Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Myth O’ Show!

You Must Remember Myth

From "Sita Sings the Blues," a film by Nina Paley. Public Domain.

My friend Rina (see previous posts), an avid pop culture fan akin to your Miss O’, sees everywhere a Seinfeld episode whenever she visits me in New York. She started watching Seinfeld when she moved to Vancouver in 2008 to begin work on her Ph.D., and this show opened up New York City (and, thus, America) to her . This is important, because she comes to New York frequently to conduct interviews at and around the United Nations as part of her research. (Her subject is R2P: Responsibility to Protect, and she trains a Marxist lens on her discoveries, because just as feminist Shulie Alexander taught us that the personal is always political, so Marx demonstrated that the political is always the economic; this last part is fairly new, and what I realized in talking to Rina is that America’s democracy and its liberal-capitalist economy are one in the same; nations around the world trying to imitate our democratic ideals soon realize that the price for American-style democracy is, along with a flag in every pot: a history of low wages for workers, disastrous air quality, traffic congestion, long lines to vote, voter suppression, a military industrial complex, class warfare, and racial segregation, and weekly radio news quizzes about Kardashians.) (And now in the midst of the Syrian crisis, President Obama sees the U.S. role to take a military stand—a responsibility to protect civilians—against the violation of international law, Syria’s President Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people. To this Miss O’ must remark that the U.S. violated international law with the return to torture during the Iraq War, and no one invaded us, though surely they had every right.) God where was I?)

So to communicate our artistic sides, our spiritual lives, if you will, Rina and I communicate via music and the movies, and in addition Rina fills me in on Indian mythology. These myths offer helpful shorthand for any understanding of Indian culture, but first you have to know the intricacies of the longhand version. To help you better understand what I mean, I will remind you of my experience with learning iconography, which is found in illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. As my Chaucer prof, Dr. Fleming, explained on the board, small pictures fill in for whole worlds. He drew this:

Miss O's rendering of iconic art by J.V. Fleming

Without hesitation, I raised my little graduate student hand and declared, “Oh, that’s George Washington and the cherry tree.” Everyone in the class just stared at me. Here is one of many moments when I would realize that in America we might in fact not have a really common mythology because it’s a big fucking country, full of landscapes, histories, and languages. And brands of beer. “Miss O’Hara, perhaps you would care to explain,” Mr. Fleming said, and I retold the Parson Weems tale of how little George “could not tell a lie,” and admitted to chopping down one of his father’s cherry trees. I also explained (so they didn’t think I was crazy for knowing this) that Parson Weems has a museum dedicated to him in the Virginia town next over from my hometown, and that I grew up about ten miles from Mount Vernon. In other words, George Washington was part of my mythology. (When my California friend Anna saw Mount Vernon for the first time, she turned to me and said, “I thought this was just a myth.”) Fleming’s point was that the alert reader of a medieval manuscript would at a glance see whole, long stories in the pretty little icons that adorned the margins of the text, thereby allowing the copying monks to add a lot of information without having to write so much. But this only works as long as we are all living on the same stories: our cultural shorthand.

Rama and Sita, from Google Images.

Rina, in order to fill me in on most any Indian perspective or even relate an anecdote, has to tell me about the gods and goddesses of the Hindu mythologies. For example, she began telling me about her niece, who is now six, and who likes to create her stories live. She assigns roles to members of the family, including her grandmother. It was here Rina realized she would have to tell me the story of the god Rama, but suffice to say he is the big god (the seventh incarnation of Vishnu) to whom everyone prays. When you are in pain, you say (and I’m guessing at the spellings), “Hi, Ram,” which is shorthand for, “Please, God, release me from all this pain.” When you want something joyful, you say, “Hey, Ram,” which is shorthand for, “Oh, God, it would be so awesome if this wonderful thing happened.” Every time Rina's mother gets up from the couch, she groans, "Hi, Ram." When she gets up from bed, or gets into bed, or walks to get tea, she says, "Hi, Ram." So in the drama that Rina’s little niece was creating, she needed her old grandmother to play someone spry, apparently, because she admonished, “And Nana you must NOT say ‘Hi, Ram’!” Here Rina giggled her musical giggle. “She knows what the expression means, even though she does not know Rama,” Rina said. And we marveled at what kids pick up on, even these complex cultural reference points. Hey, Ram!

So Seinfeld, for me and for Rina, is social shorthand, as it has become for the many, many fans of this show. All we have to say, in the (in)appropriate moment, is “close talker,” or “going commando,” or “worlds are colliding,” or “he took it out,” and in one phrase an otherwise inexplicable or detestable social encounter (that we have witnessed or experienced) is grounded. (I can't tell you how funny it is to hear Rina's musical Indian voice intone, "He double-dipped a chip.") For my friends who came of age in the 1960s, it is music mythology that creates the links, that defines the decade—The Kingston Trio (for my friend Pat), to Bob Dylan, to the Beatles, to the Rolling Stones—and as my friend Lynda says, “I miss listening to music the way we used to do—someone would buy the album, and we’d all sit around listening to it, talking about it….” The playing of a song connects many people to a time of life, especially, I think, to adolescence. Beyond the experience of the music itself is a transcendent thing, a deep connection to each other, the music: the world comes into us through those chords. That, and memories of somehow doing it in the back seat of a Pinto.

For my parents (and thus for me, and for Rina, too) it was Hollywood Mythology that gave them the framework of their lives, even more than catechism: The “true” stories of our history became theater fare: the Wild West of America—our original mythology of cowboys and Indians; a nation founded in whole cloth by people who were not “from” there—is unlike everything else on Earth, and also a horror movie to the native peoples of the land (which is too often mythologized in the worst sense in the movies); the war stories, the love stories, the adventure stories; the Civil War of Gone With the Wind can be an obsessively-held link to the past for the American South, forming its own kind of mythos, for good or ill; Prohibition-era gangsters who made American headlines were later mythologized in movies such as White Heat. But as Karen Armstrong points out in A Short History of Myth, ultimately these renderings of life are not useful as “mythology” in the truest sense, because the movies do not help us, other than as an escape from reality. Unless we have a story that connects us to nature—to the sky, the trees, and the animals; to the water and the earth, and all the creatures and plants that live there—in other words, to the elements we depend upon for our human survival—a mythology cannot last. Cities are temporary. Movies last for ninety minutes.

Am I Mything Something?

So what does it mean, all this movie reel, musical, militaristic noise across this pop culture cluster-fuck of a planet? After a few weeks of Rina, I always feel challenged and enlightened, but also really sure I know absolutely nothing about anything, including my own story.

To better enter into the Hindu stuff of Rina’s life, I was lucky enough to find this wonderful indie movie called Sita Sings the Blues, shared in the Public Domain, freely and dearly, by the filmmaker and animator Nina Paley. I place the link before you:

Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley

But for those times of intellectual and spiritual crisis when even Casablanca can’t help me, I turn, as I so often do, to religious writer Karen Armstrong, author of (among many great books) A Short History of Myth: “Human beings have always been mythmakers,” begins the book, in its first chapter, “What is a Myth?” (Miss O’ has noticed that the word myth is generally used to mean an untruth, and this is a shame. So many awesome concepts have been shrunk to app-size.) Neanderthal graves, she explains, show care taken at the burial—death was acknowledged as significant, and an afterlife was imagined. “We are meaning-making creatures,” Armstrong summarizes, and then goes on to aptly point out what is rather startling when one thinks about it:

“Another peculiar characteristic of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that we cannot explain rationally. We have imagination, a faculty that enables us to think of something that is not immediately present, and that, when we first conceive it, has not objective existence. The imagination is the faculty that produces religion and mythology. Today mythology has fallen into disrepute; we often dismiss it as irrational and self-indulgent. But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective.” She concludes, “Like science and technology, mythology, as we shall see, is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.”  ~A Short History of Myth

What Armstrong points out is that first and foremost, myth is “nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction.” I would argue that science is probably rooted in this, too. And art. And surely the movies.

Our world is awash in followers of mini-mythologies—as seen by the evolution of The Fan: movie maniacs, avid comic book readers, Star Trek conventioneers, Old Time Radio aficionados, Harry Potter enthusiasts, sports fiends of all-colored tee shirts, gossip magazine gorgers, zombie apocalypse hopefuls, Ren Faire cosplayers: There is a special mythology (sometimes "lived" as an alternate reality, like the kids who try to be vampires) for anyone who seeks. It’s really impressive how many subcultures the world offers us. Years ago a series of books came out called Choose Your Own Adventure, wherein the reader had to make plot decisions at pivotal moments in the story.  From the Wiki:

Choose Your Own Adventure is a series of children's gamebooks where each story is written from a second-person point of view, with the reader assuming the role of the protagonist and making choices that determine the main character's actions and the plot's outcome.

If you choose A, “You run,” for example, you turned to page 24; if you choose B, “You stay and fight,” you turned to page 26—something like that. I remember finding these books kind of annoying, but the series remains popular. The word “gamebooks” is the key: These books are not really about reading, but instead might lure game-lovers into reading—that seems to be the idea. Somewhere in our collective storytelling, "myths" became games, entertainments, diversions. Why did we lose our sense of, our need to tell, the long story of the people?

Of Myth and Men
I asked a poet friend, “Do you think about Death?” (I capitalize it because I meant it as a natural fact and as a concept.) She looked briefly puzzled, and then said simply, “No.” Possibly that is the secret to living most perfectly: To experience the now of nature, love, food, home, friends, without a care as to the endings of anything. Miss O’ does not, obviously, live so sweetly. I think about death and loss all the goddamned time. I think about legacies, stories, continuance—what happens after death, in terms of life on Earth. I don’t necessarily think about the soul, per se, or what happens after death. I do, however, think about death and dying, think about those losses. And where does it get me?

So for this poet friend, art is rooted in life lived now, not in the experience of death or fear of extinction. So then I ask, “Why create?” My friend Colleen went to Chicago’s Art Institute on a recent vacation and brought me back a button that said, “I am therefore I write.” Most days it has to be enough.

In the Myth of the Beast

I am asking these questions lately, about death and what that means, and living and what that means, because I am so nauseated by politics. For one as political as Miss O’ is, that is saying something. On a popular social network, I posted a satirical article by Andy Borowitz, “G20Ends Abruptly as Obama Calls Putin a Jackass.”

This article posting disturbed my friend Judy (poet Judith Christian), who wrote:

JUDY: I was just thinking that... I'd like to hear Pres O say Jackass. But lately I'm thinking that all the news satire entertainment has become an outlet for what the public should really feel and express, which is anger and outrage. I mean, once again we are being entertained away from thought and action. It's an American disease.

[LO: I think of it as wish fulfillment. Oh, sure. You are not wrong. I think the day that Jon Stewart went on (and brought down) the show "Crossfire" said it all: The "real news" shows have to stop being dicks, stop misinforming, stop being lousy at what they do. I will never hold Andy Borowitz or Stewart or Colbert to that standard. I won't direct my outrage at the comedians, or the writers, or the artists. I direct it at those people who should be our protectors: our press and our politicians.]

JUDY: We have the tools now to bypass the press... or start our own press, etc. I didn't mean we should direct outrage at the comedians or writers; I meant that the comedy might just be another infotainment distraction. It's cathartic, but it contributes to our passivity, I think. But who knows.... maybe it's the only "real" news we get from media.
I still say political comedy/satire is not a substitute for political action, and my point is that because it is so popular now, some people are entertained into thinking it actually does something. It doesn't. I reinforces people's indignation, and MAYBE motivates them, but because of its very essence, which is entertainment--I mean TV, not political cartoons or live interaction--it is a distraction from action. And because it has become a big part of American pop culture, it has helped weaken print journalism.
Also, I think the Occupy Movement did a pretty good job of usurping the press and media. Also, Benjamin Franklin put out a pretty good rag in his time. I'm "thinking out loud" here, trying to solve what I think is a problem, so it's not necessary to overreact, for crying out loud.

JUDY: sorry... what I'm trying to say is "the revolution will not be televised" (Colbert, Stewart). Thank you for your patience.

[No apology necessary—we write because we care, or, as the button Colleen brought me says, I am therefore I write.]

Hit and Myth

Oddly, this exchange brought Miss O’ back to the role of myth: In our culture today, the story we seem to be telling each other about our world is all back-asswards: The “legitimate news organizations” are not so much about truth as posture, like that kid there with the iThingy, stooped, staring intently into a small glass screen, over which passes a rapidly moving thumb—there’s a lot of “outrage” and very little substantive action, and a near-total denial of the natural world and human effects on it (or it on us). In the realms of art, including comedy shows, we find our most accurate assessments of the news of the day, the state of the union, the touchstones of popular culture and feeling. Political satire has ever been part of developed civilizations, societies and settlements creating a need for politics, negotiations, rules. (Libertarians and conservatives often want no governmental rules (except, weirdly, on personal choices like sex and reproduction). If anyone wants to find out, in a fairly safe microcosm, what happens when you announce, “There are no rules here,” say that to a typical public high school English class when you are in the capacity of substitute teacher.) By the same token, here is one cartoonist's take on the two American political parties:

What A Short History of Myth makes clear is that societies need and have ever needed stories that show us rules for living. What mythologist Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth conversations explore (another book I turn to) is how mythologies have to grow, change, and evolve as humans do in order to remain relevant and, more important, useful. He also makes clear that we not only have to have tolerance for each other’s myths, we should know and understand these various myths. Everyone has a story, a mythology, that resonates, but one thing all myths have in common is they include an act of disobedience: “Now God must have known very well that man was going to eat the forbidden fruit,” Campbell points out. "But it was by doing that that man became the initiator in his own life. Life really began with that act of disobedience.”

There She Is, Myth America

The tension between obedience and disobedience is apparent in politics. Obedience, as writer Howard Zinn pointed out, is often the greatest obstacle to creating social justice.

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”
~Howard Zinn, The Zinn Reader, 1970

“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” ~Howard Zinn, too

What the myths of our history help humans to weigh are the reasons to obey and the reasons to disobey. This is an inward journey, as Campbell points out: “One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” The thing is, and why Miss O’ is on and on about this today—stuff that for many readers must smack of “Duh,” (and as my friend Rina said of her dissertation on R2P back there, “What am I adding to the conversation? What new lens have I to offer?”)—is that sick feeling I mentioned, one that Judy articulated so well, is that “infotainment” is being used as a substitute for political action. Miss O’ takes it a step further: Instead of “the long story of the people,” we are fractured into often inchoate sound bites of our own choosing, and it's sickening our spirits. When President Obama was running for his first election, he was bold enough to say that Americans who felt economically distressed often “cling to guns or religion.” He was castigated for it, as people so often are who speak the truth. The Wild West mythology, the Civil War mythology, the Revolutionary War mythology: Our nation was built by guns. It’s powered by guns. Even after Newtown, people choose the freedom to own guns over the freedom to vote. Still with the guns? That’s frankly insane—and an example of mythology gone off the rails.

Bureau of Mything Persons
This Month: Joseph Campbell, Karen Armstrong, John Berger, the Beatles, and Seamus Heaney 

That it is time to change our mythology is not yet clear to too many Americans, nor to too many humans all over the world. We have to evolve past the violence mythos (and in some ways we have, says philosopher Stephen Pinker), for as every news story shows us, as all our history shows us, it is love, not war, that is the path out of fear and pain. It's tragic that this rings of "peacenik" cliché. Love of nature, love of one another, love of possibility. Jesus saw this. Buddha saw this. Love isn't ALL you need. You need food, air, water. As for religion as it is practiced, Campbell and Armstrong point out that stories and rituals sustain us as much as food—and people need to be able to keep their stories; what Obama was pointing out is that too often the story in the religion—the life-sustaining mythos of what it means to be human—is lost in dogma, politics, and fearful clinging. Karen Armstrong also takes pains to point out that to try to turn mythos into scientific fact is to lose the value of the myth—to lose the metaphor, the path to a better humanity.

Anais Nin by Debbie Millman

Artists are always searching for the line that connects mythos to life lived. My comment to Judy (who is a wonderful poet) about blaming the comedians has to do with the quickness with which governments and the citizens shoot the messengers—when in fear, string up the artists, the writers, the healers! (Blame Obamacare!) In his novel A Painter of Our Time, John Berger’s artist narrator is a Communist artist who is forced into exile in England, and who to the end seems to doubt that art is as important as politics—almost seems to understand why the artists are killed. (I don't see how that could be Berger’s view (the novel was written in 1958), but I smelled “self hatred” from the page, the blame we begin to assign to our own talents as we begin to identify with our detractors.) To take another example, when John Lennon said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, Christians all over the world wanted him killed. Literally killed. In response to that reaction, and also to people’s dislike of his choice of wife, he wrote what may be my favorite of his songs, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”:

Christ you know it ain't easy,
You know how hard it can be.
The way things are going
They're gonna crucify me.

I love Lennon's up-tempo, happy approach to the prospect of crucifixion for simply being true to himself and his love. (Not unlike Jesus, when you think about it.) He’s in the world, of the world, but he is aware that changing the story (in this case the mythos of the Beatles) ain’t gonna be easy. He’s growing—and the fans will have to grow, too, if they want to keep following along.

Politics cannot be the story of what it means to be. It is one of Miss O’s most deeply unattractive qualities that she spends so much time enmeshed in the issues of the day, and not trying to contribute more beauty to the world around her. I am, obviously, working on this, though too often this work becomes like another plan to drop 20 pounds and give up Scotch.

“I think of mythology as the homeland of the muses, the inspirers of art, the inspirers of poetry. To see life as a poem and yourself participating in a poem is what the myth does for you…. I mean a vocabulary in the form not of words but of acts and adventures, which connotes something transcendent of the action here, so that you always feel in accord with the universal being.”
~Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Campbell quotes the Chinese text, Tao-de Ching: “He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows. For in this context, to know is not to know. And not to know is to know.”

Bill Moyers, in conversation with Campbell in this book (based on a PBS series), says, in terms of his own Christianity, “Far from undermining my faith, your work in mythology as liberated my faith from the cultural prisons to which it had been sentenced.”

Poets aid us at these times of necessary transition. The great poet Seamus Heaney, who died this week, only 74, was featured on the delightful site BrainPickings by Maria Popova, who wrote a terrific piece about this Irish Nobel laureate. Popova quotes Heaney’s Nobel acceptance speech, and this paragraph resonated for me. Heaney reads from Homer:

“At the sight of the man panting and dying there,
 she slips down to enfold him, crying out;
 then feels the spears, prodding her back and shoulders,
 and goes bound into slavery and grief.
 Piteous weeping wears away her cheeks: 
but no more piteous than Odysseus’ tears,
 cloaked as they were, now, from the company.”

But only after reading Heaney’s comment upon that passage (below), and after I’d reread the Homer, did I feel what I was supposed to feel. So much of life now is rushed by, glanced at, and that’s what I’d done with those words:

Even to-day, three thousand years later, as we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune, familiar to the point of overfamiliarity with old newsreels of the concentration camp and the gulag, Homer’s image can still bring us to our senses. The callousness of those spear shafts on the woman’s back and shoulders survives time and translation. The image has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable.

I also had to do hard rereading because (unlike the effect these texts had on my brother Mike) the Greek myths never "spoke to me," in the way, say, movie musicals did. But here is the point: Like great poems, religious texts—those of all mythologies—are meant to be read and understood metaphorically. Without metaphor, there can be no transcendence. The words are dead on the page, in the air: the words are allowed no journey through your mind, your heart, your own experience. To live this way with any religion is akin to reading and shouting opinions about politics, but never voting; to memorizing historical dates and holidays, but having no understanding of the events the dates commemorate; or to seeing the paint on the canvas but not the picture the paints made, let alone connecting to the feelings the paints are meant to express.

I take this further: If you see the plant and animal life around you as “weeds” or “pests,” or if you have no idea what is edible or inedible, for example—if you are totally removed from the meaning behind the life form—you cannot be living with fullness or understanding of much of anything—political, artistic, religious, or plain old biological.

And this brings me back to myths, to stories. Think about the Beatles: The reason they stopped touring, my friend George explained, was because the fans were screaming so loudly the entire time, the members of the band couldn’t hear themselves play. If the Beatles aren’t playing music to be experienced by the audience, why are they up on stage at all? Just so, doesn't the message of Jesus get "lost" in the screaming of the fanatics (which is where the word fan comes from, after all)?

My world, of course, is the theater. A while back I attended a reading of one of my friend Michael’s plays, and he introduced me to a director friend standing there in the ticket line. (I’ve mentioned this story before, but the stories of my life are really metaphors, and each story helps tie the O’Mythos together. Ahem.) Michael said, “Lisa writes the most fantastic stage directions in her plays,” to which the director said, “Well that’s a waste of writing, isn’t it, because directors just take a black marker to that.” To this Miss O’ said, “I’d never work with a director who did that to my work. I don’t write ‘stage directions’ in the sense of ‘picks up coffee cup, drinks,’ but rather I write actions in silence. I can’t be bothered with directors who think life on the stage occurs only in the dialogue.” He looked furious—he walked silently past me with his ticket. (The only reading of a play of mine here in NYC was assigned to a director who did that to my work, and it was no longer my play—not remotely.) This man was a working director, which is not to say a good director, so I really hope I made him think.

All the Right Myths

I think a lot of our spiritual unrest and our political divides are tied to the inability to experience silence. Live theater is a misery of wrappers and cell phones. Houses of worship aren’t much different. Musicians no longer play to people but to thousands of little blue lights, the signal of phone recordings. We can’t come to a collective story, or transcend the muck of mindless human inhabitants, on this planet of iBabel.

To take a tiny example: How impossible it is to write when other people are in a house—when I had my little library in Virginia and could shut the door and know I would not be needed or disturbed, I could have truly sacred time (even with a roommate); but when I had work being done on the house, people around, intruders who might hear me talking to myself through the windows, I could not work. I have a friend with a gorgeous home he shares only with his mate and two dogs, but even he had to build a small writer’s cabin so the demands of the home, the dogs, and the relationship did not intrude on his sacred work time. My New York apartment affords no space in my bedroom to work, so I use the living room. It’s okay when I’m alone, if not ideal: I am too aware of the kitchen. Very often, though, guests or roommates of any kind do not understand my need for solitude. Rina understands perfectly, intellectually, and yet cannot help but interrupt, make phone calls, prepare food, or say, “I do not wish to disturb you, but…” and the solitude is over. A month passed this way, not unhappily, in her company, and still it took me two weeks to recover from human presence to write even a paragraph of a new blog.

Cue music. "Hello darkness, my old friend..."

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to check my Facebook page. And my three email accounts. And take a subway ride to Kew Gardens to see how to get to the courthouse for my month of Grand Jury duty, where Miss O’ will be sifting mounds of evidence to help decide which cases in my part of Gotham can go to trial. 

Mostly likely I’ll tell you all about it—when I can find the silence. 


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