11 SEPTEMBER 1959, Page 23


The Myth-Kitty


A YEAR or two ago, Mr. Antis told the poets to ..shut up about Orpheus, and Mr. Larkin re- nounced his share of the 'myth-kitty.' The wit of the fables and religions of the ancient world is well-nigh consumed; they have already served the poets long enough, and it is now high time to ,dismiss them'—that seems to be Mr. 'Larkin's point, though the words are the words of the Bishop of Rochester in the 1660s. He was not the first, nor will Mr. Larkin be the last, to make this highly conventional gesture. Each of them was writing at a . moment when literature had been mythologising rather copiously tor a long time, and the protests were natural enough, though probablj, premature.

We set great store by myth, and our mythologies are queerer and more complicated than any before than. It is not merely that we enjoy poets who deal in mythology, like Yeats and Rilke and Blake and Hdlderlin; we have also accumulated an unmanageable load of archreological, anthropo- logical and psychological theory about myth, and a lot of historical information about the quite different but still difficult mythography of the Hellenistic, mediaeval; Renaissance and Romantic epochs, as well as more exotic mythologies by the dozen. You will not fob off a myth-hungry critic by saying that Keats got his out of Lempriere, or convince him that Yeats's 'Leda' sonnet can be expounded in under eighty pages : he knows that myth is still booming. There is the kind. we must understand in Mr. Eliot, with Frazer, Jane Harrison and others behind it; or there is the Yeatsian Neoplatonic structure; or Mr. Graves's own universal mythology. There is also the newly created myth, the kind critics talk of when they wish to confer upon a fiction some of the prestige Of these regular myths and some of the authority of Aristotle (who meant something rather different by the word). Remarkable claims are made, especially in America, for mythic reductions of literature to a set of archetypal patterns. Myth is doing well; it seems to be patient of all our demands on it.

This is, in fact, characteristic. From the start, Creek myths altered easily to accommodate new sociological needs; Hera was married and sub- jugated .to Zeus because 'a patriarchal culture absorbed a matriarchal one. And even when they achieve personal stability and become recognis- able Olympians, the gods are susceptible of allegorical interpretation; this happens equally to Homer and to the Old Testament, as a way of Preserving their religious utility in a changed society. The success of Christianity in the ancient world complicates the position not only because of the differences, but also because of the similarities it presents : the possible contamination with Orphism, the links between Christ and Dionysos, and Hercules. Such contamination might be condoned (as when the legionaries mixed '113 Celtic deities with Mithras) or not, in which case you labelled the pagan gods 'devils' and segregated them. This latter policy was not suc- cessful in Europe, and in very strange mutations, as Seznec shows in La Survivance des alerts antique's, the pagan gods lived on through the Middle Ages. Zeus might be an abbot, Hercules a monk, and as the moralisation of Ovid shows. all became useful to Christian instruction. The Renaissance, though . it gave Hercules back his club and lionsk in, could still see him as a Christ- type:- he was once more absorbed and amended, just as Hellenistic mystical thought was absorbed by the Platonists into Christianity. All truth, though it could be perverted, had one source. Such views secured for modern Europe a second official theology, and transmitted a mass of mythological invention and exegesis unparalleled before our own epoch. We do not always remem- ber that the ancient world as seen by the Cinquecento was full of inventions and, though very unlike our own, no more a static frieze of gods and heroes than it was to Frazer.

This dynamism the eighteenth century partly lost., and those mythologists, called 'the visionaries' by Mr. John Beer in his recent enlightening book on Coleridge*—shabby heirs of Pico and ancestors of George, Eliot's Casaubon. in whose learning Coleridge himself was steeped--tried to recover it. But the differences between theirs and the Renaissance mythology are important. Spenser and Chapman though inventive were intellectu- ally disciplined; but the 'visionary' mythologies always tend in the direction of Yeats's Vision. This is a still potent tradition and is found both as a competitor and as a complement to more scien- tific mythography. (Mr. Graves is both 'scientific' and 'visionary.') The scientific approach was at first characterised by attempts to induce laws from the evidence of myth. Such mythologists were Max Miner, Frazer, and Freud. They had an influence comparable with that of the Florentine Platonists; yet it decayed, and the myths as usual survived. And if we ask what was in this instance the preservative, we find ourselves at once confronted by that anti-intellectualism which is so potent in modern thinking about the Arts.

Nietzsche blamed Socrates for destroying myth. the province of human creative force. In the domain of myth we can short-circuit the intellect and liberate the imagination which the scientism of the modern world suppresses; and this is a central modern position. Myth deals in what is more 'real' than intellect can accede to; it is a seamless garment to replace the tattered fragments worn by the modern mind, a hallowed and com- munal expression, as it were a.lit urgy, of the truths mediated by the modern artist, For Ruskin, the great myths were an early- stage of the 'slow

* COLERIDGE THE VISIONARY. By J. B. Beer. (Chatto and Windus, 30s.)

t LAROUSSE ENCYCLOP/EDIA OF MYTHOLOGY. With- an introduction by Robert Graves. ( Batchworth Press, 63s.-50s. till December 31, 1959.) manifestation' of reality to human knowledge, and such a view is to be found in the Positivists. But for us myth is no longer an evolutionary stage but a terminus. The cult of it is an aspect of a great longing for primitive mentality, for unity of being, for the body that thinks, not deputing that func- tion to a Cartesian mind. These expressions have a Yeatsian tinge; but they are not freaks, and have scholarly counterparts, for example in Cailliet's Symbolisme et dines primitives (1936), which argues that the Symbolists strive to achieve a condition close to that of the pre-logical primitive mind. Mr. Eliot, who remarked that the artist 'is more primitive as well as more civilised, than his contemporaries,' publicly endorsed Cailliet's thesis. It is not surprising, then, that, with Ulysses in mind, he should have spoken of myth as 'a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense paradox of futility and anarchy which is contemporary his- tory.' Myth, ritual dance, the desire for an illiterate audience, even perhaps Anglo-Catholi- cism, arc all aspects of a complex modern primitivism, recognisable in cognate forms in other influential modern artists. And if we seek the pre-logical and oppose the march of intellect, we are the enemies of science—at any rate as it is generally understood—and the worshippers of myth.

The need for a change of attitude, for a modifi- cation of this myth-science antithesis, is pressing. Mythology, as it is now understood, raises the whole question of belief. This would scarcely be so if it was thotight of only as a breeding-ground of images; in fact it is too often the anti-intellec- tualist substitute for science. That is why some of Yeats's interpreters urge us to neglect his own statement that his system merely gave him `metaphors for poetry,' and urge the acceptance of his 'subjective' philosophy as valid in itself. This is a narrow obscurantism that might do much harm; but such bad precipitates do show the degree to which our literary culture is saturated with mythological thinking.

The present encyclopaedia of mythologyt is very imposing—it deals, profusely illustrated, not only with Greek and Roman, but with Prehistoric, Egyptian, Celtic, Slavonic, Teutonic, American and Oceanic mythologies. Graves's preface is in his rapid-firing scientific manner. There is some variation in the standard of exposition--the Celtic section is learned but the Greek, apart from an odd word or two on meteorological origins and matrilinear societies, mostly just tells the stories, like Lempriere. The standard of the illustrations also varies, more excusably, from wonderful photographs of Greek. Hittite and African objects to Romantic Teutonic sculpture and fairy-story drawings of Slavonic pucks. It is interesting to compare this large book with the vast mythologi- cal compendia of the seventeenth century, and those Renaissance handbooks for painters, on the appearance and attributes of the ancient gods. The old writers knew a great deal of the material in Larousse, for instance, about the connection be- tween Greek and Oriental cults. Their illustrations are incomparably inferior; yet they served their turn magnificently. They provided artists and poets with a rich and subtle language; those elaborate programmes containing and concealing wisdom, on the basis of which a Botticelli or a Spenser could make his beautiful and enigmatic images.

The mythical material was devoted to purposes almost incomprehensible to the modern mind and, yet here it is once more, ,highly relevant. Well might Bacon remark. 'What pliant stuff fable is made of.'

The myth-kitty is inexhaustible; the ancient gods survive.