Myth and Memory

Although I’m about to take a break from May’s The Cry for Myth to get to some other books awaiting me, I will be returning to it several times next year. In fact, the book has inspired me to read a number of classic works I’ve never read before, and I’ll return to chapters in May’s book as I read those works. I could easily envision a literature course based on the books May discusses, a few which I’ve already read, but many I’ve only heard mentioned in classes. May made them intriguing enough that I’m going to make an effort to read them.

In this section Rollo May ties memory and myth-making together in a number of interesting ways beginning with this quotation from C. C. Jung:

Hardly had I finished the manuscript when it struck me what it means to live with a myth, and what it means to live without one …. [The] man who thinks he can live without myth, or outside it, like one uprooted, has no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet with contemporary human society. This plaything of his reason never grips his vitals.

May compares a man trying to live outside of myths to a man without a country, a man banished from his community, tying it to the sense of anomie that seems to mark modern society. Although I’ve always prided myself on my sense of logic, I’ll have to admit that literature has often seemed more convincing than well-reasoned arguments and given me more insight into my own life. As a child, particular fairy tales seemed to resonate with me.

While the arts play a large part in the myths we believe in, individuals also construct individual myths based on their memory of significant events in their lives:

Memory depends mainly upon myth. Some event occurs in our minds, in actuality or in fantasy; we form it in memory, molding it like clay day after day-and soon we have made out of that event a myth. We then keep the myth in memory as a guide to future similar situations. The myth does not tell us much about the possessive patient’s literal history, but it does tell us a great deal about the person who does the remembering. For the person re-forms the event, shapes it, adds color here and a few details there; and then we have a revelation of this person and his or her attitude toward life. As Sartre would say, “The myth is a behavior of transcendence.”

As I’ve suggested before, I only look back to better see my way forward. But there’s no better way to understand who we really are than by examining what we’ve done. In this light, I was particularly fascinated by May’s description of Adler’s studies:

Out of his great skill in treating children, Adler developed his central concern with the “guiding fiction,” which is a synonym for “myth.” It refers to a significant event in one’s early childhood that the person remembers; the event is turned into a myth which the person keeps as a guide for one’s way of life, whether it is fictitious or not. The person refers to this guiding fiction down through the subsequent years as the secret myth of oneself. One knows oneself through this myth… Memory can liberate us from attachment, from desire or attachment to the wrong things. Memory is our internal studio, where we let our imaginations roam, where we get our new and sometimes splendid ideas, where we see a glorious future that makes us tremble. Memory and myth are inseparable, a point I have never heard in any psychology courses. Memory can, according to Dante, form the past into any myth, any story, any hope (see Chapter 9). Dante believed that memory can lead us to God via myth.

I think I actually prefer the term “guiding fiction” to the term myth, at least when referring to the individual, perhaps because the term seems to have less baggage, perhaps because it seems to me to more accurately describe the purpose of the “myth.” I tend to think of “myth” as society’s story, while the “guiding fiction” seems to more accurately describe what happens in the construction of personal myths.

May concludes Part I of this book by pointing out the healing power of myth:

From our concern with these dramas of Oedipus, we can see the healing power of myths. First, the myth brings into awareness the repressed, unconscious, archaic urges, longings, dreads, and other psychic content. This is the regressive function of myths. But also, the myth reveals new goals, new ethical insights and possibilities. Myths are a breaking through of greater meaning which was not present before. The myth in this respect is the way of working out the problem on a higher level of integration. This is the progressive function of myths.

The tendency has been almost universal in classical psychoanalysis to reduce the latter to the former, and to treat myths as regressive phenomena, which are then “projected” into ethical and other forms of meaning in the outside world. The upshot of this is that the integrative side of myths is lost. This is shown in the great emphasis on Oedipus Tyrannus in psychoanalytic circles while Oedipus in Colonus is forgotten.

But myths are means of discovery. They are a progressive revealing of structure in our relation to nature and to our own existence. Myths are educative- “e-ducatio.” By drawing out inner reality they enable the person to experience greater reality in the outside world.

We now emphasize the side that is generally overlooked, that these myths discover for us a new reality as well. They are roads to universals beyond one’s concrete experience. It is only on the basis of such a faith that the individual can genuinely accept and overcome earlier infantile deprivations without continuing to harbor resentment all through one’s life. In this sense myth helps us accept our past, and we then find it opens before us our future.

There are infinite subtleties in this “casting out of remorse.” Every individual, certainly every patient, needs to make the journey in his and her own unique way. An accompanying process all along the way will be the transforming of one’s neurotic guilt into normal, existential guilt. And both forms of anxiety can be used constructively as a broadening of consciousness and sensitivity. This journey is made through understanding and confronting myths which have not only an archaic, regressive side but an integrative, normative, and progressive aspect as well.

Ignoring the psychoanalytical aspects, which I know next to nothing about, I think the study of societal myths gives us a better understanding of our culture, our fears, and our dreams, both individual and societal. Looking at those myths that have appealed to us reveals personal values. I’m sure that my love of Br’er Rabbit reveals as much about me as my fondness for the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

Looking back at some of my own personal myths certainly gave me some insight into my own personality and past actions. I suspect that this blog is my attempt to continue to explore, and refine, my own guiding fiction. I can’t imagine what life would be like without a guiding fiction of some sort.

5 thoughts on “Myth and Memory

  1. One of the sadder aspects of our culture is the transformation of the definition of myth to simply mean something that isn’t true. I like your phrase “guiding fiction”, but I don’t think it adequately encompasses the classical meaning of myth.

  2. Hi Loren, I found your blog a few weeks ago when I went looking for sites on myths. Thanks for your posts – I’ve been inspired to get a couple of books by Rollo May as I hadn’t read him before.

    When I was child, fairy tales resonated with me too – I read them obsessively. And as I adult I found that the book “Women Who Run With Wolves” (Clarissa Pinkola Estes) became very important to me as it explained the development of women’s psyches in terms of themes in fairy tales.

    I can relate more to fairy tales and myths as explanations for the world,than “proper” more scientific psychology books, which are missing a dimension for me. I have an artist/musician friend who read a lot of poetry, and she understands this perfectly, but unhappily other friends do not.

    There’s an exercise in a book entitled “Callings” by Greg Levoy which invites the reader to write about their life in terms of the common elements of a hero myth. It’s an interesting exercise to go through.

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Barbara. I hope you’re not disappointed that I don’t limit myself to myths, though they’ve long fascinated me, too.

    I’ve commented in the past on how important a role in my life the Hans Andersen and Grimm brothers fairy tales, not to mention the complete set of Oz books, played in my life.

    I suspect their appeal also explains why my favorite movies of the last few years were “Up” and “Despicable Me.”

What do you think?