Myths


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Myths

 

in literature, creations of the collective folk fantasy which, in a generalized way, reflect reality in the form of emotionally concrete personifications and animate beings that are considered real by the primitive consciousness. The specific characteristics of myths are most evident in primitive culture, in which myth is the equivalent of science and learning—a complete system in terms of which the whole world is perceived and described. Later, such forms of social consciousness as art, literature, science, religion, and political ideology become separate from mythology, but they retain a number of mythological patterns that are interpreted in special ways before they are included in the new structures. Thus, myths are reborn in modern society. The transformation of myths in literature is of particular interest.

Mythology is similar to literature in that it adapts and modifies reality in narratives. Historically, mythology foreshadowed many of the possibilities of literature and exerted a multifaceted influence on its early development. Thus, it was only natural that literature did not become separate from its mythological foundations. This applies not only to works with mythological subjects but also to 19th- and 20th-century realistic and naturalistic writing, as is evident in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Zola’s Nana, and Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

The attitude of the poet to myth may be studied in classical literature. “It is well known,” wrote K. Marx, “that Greek mythology comprised not only the arsenal of Greek art, but its foundation” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 12, p. 736). This statement applies, above all, to the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which mark the transition between anonymous communal-tribal myth-making and literature. (Other transitional works of this type include the Indian Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Puranas; the Persian Avesta; and the Germano-Scandinavian Eddas.) Homer’s approach to reality—“epic detachment,” the almost complete absence of individual reflection and psychologism—and his aesthetics, which is only weakly differentiated from common everyday demands, are permeated by a mythological conception of the world. The actions and psychological states of Homer’s heroes are explained by the intervention of the gods. In this epic picture of the world the gods are more real than the overly subjective sphere of human psychology. In view of this, it is tempting to assert that “mythology and Homer are one and the same” (F. W. J. von Schelling, Filosofiia iskusstva, Moscow, 1966, p. 115). But even in the Homeric epic, every step in the direction of conscious aesthetic creation leads to a reinterpretation of myth. The mythological material is sometimes parodied, and it is subjected to a process of selection based on criteria of beauty. The Greek poets of the early classical period did not express an ironic attitude toward myths, but they revised them extensively, systematizing them in accordance with the laws of reason (Hesiod) or ennobling them to conform with the laws of morality (Pindar).

Myths continued to influence literature in the period of the flowering of Greek tragedy, but their influence should not be measured by the frequency with which mythological subjects were used. Aeschylus based his tragedy The Persians on a historical subject, but in creating this historical drama he transformed history into myth. Tragedy progressed from a revelation of the depths of mythological meaning (Aeschylus) and an aesthetic harmonization of myth (Sophocles) to, ultimately, a moral and rational criticism of the foundations of myth (Euripides). For the Hellenistic poets, moribund mythology became an object of literary games and erudite collecting (Callimachus).

Roman poetry developed new ways of relating to myth. Virgil linked myth with a philosophical understanding of history, creating a new structure of mythological imagery enriched by symbolic meaning and lyric emotion, sometimes at the expense of fluidity. Ovid, on the other hand, separated mythology from its religious content and played a thoroughly conscious game with the “given” motifs, which he transformed into a unified system in which any degree of irony or frivolity was permitted in dealing with a particular motif but in which the system of mythology as a whole was endowed with an “elevated” quality. Medieval poetry developed the Virgilian attitude toward myth, and Renaissance poetry, the Ovidian. Beginning in the late Renaissance, the neoclassical images of Christian religion and the chivalrous novel were translated into the imagery of classical mythology, which was viewed as a universal language (for example, T. Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and F. von Spee’s idylls eulogizing Christ under the name of Daphnis). Allegories and the cult of literary convention reached their apogee in the 18th century.

However, an opposite tendency emerged toward the end of the 18th century, when a more profound attitude toward myth developed in Germany, particularly in the poetry of Goethe and J. C. F. Holderlin and in Schelling’s theory, which rejected classicistic allegorism. According to Schelling’s theory, the mythical image does not “stand for” something but “is” something or is a meaningful form when considered in organic unity with its content.

The romantics were familiar with not only classical mythology but also the mythologies of the world, which differ in their internal rules. They adopted the wealth of German, Celtic, and Slavic mythology, as well as the myths of the East. In the 1840’s through 1870’s, Wagner made a magnificent attempt to force the world of myth and the world of civilization to explain each other in musical dramaturgy. Out of his endeavor grew a great tradition.

In the 20th century unprecedentedly reflective, intellectual ways of relating to myth have developed. T. Mann’s tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers was inspired by the serious study of scholarly theories of mythology. A parodic mythologization of the senseless prose of everyday life is a consistent feature of the work of Kafka and Joyce and of J. Updike’s The Centaur. Unlike the work of the late romantics and the symbolists, the work of contemporary writers is characterized not by an artificial, exaggerated reverence for myth but by a free, unsentimental attitude which combines intuitive insight with irony, parody, and analysis and which sometimes discovers mythological patterns in everyday things.

S. S. AVERINTSEV

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