The Mythology of Modern Literature

By | August 3, 2021

Guest post by Kathryn Hume

By an interesting sleight of hand, mythological literature demands that we use our cultural capital, and by doing so we add to it. It demands that we link to the past, not so much to “learn from” that past (since too much has changed) but to impose those past patterns on the present to shake us up and jar loose new ideas and responses. Orpheus descending to the land of the sentient dead is not something we take seriously but suggests many metaphoric equivalents:  the underworlds of extreme poverty or of military-torture or of severe depression. Where Ovid entertained Romans with stories of metamorphoses, we now revel in stories of leaving our meat bodies and entering the internet as disembodied intelligences. Ovid’s stories may seem frivolous and even decadent to us, but we are entranced by our own version of such mythic transformations. Myths from different cultures resonate and merge; that particular transformation to web existence is also known as The Rapture for Nerds.

Our liking for myth begets pseudo-myth as well. If the best-known myths in a culture include creation and destruction of the world, a leader with extraordinary powers, and various kinds of existence after death, then we will find stories that use these motifs. Italo Calvino felicitously rethinks the big bang and creation of the world we know. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker shows us the growth of new myths in a post-nuclear-holocaust that explain how the impoverished conditions came about. Hoban is sensitive to words, so his new myth grows out of the similar sounds of Adam and Atom and from the image of splitting the one apart also becomes an image for torture and abuse of power. Many pseudo-myths deal with the problem of power. Superheroes almost always ask us to think about how power should or should not be used. Alan Moore’s Watchmen brilliantly explores such issues.

 A materialist and scientific outlook offers no evidence of existence after death, so mythic literature invites us to play with ideas of what we might wish to be the case. It does not demand belief but does explore what value such stories may have or what good it may do us to think in those terms. Or it asks us to think how we should live given that no such afterlife is likely. Authors can play seriously or humorously with this vision of death; James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah asks us to consider that God really has died and his two-mile-long corpse is floating in the Atlantic. What should we do about it? How would that affect the world or the ways we should look on our lives.

Mythic literature can be rollicking, mind-stretching, depressing, or solemn, but its most obvious function is to wake us up and make us think through important questions.

The Metamorphoses of Myth in Fiction since 1960 cover image

Kathryn Hume is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor Emerita at Penn State University, USA. She is the author of Fantasy and Mimesis (1984), Pynchon’s Mythography (1987), Calvino’s Fictions (1992), American Dream, American Nightmare (2000),and Aggressive Fictions (2012).

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