I’ve mentioned a great scholar of Spanish American prose fiction named John S. Brushwood in this column before. In a seminar one day he said, a bit sadly, I thought, “We’ve destroyed all our myths.” I gave that a good deal of thought. Brushwood was an Episcopalian, which I suspect kept him in contact with some of the archetypes of Western Christian civilization. In fact, I’m told that many people who make no claim to actual Christian beliefs participate in the Episcopal liturgy with great sincerity, and as strange as that may seem to most Protestants, maybe this is the reason.
In a book, I’ve defined myths as the stories that help structure a society. I was afraid to go beyond that because so many have tried and ended up in the briar patch. Myth, like the ancient god Protheus who inhabits some of them, is evasive and too slippery to hang onto very firmly.
Yet one thing is certain. Premodern societies have a belief that depends on the mythologies of the tribes in question. The historian of religions Mircea Eliade states that in such societies, to reproduce the acts of an archetypal figure is to assume the identity of that figure. In other words, to act the way the hero acted is to be that hero. The same goes for powerful animals. One might watch a man dressed as an eagle do an impressive eagle dance. It is important to note that one must not say, “You did a very convincing imitation of an eagle,” because the dancer is likely to respond, “No! When I was dancing I was the Eagle!”
As I taught a graduate seminar on Don Quixote I realized that this kind of thinking infects the would-be knight as well. On his first sally, he is soundly defeated and lands in a ditch. When his neighbor happens by and wonders what happened, he is told by the victim that he is a famous knight he has read about in one of his books of chivalry. His neighbor reminds him that he is in fact the petty nobleman who lives next door. Don Quixote informs him that he is not only the knight in question but is capable of being all sorts of archetypal knightly figures, including nine famous heroes at once, because his deeds will equal theirs and even surpass them. Yes, he is mad, but not in the conventional sense. He is mad only, as existentialist psychologist R. D. Laing would perhaps put it, in attempting to gain an identity by standards other than those of his own society.
Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden recently described Florida’s superstar Tim Tebow in terms of “Bronco Nagurski as quarterback,” which is to say that Tebow reproduces the running feats of the great player of the past, and he can pass as well. Children seem to relate to this path to identity better than adults. To put on a Spiderman costume is to take on the identity of Spiderman. When a three-year-old put on a Superman cape and jumped to his death from a high window, though, it ended in tragedy.
So we don’t believe our myths anymore. What effect is that having on us? Robert Ardrey, in The Social Contract, argues that the most important achievement for a human being is identity—not security or stimulation. In fact, Don Quixote being the ambiguous masterpiece that it is, the ever-failing knight is successful in one sense, which is that ultimately he possesses a firm identity. Whereas at the beginning of the novel the narrator is not even sure of the man’s name, at the end he is Don Alonso Quijano el Bueno. Think too of the popular song, I’ve Got a Name.
But our archetypal heroes appear to have disappeared. Even the postmodern “evangelical” churches seem to have abandoned Martin Luther’s dictum that Christians must be “little Christs in the world.” It is more a matter of somehow getting God to serve our purposes, to make us healthy and wealthy, while we go about our postmodern lives, which is seriously hypocritical. How radically different that is from the attitude of those young Wesleyan missionaries of the mid-eighteenth century, who knew that when they stepped off the boat in the Ivory Coast their life expectancy was fifteen months. In a sense, they were little Christs in the world.
But wouldn’t it be sensational if we found ourselves in possession of a crowd of political leaders obsessed with the idea of reproducing the archetypal acts of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Jackson and Lincoln, among others, and doing a bang-up job of bringing it off?