The Myth in History

I was driven to ask myself in all seriousness ‘what is the myth you are living?’ I found no answer to this question, and had to admit that I was not living with a myth, or even in a myth, but rather in an uncertain cloud of theoretical possibilities which I was beginning to regard with increasing distrust.

                                                                          –Carl Jung, cited in Red Book, p. 197

Academic history writing is not so befogged by concepts as the social sciences. The mere fact that we write narratives generates meaning in a way that is different than trapping it in concepts, a way that is more analogous to the unfolding of meaning in myth. But we still frame those stories in terms of arguments, reducing the narrative into a concept that can ideally be described in a five-sentence abstract. We then spend much of our time arguing about which argument is better, and what more we need to know in order to modify our arguments. It is the apparatus built up around argumentation—the fortresses, weapons, rules, strategies and tactics used to build, defend and attack arguments—that makes academic history so alienating to a broader audience . . . and so engrossing to the academic.

The real problem comes when—as so often happens—we mistake our theoretical possibilities and arguments for reality. Arguments can help us find paths and patterns among the facts. But we betray the facts and their complexity when we boil our arguments down into abstractions and then use those abstractions as if they were facts. We choke off the other paths and possibilities.

A narrative need not be subservient to the argument. Indeed, even argumentative narratives still structure much of their meaning in mythic forms–even if they try to tame and control that meaning. Because in a mythic narrative, the interpretations are uncertain. The facts can be both symbolic and concrete, but never subservient to a single concept. Moral lessons are pervasive, but the details are evasive. Right and wrong, reason and emotion, carnal and spiritual, good and evil are entangled, often uncomfortably so. The meaning comes not through clarity, but through plotting and structure. This allows the narrative to point to the ineffable and to the paradox without dissolving in chaos.

What is history, if not an attempt to link personal meaning to something bigger than ourselves—to origins, genealogies, bloodlines, societies and heroic collective endeavor? Popular histories—so often subject to political agendas and marketing strategies—are just as guilty as academic histories of betraying both the myths and the facts. The real struggle, behind all the academic theories, politics, concepts and advertising, is whether we want to portray that story as one of progress or tragedy, of hubris or heroic action, of resolute firmness or daring innovation, of the traditions of a fine, noble people or of the constant upswell of rebels and upstarts. These are the contents of our mythic narratives. And the best myths manage to leave space for all of these possibilities (I’ll elaborate with some specific works later. But, if I want to do this right, I need to engage with my personal narratives even more).

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Posted on August 21, 2011, in Academic History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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