More than sixty years have passed since T. S. Eliot accorded James Joyce’s use of myth in Ulysses (1922) the “importance of a scientific discovery.” Few would argue the point, although Joyce’s employment of what Eliot called a “continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity” had been anticipated both within and outside the Euro-American cultural continuum. In commenting on the significance of Joyce’s discovery, Eliot issued a pronouncement that in some ways proved to be as influential as the “discovery” itself. Eliot described Joyce’s use of myth as “simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” Reading Ulysses as a fictional analogue to The Waste Land (1922), Eliot effectively claimed what he called the “mythical method” for the branch of modernism that, viewing the contemporary world and especially popular movements with disdain, treated literature as the province of a cultured elite (often located in academic institutions) capable of recognizing the superiority of antiquity. Although Joyce may not have shared Eliot’s perspective, there is no doubt that Eliot’s position, especially as developed, propagated, and frequently distorted by the New Criticism, largely determined the significance of the mythical method for Anglo-American modernism.
One by-product of Eliot’s influence, which contributed to the identification of novelists such as John Barth as major contemporary figures, has been the absence of a populist avant-garde as a major force in American literary culture. Writers sharing Eliot’s contempt for contemporary experience frequently employed the mythical method in part because it had become the lingua franca of academic discourse. Partly as a response to what they saw as the reactionary politics of Eliot’s followers, writers with strong populist commitments (at least those not interested in arguing their case on academic premises) frequently avoided the mythical method for two basic reasons. First, many saw the myths of antiquity as hierarchical and antidemocratic in origin and implication. Second, they feared alienating themselves entirely from the nonacademic audience, which had come to see modern literature as inaccessible and irrelevant. The assumption of an underlying split between aesthetic sophistication and populist commitment became a central fact of American literary culture. Despite its origins in popular experience, myth came to be associated with the symbol-hunting academic elite.
This fabricated dichotomy between the popular and the mythical consciousness, however, has come under increasing scrutiny as contemporary writers, among them Gilbert Sorrentino, have turned away from Eliot’s interpretation of the mythical method. Frequently, and Sorrentino’s Blue Pastoral provides an excellent illustration of the movement, the repudiation of Eliot brings these writers closer to the view of the mythical method, and of avant-garde techniques generally, advanced by Bertolt Brecht, who viewed myth as a part of the perceptual system within contemporaneity. Sorrentino is not the first American writer to explore the Brechtian position. Prior to the 1960’s, William Carlos Williams, Melvin B. Tolson, and the early Adrienne Rich intimated the possibility of reconceiving the mythical method by pointing out the Euro- and phallo-centrism of the ostensibly universal myths invoked, more by Eliot’s followers than by Eliot himself, to validate their philosophical and aesthetic positions. Although populist in implication, these early arguments took place almost entirely within the confines of modernist discourse. Only in the early 1960’s did serious attempts to liberate myth from the universality of the university begin to succeed. Gary Snyder, Amiri Baraka, and the later Rich simply (and complexly) refused to engage in battle on Eliot’s premises; rather, they excavated and endorsed alternative mythical systems, which they believed to be of much greater relevance to the nonacademic communities that embraced their work than Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1922).
Brecht would accept this attack on cultural hegemony, could he be resurrected to pass judgment on it, but he would ultimately extend the attack in radical directions. Responding to the aesthetic conservatism of leftist political critic Georg Lukacs (which curiously parallels the split between aesthetics and politics in Anglo-American modernism), Brecht insisted on an aesthetic that would both express the full complexity of consciousness and make an active contribution to progressive politics. Carefully avoiding any temptation to pander to the conservative tendencies of his audience, Brecht emphasized alienation as an aesthetic and political strategy. Drawing on the full range of cultural expression, popular and elite, Brecht challenged his audiences to understand the ways they interpreted contemporaneity. For Brecht, the perception and interpretation of myth within a cultural context holds far greater significance than the attempt, which in any case he sees as futile, to see myth as a realm separate from that context. The view of antiquity as a...
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