Some stories are, or ought to be, mythic. I may have already adduced them before and will try not to repeat myself, though these days my memory Is far from reliable. Now does it much matter whether some toothsome anecdotes are factual or merely fictional, when either kind manages to turn mythical? By which I mean an existential road sign.
Take the one about Washington and the cherry tree. Though clearly fictitious, it served, and continues to serve, as a useful moral exemplar to our schoolchildren. Similarly, some popular fairytales have attained mythic status. Take the one about the boy who kept falsely crying wolf when there wasn’t one, and what happened when finally there was. “Myth” comes from the Greek muthos, and you may check out its various meanings in your dictionary if, as I hope, you own one.
Many myths, like the ancient Greek ones, served to explain natural phenomena before there were scientific explanations. The Greeks were expert mythmakers, who, I regret to say, were also expert fabricators of quasi-truths, i.e., also liars, and, related to that, thieves. A Serbian adage has it, after shaking hands with a Greek, count your fingers. That is, of course, a myth. True, however, is that my father, waiting for a train on a Greek railway platform, had his attaché case close to his feet.. For a few seconds, he looked away whether the train was coming, which proved sufficient for the case to be stolen. To be sure, something only barely less dramatic happened to me at Penn Station.
Now I have always assumed the veracity of the story about Napoleon and his invading army stopping off at an Italian monastery, and his warning the doorkeeper monk with his awareness that all monks were liars. Said the monk, “Non tutti, ma buona parte.” Wit as a mythic power to stand up to inimical authority.
But to get back to the Greeks. Frank Harris tells in his memoirs about an important political dinner at which a proud owner, to display his splendid watch, had it circulate around the table. Unhappily, it did not come back full circle. The embarrassed host announced that he would turn off the light and let the perpetrator deposit the watch unnoticed next to a clock on the mantel. When the light came on, the watch was still missing and so was the clock.
A true story this, though one that did not achieve mythic status. But remember Oscar Wilde’s upending Alexander Pope’s “An honest man’s the noblest work of God” into “An honest God’s the noblest work of man,” and then consider that the Greek and corresponding Roman lots were a pretty hedonistic bunch.. And not only hedonistic but also cynical and a good deal more fun than the Judeo-Christian God. Why, they even had a rogue god, Hermes, of whom we read that he was the patron of merchants and thieves, a mythical paradox.
But are there no more polytheist gods today, no more models, for instance, for human erotic behavior; gods moreover like the Greek ones who cheerfully meddled in human affairs—as in the Iliad Athena for the Greeks and the less helpful Aphrodite for the Trojans-- not to mention Zeus’s carryings on with human women and the like. All of it more engaging than the God of Abraham and Isaac with his shenanigans (speaking out of bushes, if you please), including those tablets with ten mostly draconian commandments, which to follow would make you a very self-righteous, boring character. Significantly, there are plenty of books on Greek myths, but, for good reason, few if any on Hebrew ones.
What are some of the non-Greco-Roman myths that have bedeviled human behavior since? The gold of El Dorado for one, whose reckless, destructive seekers were far worse than the mere adherents of Mammon, who did not believe in streets paved in gold, and were not ready to die in a bootless search.
Geography, or rather pseudo-geography, proved a costly myth for the deluded believers in the Northwest Passage, or even for many of the California Dreamers. There are, however, more recent, hardly less stultifying myths, such as the still prevalent one of Hollywood, both real and unreal, going also by the names Tinseltown and La La Land, as in the recent abominable movie. Misleading even the venerable Academy of Motion Picture Art and Science, which wields a greater power than the worthy French Academy, merely adjudging language and literature.
Think of Cocteau’s epigram “Victor Hugo was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo.” Wonderful mockery of mythic self-inflation. Or think of the Messiah, whom multitudes of the religious await with mythic endurance. Think also of the perennial American myth that anyone can become President, which had the disastrous result of for once becoming true. Think also of what ought to become a myth, Anatole France’s story about the unhappy potentate told to become happy by donning a happy man’s shirt. and vainly finding among the one percent nothing but dissatisfaction and unhappiness. After a prolonged, fruitless search, he finally found a happy man, a cheerful shepherd with his herd, whom the servants of the seeker dragged before him, but who, as it turned out, did not own a shirt.
And then there is the myth of the world’s most beautiful woman, Helen of Troy (the Greeks again), but who caused nothing but trouble for herself and others. Today we have Angelina Jolie, who may be beautiful enough for a myth, but who is also trouble enough, even without causing a ten-year Trojan war. Myths, in other words, don’t come cheap.
Our supreme myth remains that of Paradise Lost, which elicited from John Milton one of the most grandiose poems in the English, or any, language. (I rather prefer George Meredith’s wonderful and very much shorter poem “Lucifer at Midnight.”)
We gather that the supposedly foolish couple of Adam and Eve forfeited eternal blissful, naked, prelapsarian frolicking in God’s pleasure garden, and were condemned to mortal sojourn on a not all that hospitable earth.
All that for tasting that fateful, Satan-promulgated apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why should such knowledge have been so illicit, so punishable? Or was it simply the best tree in the Garden that God was reserving for his own snacks? Or was it that God on principle wanted to keep humans on a lower cognitive rung, less competition for himself?
So was that catastrophic Fall from Grace merely a consequence of insubordination, a matter not of grasping special knowledge but of a greater power keeping a lesser one in an inferior position? Instead of a poetic apple to pluck, could it have just as well been a pedestrian potato to dig up?
There it is then, the myth of Paradise Lost made more mundane than heavenly, almost laughable, on the assumption that a myth is as good as a smile. Conclusion:
Some myths are good, or at least defensible; others are dour and dislikable. Like so much else.