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Sunday, December 20, 2009

On Myth and Bull$%!t

Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept. It is high time that we stopped identifying myth with invention, with the illusions of primitive mentality, and with anything, in fact, which is essentially opposed to reality... The creation of myths among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real indeed than that of abstract concepts and rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language memory and creative energy of the people... it brings two worlds together symbolically.
-- Nikolai Berdyaev, from Freedom and the Spirit (1927-28)
[I got this quote courtesy of fellow blogger Steve Hayes.  Thanks again!]

I was sitting in my Anglo-Saxon class a little while ago as we translated "The Battle of Maldon" together and discussed it in class.  If you're never read "Maldon," it's a fascinating poem.  The setup is that a group of Vikings under Anlaf sailed down into East Anglia in 991 and demanded a paid settlement with Aethelred their king in return for keeping the peace.  Aethelred refuses, so his nobleman Byrhtnoth takes a force of men to the shores of the river Blackwater to head them off.  We don't have all the poem to know how it ends, but history tells us fairly clearly: Byrhtnoth is buried in Ely Cathedral in eastern England-- without his head.  We can figure out the rest based on the fact that the East Saxon kings made a point of paying off the Vikings with the Danegeld for many years afterward. 

My professor for the class is also my dissertation director, and he's worked a lot with Anglo-Saxon texts that have to do with history and storytelling.  As we got to the point where Byrhtnoth dies from a spear-wound, lots of people start making "last stand" speeches before jumping into the fray.  "It's just like a faculty meeting, isn't it?" My professor jokes.  "Everybody has to jump in and get their say, only in 'Maldon,' the speeches get shorter and shorter instead of the other way around."  We all laugh.  But then our thoughts turn to the depiction of the battle, and our conversation left me thinking about the nature of myth once again.

In the poem, once Byrhtnoth dies, a few disloyal soldiers flee the fight, and one even snags his lord's horse to get out of the battle a little more quickly.  The poem then excoriates those who chose life over death with their lord, and it praises all the others-- Byrhtnoth's kinsman, a Mercian, a peasant, a Northumbrian-- who all fill their vows and decide to die with their lord is better than life as cowards.
"Don't you think this is strange?"  My professor asks us, frowning. 
"Well, why?" Another medieval student asks him.  "This is the old ideal, isn't it?  To die with your lord?"
"Well, that's exactly the problem," my professor replies.  "That's the ideal, but there's no reason to think that this would be accurate to the reality of the poem.  Come on-- who stops fighting to give a speech and then kills himself on Viking spears?   It's the pattern we see in almost every battle: when the leader's dead, you pack up your gear and head home.  There's nothing left to die for.  The vast majority of these people have no loyalty past Byrhtnoth to Aethelred at all, but that's not what the poem wants us to think. So why valorize something  that probably didn't actually happen?  Is that the reason this poem was written-- to explain what should have happened but didn't?  To create a heroic ideal for this battle that didn't actually exist?"
We all look at him a little strangely, and he tries to explain.  "It's like in the Old West,"  he says.  "There's that mythology about what the Old West is like, with honor and gunfights and the cowboy code and respecting your women, but it's all bullshit.  It's a myth because it was never true.  It's just what they wished they could be." 

I don't know what the rest of the class thought about that comment, but the comparison with the fight at the River Blackwater wasn't what stood out to me.  It was the way he popped the balloon of the Old West myth out-of-hand, like everybody knows that it's "bullshit."  I have to admit that I hadn't thought of it that way-- but let's take my professor's comment at its word for a moment: what if these cultural myths are the opposite of what I've always thought? 

For instance, what if the West tells beautiful stories about the Little Big Horn, for example, because we know that Custer was a bad leader and a brutal man, and we can't bear the thought that he led all those men to die recklessly in an unjust cause?  (That story is starting to catch on.)  What if we tell the story of a gay man led to the edge of a town and murdered for money because we can accept that robbery is unjust and obviously deserves punishment, but we can't accept that murdering a man who allegedly makes a pass at another man is just as much of an outrage to the community?

Jonas Slonaker, for instance, thinks that the cowboy myth we tell ourselves-- like the loyalty of men in Maldon-- really is "bullshit."  The myth is just an easy way to avoid addressing the larger problems about who we are.  For instance, look at the following quotes:

MURDOCK COOPER:  It doesn't bother anybody because most of 'em that are gay or lesbian know damn well who to talk to.  If you step out of line you're asking for it...  (58)

JONAS SLONAKER:  Well, there's this whole idea: You leave me alone, I leave you alone...  And it's even in some of the western literature, you, know, live and let live.  That is such crap.  I tell my friends that-- even my gay friends bring it up sometimes.  I'm like, "That is crap, you know?"  I mean, basically what it boils down to: If I don't tell you I'm a fag, you won't beat the crap out of me.  I mean, what's so great about that?  That's a great philosophy? (59)

Slonaker is identifying both the myth-- that of "live and let live" and its falsehood in the same breath.  He knows it's "crap," and he knows that the myth is hiding a much more damaging reality-- that it's actually a justification for intolerance: in Jonas' words, "if I don't tell you I'm a fag, you won't beat the crap out of me."   In those circumstances, "live and let live" is an easy justification of all kinds of atrocity: you didn't stay out of my space enough, you are not marginal to me enough, so I'm going to do something about it.  So I'm going to mess you up for "flaunting it," for impinging on my masculinity with your behavior.  And thus we can justify that kind of violence because the victim somehow violated the "live and let live" code.  The myth of "live and let live" thus becomes a kind of sexual Jim Crow dressed dude, covered with a far more appealing and cultured overlay. 

Okay, so that's the possible argument.  The problem is that this argument looks like a dangerous path to tread for too long.  If our myths are "crap," to use Jonas Slonaker's term, then where does that leave us?  We know ourselves partially by the myths we hold dear.  If they're all just transference and denial, what's left?  All the stories we tell about ourselves would be just beautiful, dangerous lies. 

So what if myths are just a form of narrative denial, then?  I had always thought that my grandmother bought into the "live and let live" philosophy, and that's what made her so accepting of gays and lesbians.  But the more I think about it, she also felt compelled to tell me when I was seven that it was okay that my aunt was dating a Hawaiian because he wasn't really "black"... well, damn.  Even my stories about my uber-tolerant grandmother are problematic.  Even her "live and let live" had limitations I don't like to admit.

But, let's think back to that quote from the Christian existentialist Nikolai Berdyaev I gave you up above: the problem isn't that all myths are garbage.  The problem is that we're unwilling to delineate between the stories we tell about who we are, the "invention," and those myths which give us a connection to some kind of larger truth-- real myth.  I had never thought of this until someone else pointed this out in a comment on a previous post.  From what I can tell of Berdyaev as someone who hasn't read anything of his, myth by definition is true because it renders reality comprehensible through the use of symbol.  In comparison, the stories we tell about ourselves are just that-- stories.  Maybe those are true, and maybe those aren't.  I suppose it all comes down to how well we know ourselves-- and I firmly believe, as Saint Augustine did, that nobody really knows himself.  Augustine thought that self-knowledge was largely a God-given exercise.  If that's the case, then all the stories we tell about who we are will be false short of divine revelation. 
So, maybe we don't have to throw myth out the window. (Thank goodness!  As a Christian, I would be devastated.)   But that still means that we do have to do some careful sorting of our myths to find the ones that explain the world through symbol, those which connect to our spiritual lives, and those stories we tell to paint fair but false images of who we want to be. 

So, what if we sort through these narratives of self: what will we find?  I find myself reluctant to completely condemn Byrhtnoth for his folly.  And I am also reluctant to let go of my own beautiful lies from my childhood.  Perhaps both lies are equally dangerous, capable of the loss of human life.  And if that's the case, then accepting or rejecting one's narrative identity is a much more dangerous gamble than perhaps I had previously realized.


1)  Statue at the spot of the Battle of Maldon, 991, taken from Fenners1984's Flickr photostream: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

2) Just a chunk of "The Battle of Maldon" written in a faux Anglo-Saxon minuscule.  If you want to read it, this is from Byrhtnoth's speech starting at line 45. 

3)  Photo of George Armstrong Custer, from Chuck_893's Flickr photostream: / CC BY 2.0

4) Marker for a Cheyenne fighter, Closed Hand, at Custer National Battlefield, from stallio's Flickr photostream: CC BY-SA 2.0 .   (Note all the commemorative objects left at the grave: memorial stones, money, tobacco, feather, and I think maybe a burned sage bundle.)

5)  Marker for George Armstrong Custer at Custer National Battlefield, from stallio's Flickr photostream:

1 comment:

  1. Tangential, but entertaining to me and potentially to you: I had quite forgotten that Byrhtnoth was part of the mythology of my childhood! To wit, my dad was stationed at RAF Lakenheath for three years, and I'm only half joking when I say I could have been a tour guide at Ely Cathedral when I was 8 or 9. I can't swear that I knew the headless Anglo-Saxon guy's name by heart -- it certainly didn't ring even the faintest of bells when I read it here -- but one of the few things I recall all these years later is that there IS a headless Anglo-Saxon guy. :-)