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Mything the Point

“Myth is the garment of mystery.”

– Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers

Last week, Donald Maass posted one of his predictably fascinating and eminently useful posts on the subject of awe in fiction, and how to create “marker moments” within a story that, well, let me use his own words to state the matter:

Marker moments are not plot points. They are emotional points, though events and emotions inevitably entwine. The point is to create places on the page wherein there are shifts in inner perception, understanding, certainty, security, or any other internal state. When a marker moment occurs it’s as if an anchor has pulled up from the sea floor in a storm, or conversely like when a steel piton is driven into a cliff face during a rock climb. Characters—and readers–become in those moments unmoored or newly secure.

He used the metaphor of a cathedral to illustrate that feeling cannot be conjured from structural elements alone. The overwhelming sense awe we feel when entering Notre Dame or Chartres or any other great cathedral (and even some of the humbler but still awe-inspiring chapels one can encounter if one looks) cannot be attributed to the stone or the stained glass or the buttresses from which it is built. Again, let’s allow Don to state the matter for himself:

What is therefore important and worth working on…is not only the plot architecture but also what cannot be built out of stone: the many moments of recognition, understanding and empathy that for readers sum up to a profound and transforming experience of awe.

Don also provided a number of cues that can lead us to just such moments, some of which I think are ingenious, such as (to name only a handful–my favorites):

There is much I consider both wise and practical in all of this—I especially believe that, by focusing on moments, we naturally envision scenes, and I have long contended that the most dramatically effective way to explore character, both through backstory and in the present-day dramatic arc of the novel, is by focusing on scenes, not narrative exposition or, worse, explanation.

I would add that the moments I typically search for are moments of helplessness or sudden, unexpected emotion or action when the character’s response goes beyond what their normal, day-to-day persona would have predicted. On the one hand, I look for moments of great fear, shame (loss of respect), guilt (harming others), betrayal, loss, sorrow, death; on the other I look for moments of sudden courage, pride, forgiveness, trust, and connection or love.

But the one thing this sort of analysis glances past is how do we ourselves as living, sentient beings come to feel awe? It is one thing to say we should conjure it in our stories. But how are we going to do that if we lack any means of knowing how to find it in our lives?

Worse, what if we resort to a mere device in the mistaken belief it will somehow magically conjure awe?

Few of us have magisterial cathedrals in our neighborhoods. Even if we do, there’s no guarantee we can translate what we feel when we pass through those doors onto the page.

One way that writers have tried to conjure this sense of awe in their storytelling is by turning to myth. This has become particularly true in the wake of the writings of C.G. Jung, with an additional nudge from Joseph Campbell, especially in his seminal The Hero With a Thousand Faces. That book in particular became a virtual bible for a great many writers, and it combined with the works of Jung have generated a virtual cottage industry of follow-up commentary.

Call it The Myth Biz.

Let’s be honest with ourselves—have we experienced any great outpouring of awe that we can attribute directly to this emphasis on the mythic? Or have we in fact experienced something quite different, a trivialization of myth—worse, a Disney-fication of myth.

Call it The Myth Biz.

The question came to mind twice recently, once upon watching a film I happen to love, and the other upon reading a recent novel I admire.

The film was John Huston’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana [1]. It is a searing and darkly comic examination of a man of God (Richard Burton) struggling with his human appetites, even as he realizes they are destroying him, and the two women he turns to in order to save himself.

For purposes of this discussion, however, what continues to fascinate me is how, in his portrayal of the two main women characters, Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner) and Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), Williams very deftly introduces what might be seen as real-world stand-ins for the goddesses Aphrodite and Athena, respectively.

Maxine is truly a woman of lusty appetite but also a woman of great heart and down-to-earth common sense. Hannah travels the world flat broke, drawing sketches while her dying uncle recites his poems; she is much more the aesthete, and has had only two encounters in her entire life that might even suggest the erotic. But she too is a woman of love—a lover of truth, and dignity, and understanding, and kindness.

There is no obvious attempt to point toward the goddesses these characters represent, and I am not even sure Williams had them in mind when he wrote the play. But their mythic power resonates in every line, elevating the story to something far beyond the story’s events. They convey what it means to be human, standing naked before the truth of their lives, in a way that is all too rare.

The takeaway—mythic power isn’t created by slapping a label on your characters or by dressing them up in mythological drag. It’s created by owning and forming an intuitive bond with the deepest longings and struggles of their lives. Do that, and the myth stuff will take care of itself. If using a mythic character or archetype helps point the way, fine; but don’t mistake the signpost with the journey.

Mythic power isn’t created by slapping a label on your characters or by dressing them up in mythological drag.

The other impetus for this post was a recent novel by the Irish writer Emer Martin titled The Cruelty Men [2]. (“A bible of fucked-up Irishness.” –Irvine Welsh). The title refers to uniformed shills for the Catholic Church who roamed the Irish countryside looking for orphans or families with more children than they could feed, and taking such youngsters away to the “industrial schools” where they became slave labor for the Church, and were brutalized in the bargain.

Unlike Williams, Martin makes no attempt to disguise the mythic influence for her story. It is the classic Celtic story “The Children of Lir [3].”

Briefly, the four children of the tale, through no fault of their own (blame lies with the father, Lir) are subjected to a curse—they are transformed into swans, and must remain in that state for 900 years. Every 300 years, their circumstances become even more harrowing and unbearable, but the oldest sister, Fionnula, watches over her siblings and ensures they survive. Finally, as the 900th year arrives, they are once again transformed back into human shape—first as the children they were, but then they rapidly age into the 900-year-old beings they are and crumble to dust and die.

(Note: I always use this tale as a counter-example whenever someone brings up Joseph Campbell’s relatively cheery monomyth, which bears far greater resemblance to the redemptive story of Christ than the far darker myths and folktales, such as this one, that aren’t that hard to find if one looks.)

Though Martin’s inspiration for The Cruelty Men is clear, she does far more than merely stick human beings into their mythic counterparts like dolls in new clothes.

She did extensive, truly impressive research into the plight of Irish children during the time frame of the story (circa 1935-1970), as well as the roles of Church and government in the brutal scheme, the indifference of the Irish middle class, and life as it was truly lived for the poor and dispossessed. She creates an Irish family, especially its children, who live and breathe and suffer on the page. It’s this devotion to truth, the authority of her details, and her creation of such heartbreaking characters—not her mythic analogy—that creates the books capacity to inspire awe.

Why is it that so many other stories that far more conspicuously lean on myth fall short of conjuring this sort of reaction?

I opened this post with a quote from Thomas Mann: “Myth is the garment of mystery.” What I love about this is its recognition that the importance of myth lies invisibly, mysteriously beyond what we can see. Athena is not the myth—she is merely the representation of an ineffable presence and force that lies beyond our comprehension.

The original name for Yahweh contains no vowels, precisely so the name cannot be spoken—a way to show how the divine cannot be described. Similarly, Lao Tzu cautions in the Tao te Ching: “The tao that can be spoken is not the true tao.” Or as the Buddhist aphorism puts it, “If ever you encounter the Buddha, kill him.”

What all of these efforts attempt to convey is that whenever we try to represent directly the mysterious aspect of what it means to be human, we will fail. That is why it is a mystery, in the greatest sense of the word. We can only suggest it through indirection, which the majestic space inside a cathedral—or the narrative space within a story—strives to do.

What will inevitably fail is trying to conjure some sense of the divine by dragging out hand-me-down mythic characters, slapping the archetypal label of Hero or Trickster or Magician on them, and hoping by some authorial hocus-pocus or crafty mechanics they will somehow spring to life.

In one of the books by Joseph Campbell that doesn’t get cited often enough—Creative Mythology: The Masks of God—he explains that the ancient myths belonged to their time and their culture and cannot be translated neatly to ours. (Boy, does that get overlooked.)

This paragraph from the book merits quotation in full:

In modernity, “each individual is the center of a mythology of his own, of which his own intelligible character is the Incarnate God…whom his empirically questing consciousness is to find… [L]ike it or not, the pathless way is the only way now before us.”

I do not have a handy, ten-step, guaranteed-to-work-or-your-money-back technique for getting at this. Indeed, as the preceding few paragraphs suggest, any technique trying to do so is bound to fail.

Like it or not, the pathless way is the only way now before us.

Rather, we have to open ourselves to the terrifying mystery of life and death—”an experience of order, horror, beauty, or even exhilaration,” per Campbell—and be willing to feel that terror, that joy, that awe that comes from the utter mysterious truth that we are really here, and both “we” and “here” are fated to vanish. We will never perceive or understand that existence perfectly, but will always be, in no small way, wandering a labyrinth at twilight.

The Catholic Mass begins with this exchange between priest and server, taken from Psalm 43:

I will go to the altar of God/To God, the joy of my youth

Equating the divine with the innocent, boundless joy we knew as infants is one way to point us in the right direction. But so too is this from Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, when Karin explains what happened when she realized God was hiding in her closet:

The door opened, but God was a spider. He came up to me and I saw his face. It was a terrible stoney face. He scrambled up and tried to penetrate me, but I defended myself. All along I saw his eyes. They were cold and calm. When he couldn’t penetrate me he continued up my chest, up into my face and onto the wall.

To conjure awe, we must open ourselves to the inexpressible, whether it elicits within us horror or happiness, and humbly admit our inability to capture exactly what we experience. The best we can hope for is to point the way for our readers, much as the figures of myth and folktales point the way for us.

The prompts Don listed in his post last week and the techniques I suggest are merely means to an end. Responding to them with mere information, devoid of raw experience, will only create what there is far too much of already: stories based on other stories.

Campbell is right, the pathless way is the only way. And remember, should you encounter Buddha on your journey, kill him.

What myths or folktales have you used for inspiration of guidance in your stories? How did that work out? If the effort was successful, why do you think that was? If it didn’t work out, what do you think you missed? What stories or novels by others that have employed myth in some way have impressed you?


About David Corbett [4]

David Corbett [5] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [6], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.