myth and poetry

What Is Myth Series

Politics & Myth: Mythmaking In America by Maggie Macary

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

I have a funny story about Dennis Slattery, a poet, author, and professor at Pacifica who was doing a weekend seminar on poetry at the Phoenix Friends of Jung Society. Apparently Dennis used the word mimesis and a woman in the group burst into tears because she didn't understand what he was saying. The word mimesis scared her.

Why would I bring that story into this blog? Because I'm about to use a scary sounding word - mythopoesis and I don't want anyone to burst out crying. I spend a lot of time using that word in real life - perhaps because my best friend is a mytho-poet.

But for anyone truly interested in myth, the word mythopoesis is an important one. Simply put - mythopoesis = myth (story) + poesis (making) is nothing other than myth making or story-making. But for a mythologist, it philosophically means much more than the two simple words. For me, in particular, it represents the movement of mythic materials through a culture.

An old archetypal story-line, such as Oedipus, changes its meaning as it weaves its way through a culture. The skeleton of the story stays the same, but how it is interpreted and represented in a culture, changes. This is based on that culture’s underlying psychological need.

According to Harry Slochower, (Mythopoesis: Mythic Forms in Literary Classics, 1970 ) mythopoesis occurs when the literal meanings of old stories can no longer be tolerated by a later culture. The culture is in a time of crisis, when faith in authoritative structures is failing. It is in these times that cultures (through individuals, poets, prophets, artists) recreate the ancient stories, transposing them with new symbolic meaning.

Remember, this is not the meaning as in the only meaning of a myth. It is a meaning that carries weight in the times and the culture. Each culture redefines the meaning of Oedipus and re-dreams the war of the Iliad. Each culture must take the journey home of Odysseus. That is the true power and danger of myth - that it can be reinterpreted and assigned a particular meaning based on a cultural need or an ideological requirement.

A major example of this are Sophocles plays. Sophocles took on ancient stories - the stories of Oedipus and Antigone, and gave them a particular moral twist that suited the strange times of Classical Athens. He created mythopoetic variations of old Greek myths. Since then, his plays have been translated hundreds of times, each translation creating yet another mythopoetic movement. I did some analysis on this in my paper The Oedipal Wound. In the process of doing that paper, I read 7 different translations of Sophocles, Oedipus and was shocked to see the variety of translation - how the morals and biases of a particular age contributed to the way the translator spun the play. Even how the play is staged represents a mythopoetic presentation that provides specific meanings that exclude the ambiguity in the myth.

Now, why am I thinking of all this, this morning? Because there was a really interesting review in the New York Times Book Review of a new translation of Antigone by Seamus Healey. The reviewer, Garry Wills, entitled the review Red Thebes, Blue Thebes and in it he does a fine job in bringing to light the biases of a translator. Wills argues that Heaney bleaches out ambiguities in his translation, making the polarities between Creon and Antigone even starker than in past translations. Wills writes:

He[Healey] tells us in a note to ''The Burial at Thebes'' that ''the situation that pertains in Sophocles' play was being re-enacted in our own world'' as he was writing. ''Just as Creon forced the citizens of Thebes into an either/or situation in relation to Antigone, the Bush administration in the White House was using the same tactic to forward its argument for war on Iraq.'' The result is a black-and-white picture, with Antigone all purity and Creon sheer taint.

Wills gives specific examples of how Healey has twisted the translation of Antigone in order to further emphasis the black and white situation in Thebes and its parallel in the Bush Administration.

I think this is an important review, one that highlights how a myth can be corrupted by a cultural interpretation, becoming ideological. It tells us to be wary of translations - that they are about as true to the original intent of the text as Oliver Stone's movies are to history. The best thing about myths is their ambiguity. If we succeed in erasing the complexity and ambiguity of the myth and instead fall into the good guy, bad guy mentality of a polarized worldview, then we've lost the vitality of the story and we simply fall victim to the simplistic propaganda. It doesn't matter whether it is a red propaganda or a blue propaganda. It isn't myth anymore.

posted by Maggie @ 7:56 AM permission to reprint the essays of Maggie Macary has been granted by the executor of the estate of Maggie Macary. wishes to thank Doug Macary& Martin Macary for their generousity in making her essays available to you.

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