Is There an American Mythology?

This last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing an esteemed and wizened professor make the bold assertion that we in America live in a myth-less society today. What he meant was that unlike the Ancient Greeks with their mysteries and rich epic heritage, the Romans and their destiny of world-conquest, the Teutons and their war-loving gods, et alia…that we Westerners, and Americans, must settle for platitudinous and calcified forms of thoughts in the form of “-isms”, doctrinaire and schismatic systems of faith, and for lived-out and discarded notions like manifest destiny and the quickly dwindling American Dream. Several questions thus arise: (1) What is a living mythology? (2) Does America and the West have a living mythology? and (3) What is the process for developing or discerning a living mythology?

The esteemed professor first suggested an erroneous etymology for the study of economics which he correctly linked to the Greek term oikos but incorrectly defined as “rule of the home”. The term oikos means “home” or “household” in the Greek and nomos means “the rule of or law”–therefore oikos+nomos=”the rule of the home”. Etymology aside, his suggestion was that America has lost connection to its living spirit and instead that America is ruled by inert economic considerations–something like Oscar Wilde’s miser who “knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing”. If one needs evidence of just how concerned Americans are with “the American Dream” or “economic mobility” one need only access the great oracle, Google, and one can see for one’s self countless articles from countless sources on the issue. One also observes in the articles above that the consensus omnium is that these various myths and dreams have failed. Is this perhaps because true myths are always bound to fail? Let us consider what a “real” or “living” myth then is and how it differs from a false myth, doomed to fail.

Naturally, America and the West in general has access to the roots of its myths in many, many forms. One need only look to our broad collections of Homer, Hesiod, Statius, Nonnus, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Spencer, et alia to see that myths are very much still present in the literature and cultural dialog of our people. But what exactly is the difference between the myths which have informed and shaped our culture and a living myth which continues to define and give meaning to the lives of American people, especially if the economic myth is dead or dying? We turn first to the eminent psychologist and student of mythology, Carl Jung, and his massive tome The Symbolic Life for a brief exposition of what a “living myth” is: “A myth remains a myth even if certain people believe it to be the literal revelation of an eternal truth, but it becomes moribund if the living truth it contains ceases to be an object of belief. It is therefore necessary to renew its life from time to time through a new interpretation.” (C.G. Jung, The Symbolic Life CW 18 Par. 1665, P. 736). He again attempts a description of the “living myth” in his work Psychology and Religion in paragraph 451: “But whereas mythological figures appear as pale phantoms and relics of a long past life that has become strange to us, the religious statement represents an immediate “numinous” experience. It is a living mythologem.” (Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion CW 11 Par. 450, p. 300). Two immediate aspects of Jung’s descriptions jump out at us. In his first description of a living myth, he suggests that in order to “renew its life” it requires a new interpretation. And in his second description, he suggests that a living mythologem gives one a “numinous” experience, which means a spiritual, moving, or transformational experience. So, with these descriptions we will define a living myth as: “an expansive, motivating and transformational story which informs, guides, and provides meaning for the life of a person or people.”

With the definition above, the first thing which becomes immediately clear is that though America has access to many, many myths (viz above: Homer, Statius, Virgil, Dante, Milton), that few if any of them have an expansive impact on Americans, and in fact, many of the “old” myths are reserved for more of a scholastic readership, even though many are easily accessible to any person. The other more difficult aspect of the definition above, however, is that few if any of the stories throughout time might be considered “transformational” to a contemporary American audience. Though, for instance, the story of Odysseus might well establish a firm expectation in a reader that greatness and eternal glory requires endless strife and divine endurance, it is unclear that the story might affect the character, attitude, and spirit of the reader. And even if the Odyssey does impact a person in that way, does that make the Ancient Greek myth a living myth for Americans? We must return to Jung’s first description and its notion of a “new interpretation” to answer this question.

Clearly, it would be nationalistic and chauvinistic to assert that the living myth of a people would have to come from that people and not that people’s ancestors. However, not to observe national differences in character, temperament, and civilization between the archaic Greek nation-states and the contemporary America would seem criminally unobservant. So, is it then the case that these old stories, these myths–potentially inert for years–could be resurrected by a new interpretation of their content and the meaning of their content? In theory, yes, but the question quickly becomes: is a new interpretation of an older and less familiar myth the way to a new living myth or is the creation of a new myth, possibly informed by those of the past, an even stronger guarantee of new transformational American myth? Let us consider how this might work.

The first question that arises for how to “create a new living myth” is this: Will America’s myth be an artistic creation (movie, book, poem) or lived out in the life of some great man or woman? What this question is asking is whether America requires a written or oral myth, like Homer’s Odyssey, or more like the Life of Alexander, as reported by Plutarch, some great American must live and embody a myth, though it may not yet have solid or concrete form. As profound as this question is, the general difficulty of it exists in the same mode for either option: the myth must be indefinite and exist more as a potential story or path in the mind and soul of the person who is to write or live it out. What this means is that there will not be a clear line demarcating the path on which the author of the great work (opus) or action takes.

On either path, he or she will essentially be working in the dark. For though there are various luminous deeds, texts, and masterpieces scattered throughout history, the defining feature of each seems to be that there is something utterly unique and expressive mixed with the mundane aspects of the day. Or rather, there is the stamp of a particular and temporally bound culture mixed with some universal and eternal element. Such a notion is irreducible, and as such defies simple formulation. And even though that makes attainment of such a noble goal (the noblest goal?) so difficult that for most it would be impossible, it adds the highest possible value to the endeavor as well.

In conclusion, America seems to be dealing with a worn-out, tired, and unworthy mythology of an economic nature which it will soon cast aside. Because of this, there is no operating mythology governing and unifying its people, but like a phoenix, the opportunity now exists for a more honest, motivating, and expansive–a living–mythology to be born through a person or people through great and noble actions, if one will simply rise from the ashes and make one’s contribution to eternity.