Coming up, this Thursday: ‘The Mythology of the Future’—a panel with myself, Beth Singler, Yen Ooi and Jennifer Woodward, part of the Science Fiction Squared Symposium, exploring the future of science fiction [Tickets still available, I think: Thu 29 Sep 2022,Island Social, Globe House, 34 Botanic Square, E14 0LU]. The brief for our panel is: ‘Mythology seeks to explain the unknown past; science fiction to explore the unknowable future. How do the forms of mythology relate to those of science fiction, and how are they received by their audiences?’ I’m looking forward to it. Come along, why don’t you?
I’m chairing the panel and don’t want to hog discussion, so I’ll note a few things here, and then will look to sit back and listen to what my excellent, expert fellow panellists have to say.
So, let's start with: what do we mean by ‘myth’? Well, that’s a large question, much debated. I suppose most people have a sense of myths as bodies of stories, of legendary fables—as it might be, the Greek Myths, the myths of King Arthur, perhaps (although Biblical literalists might object to this) the myths of the Old and New Testaments —sets of stories distinct from, though not necessarily entirely alien to, ‘actual’ history. That is to say, we think of myths as departing from certain canons of truthfulness, verisimilitude, historical accuracy and so on, but nonetheless as articulating other kinds of truth. There may or may not have been a historical Arthur (I used to believe there was when I was a teenager; now I tend to doubt it) but, if there was, his life and times were certainly very different from the body of myth that has accrued around his name. But though those myths won’t accurately represent Dark Age Britain, or the political and martial life of a post-Roman dux bellorum, that’s not to say that they’re lies. They capture, we could say, a different kind of truth, speaking to us about core human concerns: about courage and leadership, about persistence and fidelity and doing-the-right-thing, about the place of individual love in the context of social and traditional rigidities, and—with the Sangraal episodes—about sanctity, about faith and renewal.
There have been plenty of theorists of myth. Freud, for example, thought myths existed to articulate, and therefore address and purge, psychological anxieties, traumas and taboos—so, for instance, the myth of Oedipus, inadvertently sleeping with his mother and afterwards pulling out his own eyes, is (Freud says) actually ‘about’ castration anxiety, something bound-up in the Freudian primal scene of love for mother and (castrating) hostility to father. This approach treats myths as symbolic articulations. It hasn’t, we can say, found many supporters among classical scholars and students of Greek myth. Robert Graves for instance points-out that the Greeks had no problem including actual castration in their myths, which makes this kind of evasive symbolism superfluous.
There are plenty of other theories, but I’m going to zero in on one in particular, because I’m interested in what it might tell us about the coming-to-prominence of SF stories as modern myths. I'm doing so because, it seems to me, a set of science fiction tales, or megatexts, does indeed function today as modern myth, in the sense that we all have these texts and stories in common, we all recognise references from and allusions to them, they are stories not true in the strict sense—they’re science fiction, after all—but which still speak to people, which embody and articulate metaphorical and deeper truths. Star Wars is, I suppose, the most obvious example: one modestly-budgeted 1977 film made from a B-movie pastiche script that has, amazingly, proliferated to dozens and dozens of (often very high budget) sequels, prequels, spin-offs, paratexts and merchandise. Star Wars permeates modern culture and we might argue it does so because it functions as a myth. I don’t mean that it is the latest livery in which Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero With A Thousand Faces’ gubbins gets itself dressed. Lucas certainly read Campbell before he wrote his initial script, but Campbell’s book is a piece of vapid synthesis that, by amalgamating a variety of different stories to one sub-Jungian archetype, misses the specificity and valence of actual myths from which their potency derives.
Star Wars not a myth about sex, I think (there are lots of myths about sex, but this isn’t one) which is why the franchise feels so juvenile and limited on that front. Nor is the core myth about, as it might be, diversity, acceptance, identity and so on—those things are very important, and I don’t invoke them to snark, but I don’t think that’s at the heart of Star Wars as a myth. By all means cast diverse actors for these films (why the hell wouldn’t you?), of course ensure that diverse worlds and plots are part of the story. But the reason this B-movie went from Harrison’s Ford’s ‘George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it’ to world-spanning success was that it spoke to people in mythic terms. And, to repeat myself, I think the twinned linked myths of Star Wars are about individuality versus the dehumanising authority of society, and perhaps reality as such—and about the place of the spiritual and transcendent in an increasingly mechanised, tech-saturated, materialist world.
At any rate, Lévi-Strauss is an interesting way of framing all this, I think. I’ll be honest, I’ve come back to Lévi-Strauss. When I was a callow undergrad and into my postgrad years in the later 1980s, the cool beans all belonged to Deconstructionists, who were all about unpicking the Lévi-Strauss binarisms and structuralisms. Not that I’ve turned my back on this, but I now wonder if there’s more to the structuralist whassup than I used to think. Anyhow.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, famously, worked through the implications of structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, parsing human being-in-the-world through a set of binaries. Human minds, says L-S, are complex machines, and the minds thus structured parse the larger aggregations of human societies. Myths, dit Claude, are ways in which we, collectively, and as individuals, mediate the polarising contradictions of existence as such. These opposites reflect the contradictions which we encounter in our lives. The ones Lévi-Strauss specifies are: desire and reality; individual and society; the possible and the impossible; nature and culture. Mediating these binaries is, says L-S, is in a sense the point of myth.
Now, you may be more or less persuaded by this perspective. But I wonder whether—let’s say—Star Wars doesn’t articulate precisely this: the franchise mythically mediating the binaries of individual-versus-collective (which is to say, individual-versus-everything) and materialism-versus-spiritualism. As to whether ‘myth’ is the, shall we say, ‘best’ way of doing this, or whether these myths speak to many people, that's a matter for debate. As we shall do this Thursday!