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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, January 26, 2008


I noted earlier that much of what we deem to be “real literature” can be distinguished by its thematic commitment to what Freud famously called “the reality principle,” no matter whether the narrative in question portrays a “realistic” version of the world (Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE), outright fantasy (Ursula LeGuin’s WIZARD OF EARTHSEA), or something between the two (Pynchon’s CRYING OF LOT 49). The same principle obtains with those works that fall squarely within the category of “thematic escapism,” which is oriented on what Freud calls “the pleasure principle” and wish-fulfillment. One may envision a middle-ground between the two categories for works that may strike a balance between these opposed themes, but it would seem beyond question that there are notable works that are polarized enough to belong far more in one camp rather than the other.

However, both thematic orientations are entirely confined to the sphere of literature, and do not apply to the ancestor of all literary endeavor: mythic narrative. (For simplicity’s sake here I conflate “myth,” “religion,” and “folklore” under the rubric “myth,” as all concern narratives that have literary relevance but are not literature as such.) Some commentators have suggested an easy equivalence between archaic myth and modern pop culture. I myself have been accused of making such an equivalence, which is one reason I adopted the term “mythicity,” to emphasize that a given narrative (BLONDIE, PEANUTS, JUSTICE LEAGUE) may be “myth-like” in certain respects without being myth. But there are more uncritical assertions out there, such as this unattributed quote—“Science fiction is the mythology of the modern world”-- against which the aforementioned Ursula LeGuin reacts in her noted 1976 essay, “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction.” And while I do disagree with that quote because it is an easy equivalence, I also disagree with LeGuin’s essay, which makes the opposite mistake of trying to claim the territory of myth in the name of “real literature.”

In this essay LeGuin begins by defining myth’s heuristic significance to literature in general (with which account I don’t substantially disagree). Naturally, her notion of literature includes quality science fiction, since she writes that herself, but bringing in the formal literary notion of “quality” means that she must also define “lack of quality.” This LeGuin does by making a distinction between “true myths” and “fake myths,” which she buttresses with a reference to an incident in the life of the German poet Rilke:

“The poet Rilke looked at a statue of Apollo about fifty years ago, and Apollo spoke to him. ‘You must change your life,’ he said. When the genuine myth rises into consciousness, that is always its message. You must change your life.”

This statement troubled me when I read it many years ago, having become a regular SF/fantasy reader in the late 1960s. Did LeGuin mean that, following the example of Rilke, one should change one’s life every time one encountered a genuine myth, be it of archaic or recent vintage? The notion is easily reducible to absurdity. If Rilke changed his life one day because he beheld a statue of Apollo, does that mean that he should change it to something else the next day because he beheld a statue of Artemis?

In all likelihood, the “change” that LeGuin is concerned with is one of perspective, since in her next paragraph she extols the “way of art” as one of connecting the disparate aspects of humanity’s experience: “to connect the idea with value, sensation with intuition, cortex with cerebellum.” Her use of the word “art” is telling, for it shows that she is not particularly concerned with the nature of archaic myth as such, with whether or not such stories as Apollo’s slaying of the Python is some sort of message to “change your life.” Her concern, rather, is with modern “true myths,” as exemplified by the majority of her examples of such myths, ranging from Cordwainer Smith to Arthur C. Clarke to Mary Shelley.

I’ve noted elsewhere that the emphasis on the privileging of “real literature’s” orientation upon thematic realism can lead to the mistake of seeking meaning in terms of allegory. LeGuin, both in this essay and others, asserts that the mythic visions she seeks are not reducible to simple allegory, which by itself is laudable, though whenever she seeks to put into words the potential meaning of a given text, her statements do take on an allegorical ring: “Tarzan is a direct descendant of the Wolfchild/Noble Savage on one side, and every child’s fantasy of the Orphan-of-High-Estate on the other.” The statement is not so much untrue as banal, and it may be that it’s impossible to state any potential meaning of a text without verging on the allegorical. However, the Tarzan example shows one of the weaknesses of LeGuin’s literary classifications. By my lights, Tarzan is no more a “true myth” by LeGuin’s criteria than one of the “fake myths” she rejects, Superman, of whose parentage she remarks, “His father was Nietzsche and his mother was a funnybook.” I view both Tarzan and Superman as wish-fulfillments first, and only secondarily (if at all) attempts to “connect the idea with value, sensation with intuition.” (The last phrase is fraught with some significant Jungian undercurrents to which I hope to return later.)

I rather doubt that LeGuin’s curt dismissal of the Superman character in this and similar essays is based in anything but vague recollections of childhood reading, though certainly LeGuin grew up at a time when she could have partaken of the greatest growth of the “Superman mythology” of the late 50s and early 60s, had she cared to examine same. Incidentally, the editor of all the Superman features, Mort Weisinger, used the term “mythology” for the hero’s adventures, though it can be argued as to whether the word applies any better to Superman than to Arthur C. Clarke’s works. My position is that both “thematically realistic” and “thematically escapist” works can be profoundly “myth-like” in ways that I don’t think Ursula LeGuin would appreciate, be it the LeGuin who wrote this essay in 1975 or the current incarnation. I think she lists Tarzan (and for that matter, Arthur C. Clarke) among the “true myths” because despite her appreciation for the polysemous qualities of myth, she is a little too impressed with the patina of intellectual respectability, and sees some such quality in the creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs but not that of Siegel and Schuster. And this is a fundamental mistake on her part, despite her laudable goal of trying to call forth in audiences an appreciation for the many-sided nature of what we call “myth.”

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