Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Thoughts on Mythology

These are notes from my recent talk on mythology at the Seligmann Center. I pass on my ideas in this raw form, without any attempt to work up an essay, in the belief that some of the ideas may be useful.

The Greek word muthos in Homer has a broad meaning, fundamentally, anything delivered by word of mouth. The term came later to indicate conversation, counsel, the subject of speech, the matter, a purpose, a saying, a rumor; then a fiction or legend.

In contemporary literary use, it is a story not tied to an individual text. Mythology arises as a sort of collective narrative: a body of linked and particularly significant stories that express in symbolic order the world-view of a community. Myth is deeply involved not only with the earliest poetry, but also science, philosophy, religion, and history, in fact all the intellectual disciplines. The definitive authority myths claim is evident in the fact that they often concern the gods or other spiritual beings. Myths are often taken as literal history, though they are also used by writers in self-consciously symbolic ways. Myth fades into legend and other cultural material.

Not every collective narrative is mythic. Historical events are shared by large numbers of people. They may resonate in mythic ways, but the presumptive loyalty is to real events. Jokes lack the vast implications of myths.

I continue to find Northrup Frye’s classification useful.
1) superior in kind to people and to their environment: mythic
2) superior in degree to people and environment: romance
3) superior in degree to people but not to environment: high mimetic (a hero of epic or tragedy, Aristotle’s hero)
4) inferior to the reader or equal: low-mimetic, ironic (realism, comedy)

Frye notes, “Looking over this table, we see that European fiction, over the last fifteen centuries has moved steadily down this list . . . Something of the same progression can be traced in Classical literature, too.”

In The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art David Lewis-Williams analyzes cave paintings and posits a simultaneous birth of language, art, and religion. With the birth of signs came the ability to lie.

Mythic references may be traditional (Homeric hymns, Elder Edda, anthropological texts), literary (Ovid, Shakespeare, Rothenburg), modern (Superman, cowboy hero, Jewish blood guilt, Lincoln), or idiosyncratic (Blake, Yeats, outsider art).

In poetry mythological references may serve to
to universalize or create group identity (as in the many medieval romances which wither begin or end by invoking the blessing of Christ),
to compress (as in Raleigh’s reference to Philomel implying a world of violence in a word),
to ironize, (as in Joyce’s Ulysses or the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou)
or to decorate (as in Herrick’s “Parcae” where Atropos charms rather than frightens)

Approaches to the understanding of myth include:

1) Euhemerism regards myths as distorted accounts of real historical events. Herodotus in his reasonable way, has recourse to this explanation. (On the other hand some ritual theorists would agree with Frye (above), and hold the opposite view: that gods degenerate over the years into myth, then legend (with supernatural apparatus), appearing next as history and finally as comedy.

2) Mythology has often been viewed as a sort of allegory with the gods representing either natural phenomena or concepts. The 19th century Sanskritist Max Müller supported an allegorical theory of myth. Modern variations of this theme include Freudian, Jungian, or other psychological theories.

3) Myths have been viewed as solely functional, often a form of social control. A simple form of this approach would be the vulgar Marxist analyst to whom every myth comments on class relations, but Malinowski took much the same approach.

4) The structural theory states that myths are patterned after the human mind as well as human nature. Claude Levi-Strauss, makes the claim that “myth is language,” and stresses formal play with meaning arising only from contrasts within a pattern, not from individual elements.

5) According to the myth-ritual theory, the existence of myth is tied to ritual. In its most extreme form, this theory claims that myths arose to explain rituals. I am myself fond on the work of James Frazer and the Cambridge School.

6) Myth has been considered the human language for investigating the metaphysical. In this sense myth is much like religion, providing human’s most profound analysis of the cosmos.

7) Myth is a symbolic statement about reality. Each culture defines and defends its assumptions with myth. Myth tends toward the encyclopedic, offering seamless explanations and prescriptions for the significant passages of life.

To test these ideas with texts, I followed with this brief anthology of poem’s mentioning Aphrodite.

from Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (my translation)

She went to Paphos -- Cyprus -- where her
aromatic altar and her temple stood,
and she went in and shut the shining doors. 60
The graces then anointed her with oil
such as blooms on bodies of the gods.
(The oil was sweet, ambrosial, smelled so fine!)
Then laughter-loving Aphrodite donned
fine clothes of golden fabric on her flesh. 65
She left sweet-smelling Cyprus then for Troy
(fast she flew and high, the clouds her road),
to spring-rich Ida, beast-land, came she then,
she went through hills right to his home and after her
came bright-eyed lions, fawning grey-furred wolves 70
and bears, fast leopards ravenous for deer,
and then her heart rejoiced at seeing them
and to their hearts she tossed hot lust; they paired
in twos and mated in the shade,

Thomas Wyatt (the first stanza of an untitled poem)

Though this port : and I thy servaunt true,
And thou thy self doist cast thy bemes from hye
From thy chieff howse, promising to renew
Both Joye and eke delite, behold yet how that I,
Bannisshed from my blisse, carefully do crye,
"Helpe now, Citherea, my lady dere,
"My ferefull trust," en vogant la galere.

from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis

Over one arm the lusty courser's rein
Under her other was the tender boy, 32
Who blush'd and pouted in a dull disdain,
With leaden appetite, unapt to toy;
She red and hot as coals of glowing fire
He red for shame, but frosty in desire. 36

The studded bridle on a ragged bough
Nimbly she fastens;—O! how quick is love:—
The steed is stalled up, and even now
To tie the rider she begins to prove: 40
Backward she push'd him, as she would be thrust,
And govern'd him in strength, though not in lust . . .

'Fondling,' she saith, 'since I have hemm'd thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale: 232
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.

'Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom-grass and high delightful plain, 236
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest and from rain:
Then be my deer, since I am such a park; 239
No dog shall rouse thee, though a thousand bark.'

A Hymn to Venus and Cupid (Herrick)

SEA-BORN goddess, let me be
By thy son thus grac'd and thee;
That whene'er I woo, I find
Virgins coy but not unkind.
Let me when I kiss a maid
Taste her lips so overlaid
With love's syrup, that I may,
In your temple when I pray,
Kiss the altar and confess
There's in love no bitterness.

Final stanza from Un Voyage à Cythère (Baudelaire)
On your isle, O Venus! I found upright only
A symbolic gallows from which hung my image...
O! Lord! give me the strength and the courage
To contemplate my body and soul without loathing!
Dans ton île, ô Vénus! je n'ai trouvé debout
Qu'un gibet symbolique où pendait mon image...
— Ah! Seigneur! donnez-moi la force et le courage
De contempler mon coeur et mon corps sans dégoût!

Venus Anadyomène (Rimbaud)

As from a green zinc coffin, a woman’s
Head with brown hair heavily pomaded
Emerges slowly and stupidly from an old bathtub,
With bald patches rather badly hidden;

Then the fat gray neck, broad shoulder-blades
Sticking out; a short back which curves in and bulges;
Then the roundness of the buttocks seems to take off;
The fat under the skin appears in slabs:

The spine is a bit red; and the whole thing has a smell
Strangely horrible; you notice especially
Odd details you’d have to see with a magnifying glass…

The buttocks bear two engraved words: CLARA VENUS;
—And that whole body moves and extends its broad rump
Hideously beautiful with an ulcer on the anus.

Comme d’un cercueil vert en fer blanc, une tête
De femme à cheveux bruns fortement pommadés
D’une vieille baignoire émerge, lente et bête,
Avec des déficits assez mal ravaudés;

Puis le col gras et gris, les larges omoplates
Qui saillent; le dos court qui rentre et qui ressort;
Puis les rondeurs des reins semblent prendre l’essor;
La graisse sous la peau paraît en feuilles plates:

L’échine est un peu rouge, et le tout sent un goût
Horrible étrangement; on remarque surtout
Des singularités qu’il faut voir à la loupe…

Les reins portent deux mots gravés: CLARA VENUS;
—Et tout ce corps remue et tend sa large croupe
Belle hideusement d’un ulcère à l’anus.

An autumn morning in Shokoku-ji (Snyder)

Last night watching the Pleiades,
Breath smoking in the moonlight,
Bitter memory like vomit
Choked my throat.
I unrolled a sleeping bag
On mats on the porch
Under thick autumn stars.
In dream you appeared
(Three times in nine years)
Wild, cold, and accusing.
I woke shamed and angry:
The pointless wars of the heart.
Almost dawn. Venus and Jupiter.
The first time I have
Ever seen them close.

Birth of Eventually Venus (MacLeish)

Cast up by the sea
By the seventh wave
Beyond the sea reach
In the rubble of weed and
Wet twig
The not yet amphibious
Gasps and wiggles on the beach
Gathering her long gold hair about her
And gazing with pure eyes
Upon the unknown world.

Venus Over the Desert (Williams)

If I do not sin, she said, you shall not
walk in long gowns down stone corridors.
There is no reprieve where there is no fall-
ing off. I lie in your beds all night, from
me you wake and go about your tasks. My flesh
clings to your bones. What use is holiness
unless it affirms my perfections, my breasts,
my thighs which you part, shaking, and my lips
the door to my pleasures? Sin, you call it,
but there cannot be cold unless the heat
has bred it, how can you know otherwise? Love
comfort me in the face of my defeats! Poor
monks, you think you are gentle but I tell you
you kill as sure as shot kills a bird flying.

The Death of Venus (also titled the Birth of Venus) (Creeley)

I dreamt her sensual proportions
had suffered sea-change,

that she was a porpoise
a sea-beast rising lucid from the mist.

The sound of waves killed speech
But there were gestures –

of my own, it was to call her closer,
of hers, she snorted and filled her lungs with water,

then sank, to the bottom,
and, looking down, clear it was, like crystal,

there I saw her.

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