’s peers and the whole of society are equally confused and in flux.
Since the 60’s we have been conducting an unprecedented social experiment, trying to see whether a totally open society is truly possible. Its roots are in the democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, but in my lifetime the attempt entered a more daringly radical phase. The counterculture of the 60’s was a rejection of the ideal of a uniform, normative “American way of life.” The sense of release from conformism was so exhilarating that there was an explosion of diversity for its own sake, a charming delight in wearing bright colors, long hair, jewelry. Looking back, we can see that this was only phase one: the liberation of personal appearance was still reined in by one normative rule, that of looking “natural.” It was left to later gay and BDSM sub-cultures to abandon that final inhibition, and in fact to revel in being the “unnatural” creatures they were accused of being. Hence vinyl and leather; hence hair colors spanning the entire visible spectrum; hence spiked hair, mohawks, mullets, shaved heads; hence piercings and tattoos; hence colored contacts and mirrorshades; hence unconventionally colored nails and cosmetics. Hence parades that gave people the opportunity to wear and celebrate their full, glorious difference with “pride.”
Over the last several decades, some science fiction writers have begun to imagine pluralistic utopias. Where utopias historically have been intensively prescriptive, so much so that they would be authoritarian states if instituted in reality, the new utopias are what Samuel R. Delany called one of his: “heterotopias,” societies that extrapolated contemporary permissive tendencies to their limit. That limit may exceed the boundaries of a single society, as both Delany and British science fiction writer Iain Banks, in his novels of “the Culture,” have replaced the cliché of a galactic empire with a federation of thousands of worlds proliferating a thousand lifestyles and modes of being. While this may seem literally pie-in-the-sky considering the lurch towards fascism in Western countries, a slow acclimating to diversity has made more headway than it might seem. My parents would have been nonplussed by a mall food court, especially my dad, who was, like all the men of his generation, a “meat and potatoes man.” Even Chinese and Mexican were too strange for my parents. An example so small as to seem inconsequential, perhaps—and yet to alter the boundaries of the “ordinary,” however incrementally, is an achievement. And it is by increments that we must change.
Last week’s newsletter explored the limits of American individualism, while the present one may appear to have arrived at a dizzying apotheosis of individualism passing over into anarchism. But the point I made back then still stands: the problem in the United States is not freedom-loving individualism itself but rather individualism’s refusal to recognize its equal but necessary opposite: our commonality. Individualism that does not recognize our common humanity and our responsibility to one another is nothing but selfishness, its “freedom” nothing but bullying. Most of this selfishness is conservative and libertarian, but the leftist intellectual world has gone through a long period in which any expression of a common human nature was dismissed as bourgeois liberalism protecting its privilege. In this view, unity does not exist, except as a big lie: the only real value is difference. The demand to “recognize the other” meant recognizing the other as different. An attempt to recognize the other on the grounds of what we may have in common is just narcissism. The demand is incoherent, because difference in itself is otherness, and therefore alien. What we can honor and love is another self who is different and yet also kindred. We respect the other on the basis of what Abraham Maslow called the basic human needs, of what Northrop Frye called primary concerns, of what Joseph Campbell, quoting James Joyce, called “the grave and constant in human sufferings.” It is this commonality that is expressed by myths and archetypes, though it is expressed in ever-varying, sometimes conflicting form.
That kind of love is our goal, is our Grail. I doubt that it can ever be achieved very perfectly, but the first step in the right direction would be to give up perfection as a goal. What does love have to do with perfection anyway? In one of the great lines of twentieth-century poetry, W.H. Auden said, “You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.” What would a society look like that unified without regimenting or suppressing or judging, without dissolving all those countless human differences into the false unity of a vast, mindless collective consciousness, the totalitarian ideal? With great consistency, the imagination shows us the archetype that we may call the motley crew: the ragtag, mismatched, maladjusted, marginalized merry band, what Dylan in “Chimes of Freedom” called “the countless confused, accused, misused, strung out ones an’ worse,” which includes “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.” Sometimes it may be only an odd-couple group of two: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. It can be a school of outcasts rather than in-groups, like the X-Men, or, in its way, Hogwarts. It can be the many-specied rebels who manage somehow to unite to blow up the Death Star or melt down the Ring of Power. It can be the classless society of a stable in Bethlehem, in which Magi, shepherds, animals, and poor people unite in a moment of peace—and, if you’re ecumenical like my mom when she decorated our mantle, you may add Santa outside in the streets. The latter is an example of what religious scholars call syncretism, the recreation of a religion or the creation of a new one through marriage with elements of different traditions--on other words, of what disapproving conservatives call making up your own religion.
Radical and angry as she was, the feminist poet Adrienne Rich never gave up hope for what the title of one of her volumes calls “the dream of a common language.” Yet maybe what we really need is not a universal language imposed upon the babble, or the Babel, of this world, but rather the gift of tongues, the ability to understand all the thousands of languages, which are endlessly, fascinatingly, frustratingly different in the outward letter, yet are inhabited by a common spirit, a spirit that could unite us in love and the pursuit of social justice.
Barzun, Jacques. The Energies of Art. Harper & Brothers, 1956.
Barzun, Jacques. A Stroll with William James. University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, newly revised version. Doubleday: Anchor, 1988.
Wilbur, Richard. Collected Poems, 1943-2004. Harcourt: Harvest, 2004.