The Truth and Life of Myth Critical Essays

Edward Howard Duncan


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Duncan’s essay begins with a definition of the poet which appears to play into the hands of those who privilege the modern, demythologized mind, those who see the poet as deluded and irrational:When a man’s life becomes totally so informed that every bird and leaf speaks to him and every happening has meaning, he is considered to be psychotic. The shaman and the inspired poet, who take the universe to be alive, are brothers germane of the mystic and the paranoiac.

Madness has been the traditional accusation leveled at poets, but Duncan intends psychosis as an analogy for, not a judgment of, the poetic mind which seeks meaning from the universe. Revelation, says Duncan, always comes into the world through myth, which is to say that a human consciousness mediates a message given to its apprehension. Though the demythologizer might like to run away from the myths of Scripture, he cannot run away from the apparatus of his consciousness which is attuned to meaning. By running away, like Jonah from the voice of God, the demythologizer must treat a part of himself as if it did not exist. The poet is willing if wary: “We at once seek a meaningful life and dread psychosis, ‘the principle of life.’”

The demythologist’s attitude is much discussed in this essay. According to Duncan, the demythologist assumes arrogantly to know the most—simply because he has a modern attitude. Duncan finds the ignorance of this attitude worse than the arrogance, for demythologists ignore the greatest insights of very modern thinkers, such as Ernst Cassirer and Claude Levi-Strauss, for whom myth is man’s way of knowing reality. Yet more than showing the errors of modern doubters, Duncan is concerned to establish the reality of the message which comes to the poet. His title emphasizes that myth is both truth and life. The truth that stirs the poet is not a reality of ideas or images, but a reality of presences. When the subject of one of Duncan’s poems was Cupid and Psyche, he was not writing about the ancient Cupid and Psyche but inspired by their presence in his consciousness: “I cannot make it happen or want it to happen; it wells up in me as if I were a point of break-thru for an ‘I’ . . . that may like the angel speaking to Caedmon command ‘Sing me some thing.’”

Duncan counters the modern objection that this experience is simply a fantasy cooked up by an overactive imagination by illustrating the poet’s connection in a community existing since the beginning of human time. The myth of Cupid and Psyche has stirred many others before Duncan. He did not invent it. It is an old story, a bedtime story, and the humbleness, the familiarity, of the myth allows the poet to approach it, and, dependent on his gifts, release its deeper contents which Duncan finds no less than “perilous.” The poet finds the truth and life within his consciousness, as something inherited in the process of being a man. The contact between the natural and supernatural, the transfer of communication between the poet’s working self and his soul, is awe-ful. The rational demythologizer, who knows nothing of the experience, can easily reject the contents of such contact. A poet might turn away as well, but only because the contents are too much to bear.

For Duncan, what is reaching out to the poet from the supernatural part of himself is the presence of “Love”:Our sexual pleasure is a protective appetite that distracts us or blinds the psyche to the primal Eros, as all the preoccupations of our poetic craft preserve a skin of consciousness in which we are not overtaken in fear of the Form that works there.

For Duncan, this Eros (the Cupid of the “Cupid and Psyche”) is a...

(The entire section is 1516 words.)