‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Tuesday, 27 September 2022

Myth and Science Fiction

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.

But in this there is a sense that myth is lesser than history: that as a specie of untruth it edges dubiety, even unworthiness. That it's a form of escapism rather than a mode of engaging with the world, much as science fiction is accused of being. The Ancient Greek μῦθος (mûthos) meant, only, ‘word’ and therefore ‘speech, account, tale’ (although it could also mean, ‘rumour’ and ‘fable’). The journey from this in English usage is from the early 19th-century appropriation of the Greek term through to today's usage of it as a synonym for nonsense: from ‘a traditional story which embodies a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience; a sacred narrative regarding a god, a hero, the origin of the world or of a people, etc’, through to ‘a commonly-held but false belief, a common misconception’ (eg this recent headline: ‘Science Debunks 101 Myths About Health’)—that is, lie.

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.

The big 19th-century theory of the Greek myths was Max Müller, who thought it all goes back to solar religion (so Hercules’ twelve labours are ‘actually’ the sun god passing through the twelve signs of the zodiac, and so on). Graves himself believed the myths all encode a secret narrative, the overthrow of the matriarchal cultures of the Mediterranean by patriarchal invaders from the East: untrue on its face (there never was such an invasion and supplanting) but also as reductive and meagre as Müller’s solar theorising.

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.

No, I mean something else. Critics commented that the sequel trilogy to Star Wars told, basically, the same story as the original trilogy: the empire, destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi, is somehow magically back in place and must be defeated again. Our heroes, galaxy-spanning victors at the end of Jedi, are somehow back to being plucky outsiders. This is because the myth that runs through the franchise is the overwhelmed individual facing the overwhelming exterior forces of the society and the universe. The myth is also, I think, about the relationship between the highly technologized world in which we now live, representing the triumph of a kind of commodified and alienating materialismand a world beyond machines and machinism, beyond that is materialism as such. It is a myth about the place of religion in a world (our contemporary world) that can no longer support the old certainties of collective and individual religious faith.

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!

Star Wars isn't the only modern myth, of course. We could also point to: Tolkien, Star Trek, Harry Potter, MCU, Batman, maybe Cameron's Titanic (not, I think, and despite the billions being poured into it, Cameron's Avatar). But perhaps this is the logic underpinning the reach of this and these other collective texts.  

And perhaps this explains why the genre I love, ‘science fiction’, exists as the form it does, yoking together these opposites: science and fiction, scientia and myth as such.

1 comment:

  1. I admire and applaud the use of Levi-Strauss, but IMO, an even more important French intellectual for the understanding of our own moment (and maybe even our own SF) comes half-a-century earlier: Durkheim: