Monday, April 18, 2016

On outdated myths and metaphors

An interesting reflection by artist Petar Meseldzija on the value of myths:
I love Meseldzija's style and ideas, but I think he's a bit off the mark in this case.

The fact is the metaphors on which most classic myths were built are outdated. They were already outdated before the modern era and they are twice as outdated by now. They come from a time in which mankind considered itself at odds with the forces of nature and with its own animal nature, threatened by every insinuation he wasn't the center of everything and engaged in an eternal war against anything he didn't understand. The only desirable outcome, the only hopeful vision of the future, was the triumph of personal will which would put man in charge of everything in the universe. This kind of vision, empowering but out of touch with reality, survived well into the modern era and reached its climax in early science fiction and superhero comics, in which men or manlike entities were literally able to harness every force in the universe.

Not all mythology is like this, but most Western mythology from pre-modern times is. The tale of St.George killing the dragon, which Meseldzija chose to illustrate the article, most certainly is. It is said sometimes that the modern era has failed to replace the older Western myths with newer myths of similar stature, but I would argue that that's untrue. Robinson Crusoe, Sherlock Holmes, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Edmond Dantès, Long John Silver, Dr. Gulliver, Don Quixote, Ikari Shinji, Harry Potter... there are plenty of modern/contemporary archetypical heroes and antiheroes whose antics are more relevant to the cultures of 2016 than any of the ancient heroes', even though modern characters don't lend themselves as easily to reinterpretation.

Now, I understand what metaphors are for, and I understand that there are some rules to the structure of compelling tales because we want tales to stimulate our mind in certain ways. It goes without saying that many myths have superb narrative value. Yet in the contemporary cultural context I fail to see the educational value of myths about courage at a spear point and monster hunting. Of course this could be a personal limitation of mine stemming from the fact I don't trust psychoanalytical theories of art. But it seems to me that most people don't find any educational value in such metaphors either, even though most people would praise them if questioned. We praise them but in practice we consider them good only for entertainment. And rightfully so, because such metaphors don't make for good mental tools to deal with the contemporary world. If you are a teenager going through troublesome times at school or in your family, or dealing with serious inner demons such as suicidal tendencies or dangerous urges, reframing your situation as that of a hero fighting the unknown will likely do more harm than good.

Needless to say my favorite interpretation of Don Quixote - a very modern myth - is that of a warning against outdated human values. Old myths are compelling, but taking their teachings seriously leads to disaster.

There is one kind of heroic figure which the messy contemporary world needs though, and it's also the least represented in Western legends: the smart, self-inquiring, nurturing culture hero. We need to develop an admiration for creative figures such as Chiron or Johnny Appleseed much more than we need to celebrate battlefield heroes such as Odysseus or St.George. We are done fearing the wilderness, demons and vengeful gods. Living in the world of 2016 is akin to stepping carefully in a desert trying to figure out first and foremost how to not run out of water and how to not get hallucinations from the stress.


  1. This blog is great. I'm extremely surprised you're not getting comments, I love your insights and thoughts.

    I'm currently reading through the Thousand and One Nights – an original, unadulterated version, not the reworked ones; I found one that's a direct translation of the original Arabian scrolls. The distance from modern Western sensibilities and culture is even greater, to the point I'm sometimes left flabbergasted at some narrative choices. It's a clear example of how myths are not immortal and don't transcend cultures, though there are undeniable common roots.

    You're right, there's a need to consider heroic figures for a time when fighting for survival and/or dominance isn't (mostly) a thing anymore. What about Einstein, Hawking and similar modern pop culture figures, just to keep us in the domain of science? They've become as ubiquitous as myths by now.


    1. Thank you! Nice to hear from you. :-) The blog hasn't received many comments so far but I'm not concerned about it, the main reason I'm blogging is that I want to get better at writing and putting down ideas in a coherent way, and I'm confident that if what I write is interesting it will eventually attract more readers. (Also there are already a couple friends with whom I discuss the topics by email or chat.)

      I've read parts of a good trasnlation of Thousand and One Nights too and I agree. A character like Sindbad for instance would hardly come through as sympathetic for a Western audience, he's kind of a jerk, like Robinson Crusoe, but without the moral and pratical lessons which are the real point of the latter's story. The narrative structure of the book is awesome though! And in general, don't get me wrong, I utterly love fables and mythology, and when painting I often listen to fables or music based on mythology or folk tales to get in the mood. I just think their moral advice is no longer sound in today's world.

      I prefer to keep a clear separation between fictional characters and real life figures like Einstein. Great people often have interesting lives which are more interesting and insightful than any romanticized version could be. I certainly wish there were more heroes inspired to great thinkers though. A friend of mine often complaints that most movie and novel characters are unbelievable because they seem stupid compared to real people and make too many unbelievably bad choices. I don't agree that all characters should be smart, but I see his point... in fiction we are a bit too much used to see dumb people excused of their stupidity because they are the hero. Sometimes it would be nice to see stupidity and ignorance treated as the real liability they are rather than minor and easily overlooked flaws.

    2. There do are fictional characters that entered mainstream pop culture for their brain, though – Sherlock Holmes is the first that comes to mind, and bravery with stupidity is actually a huge plot point in multiple occasions in GRR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (but then again, Martin's whole work is a methodical deconstruction of the fantasy narrative ideal).

      You know, I have a question – I know you as an artist, but are you also writing or creating comics or other narrative material?

    3. Indeed there are several intellectual heroes and works which hold rationality in high regard, luckily for us. That's why I don't long for a return to the past in that regard. I need heroes like the main character of "The Martian" in order to feel inspired and I'm sure it's the same for many other people. I have a couple reflections I'd like to share about that movie now that I think about it...

      I'm not writing narrative at the moment although I've created comics and written stories in the past (as well as a huge amount of email discussion and complex online roleplaying with close friends). At the moment drawing and painting takes up most of my time. I note down ideas for stories and such though, and if I manage to warm up enough I might try to actually develop them. Would probably be as written stories though. I love comics but they just require an insane amount of work and my ideas are too niche to try to finance them with Patreon or similar methods.

    4. I don't know, the whole point of Patreon is bringing people to niches they wouldn't be able to get to otherwise. Don't know what you're planning though :)