Myth of the 21st Century: Introduction (2006)

Tina Shaw & Jack Ross, ed.: Myth of the 21st Century (2006)


“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

John Ford, dir.: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

In John Ford’s last great Western, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the credit for shooting brutal outlaw Liberty Valance goes to the lawyer played by James Stewart, who is elected to the Senate as a result. The man who really shot him, John Wayne, is content to die in obscurity. When newspaperman Maxwell Scott digs up this fact he still prefers to “print the legend.” This, after all, is the Wild West. Some heroes are more necessary than others..

The first thing to say about myths, then, is that they cut both ways. One man is robbed of the recognition due to him; another becomes a success on the strength of something he never did. Myths can distort the truth or channel it. Jimmy Stewart, in the film, is a good man who does a lot of good things; John Wayne is a loner whose quiet heroism inspires none but his closest friends. As the Roman historian Sallust put it, “Myths are things that never happened, but that always are.”

In a recent NZ Herald column, Colin James suggested that “a society needs myths to hold it together. A nation is woven out of fictions, agreed from experience and from artists’ and writers’ imaginings drawn from that experience.” That is indeed the positive side of the picture – myths as shaping archetypes, agreed-upon fictions, essentially harmless ways of arranging an experience we all share but cannot easily express otherwise. If myths are lies, then they are, in C. S. Lewis’s words, “lies breathed through silver.”

This is a persuasive view, but it hardly does justice to the other side of the coin: myths as monstrously damaging illusions, concerted denials of the actual nature of things: the myths of male superiority, of racial purity, of the divinely-appointed mission. Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg managed to wrap it all up in one convenient package in his notorious Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), a comprehensive overview of the imaginary “Jewish world conspiracy” which somehow manages to tie in Bolshevism, cocktails, Jazz and anything else he and his National Socialist friends happened to disapprove of.

Are lies really the answer in a world where genocide has become not just possible but likely? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to try at all costs to tell the truth? Alfred Rosenberg, Julius Streicher and their apprentice Adolf Hitler managed between them to create a docile population which would act in defence of this bizarre belief-system, however deluded it may now seem to us. It’s hard to see any comparable peril in inculcating myths of Kiwi ingenuity, number-eight wire, and superiority in sport to the Australians, but perhaps it’s never safe to base your actions on convenient legends?

This anthology certainly can’t provide final answers to such weighty questions, but it’s interesting how often these same issues come up in the stories # local writers have sent us. Each of them was asked to speculate about the types of story likely to speak to us in the new age we’re entering. The invitation concluded:

If myths are, to quote Joseph Campbell, 'clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life', what clues will we actually need in the 21st century? What kinds of stories will we be telling?

Some of our authors, such as Patricia Grace and Charlotte Grimshaw, have chosen to emphasise the relevance of traditional Māori legends to the new conditions. These gentle retellings contrast with the violence of Mike Johnson and Tracey Slaughter’s recreation of Greek myths: Mike’s perfect incarnation of the godhead inspires at least one of those gazing upon her to tear out his own eyes in adoration; Tracey’s contemporary versions of the three Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, are as cruel and fickle as the brittle consumer society they were born into.

Karlo Mila and Aaron Taouma, too, see Polynesian myths as at least partial solutions to the dilemmas of their characters: fear and violence, ever-present, can perhaps be shaped and domesticated if you can only find the right story to tell. Martin Edmond’s Baal, an idol who must be worshipped with blood and sex, enshrines a distinctly gloomier vision of the cosmos.

The same uneasy dualism seems to dominate the rest of the stories. Jack Ross’s bookish protagonist finds comfort in old books as his city crumbles under the rising tides of global warming – or is it merely one more excuse for inaction? Tina Shaw’s precariously civilised children trade the silver birds of their imagination for a flesh-and-blood carcase they can eat. Vivienne Plumb’s teasing versions of traditional fables and fairy-tales sum up the folly of living according to precedent in a world that needs new thinking.

Tim Corballis and Anthony McCarten, in very different ways, subject the myth-paradigm itself to close examination. McCarten dramatises the humorous possibilities of living in the future; Corballis dreams up a series of gentle parables to point up the paradox of the post-modern condition: we can never know enough to be sure of the consequences of our actions; unlike previous eras, however, we’ve lost even the hope of achieving such absolute knowledge.

Myths can be delightful and treacherous, comforting and maddening, wise and fatuous (in Tracey Slaughter’s words: “old, foreseeable, and necessary”). Like it or not, we’re never likely to be free of them, so it makes sense to inquire into their nature as often and as deeply as possible. If we want to have any hope of avoiding legends becoming facts, we’d better keep on printing them with annotations and a commentary.

If we writers, the licenced myth-spinners of society, don’t start that process, who will?

(16/10; 16-17/12/05)

Myth of the 21st Century: An Anthology of New Fiction. Edited by Tina Shaw & Jack Ross. ISBN 0-7900-1098-4. 137 pp. (Auckland: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 2006): 7-9.

[1003 wds]

Myth of the 21st Century (2006)

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