First published as ‘Foreword’, Amina Alyal & Paul Hardwick (eds), Classical and Contemporary Mythic Identities (Lampeter: Mellen Press, 2010), pp xi-xiii. Minor changes have been made to the wording.
Myth, Ideology and Identity: A Note
About twenty years ago I launched an undergraduate course, ‘Myths Ancient and Modern’, only to be told by a colleague that he objected to the name. At first I thought that what bothered him was the rather weak pun on the title of the Church of England hymn book. But no, it was rather that I had chosen to use the word ‘myth’ instead of ‘ideology’. I suppose that he envisaged students sitting around and swapping their favourite fables, instead of engaging with the rigours of class struggle. Rather than enter into an etymological debate, I merely suggested that ‘Ideologies Ancient and Modern’ did not have quite the same rhetorical flourish as my chosen wording. We politely agreed to differ.
The point of this anecdote is that ‘myth’ has been, and remains, a contentious term. As Amina Alyal and Paul Hardwick’s volume of essays shows us, it is best deployed when our awareness of its more negative connotations does not blind us to its own special demands, as an elemental expression of the narrative imagination. Thus, the notion of ideology may figure here, either explicitly or implicitly, but it is never applied in a crude, reductive manner. The myths examined are given, as it were, room to breathe. Indeed, each contributor seems to have spent a good deal of time, not only pondering the nature of myth but also asking themselves just where they stand in relation to the myths that interest them. In keeping with the phrase ‘contemporary myth’ (rather more demanding than my own ‘modern’), we could not ask for a more vital or wide-ranging demonstration of the continuing relevance of mythic themes, patterns and symbols.
From the Book of Genesis to present-day conspiracy theories, from Pandora’s box to Pan’s Labyrinth, from the adventures of the Irish warrior Cuchulain to the wanderings of Dylan’s hobo, from satyrs to cyborgs, we discover what is possible if one is prepared to read myth with creative ambivalence: not only as a misleading explanation of the world where necessary, but also as a mind-expanding exploration where possible. Or, to put this another way: we see that recognising the ideology that shadows mythology should not prevent one from taking the latter seriously in its own right. Whether myths assume a local colour, as with the ‘wild spirit’ Tregeagle of Cornish folklore, whether they are filtered through the celebrity which attends the production of popular fiction, as with Ian Fleming’s novels, or whether they are reworked in keeping with changing ideals of femininity, as in Hollywood films and cult TV series, there can be no doubt that they are indispensable for understanding where we are – and, more importantly, who we are.
In this connection, Alyal and Hardwick refer to ‘the construction of identity’, a phrase that we might pause to situate briefly. We all know that there has been a longstanding trend in critical theory to see both non-human and human nature as linguistic constructs, to an extent – the various theorists differing as to just how extensive they want to be. With regard to non-human nature, it is surely time to draw the line. I know that I am not the only one to protest that to say that our understanding of reality is always partial and perspectival is not necessarily to imply that there is ‘no such thing as nature’ (see Coupe 2009: 95-101). However, if it is humanity which is the focus, and if the crucial construction at issue here is that of identity, then it is surely undeniable that our very selves, apparently so substantial, are constantly being shaped and reshaped by the power of myth. By the same token, our collective identity – that is, culture itself – may pretend to be based on logos, or rational truth, but is really formed through mythos, or narrative imagination.
Allowing for the constructed aspect of the human character, we yet need to recognise, in this age of imminent ecocatastrophe, that the most important identity which myth makes possible is that between humanity and nature. James Lovelock realised this when he decided to use the name of the Greek mother goddess, Gaia, for his vision of the planet as a living organism. He knew that people are much less likely to care for an abstract ‘earth system’ than for a sacred personage who appeals to our imagination and love of story-telling (Lovelock 1989: 209). But how may this insight into the human response to nature be reconciled with the notion of human nature as constructed? I would suggest that waking up to the provisional and contingent nature of our collective identity is precisely what is required if we are to rid ourselves of the assumption that we have, as the ‘superior’ species, an absolute right to exploit, pollute and destroy the natural world.
Kenneth Burke once remarked that human beings ‘build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss’ (Burke 1984: 72). Thus our most recurrent narratives may function to bolster a fragile sense of collective identity. But he also believed that one of the main values of imagination was that of ‘preventing a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly itself’ (Burke 1968: 105). The contributors to this volume exhibit a flair for demonstrating how our most recurrent narratives, while frequently being used to vindicate a given sense of collective identity, cannot help but provide a glimpse of another way of inhabiting the earth.
With my initial anecdote in mind, I would suggest that it is entirely appropriate that the key word of Alyal and Hardwick’s title is ‘mythic’ and not ‘ideological’. I am sure that their collection of essays will inspire other scholars to explore the rich field of mythology with the same spirit of informed enquiry.
Burke, Kenneth, Counter-Statement, 2nd edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968)
—– Permanence and Change, 3rd edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)
Coupe, Laurence, Myth, 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2009)
Lovelock, James, The Ages of Gaia: The Biography of Our Living Earth (Oxford: OUP, 1989)