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.