Myth as a Form of Question

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Serving, for the eighth consecutive summer, on the faculty of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers (this summer’s  texts include the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Moby-Dick, Theogony, Popol Vuh, Book of the Hopi, Mwindo, Monkey, and more), I think about our many discussions of myth over the years. Myth is no easy matter. People often define it as “something that isn’t true” or “something that people used to believe but no longer do”–or even “something that people use to explain the world around them”–but myth goes beyond the wearable and worn. It allows for common yet solitary understandings; we come together over myth yet experience it in privacy. To gather the good of myth, one must approach it in a strong and questioning spirit.

“Myth is a term of many turnings,” writes Louise Cowan in her essay “Myth in the Modern World.” The word “myth” is often used in a derogatory, dismissive sense–yet others have found that “myth does indeed represent a mode of truth, that it codifies and preserves moral and spiritual values, that, in fact, a civilization without myth fosters a way of life not fully human.”

She goes on to say that myth does not impose “rigid uniformity” but rather “supports and enhances diversity and endows ordinary acts with purpose and grace.” That is, when people come together over a common belief, form, or expression, they can find their own relation to it, precisely because it calls for contemplation and integrity. I recommend reading the full essay; I have barely touched on it here.

Myth  can go wrong when contorted to serve a specific agenda or when mistaken for literal truth or falsehood. It can be understood only through imagination; even then, it requires skepticism along with trust. Maybe the trust consists, simply, in taking time with the myth and resisting the urge (from within or without) to dismiss it offhand.

In his commentary on Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again,” Roger Cohen shows how Hughes “punctures the myth” of America yet resists tearing it apart. He comments, toward the end, “Hughes, at the last, does not descend into despair. His, as Dan Rather has observed, is ‘a rallying cry for inclusion.’ The poem leads to an oath to an unrealized idea, battered but alive, not to blackness against whiteness, or whiteness against blackness.”

In my own reading, the poem gives the myth its full life. By casting the myth in doubt, by declaring, in parentheses, “(America never was America to me),” by pounding out the despair–

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

–and then, after all that, reaffirming America, Hughes exalts the myth, not as illusion but as dimension, as time layered on time, resolution on heartbreak.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

The future collapses into the present, through the word “oath,” which implies freedom to act. If he, the speaker of the poem, can declare, “America will be!” then America already exists, through his act of promising. (If he can promise America, then the promise has in some way been fulfilled.) The myth comes to life through the protest and questions, through the patience with possible meanings.

In that sense, myth demands more than full mind; it “asks a little of us here” (Frost), as we wrestle with what is and what is not.

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