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.

Where Have All Our Heroes Gone?

In The Cry for Myth, Rollo May laments the loss of the “hero” in modern society, arguing that the loss of heroes makes it difficult for the individual to “find their own ideals, courage, and wisdom in the society:”

The myth of the homeland is symbolized by the hero, upon whom are projected the highest aims of the community. Without the hero the community lacks a crucial dimension, for the hero is typically the soul of the community. Heroes are necessary in order to enable the citizens to find their own ideals, courage, and wisdom in the society. “Society has to contrive some way to allow its citizens to feel heroic,” said Ernest Becker. “This is one of the great challenges of the twentieth century.” We hunger for heroes as role models, as standards of action, as ethics in flesh and bones like our own. A hero is a myth in action.

Through our projection we become more like our hero, as Hawthorne illustrates in his story, “The Great Stone Face.” The main character in this tale lives in view of the mountain, the top rocks of which form a heroic face. It had been predicted that someday a noble man would arrive whose face would bear an undeniable likeness to the great stone face. Hawthorne’s hero spends his life doing good for his fellow villagers, looking up at the great stone face and waiting for its likeness to come. When he is an old man, the people suddenly recognize that his face is the likeness of the great stone face on the mountain top.

The hero carries our aspirations, our ideals, our beliefs. In the deepest sense the hero is created by us; he or she is born collectively as our own myth. This is what makes heroism so important: it reflects our own sense of identity, and from this our own heroism is molded. When my book, Paulus: Reminiscences of a Friendship, was published, one reviewer attacked it on the grounds that I seemed to make a hero of Paul Tillich. This was dangerous in our twentieth century, continued the critic, because it left the way open for hero worship, as was shown in the followers of Adolf Hitler, who used heroism demonically. One can sympathize with this argument, since the heroism which was cultivated by Hitler surely led to the greatest acts of destruction in our world’s history. But we must not throw the baby out with the bath water. Lacking heroes in the 1990s, we are unable to live out our myth of communal aims and ideals in society.

I was reading an article the other day about Phil Ochs, a folksinger noted for his anti-Vietnam protests songs, not to mention his protest of American society in general, as shown in his most famous song “Outside a Small Circle of Friends.” The article pointed out that Ochs’ childhood hero was John Wayne, which caused him great angst when he found himself opposed to the war and diametrically opposed to Waynes’ values as shown in “The Green Berets.” I, too, grew up idolizing Wayne’s movie persona, and complained bitterly after my own war experiences that Wayne, like Reagan, had been brainwashed by their movie roles. Drill sergeants often told trainees “Don’t try to be a John Wayne” because in modern warfare that will get you killed.

May’s argues not only have we lost our heroes, we confuse heroes with “celebrities” and with “billionaires:”

One problem is that we have confused celebrities with heroes. The definition is still valid, “A celebrity is someone who is known for being known.” From the Nielsen ratings on down, from the society pages to the shining advertisements we get in every mail begging us to accept ten million dollars from some gentleman’s hands, there are “celebrities” with phony invitations. But rare indeed is the genuine hero.

Often in America we confuse heroism, following the movement called yuppies, with the making of the most money. In a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley, Ivan Boesky, the billionaire Wall Street trader and role model of many yuppies during the 198os, stated, “There is nothing wrong with greed.” The enthusiastic cheering of the audience filled the hall, how much of it curiosity rather than hero worship it is impossible to say. But at the very moment this book is being written, Ivan Boesky is in prison serving time for illegal trading on the stock market and for criminal activity on Wall Street. He not only went to prison himself but implicated a number of his colleagues along with him. One wonders what Boesky now feels, as he looks out from prison, when he remembers his statement about greed, “After making a successful deal you can feel good about yourself!”

I suspect this is even truer now than it was when May wrote it, considering the number of “reality” television shows on the air. It’s hard to see why anyone would want to emulate the Kardashians, much less Paris Hilton, and her ilk.

Of course, the whole issue becomes even more confused when we realize that the media enjoys tearing heroes down even more than they do holding them up as models. Todays’ celebrity is tomorrow’s tragedy, though more often than not they’re portrayed more as clowns than tragic figures.

Of course, it’s not easy to find real heroes, so the media sometimes resorts to producing their own hero:

It is our fake heroes who give heroism such a bad name. Oliver North apparently was considered a hero by President Reagan and a number of his countrymen. North clearly broke laws, the full extent of which is not yet known. Is it any wonder that we have few heroes today?

There are times when I wonder how the media now defines “hero.” Too often it seems synonymous with “victim.” McCain is sometimes called a hero because he survived after being shot down over North Vietnam. He might have been brave to resist his captors attempts to make him condemn his country, but that’s hardly my definition of a “hero.” He was a victim of the war, and little more. A pilot who crashed in Bosnia and then eluded capture for several days until he could be airlifted out was also hailed as a hero, but, once again, I had a hard time seeing him as anything but a victim of the war. All veterans deserve credit for serving their country, but to call them all heroes renders the word meaningless, as well as powerless.

May feels one of the main reasons for this loss of heroes is the decline of the humanities:

I am deeply troubled by the decline of the humanities in the United States, for it is there that students come into contact with the best of Western literature. A graduate professor of English literature in a western university states that in his class there are five students, while in the graduate classes of computer science across the hail there are three hundred. We seem to have forgotten Max Frisch’s statement, “Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.” It is the what of human existence rather than the how for which we are famished. These cry out from our unread classics and the riches of history and the untouched literature of all centuries. But the cry for the study of myths is heard as a still small voice on many campuses. Martin Luther King, one of the few authentic twentieth-century heroes, dared to dream, and he risked life and limb in his consecration to bringing that dream into reality.

Of course, as Maslow pointed out in Religions, Values and Peak-Experience, “And so today, a very large proportion of our artists, novelists, dramatists, critics, literary and historical scholars are disheartened or pessimistic or despairing, and a fair proportion are nihilistic or cynical (in the sense of believing that no “good life” is possible and that the so called higher values are all a fake and a swindle). Still, I remember hanging on desperately to To Kill a Mockingbird as our high school shuffled classes because it seemed to me that Atticus Finch was one of the few believable heroes in contemporary fiction.

May cites a study by Arthur Levine in When Dreams and Heroes Died

[This] information reveals, among other things, that students today are overwhelmingly materialistic, cynical about society and its institutions (including higher education)-and so competitive about grades that they condone cheating. More significantly, their aspirations are inward, personal, and individualistic rather than social or humanitarian, reflecting the “me first” philosophy that has pervaded the nation in the past decade.*

as proof that there is a real crisis among younger people. I guess everyone will have to make this judgement for themselves, but I suspect this is one of the reasons why I don’t want to see many contemporary movies. Judging from the coming-attractions I saw at the theater yesterday perhaps even film makers see a need for new heroes, though I’m not sure The Green Lantern is quite my kind of hero.

If May is right that:

Our heroes carry our aspirations, our ideals, our hopes: our beliefs, for they are made of our myths. In the profound sense the hero is created by us as we identify with the deeds he or she performs. The hero is thus born collectively as our own myth. This is what makes heroism so important: it reflects our own sense of identity, our combined emotions, our myths.

Then it’s not surprising that so many young people are disillusioned and looking in all the wrong places for happiness. Celebrities, who more often than not are in the headlines because of their problems, do not a make good role models. Nor, for the most part, do the super wealthy. The last athlete who seemed like a good role model to me was Charles Barkley when he said, “A million guys can dunk a basketball in jail; should they be role models?”

The Importance of Myths

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of myths according to Rollo May as they serve multiple functions:

The many contributions of myths to our lives can be listed under four headings. First, myths give us our sense of personal identity, answering the question, Who am I? When Oedipus cried, “I must find out who I am and where I came from!” and when Alex Haley searches for his Roots, they are both illustrating this function of myth.

Second, myths make possible our sense of community. The fact that we think mythically is shown in our loyalty to our town and nation and even our loyalty to our college and its various teams which produce such mythic phenomena as Trojans and 49ers. These would be absurd except that they illustrate the important bonding of social interest and patriotism and other such deeply rooted attitudes toward one’s society and nation.

Third, myths undergird our moral values. This is crucially important to members of our age, when morality has deteriorated and seems to have vanished altogether in some distraught places.

Fourth, mythology is our way of dealing with the inscrutable mystery of creation. This refers not only to the creation of our universe but creation in science, the mysterious “dawning” in art and poetry and other new ideas in our minds. “Myth is the garment of mystery,” writes Thomas Mann insightfully in the preface to his great book on ancient myths, Joseph and His Brothers.

I suppose if I’d thought hard enough about myths, particularly the way May describes them, I might have come up with most of these functions, but I’ll admit I was surprised when I first saw them listed this way.

If I have this little awareness of the importance of myths while having earned a Master of Arts in Liberal Arts, plus two more years of graduate work, I can only wonder how much knowledge of myths the average adult might have.

May argues that people who have never heard of a myth are still influenced by it:

The reader may well ask, “Suppose the patients are unsophisticated and have never read the Greeks or any other classics?” While it is true that this woman was eminently interesting and a pleasure to work with, it is not true that she consciously knew about this myth. So far as I can surmise, she had not read it and did not consciously know it. This illustrates that myths do not require that one have read them specifically. Myths are archetypal patterns in human consciousness, as Joseph Campbell and others have pointed out. We are all born of a mother and we die: we all confront sex or its absence; we work or we avoid it; and so on. The great dramas like Hamlet are mythic in the sense that they present the existential crises in everyone’s life. We cannot escape believing in the assumption that myth and self-consciousness are to some degree synonymous. Where there is consciousness, there will be myth. One will have dreams of the myth of Oedipus out of the vicissitudes of living in a triangular family (father, mother, child) whether he or she has actually read this classic drama or not.

What child hasn’t felt so awkward and wished so earnestly for personal satisfaction that he can immediately identify with The Ugly Duckling when introduced to it ? We identify with myths because they help us to articulate, or to see more clearly, what we’ve already sensed.

Jung, and May, believe poets and artists are most in touch with these myths, these archetypes:

Jung believes that poets are in touch with a reality beyond that which the rational mind can perceive; they know that they have discovered the “spirits, demons and gods.” The deepest level of the unconscious, writes Jung, can be discovered only through myth and ritual. He sees myths as necessary interlinks between the human spirit and the natural man. Out of this theory come the archetypes, the expression of the collective unconscious.

Each of us, by virtue of our pattern of myths, participates in these archetypes; they are the structure of human existence. It is not necessary to be a scholar in order to be influenced by them; it is only necessary that one existentially participate in human life. “I have written that myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him,” Levi-Strauss states. “For me it [the myth] describes a lived experience.” Dreams are a private application to one’s life of public myths in which we are all participants.

The poet Stanley Kunitz agrees with this interpretation as I noted here in the introduction to Passing Through, “Poetry, I have insisted, is ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul.”

May argues that those who no longer believe in myths are outcasts:

Surely Nietzsche is right: our powerful hunger for myth is a hunger for community. The person without a myth is a person without a home, and one would indeed clutch for other cultures to find some place at some time a “mythic womb. “To be a member of one’s community is to share in its myths, to feel the same pride that glows within us when we recall the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, or Washington crossing the Delaware, or Daniel Boone and Kit Carson riding into the West. The outsider, the foreigner, the stranger is the one who does not share our myths, the one who steers by different stars, worships different gods.

I wonder if many of us who fought in Vietnam didn’t feel like outcasts because we could no longer believe in many of the myths those at home still held dear.

May’s The Cry for Myth

I’ve long admired Rollo May’s works. One of the first books I ever blogged was his The Courage to Create, when I re-read it after I retired. His My Quest for Beauty which I just finished, inspired me to put aside some just-purchased books in order to read The Cry For Myth, one the last books he wrote.

This quote from The Cry for Myths explains both why I like his books and why I became a liberal arts major:

It is a radical deficiency that, in the education of post-Freudian psycho- therapists, most students are left illiterate about the humanities. Our literature is the richest source of the presentation of human beings’ self-interpretation down through history. For therapists the peril is greater than for naturalists because the imagination is specifically their tool and object of study, and any abridgement in understanding its workings will significantly limit professional progress.

Of course it’s the line “Our literature is the richest source of the presentation of human beings’ self-interpretation down through history,” not the psychologist part that captivated me, though I’ll have to a admit I gave some thought to changing my major to psychology as an undergraduate. In the end, though, literature seemed to offer the best change of understanding who I was and who I wanted to become.

I’ll have to admit that if I hadn’t read May’s introduction to myth in My Quest for Beauty I might not have bought this one. I’m afraid the term “Myth” has become a pejorative term in recent times. For most people studying classical myths no longer seems relevant, unless they’re viewed in some bastardized comic version. It’s aso a way of dismissing a story, as in “That’s just a myth.” Luckily, May doesn’t use the term in either of these ways:

A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence. Whether the meaning of existence is only what we put into life by our own individual fortitude, as Sartre would hold, or whether there is a meaning we need to discover, as Kierkegaard would state, the result is the same: myths are our way of finding this meaning and significance. Myths are like the beams in a house: not exposed to outside view, they are the structure which holds the house together so people can live in it.

Tying myths to “narrative patterns that give significance to our existence” provides a different way of looking at myths. Great literature attempts to provide those patterns and contemporary literature tries to reveal when such patterns lose their effectiveness while offering new patterns, though May argues that much of modern art is content with revealing failed beliefs rather than attempting to provide new narrative patterns.

Mays argues convincingly, at least for me, that myths are essential not only to society but to the individual’s well-being:

Myths are our self-interpretation of our inner selves in relation to the outside world. They are narrations by which our society is unified. Myths are essential to the process of keeping our souls alive and bringing us new meaning in a difficult and often meaningless world. Such aspects of eternity as beauty, love, great ideas, appear suddenly or gradually in the language of myth.

Mays makes an interesting distinction between “rational truth” and “mythic truths:”

Thus the myth, as Thomas Mann put it, is an eternal truth in contrast to an empirical truth. The latter can change with every morning newspaper when we read of the latest discoveries in our laboratories. But the myth transcends time. It does not matter in the slightest whether a man named Adam and a woman named Eve ever actually existed or not; the myth about them in Genesis still presents a picture of the birth and development of human consciousness which is applicable to all peo- ple of all ages and religions.

Myth is not art, though it is used in all the arts; it promises more; its methods and functions are different. Myth is a form of expression which reveals a process of thought and feeling-man’s awareness of and response to the universe, his fellow men, and his separate being. It is a projection in concrete and dramatic form of fears and desires undiscoverable and inexpressible in any other way.

I suspect I’ve long agreed with that definition, but I’d never quite thought of it in those terms. As an English teacher I’ve long acknowledged that novels are seldom “realistic,” but the truths they reveal about human nature can be more “real” and more “true” than real-life events.

The fact that Mays was a practicing therapist gives added credence to his argument that the lack of such myths contribute to the mental problems of many young people:

There are frightening statistics of suicide by young people in the last decades. In the 1970s suicide among white young men increased greatly. We may try various ways to prevent suicide in these young people, like telephoning seriously depressed persons and so on. But as long as the highest goal remains making money, as long as we teach practically no ethics by example in home or in government, as long as these young people are not inspired to form a philosophy of life, and as long as television is overloaded with aggression and sex with no mentors in learning to love-as long as these obtain, there will continue to be among young people such frightening depression and suicide.

Mays argues that the only way to defeat the anxiety that drives us is to form our own myths in order to make sense of our world:

Every individual seeks-indeed must seek if he or she is to remain sane-to bring some order and coherence into the stream of sensations, emotions, and ideas entering his or her consciousness from within or without. Each one of us is forced to do deliberately for oneself what in previous ages was done by family, custom, church, and state, namely, form the myths in terms of which we can make some sense of experience.