Not that Steven Grant's entombing essay is sufficient to keep it buried, but in it Grant seems to have made every effort to bury mythology, right beside the oeuvre of Joseph Campbell.
Where to start? How about these statements?
"Mythology isn't even storytelling. Mythology – it's important to differentiate between its nature and its artifacts; the stories are the artifacts – is a civilization's environment. It's a means by which members of that civilization make sense of the world and the times they exists in."
This is an oversimple attempt to separate the message from the medium which might be more persuasive if Grant had a better cognizance of the nature of that message.
While it's true that in theory one can separate the notion of mythology from the notion of storytelling, in practice the two have been so thoroughly imbricated upon one another that the separation-game isn't worth the candle. The Greek mythos is usually translated by Them What Knows as "speech, utterance," and from there the word eventually comes to have in archaic Greece the association of "narrative" or "story," as it does in Aristotle's Poetics. Saying that a culture's mythology is its "environment" doesn't say all that much more than "story," though the conceit may be Grant's attempt to take in all aspects of mythology that don't seem constructed as pure narratives, such as ritual and popular superstitions. However, "environment" alone doesn't define the nature of myth, or what elements a given culture chooses to preserve in its myths. Archeologists have dug up cuneiform texts of both the Epic of Gilgamesh and prosaic merchants' documents. Archaeologists can certainly learn things about ancient Sumerian "environment" from a Sumerian merchant's "bill of lading," and certainly the merchant who wrote it was concerned to "make sense" of the business transactions that comprised his "environment." But I don't think any archaeologists are likely to consider a bill of lading to be a mythic work, nor, given the requisite translations, any ancient Sumerians would think so either.
I've stated before that while not all stories or story-elements possess mythicity, any of them *potentially* can. This is why the notion of mythology is not so easily separable from that of storytelling, because the very nature of narrative discourse is one that constantly moves, as Northrop Frye pointed out, between extremes of myth and verisimilitude. Thus to label the particular stories (whether high in mythicity or not) of a particular culture as "artifacts" is to define the resultant stories as pure products and to ignore the process that makes them.
Grant further states of stories produced for an oral culture (I presume he means both myth-stories and anything that might not fit his environmental definition) that "their content and meanings shift with the demands of the times." I have no problem with a definition of myth that states that the myths were conceived within historical matrices. However, it's important to keep in mind that myth does not attempt to reproduce history as history, but seeks to transcend the historical matrix, to focus on perceived aspects of one's "environment" that seem to be eternal or at least exemplary. Grant is correct to call myths "analogues of reality," though he then turns right around and evaluates them in terms of their relevance to consensual reality:
"It [Kirby's FOURTH WORLD] fixates on good and evil, where we're all now very aware, even if we don't admit it, that the concepts are basically nonsense. To have meaning they require a singular society, and a reason why multiculturalism is denounced by many is that it forces a constant reexamination of what those terms mean. In a world of moral relativity – and, yes, that is our world, and, really, always has been – we need better terms than those."
It's long been a popular sophism, ranging from writers as diverse as Diderot and Sade, to observe that many cultures have divergent definitions of good and evil, the implication being that all of these local manifestations render the mythic theme of "good vs. evil" to be less than universal. It's a sophism in that one is simply choosing to see the trees instead of the forest. It's interesting to speculate about how the defintions of "evil" encoded into an Egyptian myth might be very different from those revealed by a Semitic myth, but the differences between the two do not eradicate the similarities. Mot and Apep do represent different aspects of evil, but the narrative actions that defeat these enemies of life are more similar than they are different. It's also questionable as to "singular" these societies were, for archaic societies had to deal with invasions and usurpations as much as modern ones do. Such factors *can* make a difference as to what gods are worshipped in any given era. However, such historical factors do not overthrow the populace's desire to see a perceived evil defeated, and the dialectic of Apep's defeat does not substantially change whether the force for good is played by Ra or Horus or Bast. And our world of "moral relavitity" has not erased our populace's desire to see the "good vs. evil" theme played out-- and by "populace" I do mean the same "multicultural" American audience that turned out in droves to see STAR WARS. Building on Grant's theory, it should have been only "singular" societies, like say Japan's, that would have enjoyed such a simplistic theme.
Clearly, despite having some acquaintance with current definitions of mythology, Grant has allowed himself to be seduced by the Dark Side of Allegorism. The Dark Side of Allegorism is powerful, and, as I discussed here, occasionally even subjugated Joseph Campbell, however temporarily. But even though Campbell may have occasionally contradicted himself here or there, he never undermined his own arguments as badly as Grant does here.
Early in the article Grant tells us:
'almost no one using the "Campbell structure" had ever actually read Campbell, or they would have gleaned his important but widely overlooked caution that it only has meaning as unconscious structure – and conscious application voids it of meaning and resonance.'
Keep that in mind. Grant is saying that "conscious application" voids myths of "meaning and resonance."
Later Grant says:
"Not that our civilization doesn't have myths, but the authors of those myths are Karl Marx and Milton Friedman, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, not Camus or Isaac Asimov or Stephen Cannell or even Grant Morrison. And we no longer live in a world where magical/fantasy/mythological/religious constructs are required, or even useful, to make sense of it."
Now, someone correct me if I'm off base here-- but aren't all the authors of what Grant calls "modern myths" trying to make sense of the world CONSCIOUSLY???
Why doesn't "conscious application" void Darwinism and Marxism of meaning and resonance, as Grant thinks it does for artists who consciously apply myth-like materials in their works, as with the main focus of his attack, Grant Morrison?
The only (extremely charitable) rationale that makes any sense of this major inconsistency in Grant's argument might be that he doesn't think modern-day myths are, like their supposed archaic cousins, "analogues of reality." Now that moderns have science, they just need scientific hypotheses to take the place of fantastic constructs. It's still a glaring error in Grant's argument, though, and further points up the shortcomings of his interpretation of mythology as something archaic peoples used to "make sense" of their "environment."
Here's a simple example that should explain what mythology was really about:
Consider the phenomenon of a river. How mysterious is it in terms of its etiology? Does it really need to be "made sense of" in Grant's terms, even by prehistoric peoples? I think not. If Neanderthals could figure out how to grow crops, they could deduce what made rivers run. And yet world mythology records countless myths as to how this or that river originated, often through interaction with some god or hero: Heracles, Cuchullain, Shiva.
The only reason archaic peoples would have for "making sense" of such a mundane (if life-enhancing) phenomenon would be in terms of what empiricist Grant would call "nonsense." They were not explaining the river but sacramentalizing it, relating its existence to exemplary actions that happened in the past.
Now, Grant is entitled to his belief that modern humanity is long past such sacramentalizing fantasies, though I myself don't think current reality proves his case. And I'm not just speaking of modern religion, but also of the mythopoeic power of art, which Joseph Campbell (unlike Grant) correctly sees as a major aspect of what makes human beings human. It's through the use of "nonsense" (or what empiricists consider nonsense) that humankind attains the full range of its sensibilities, which include, but are not confined to, rationality.
And that's why Grant was right about "conscious application" even though he applied it to the wrong subject. The "scientific myths" of Darwinism and Marxism are immensely persuasive discursive constructs, but all forms of literature, even its worst manifestations, are closer in spirit to both ancient and modern forms of religious myth than any consciously-applied rational construct.
In conclusion, I'll wrap this up by saying that even though Grant's essay grew out of his review of Morrison's FINAL CRISIS, mine did not. I read a couple of issues of FC, liked them OK, and decided to wait for the TPB. So I'm not explicitly defending FC by tearing apart Grant's argument-- though I do think that both Kirby and Morrison are high on my list of makers of modern myths.