As I’m working on this new book, trying to stitch together the Jason & the Argonauts myth and my grandfather’s life, I find myself bumping up against a lot of things that I’ve made gestures at before; namely the use of mythology to make sense of experience, and the creation of new myths as a means of explaining the deeper, long term significance that is embedded in historical events.
My first idea comes from the notion that Herodotus wrote of Helen of Troy and Paris staying in Egypt for a time during the Trojan war as fact, plus someone had to have written a contemporary history of some sort of the war, but all these thousands of years later, it’s Homer’s Iliad, a mythological account, that has survived and is read more often. The history of the actual Trojan War itself is, if not lost completely, is subdued by this made-up version.
Second: I was reading an article about an upcoming movie having to do with the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays (I’m in the camp that says Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays), and in it, someone made the argument that look at the biographical information of the author and trying to match that biography to the events in the plays was (my term here) “intellectual masturbation” because, during that era, authors didn’t draw on their biographical information to make their stories. Authors and dramatists drew on other stories, and on history, which is why scholars say Romeo & Juliet was taken from other sources (A poem by Arthur Brooke and a prose story by William Painter). And, of course, Shakespeare’s Histories were pulled from real events, but I’ve never been taught Shakespeare’s Histories as if they were somehow representative of the real events or people they’re taken from. Instead, Shakespeare’s Histories are treated exactly as literature, and the lessons and ideas we draw from them aren’t about strategy, but about the workings of the human condition (greed, power, revenge, hubris, etc) – just like his tragedies and comedies.
Third: Although my writing seems to be strongly influenced by the pseudo-realism of the Modernists, I’m not a fan of the “modern realism” exhibited in a lot of novels today. I don’t like our “authority” requirement for novelists (even though Author and authority share root words), and I don’t like the literalization of the “write what you know” guidance to the point that it means “only write fiction about things you’ve actually done.” That, to me, defeats the purpose of fiction, which is to act as a space for moral experimentation. Such a stand, rejecting the authority requirement and embracing the moral experiment model is the only way we can confront books like “Lolita” without having to rationalize the implied and manufactured requirement that Nabokov himself have experience in molesting young girls. Our current requirement that an author have first hand knowledge of something in order to write a made-up story about it would also require us to remove Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” from the American canon.
Fourth: When my father was a young boy, he was constantly afraid that Nazis were hiding in the closet in his bedroom. The family story goes that every night before going to bed, his mother had to open the closet to prove to him there were no Nazis hiding in there. Consequently, his favorite reading topic through out his life was World War II. It rubbed off on me and, when I was boy, I spent my childhood trying to read books like “A Bridge Too Far” and “The Longest Day” which dad had on our bookshelves at home. The books I most frequently checked out of the library were the Time/Life books on World War II. That lead to my general fascination with war and military history. Today, of course, we have Stephen Ambrose and his books, and Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg and their canon of WWII movies and series’, mining the biggest world conflict ever for stories. I’ve watched “Band of Brothers” and am currently watching “The Pacific.” On one hand these movie could be described as War Porn. They’re going to great lengths to display combat as realistically as possible, but at the same time cast their central characters in terms as romantic as possible. But, with all that realism in the portrayal of combat, are they really being honest about the human condition if they continue to rely upon certain tropes when it comes to the portrayal of the people?
And that brings me back to mythology. I suspect that every century is stained with blood, and with families shattered and scattered by war, but there’s something epic, something mythological about the 20th Century. World War II will generate the next Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid for our descendants thousands of years in the future (that is if we don’t destroy ourselves). But, I think, in the immediate future, mythology - especially the act of myth-making, can serve to salvage literature from its current pseudo-journalistic path. We need writers more concerned with exploring a moral landscape than with creating “historically accurate” made-up stories. Religion is failing us, turning people into monsters, and psychology and humanism give us only a kind of cold analysis of ourselves without imaginative examples of how to actually “act” as human beings. Fiction is the crucible of our salvation as a species. It allows us to act out, imaginatively, our darkest and brightest urges and, if we are honest, to witness their consequences. Sometimes, that means throwing out the facts and throwing out the idea that a writer using an historical event or person in fiction must be an authority on that event or person in real life.
Now, I’m not trying to resurrect my failed novel “By The Still, Still Water” for my publisher. That is dead, and justifiably so. However, what this whole missive is driving at is that a whole bunch of stuff I’ve never actually done is going to come up in what I write, and myth-making is the only way it’s going to make sense.