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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Some Thoughts on Myth

The myth is, then, not necessarily false.  It might happen to be wholly true.  It may happen to be partly true.  If it has affected human conduct a long time, it is almost certain to contain much that is profoundly and importantly true.  What a myth never contains is the critical power to separate its truths from its errors.  For that power comes only by realizing that no human opinion, whatever its supposed origin, is too exalted for the test of evidence, that every opinion is only somebody's opinion.  And if you ask why the test of evidence is preferable to any other, there is no answer unless you are willing to use the test in order to test it.
--Walter Lippmann, in Public Opinion (123)
[W]hen we have a theory about who we are, and the data goes against that theory, we throw out the data rather than adjust the theory. We are hardwired as human beings not to contemplate our own complicity in things.
--Jeffrey Lockwood, in an interview with Tectonic Theater

The beginning of The Laramie Project starts with some of the stories we tell each other about who we are and what it means to live there:
REBECCA HILLIKER:  There's so much space between people and towns here, so much time for reflection...  You have an opportunity to be happy in your life here.  I found that people here were nicer than in the Midwest, where I used to teach, because they were happy.  They were happy that the sun was shining.  And it shines a lot here... (7)
I know these stories so well because they're mine too-- conservation, self-reflection and space...    But then there's this odd moment in the middle of all this mythmaking when Seargeant Hing starts telling his story about Laramie:
SEARGEANT HING:  It's a good place to live.  Good people, lots of space.  Now when the incident happened with that boy, a lot of press people came up here.  And one time some of them followed me out to the crime scene.  And, uh, well, it was a beautiful day, absolutely gorgeous day, real clear and crisp and the sky was that blue, that, uh...  you know, you'll never be able to paint, it's just sky blue-- it's just gorgeous...  (8)

I know what he means about the sky.  That's why I used to love Maxfield Parrish's paintings when I was little-- because nobody else could quite get that barren, cobalt blue sky to turn out just right.  But this moment for me was utterly surreal when I first saw the play-- the way that Hing's narrative of that "good place to live" with its blue sky, so blue you don't understand unless you've seen it, just sort of blends in perfectly with the Shepard tragedy.  The one story has totally infiltrated the other.  I had a sense of horror the first time I heard these lines, a horror only slightly lessened by my satisfaction at hearing the reporters called "stupid"  just a moment later.  It felt like our story had been hijacked.  That's not who we are at all, I wanted to call out.  That's not the way the story goes. 

I've moved beyond that first reaction to a more ambivalent stance.  Hing couldn't tell his story about Matt Shepard without telling Tectonic who he was, so his myth of blue, blue skies and Shepard's murder site just run together. Anymore, that relationship goes both ways; you can't tell the story of Laramie anymore, it seems, without Matthew being a part of it:
JEDEDIAH SCHULTZ:  If you would have asked me before, I would have told you Laramie is a beautiful town, secluded enough that you can have your own identity... a town with a strong sense of community-- everyone knows everyone... Now, after Matthew, I would say that Laramie is a town defined by an accident, a crime.  We've become Waco, we've become Jasper...(9)
What I'm contemplating right now is this: how easy is it for your myths to change?   And when should they have to?

Analyzing troublesome myths is much easier to do from afar.  As an American, the obvious choice is the American South and its legacy of slavery, but even after eight years of living here I haven't found a toehold into their culture enough to find a point of sympathy.  The South is simply too foreign, oddly enough. 

Instead, I constantly turn to South Africa.  I've grown to love both Athol Fugard's theater and Antjie Krog's writing, and Desmond Tutu is a major hero of mine.  Both of Fugard and Krog have written on the struggle for the Afrikaner to recognize their failure and realign their personal myths in a New South Africa, and how difficult it has been for the people to change.  I love Fugard for the sense of loss one feels in his work even as his Afrikaner characters realize the need to change; I love Krog for her need to reconcile her two worlds, that of her Afrikaans upbringing and revelations the Truth Commission, into something coherent, something that continually eludes her. 

As I've read further into the literature of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the more I am struck by how similar the Reform Protestant culture of the Boere resembles my own.  The myths are practically identical: we both have a reverence for the land, Protestant individualism, a fierce sense of independence; reverence for fathers; teaching your children how to hunt; learning to read the land and tread its wilderness with respect but not fear.  Even the words kraal and corral resemble one another though their usage differs. 

In addition, the words for those who settled their respective territories have the same basic meaning:  an Old French pïoneer (and pawn) was someone who dug trenches and mines-- a frontrunner to the main ranks of an army.  The Afrikaans voortrekker has nearly the same meaning as that: a fore-trekker, the people sent out in advance.    The similarities are too obvious to ignore. 

The images you see at the Voortrekker monument, for instance, resonate with my childhood: covered wagons, women in bonnets, lean men measuring the soil with their hands...  I understand all those images.  And I also understand the impulse to wince when you wander around the walls of the Voortrekker monument and see the stories of violence and subjugation of the indigenous people. I've seen images like that, too.  I lived the majority of my childhood in towns sitting on the borders of reservations, and I was born just two hours away from where Chief Joseph, Looking Glass and the Nez Perce were finally captured at Chinook, Montana.

Like so many kids, I grew up playing "cowboys and Indians," but these games had a conflicted meaning.  My mother was a reservation teacher, and my heroes were much more likely to be Chief Joseph, Red Cloud or Two Guns White Calf than Sheridan or Custer.  Even from childhood, I instinctively understood what it means to be the inheritors of an injustice I never created or supported but nevertheless benefited from, and that knowledge always pulled at my identity in ways I didn't like-- with guilt, responsibility, survivor's burden.  Denial often seemed like an attractive alternative. 

So, how easy has it been for the Afrikaner to separate their agrarian, Pioneer-like mythos from a fear and hatred of native Africans?  Trying to come to terms with the systemic evil that rotted the floor out from under their culture has not gone very well for many of them so far. If the homeland movement for Afrikaners and the clamoring fears over losing Afrikaans as a distinct language are any indication, then many believe that questioning one part of the Voortrekker mythos feels like giving it all up-- that they can't question their myths without losing their identity altogether.  Many of them haven't found a way to keep from throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

And suddenly it is as if an undertow is taking me out...  out... and out.  And behind me sinks the country of my skull like a sheet in the dark-- and I hear a thin song, hooves, hedges of venom, fever and destruction fermenting and hissing underwater.  I shrink and prickle.  Against.  Against my blood and the heritage thereof.  Will I forever be them-- recognizing them as I do daily in my nostrils?  Yes.  And what we have done will never be undone.  It doesn't matter what we do.  What DeKlerk does.  Until the third and fourth generation...  Viljoen speaks as if he wants to capture something, bring something back, confirm some essence of Afrikanerhood that is wholesome.  I want it too-- but at the same time know it not to be.  (171)     
--Antjie Krog, in Country of My Skull (1998)

Krog's dilemma interests me: she wants so desperately to separate the wheat from the chaff of her identity, like Constand Viljoen, but she can't do it.  Her identity as Afrikaner-- Voortrekker, rancher, survivor-- is also tied into Afrikaner as oppressor, monster.  The myths of her past that she grew up with, like the Boer persecution by the English, or the pioneer ideal-- can no longer be invoked without ridicule.  So Krog comes dangerously close to rejecting her entire culture as corrupt.  Others, who don't want to make that terrible decision, go the opposite track; they cling to their past at the expense of the revealed truth of apartheid's brutality.  They go into denial.  And those who want to find some kind of middle ground-- like Viljoen, I suppose-- find themselves at a loss.  And when turn from South Africa and I look at those who try to deal with Matthew Shepard's death, I can see those same responses-- not perhaps with the same vehemence as those sorting through the Afrikaner's dilemma, but they're there.  And where am I?  I guess that right now I'm trying to take the middle path, running dangerously close to turning into Krog.  

So, how easy is it to rewrite one's myths?  And, when we find them rewritten despite ourselves, how do we cope with that loss?  For to rewrite one's myth is, in a sense, to lose a bit of yourself.  You lose a bit of how you explain the world, and learning to embrace that change is extremely difficult. 

Okay, so my culture is no South Africa.  There was no bureaucracy of butchery and torture to suppress millions of people, and it didn't create a mythology that veiled evil with normality.  But that doesn't mean that my Western culture is innocent and needs no self-scrutiny.  My culture has the same lessons to learn when it comes to tolerating difference-- that our "live and let live" philosophy isn't open enough to let outsiders become a part of our community.  That "live and let live" is just another way to say "don't ask, don't tell."  That our tough, masculine ideal teaches our men no other way to respond to same-sex desire except violence and rejection.  That, just maybe, our fastidious condemnation of gays and lesbians is often driven by fears much more primal than just our moral codes-- that, for some, it's irrational, a phobia.  Our philosophy of "live and let live" normally allows for a wide, sweeping toleration of differences in moral codes and cultural practice, but for some reason, that often doesn't apply to homosexuality.  That knee-jerk condemnation of "out," active gays and lesbians is driven by something else. 

But our mythos declares that that's not what we are at all.  Our myths say that we're a "live and let live" society, and those are the words we stubbornly stick to when we feel under attack.   There are a lot of other phrases we use to invoke those myths: "it's a good place to raise your children"; "as long as they don't push themselves on anyone"; "we don't raise kids like that."   It's all a part of our cowboy ideal, and that story insulates us from the need to reconsider who we are. 

These myths, as comforting as they are, can prevent us from making social progress, much like how the Voortrekker myth of British persecution does.  Jonas Slonaker, for instance, instinctively realizes this when he lashes out a Laramie's complacency after McKinney's conviction: 
Change is not an easy thing, and I don't t think people were up to it here.  They got what they wanted.  Those two boys got what they deserve, and we look good now.  Justice has been served.  The OK Corral.  We shot down the villains.  We sent the prostitutes on the train.  The town's cleaned up, and we don't need to talk about it anymore...  What's come out of it?  What come out of this that's concrete or lasting?  (99) 
Slonaker looks at the story Laramie tells of itself-- the cowboy story-- and points out how it stands in the way of progress.  The OK Corral, Slonaker claims, is just a narrative sleight-of-hand; it makes intolerance disappear behind the mirrors of a  magic act.  How do you change a myth that we use to insulate ourselves from having to change in the first place?   It seems nigh on impossible.  

If you think back to that Walter Lippman quote I gave you earlier, he's so optimistic about myth's ability to change.  He's a journalist, so he thinks that myths can be challenged, scrutinized by external evidence and sorted for their truthfulness.  I want to believe that.  But given the tenacity of myth, I'm not so sure.  After all, that was the whole point of the TRC: that the national story of South Africa could be passed under the light of truth and then rewritten to make it reflect the truth of what happened.  Did that actually happen?  As an outsider, I can't say.

I can only look to my own culture and see little hints of change.  For instance, when a Republican legislator stood up in Cheyenne and proclaimed that "Wyoming is the state of Matthew Shepard and Brokeback Mountain," that was an important little step in changing our myths; Shepard has entered this man's understanding of our past.  Perhaps Matt's passing into myth, then, is not necessarily such a bad thing-- because as a myth he can fight the problems of our own myths head-on.   Maybe that's the only way one can sort a myth, to keep its good elements and still make change for the better-- to have a competing myth.  If Matt becomes a part of the story we tell ourselves, like the way Rob DeBree's story of blue skies and Matt's murder run together, perhaps that's the price we need to pay.

1) Mormon Row, Grand Tetons, Wyoming.  Courtesy of p.m. graham's Flickr photostream:

2) East of Waltman, WY, taken by Jackrabbit.

3) Statue from the Voortrekker monument, Pretoria.  Courtesy of arboresce's Flickr photostream: / CC BY-SA 2.0

4) Frieze from the Voortrekker monument, Pretoria.  Courtesy of mtlp's Flickr photostream: 


Kaufman, Moisés et al.  "Has Anything Changed?"  Newsweek  09 Oct. 2008.  Web. 

Krog, Antjie.  Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa.  New York: Random House, 1998.  

Lippman, Walter.  Public Opinion.  New York: MacMillan, 1922.  New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1991.


  1. 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.
    -- Nicolas Berdyaev

  2. Hmmm... You know, that Berdyaev quote might just hit the nail on the head. Thanks!

    Maybe that's what makes these ideas so hard to give up-- that we've got the wrong idea about what they actually are. We don't want to give up on our "concepts" because we're ascribing something to them-- a reflection of spiritual truth, or symbolic reflection of reality-- that's more than they deserve.

    I guess in a way that would be like fetishizing mere concept (like "live and let live") as a myth. But it can never be a myth, because it's just a story about who we think we are, not a symbolic expression of something real.

    In any case, I'm extremely intrigued. Where does that Berdyaev quote come from, if you don't mind my asking?