Sunday, May 09, 2021

The problematic themes of Modern Myths


In her review of my book The Modern Myths in the New York Times Review of Books, Sophie Gee asks why “post-Enlightenment Anglophone tales are so obsessed with themes of domination, self-reliance, privilege and supremacy.” Of the “myths of individual power and mastery” that I consider, and which “still exert a significant hold in the mainstream imagination and culture”, she asks: “whose voices have they overlooked?”


These are excellent questions. I don’t pretend to have comprehensive answers, but an interrogation of them is one of the key themes of my book.


“Themes of domination, self-reliance, privilege and supremacy” are, as I explain, nowhere more apparent than in the first of the modern myths I consider in detail: Robinson Crusoe. In many ways this tale was Defoe’s justification for the then-burgeoning colonialist project: it was written to appeal to the merchant middle classes whose rising wealth and aspirations often depended on colonial trade. James Joyce had the measure of Crusoe, calling him

the true prototype of the British colonist, as Friday… is the symbol of the subject races. The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity.


As I write in The Modern Myths, “The microcosmic society that Crusoe constructs on his island can be read as a miniature version of the sovereignty that, in Defoe’s view, the British ought to enjoy.” Crusoe is a slave-owner, growing rich from his plantations; I say that his attitude “fits with the sense of entitlement and hierarchy that, for Defoe and most of his contemporaries, rendered European imperialism unproblematic.” His story shows its readers “how an Englishman responds to adversity: with the mental, moral and intellectual resources that his superior breeding has conferred on him.” Crusoe is, in short, an apologia for empire. (Of course, it is much more than that, but that is one of its key functions not just for its contemporaneous readers but throughout the nineteenth century too.


Themes of Anglophone domination and supremacy recur in many of these myths. As I explain, Dracula is in some ways a supernatural recasting of the late-Victorian invasion literature: a decadent foreigner comes to England to exploit and prey on its people, only to be repulsed by the steadfast and noble spirit of a band of (mostly English) Westerners. Sherlock Holmes and his doughty assistant Watson pit English decency and ingenuity against innately corrupt foreign criminals. Over the late Victorian myths in particular hangs the fear of degeneration expressed in Max Nordau’s 1892 book. If, as I suggest, myths attain that status because they are good vehicles for prevailing cultural anxieties, the Anglophone anxieties of the fin de si├Ęcle were partly about the fragility of empire and the need to assert a pseudo-Darwinian superiority over “lower races”.


They were also about shifts in gender status: Dracula, for example, is pervaded with a terror of the assertive New Woman, as exemplified by Lucy Westenra, whose wanton waywardness is not so much induced as revealed by the Count’s bloodsucking predations. The retribution is brutal: as I explain, her staking by the group of men who were once her suitors has all the qualities of a retributive gang rape; it is one of the most disturbing scenes in the novel. Jekyll and Hyde, meanwhile, seethes with hints of homoerotic and homophobic anxieties (as does Dracula). Myths acquire that status because of their capacity to express fears that can barely be articulated. They might assert values of, say, self-reliance, privilege and innate superiority conferred by race, class and gender (Crusoe, Holmes) – but Hyde, Moriarty, and poor Lucy remind us that a mere gossamer veil separates “us” (the bourgeois target audience) from the abyss.  


It is precisely because these stories have become myths that these purposes can be subverted: the myth can be seized and reinvented by and for those it overlooks. Thus we see Crusoe rewritten by Michel Tournier to give Friday real agency (and make him the title character), or used by J. M Coetzee (Foe) to critique the modern remnants of colonialism; even by the late nineteenth century, the Frankenstein narrative was being used in tales sympathetic to the suffering of Black Americans. Even H. G. Wells’ repulsive aliens in The War of the Worlds become the victims of apartheid prejudice in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.


The fear in the conformist America of the 1950s that Batman and Robin might be in a gay relationship was satirized in the following decade by the high camp of the Adam West TV series, winking over the heads of the children who could not understand why their parents were either laughing or squirming at the antics of their heroes. In today’s Sherlock TV series, Holmes and Moriarty can finally consummate (even if just in fantasy) their mutual attraction, while Watson can be gently mocked for his embarrassment at repeatedly being taken for Holmes’ lover. Today, at last, a Black Batman in a hooded mask can turn American racism’s potent symbol back on itself.  


Here too, though, we should resist becoming dogmatic about the “message” of a modern myth. Today it is almost obligatory to take the monster’s side – but the rich ambivalence of Mary Shelley’s text may be obliterated by a critical insistence that we consider Victor Frankenstein the real monster. As Lawrence Lipking points out, some critics are frustrated by students who steadfastly refuse to see Frankenstein this way: “Despite the consensus of sophisticated critics,” he writes ironically, “ordinary readers keep looking at the wrong evidence and coming to the wrong conclusions.” Not all readings of a myth will be equally useful or illuminating, but probably the only “wrong” way to read them is to insist on a unique interpretation.


You’ll find all this discussed in my book. Modern myths are valorized because they are by their nature versatile and protean enough to still do valid, even vital cultural work, sometimes being reimagined to give a voice to those who they originally ignored, denigrated or obliterated. They can’t be contained by the prejudices that created them, and their very familiarity and cultural gravity makes an inversion all the more potent. So yes, we should ask whose voices they overlooked – and then find out what happens when those voices are entrusted with the retelling.