Sunday, February 03, 2013

Metamorphoses



I've been watching my daughter perform for the past three days in her school's production of Mary Zimmerman's retelling of Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses.

We toss about the word myth as a synonym for false. Sometimes we say "myth" when we mean "lie." It's a word quite often used dismissively, as in, "Ah, that's just a myth." But these are all abuses of the word. Myths are in fact true; maybe not literally, but they are always unflinchingly honest in the same way that our dreams are always honest.

It has been said that the myth is a public dream, dreams are private myths. Unfortunatelly we give our mythic side scant attention these days. As a result, a great deal escapes us and we no longer understand our own actions. So it remains important and salutary to speak not only of the rational and easily understood, but also of enigmatic things: the irrational and ambiguous. To speak both privately and publicly. ~Mary Zimmerman

I wonder if it's true that we give scant attention to our mythic side these days.

Some say that Hollywood is our modern myth-maker and it's certainly true that American film has given us a large collection of shared stories, archetypes, symbols, and even gods, but for the most part it's failed as myth-maker in one significant sense: there's nearly always a happy ending. As Zimmerman's Greek gods say, "Almost none of these stories have entirely happy endings."

I suppose you could say that our cultural obsession with celebrity is holding the place of mythology, these glittering gods we read about in supermarket tabloids. They certainly provide both tragedy and comedy at least in equal measure, and their endings are often far from happy, sometimes even providing object  "lessons" in the style of myth. That said, I have a hard time finding anything important or salutary in these stories. It's more like rubbernecking at the scene of a proverbial car crash, and I'm not talking about Phaeton setting the Earth ablaze by driving his father Apollo's sun chariot too close to the ground.

After the closing performance last night I complimented the head of the drama department, the director, and we started talking about the play. I told him, honestly, that I'd been teary several times, a phenomenon that had intensified with each successive performance. He said he'd had a similar experience, saying, "I think we forget that myths are more than just stories that end with a moral like, and that's why trees have bark."

Is Zimmerman right? Do we have anything in modern life that compels us to expend more than scant attention to our mythic side, our public dreams?

I'm tempted to suggest that our mythic life today resides in our politics. For one thing, we have the entire pantheon of gods from Obama and Bush to Romney and Pelosi, complete with lesser deities, and demigods, while other nations, just as in the times of the ancients, have their own political Zeuses and Aphrodites. These political gods, while on the one hand supremely powerful, also have the same flaws, failings, jealousies, and lusts that drive the plots of mere humans and gods alike. While their names may change over time, their stories really do not as we've more or less been having the same debates and have been courting the same disasters since the founding of our nation. Where the metaphor falls apart for me is that most of what I see in politics is effect rather than cause, and if there is anything myths do it is to attempt to explain our world.

As Zimmerman's narrator says, "Myths are the earliest forms of science." Maybe this is why we give scant attention to our mythic side these days, why we dismiss our dreams, both public and private as false. We live in an age in which science has answered, truly answered, so many of the questions raised by myths, at least those of the 'why trees have bark' variety, but as I've come to realize over the last three nights, these are only superficialities. Myths are about the enigmatic, the irrational, the ambiguous. The only answer science has for these things is to say, "I don't know," a true, but unsatisfying answer, even if appended with the hopefulness of "yet."

Myth, like science, attempts to bridge the maw of not knowing, but takes it one step farther by not waiting for the hard proof of evidence that may never come.

There is wonderful comedy in Metamorphoses, but also great, unspeakable tragedy. My own daughter played a character so anguished that she literally dissolved into tears, being laid down by Aphrodite into the pool of water that forms the stage of Zimmerman's play, a scene that leaves the audience with the same kind of impotent despair that we feel after real life horrors such as what happened in Newtown or on 9/11. Science will never satisfactorily answer our hopeless "Why?" That is a place only for myth.

At whom do we rail and plead in our anguish if not at the gods? To whom do we sacrifice? Without the gods, we're left with only ourselves or each other, a game of blame that takes us no where but into loathing. I know there are some who will suggest that I'm neglecting our more contemporary monotheistic religions, such as Christianity, and the grace they offer through forgiveness and mercy, and those are powerful salve. But even so we're still left with the white hot unbearableness of human failing, those of others, and even worse, ourselves, when we all know in our hearts that sometimes it's "the gods" who are behind it and there is neither forgiveness nor mercy. Then we are left to rail and curse, something monotheistic gods do not tolerate, while the more ancient polytheistic gods seem to take it in stride, often agreeing that they or their colleagues have mucked things up.

I find myself drawn to the idea, one that I believe is original to the mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, that myth is a public dream and that our dreams are private myths. When Zimmerman writes that we give scant attention to our mythic side these days, maybe what she means is that we simply won't or can't look into the abyss that so often only reveals itself to us in our dreams; that we tend to ignore it and deny it while waking. I don't know if we have public dreams any more, but I do know we have public nightmares. I can think of no better way to speak of the enigmatic, irrational, and ambiguous than through myth.

I can't tell you how happy I am that my child has spent the past several months thinking about these things as well, but more than thinking about them, living them, dreaming them. It was one of the hardest things in my life to sit there night after night and watch her dissolve into tears, knowing that my baby has been looking into that abyss day after day and is now able to show it to the rest of us, giving us a tour of this public dream. Do not ever let anyone tell you that drama and the rest of the arts are somehow less important than the pedestrian pursuits of math and literacy. It's a tragic thing to hear people say, "It's just drama." It's just a myth. It is a true failing of our educational system that every child is not acting in great plays every day.

Maybe art is where mythology is hiding today, and as we cut it from our schools, we are cutting out the heart of education, because, after all, what is education if not to examine the enigmas, irrationalities, and ambiguities. Mythology, I've come to see, is the only tool we have for doing so.

As I sat through these powerful, ancient stories, made so new and fresh by both Zimmerman and these young actors, I cried. I cried for how nothing has changed, at how we still walk in the world of Midas and Erysichton, Aphrodite and Hermes, Hunger and Sleep. I cried for these child-actors who understand as much as any adult, perhaps more. I cried for the enigmas, irrationalities and ambiguities, the anguish and dark comedy. I cried for the unflinching honesty.

If this all sounds too dark, I suppose it is, even while it's also true. But like Pandora's box, there at the bottom is Hope. In the penultimate scene of Metamorphoses, the questioner asks: "So it has a happy ending?"

The answerer replies, "It has a very happy ending."

Q: "Almost none of these stories have entirely happy endings."

A: "This is different."

Q: "Why is that?"

A: "It's just inevitable. The soul wanders in the dark, until it finds love. And so, wherever our love goes, there we find our soul."

Q: "It always happens?"

A: "If we're lucky. And if we let ourselves be blind."

Q: "Instead of watching out?"

A: "Instead of always watching out."


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2 comments:

colorofsand said...

How to respond to such a great post - thank you for sharing this in depth thought about something really important.

Barbara Zaborowski said...

"Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us there are dragons, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten." G.K. Chesterton

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