Wednesday, 5 January 2011
The manufacture of myth
Anthropologists and classicists speculate about how myths came into being in pre-literate cultures. My interest is rather in the creation and re-creation of myth in historical time, a process which lends itself to more exact study. There can be few better places to focus that study than the German-speaking lands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. George Eliot, most cosmopolitan of Victorian novelists, anticipated as much when she wrote Middlemarch (1872). In that novel the leathery old clergyman Mr Casaubon is engaged in lifelong research for his magnum opus, the Key To All Mythologies. It is fruitless work, ‘mouldy futilities’ – so his wife is assured by young Will Ladislaw – because he does not read German. Without that language Casaubon cannot keep up with the new scholarship in comparative religion and mythology, fields in which Germany led the world.
Central to the German preoccupation with myth was the belief that it was somehow ‘original’, ‘living’ and authentic. Uses of myth in the modern period therefore claim to be restorative of lost traditions; in fact, they are more often ‘inventions of tradition’ (in Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase). Are they, then, to be judged as massive delusional systems? Or are we looking at a transformation of ‘myth’ into something more appropriate to a mass culture?
One place to start is the relationship between myth and history as the debate was conducted in the late nineteenth century among German classicists. How do they gloss the definition of muthos in Plato and Aristotle, and Herodotus’s use of ‘unhistorical’ evidence? Is the resurgent interest in myth a reaction against Positivism and the Rankean view of history? This might lead one to consideration of Nietzsche’s assault on the philological profession and his deliberations on myth (The Birth of Tragedy) and history (On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life).
Nietzsche attended the laying of the foundation stone of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1872, at which time he still believed that a rebirth of tragedy could be effected through Wagnerian music-drama. It would be interesting to follow through the concept of the Festspiel – understood as an attempted renewal of the ‘Volk’ through communal theatre on mythical subjects – down to Wagner’s heirs at the turn of the century: Appia and Jacques-Dalcroze in Hellerau, Georg Fuchs in Munich and Count Kessler in Weimar. How important was it that each of these attempts was underwritten by aristocratic patronage, beginning with Ludwig II’s support of Wagner?
Ludwig’s cousin, Elisabeth of Austria, offers a case-study in the creation of personal myth, which brought her into conflict with official Habsburg ideology. During her lifetime Elisabeth controlled her own iconography by taking advantage of the new medium of photography. After her death biographical myths accreted around her which continue to be influential to this day, as the buoyant ‘Sisi’ industry in Austria demonstrates. The Empress united in her person Romantic Hellenism and identification with figures from Greek mythology, especially that of Persephone.
Arnold Böcklin’s painting The Island of the Dead (1880) strongly evokes Elisabeth’s beloved retreat of Corfu. A survey of the decline of ‘history painting’ in nineteenth-century Germany (pivoting around the Symbolist art of Böcklin) might ask whether there is a point where shared mythologies collapse and private ones take their place. A thin line leads by way of Makart and Anselm Feuerbach to the paintings of early Expressionism.
Böcklin’s Leonardo-like experimentation with flying machines and Max Beckmann’s monumental canvas The Sinking of the ‘Titanic’ (1912) exemplify the instant mythologization of history. German responses to the ‘Titanic’ disaster have received little attention from scholars: a comparison with other accidents – airship and aeroplane crashes – suggests that the process of mythologization operates particularly where classically-minded observers believe they are witnessing the latest technology brought low by its own hubris (in the manner of a tragic hero).
By giving a blood transfusion to certain received myths, notably that of Oedipus (‘blood for the ghosts’, in Nietzsche’s memorable phrase), Sigmund Freud ensured their survival as ‘general knowledge’. The reciprocal relation between Freud’s classical learning and his medical practice is a fascinating subject. When he adopted a Greek myth as an explanatory tool for a psychoanalytic theory, which came first, the myth or the clinical diagnosis?
There are striking similarities between Freud’s thought and that of Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-1887). Largely neglected in the English-speaking world, Bachofen was hugely influential on German-speaking intellectuals when his work was reissued in the 1920s. Thomas Mann (Joseph and His Brothers), Ernst Krenek (the opera Life of Orestes) and the painter Oskar Kokoschka all drew inspiration from Bachofen’s argument that we can reconstruct unwritten prehistory through the study of myth; but they reversed his intentions, seeking to reanimate myth by turning the ‘facts’ supposedly preserved by myth back into the ‘fiction’ of art.
Thomas Mann’s criticisms of Alfred Baeumler, editor of the 1926 edition of Bachofen, led directly to his conviction that psychology offered the best means to rescue myth from Fascism (‘Freud and the Future’, 1936). The precariousness of that hope is illustrated through Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will (1934). Here present, put to equivocal use, are so many aspects of the manufacture of myth – the cultic coming-together of the ‘Volk’ at a great ‘Fest’ (the Party rally), the romance of technology (as in the opening shot of the Führer’s plane descending, Valkyrie-like, through the clouds), the manipulation of image (tension between the director’s editorial control and that of the Party, mirroring the film’s troubled status somewhere between art and propaganda).
So, a final question for any latterday Will Ladislaws out there: is it possible to recover the originally progressive intentions of the Romantic concept of myth?