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Myth Theory and Criticism

 Myth criticism designates not so much a critical approach in literary studies as the convergence of several methods and forms of inquiry about the complex relations between literature and myth. So heterogeneous are these inquiries, connecting with so many disciplines and interdisciplinary issues, that it is perhaps best to think of myth criticism as the locus for a series of complex, if powerfully suggestive, questions. Is myth embedded in literature, or are myth and literature somehow coextensive? Is myth (from Greek mythos, "tale, story") inescapably narrative in form? Is all literature susceptible of myth criticism? How self-conscious are literary artists in the use or incorporation of myth? How does myth in, or as, literature evolve historically? Does a single governing myth, a "monomyth," organize disparate mythic narratives and dominate literary form? What tasks, besides a simple cataloging of putative mythic components, fall to the myth critic? And most fundamentally, what does "myth" mean in the context of literary criticism? The divergence in answers to this last question has been so great, recourse to different disciplines (philosophy, anthropology, psychology, folklore) so various, that the question becomes an inevitable terminus a quo for a survey of myth criticism.
 A characteristic Romantic and post-Romantic tendency in defining myth is the denial of euhemerism, the theory that myths can be explained historically or by identifying their special objects or motives. The resistance to such reductionism is perhaps strongest in the work of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer, whose monumental Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is given over in its second volume (1925) to the proposition that "myth is a form of thought." By this Cassirer means to insist that myth is a fundamental "symbolic form" that, like language, is a means of responding to, and hence creating, our world. But unlike language, or at least the language of philosophy, myth is nonintellectual, nondiscursive, typically imagistic. It is the primal, emotion-laden, unmediated "language" of experience. As a consequence, for mythic consciousness there is no reflective separation of the real and the ideal; the mythic "'image' does not represent the 'thing'; it is the thing" (2:38). This literal, as opposed to representational, quality of myth suggests that literature that taps into the recesses of mythic consciousness will reveal in powerful fashion the "dynamic of the life feeling" (2:38), which gives meaning and intelligibility to our world.
 Myth, understood in this honorific rather than pejorative sense, has profoundly influenced numerous literary critics and theorists. Isabel MacCaffrey, for example, insists in her study of Paradise Lost that the Christian myth at the center of the epic is not for Milton an oblique representation but rather the "direct rendering of certain stupendous realities now known only indirectly in the symbolic signatures of earthly life" (30). It was for this reason, she feels, that Milton was obliged to give up earlier allegorical plans for the poem: mythic material is simply inaccessible to allegory or metaphor, because it is itself their "cause." A poetic method that emphasizes the separation of "idea" and "image" runs exactly counter to a mythic conception, which insists on their identity.
 Two other highly influential, nonreductionist theories of myth come from the fields of anthropology and psychology (see Anthropological Theory and Criticism). The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose extensive work with South American tribal societies has yielded extraordinary analyses, argues that the meaning of myths lies not in their manifest content but rather in their underlying structure of relations, which typically works to mediate between polar extremes (raw and cooked, agriculture and warfare, life and death). In other words, the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction. Ultimately this leads Lévi-Strauss to the notion that the structure of myths is identical with that of the human mind. Thus the mythopoeic (mythmaking) imagination, its structure and operations, is reflected in the structure and symbols of actual myths.
 The very power of Lévi-Strauss's argument about the nature and function of myth has made it difficult for literary critics and theorists to incorporate or utilize his accounts in a sustained fashion. His abstract notion of "structure" (derived by analogy from Ferdinand de Saussure's enormously suggestive conception of linguistic structure), while appealing to the more systematic semioticians and structuralists, is difficult to accommodate to what are typically more labile definitions of literary form and structure in "mature" or sophisticated literary traditions. (See Semiotics and Structuralism.) Eric Gould presents in Mythical Intentions in Modern Literature an intelligent and sympathetic account of Lévi-Strauss's thought about myth and its relation to literature but finally can do little more than point to the anthropologist's rather dispiriting conclusion that myth survives only tenuously in modern fictional forms and that the novel is a literary genre that "tells a story that ends badly, and... now, as a genre [is] itself coming to a bad end" (95). Gould's more optimistic conclusion--that literary studies can have in common with Lévi-Strauss's mythography a self-conscious interpretive posture--seems only vaguely useful.
 For literary criticism perhaps the most productive anti-euhemerist has been the psychologist and one-time disciple of Sigmund Freud, C. G. Jung. Although he is usually associated with archetypes (see Archetypal Theory and Criticism), the distinction between archetype and myth has often been blurred, and Jung's theories have been appropriated, mutatis mutandis, by myth critics and archetypal critics alike. Jung's most influential idea is that of a "collective unconscious," a racial memory, consisting of "primordial images" or archetypes. These find expression in characteristic forms--the Earth Mother, the divine child, the wise old man, the sacrificial death--of the god, the mandala, the satyr or man-animal monster, the cross, the number 4--which provide the primordial elements in the myths and narrative constructions of widely different cultures. Although Jean Piaget and others have expressed skepticism about the universality or "racial" quality of Jung's archetypes, the archetypal vocabulary is now widespread in the discourse of those who might be called myth critics, including the most influential member of that group, Northrop Frye.
 Frye and others are attracted to Jung's theories not only because of the richness of imagery and narrative elements (what Jung and his collaborator Carl Kerényi came to call "mythologems") but because these theories, like those of Cassirer and Lévi-Strauss, command for myth a central cultural position, unassailable by reductive intellectual methods or procedures. By entitling the third essay of Anatomy of Criticism "Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths," Frye suggests a conceptual means of drawing individual and apparently unrelated archetypal images--the fundaments of psyche and culture--into a coherent and ultimately hierarchical framework of "mythoi," one organizing not only individual literary works but the entire system of literary works, that is, literature. Thus, for example, works in the "realistic," or representational, mode (the ill-fated "modern" novel Lévi-Strauss speaks of) stand (nonpejoratively) at the opposite end of the spectrum from those in the "mythical mode," which, because they are about characters having the greatest possible powers and who act "near or at the conceivable limits of desire" (136), are the "most abstract and conventionalized" (134). The abstract and conventional qualities Frye attributes to the mythic mode in literature are ultimately reflective of the irreducible and inescapable place of myth itself; so conceived, Western literature, massively funded by the powerful myths of the Bible and classical culture, might be thought of as having a "grammar" or coherent structural principles basic to any critical organization or account of historical development. That Frye ultimately identifies the "quest-myth" in its various forms as the central myth (mono-myth) of literature and the source of literary genres is at once the logical conclusion of his approach to myth criticism and the source of ongoing debate.
 No brief account can begin to do justice to the massive conceptual power and richly varied suggestiveness of Frye's theory of myths. If occasionally the schematization seems excessive or arbitrary, Frye's efforts nonetheless suggest how powerfully myth can organize our thinking about literature and about culture. His four "mythoi," or "generic narratives" (spring: comedy; summer: romance; autumn:tragedy; winter: irony and satire), have proved central in the ongoing project of rehabilitating genre theory. And his conviction that the "total mythopoeic structure of concern" extends beyond literature to religion, philosophy, political theory, and history suggests how myth criticism may ultimately connect with a larger theory of culture.
 Frye's particular critical and theoretical project has stimulated enormous scholarly activity, but he has had considerable company in defining the possibilities for literary myth criticism. Leslie Fiedler argues that contemporary criticism has lost its way by failing to see how Plato's "ancient quarrel between logos and mythos "as to which was the primal word" ("No! In Thunder" 1:518). Answering predictably and claiming that "mythos created poetry," Fiedler appropriates Jung's archetypes and Crocean intuitionism to define myth and thereby free poetry from the enervating embrace of logos (science, rationalism, logic) (see Benedetto Croce). Having succeeded so well in opposing mythos to logos, however, Fiedler comes perilously close to paralyzing criticism. His own critical project survives chiefly with his notion that literature comes into being only with the imposition of a "Signature" upon mythic materials, a "Signature" being the "sum total of individuating factors in a work" (1:537), the sign of the Persona. The insistence on both signature and myth, or archetype, with the pre-dominance of each varying in individual literary works, creates a useful critical spectrum.
 Many other modern myth critics and theorists, from the Cambridge Ritualists down to the present, have suggested productive ways of speaking about myth in literature and the connections between literary mythopoeia and the materials explored by other disciplines in our intellectual culture. C. L. Barber, for example, has explored the ways Shakespearean comedy achieves a characteristic "release" leading to social clarification; this "release" is related in turn to a ceremonial, ritualistic, finally mythic conception of human life that was evolving rapidly into a historical, psychological conception among the educated classes of Shakespeare's society. More recently, René Girard has taken up a wide-ranging investigation of the central cultural role of ritual sacrifice and its relation to myths, especially those prominent in Greek tragedy. Arguing that this ritual is society's effort to deflect upon a relatively indifferent or "sacrificeable" victim the violence that would otherwise be vented on its own members, Girard offers deeply suggestive commentary on such plays as Ajax, Medea, and, most impressively, Oedipus Tyrannos. Even in so effectively establishing connections between ritual and myth on the one hand and tragic drama on the other, however, Girard is at pains to acknowledge the distinctively literary qualities of the plays, what he calls the "essentially antimythical and antiritualistic inspiration of the drama" (95). Girard's most important critical claim is that the depiction of the ritual victim, or "scapegoat," must be seen in drama not as simple superstition, a crude mythic holdover, but as the metamorphosis of earlier "reciprocal violence," a communal violence "more deeply rooted in the human condition than we are willing to admit" (96).
 Although "myth criticism" no longer enjoys its earlier vogue, its legacy is powerful. Frye's work remains deeply influential; critics of Shakespearean comedy or Paradise Lost must still come to terms with the arguments of Barber's and MacCaffrey's studies; Girard continues to be a striking presence on the contemporary critical scene; and many individual critical studies concentrating on mythic themes, as well as on the formal or generic consequences of those themes, form an important part of the exegetical tradition. This seems to be particularly true for studies of modernist and American literature. It is likely that the future of literary myth criticism will be determined by the vitality of mythography as a concern in other related or allied fields, as well as by the heuristic power of the questions such criticism can generate. One of the most important of these questions asks about the degree of mythic "self-consciousness" in literary texts. Is literature mythopoeia or mythology? the creation or reflective use of mythic materials? The nineteenth-century philologist and student of myth F. Max Müller proposed a distinction between the "mythic" and the "mythical" that gave early form to precisely this issue. And subsequently many critics have insisted on the very different ways in which myth is conceived and appropriated by Homer and Sophocles; Virgil and Milton; T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Gabriel García Márquez. (The peculiarly self-conscious and individual myth systems of poets such as William Blake and W. B. Yeats also point up the critical question sharply.) In turn, other critics have asked how the Western myth tradition has underwritten canon formation and how, for example, black and feminist literatures are to be understood in relation to, and in conscious rebellion against, this tradition. If one accepts that the proposition "myth is literature" is itself an aesthetic creation and hence defines further creative possibilities (as does, for example, the Americanist and myth critic Richard Chase), then the question of mythic self-consciousness becomes particularly exigent.
 In short, complex critical and theoretical questions about myth and literature continue to be asked. The susceptibility of literature to forms of myth criticism depends upon the persuasiveness of answers to such questions, as well as upon the success of literary theorists in appropriating the empirical and conceptual investigations of myth by other disciplines.

Charles Eric Reeves

Notes and Bibliographies

See also Anthropological Theory and Criticism, Archetypal Theory and Criticism, Northrop Frye, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.
 C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (1959); Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry (1937); Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949); Ernst Cassirer, Sprache und Mythos: Ein Beitrag zum Problem der Götternamen (1925, Language and Myth, trans. Susanne K. Langer, 1946); Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, vol. 2 (1925, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim, 1955), Richard Chase, Quest for Myth (1946); Joseph Duncan, "Archetypal Criticism in English, 1946­1980" Bulletin of Bibliography 40 (1983); Mircea Eliade, Le Mythe de l'éternel retour: Archétypes et rép&ecute;tition (1949, The Myth of the Eternal Return, trans. Willard Trask, 1954); Leslie A. Fiedler, The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler (2 vols., 1971); Sigmund Freud, Totem und Tabu (1913, Totem and Taboo, trans. A. A. Brill, 1918); Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957); René Girard, La Violence et la sacré (1972, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory, 1977); Eric Gould, Mythical Intentions in Modern Literature (1981); C. G. Jung and C. Kerényi, Einfühung in das Wesen der Mythologie (1941, Essays on a Science of Mythology, trans. R, F, C, Hull, 1949, rev. ed., 1963); G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (1970); Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale (1958, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, 1963), La Pensée sauvage (1962, The Savage Mind, 1962, trans. anon., 1966); Isabel MacCaffrey, Paradise Lost as "Myth" (1959); Marjorie McCune, Tucker Orbison, and Philip Withim, eds., The Binding of Proteus: Perspectives on Myth and the Literary Process (1980); Paul Ricoeur, Le Symbolique du mal (pt. 2 of Philosophie de la volanté, vol. 2, Finitude et culpabilité, 1960, The Symbolism of Evil, Trans. Emerson Buchanan, 1967); John Vickery, ed., Myth and Literature: Contemporary Theory and Practice (1966).

Topics Index Cross-references for this Guide entry:
anthropology, archetype, collective unconscious (Jung), euhemerism, intuition, irony, logos, sacrifice, scapegoat