Fairy Tales and Utopian Ideals

There are some scholars that, as much as I would like to try, I just cannot avoid. They are the ones that add conversation and dialogue to my research, taking it to a deeper level. Sure, it would be easy to ignore them, but then I’d be just as shallow a researcher as the Shallow Researcher “archetype” at the core of my academic shadow projections. Today’s unavoidable researcher: Jack Zipes.

I discovered Jack Zipes when I was doing the Pacifica preview day, which I’d timed on purpose to coincide with my admissions interview. As part of the preview day, they were giving out a $25 gift certificate for the Pacifica bookstore. One of the unspoken secrets of the Pacifica bookstore is that the really good books all cost exactly $25 or more, and that it is neigh impossible to exit the bookstore without spending at least $45. I blew my travel budget many times in that bookstore… Anyway, I chose Zipes’ Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale, because the title seemed to be dealing with some residual questions I had lingering from my MA thesis. I read 3 pages before shelving the book to prepare for Pacifica, and there the book stayed for 3 years until one day I brought home his book, Happy Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry from the Pacifica library. Revisiting Jack Zipes revealed two things: 1. he is no lover of Disney and 2. he fails to make the distinction between Grimmified fairy tales and literary fairy tales in his criticism of the Disneyfication of fairy tales. Before leaving this point, I must emphasize how much it annoys me that people criticize Disney for “sanitizing” or “trivializing” fairy tales, making “the one true version” that most kids today know and realize, but fail to criticize the Brothers Grimm for doing the EXACT same thing. AND, I would further point out, that Disney’s fairy tale films until The Little Mermaid were anything BUT sanitized.

Anyway, the point of this post is a couple of questions that Zipes poses in Happily Ever After that I think need to be addressed, though I’m not sure my dissertation is the place to do it.The quote is this:

Indeed, ever since World War II the fairy tale as live-action film or animation has become one of the most successful genres in the culture industry. Perhaps, given the barbarism of World War II, the need for fairy tales in the mass media became greater afterward, for it is through the fairy tale that hope for happy endings is kept alive. The question we must ask, however, is whether it is a false hope. Do fairy-tale films project false utopias through amusement? Have fairy-tale films contributed to the destruction of community and the deception of the masses? (70).

The hope for happy endings that these films project is not limited to the barbarism that upset the American psyche following World War II. In fact, Snow White and Pinocchio were promising us happy endings before we even entered the war. However, the potency of the genre took off following the war, but I don’t think the war is to blame for this. Instead, I suggest turning to the Cold War. After World War II, America was on a high – we had come out of the war the victors and we were one of the most prosperous nations in the industrialized world. But we were afraid of “communism,” a fear of our individuality being compromised and a fear that still resonates today. We projected this fear onto the Russians, and what followed was an absurd decade of drills, bomb shelters and the illusion that if your school gets hit by a bomb then your school desk will protect you. Out of this fear, we get science fiction films, film noir, suspense thrillers and fairy tale films. The first three deal with confrontation with the unknown, while the last on the list deals with the happier side of the imagination. So it makes sense that Disney would experience a surge of popularity, being one of the few media outlets that gave us fluffy bunnies in a time of constant fear. The Cold War fear led to Vietnam, which was a major blow to the American psyche, from which we sort of recovered from after the fall of the Berlin wall. But as we were leaving our fear of communism behind, we were turning it instead into a fear of “terrorism,” which we believe compromises our identity with oil. This is the mode we’re still deeply swimming in.

Do fairy tale films project false utopias? YES, but these false utopias offer hope. The American Dream is a projection of a false utopia. The country was founded on utopian ideals, conquered by utopian ideals, and industrialized under utopian ideals. We have always attracted immigrants who are searching for utopia. Utopia is at the deep, buried core of American mythos. Since World War II, we have seen an increase in apocalyptic films. Cold War films projecting the fear of our destruction. Then after the fall of the studio system and Woodstock, films reflected a dystopian disillusionment. Films since the 80s have tried to offer hope for a savior hero, but that savior hero has yet to manifest in the culture (another discussion for another day). Throughout all of this, fairy tale films have given us happily ever afters. Sure, there is some saving going on – the princess needs some kind of rescue, or more recently the prince does – but what is being saved is hope for new beginnings. As Doug Brode points out in From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created Counterculture, Disney films don’t have happy endings. They don’t end. They offer, instead, new beginnings. One that takes place off screen. “And they lived happily ever after” is very different than “The End.”

Have fairy tale films contributed to the destruction of the community? I think asking this question is blowing everything out of proportion. Many factors contribute to the destruction of the community. If anything, fairy tale films reinforce community. Walt Disney said somewhere that his goal was always the family, which is the core of any community.

Have they contributed to the deception of the masses? Again, I think this is blowing everything out of proportion. Sure, they project false utopias, but they speak to the mythic imagination, not to the reality of our lives. If the masses are deceived, it’s a failing of the education system and community network. America does have a propaganda machine, but it does not operate the same way as other propaganda machines have, fully pulling the mask over our eyes. This country benefits from the fact that we allow both sides of the conversation to happen, but that doesn’t mean we’re listening. That’s not Disney’s fault. If anything, Disney films are more subversive than we realize.


The Power of Myth: The Hero’s Adventure

I constantly find myself revisiting this episode in the Power of Myth series. It’s one of the best interviews between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, probably because it plays into Campbell’s expertise much better than the other ones. Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen it so many times, it just seems this way because it is so familiar to me. So a bunch of us gather in the living room to view and discuss this chapter of PoM. This is essentially part 2 of the Mythopoetic Workshop from last month. The points in italics are from the show.

The hero evolves as the culture evolves. I think this is a forgotten point. Heroes of today are not the same as heroes of 100, 1000, 10000 years ago. Our needs are different. Notice that even the most successful hero remakes (ex: Marvel Heroes, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Star Wars, etc.) update the stories for the current era, and less successful hero remakes (ex: Troy), don’t. This is one of the points I find myself making over and over again these days: Cultural context is important. If you understand the culture, you can understand the heroes. For example, heroes today fight against something that is a little more difficult to identify. This is a result of a culture that is constantly battling against an ideology. We don’t have a clear-cut example of who our enemy is, who or what we should project our collective shadow on to, what actually constitutes as “evil.” Oh sure, we try to give a face to this “evil,” but then we make so many exceptions to the rule, that it is near impossible to keep up with who this silent enemy is. “Terrorism” has no single face behind it. “Recession” neither. The end result is name calling and backstabbing, meanwhile Hollywood and the literary world churns out some potent heroes who are constantly fighting this unknown shadow. It’s no accident that Sauron has no body, that Vader has no human face, or that Voldemort has no body (and the one he does wind up having is a magical homunculus body, not a real one).

Outer space as a whole new realm for the imagination to open into. I agree with this. The birth of true science fiction coincides with the modern era. However, along with the birth of true science fiction comes the idea of the fairy-myth. I don’t recall if I’ve written about this on the blog yet, but this is a term I coined when I was writing my MA thesis to describe stories that are mythic in magnitude, but content-wise more resemble the literary fairy tale, borrowing from Tolkien’s definition of a fairy-story. If outer space is the void, just waiting for our projections, then the fairy land is the realm of the inner imagination. Both story modes work in conjunction to address the complex nature of the modern Western inner life. One mode appeals to some more than the other, and within each mode is a ton of material. Speaking of this complexity, it’s also interesting to note that many of the more potent modern myths come in multiple volumes.

The world is a wasteland and the only way to bring life into it is to bring life into yourself. I agree with this, but only to an extent. While I do think that there is some truth to this – happy people are less likely to want to blow up other people – I do think there that there does need to be some extraverted work with the collective. When a bunch of people get together, no matter how centered they are, the possibility exists that they will fall into group think, for good or for bad. Working in a group of people takes effort, and this effort is just as important as the individual effort. Now, the part about the world being a wasteland. Campbell points out that humans have become the voice of the earth. This gives us the added responsibility of tending to her needs. See the point about the planet below.

You can tell what informs a society by the tallest building in a town. This is one of my favorite points in the entire hour. In a medieval town, the cathedral is, by law, the tallest structure in the entire town. In an Enlightenment town, it’s the political building (capitol, city hall, etc.). Though in some Enlightenment towns, the tallest structure is the bell tower from the university. In the modern world, it’s the skyscrapers, filled with offices and dwellings. So as a civilization we’ve gone from being informed by the church, to politics/reason, to corporations, to the individual at his/her computer. With each progressive era, those buildings get taller and taller, as though to negate any questions of their authority. Indeed, in Austin, Texas, where I spend a lot of my time, this can be seen in the downtown: The oldest building was at first the state capitol building (Austin is a post-Enlightenment city). Then the next tallest is the UT bell tower, which is often lit up to let the city know whether or not the Longhorns won a game. This was later trumped by the Frost Bank building. But now the tallest building is a high-rise loft building. From politics, to education (football?), to corporate finance, to individuals at their computers.

You can’t predict what a myth is going to be. True. Case in point: no one actually expected Star Wars or Harry Potter to be as successful as they are, but the reason for their success is that they gripped a whole bunch of people in the mythic moment. They speak to that unconscious level that myths speak to. The flip side to this point is that you can’t predict what a myth is going to be by recycling the same old formula. I think this is part of why Marvel heroes, Michael Bay movies, and sequels aren’t more successful. A good myth should speak to the psyche in a fresh way, giving new face to the old archetypes (if not creating new archetypes altogether, but this is a point that some in the Jungosphere might argue).

The only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is going to be the planet and everybody on it. —“Until that gets going, you don’t have anything.”  This one single statement is usually taken to mean “let’s be green!” What I think Campbell is trying to push at is recognizing the global nature of the world we are currently living in, and working together collectively to transcend national boundaries and concentrate on humanity as a whole organism, rather than on our own cultural egos. Nations are arbitrary, and he highlights this point by looking at a picture of earth taken from the moon (I think). From space, there are no national boundaries. Physically and psychologically, we are essentially the same. The new mythology should bring us together. And I suspect that somewhere someone recognizes this, and finds their shadow triggered by it, which is why the liberal arts and humanities are currently suffering from budget cuts. These subjects emphasize our similarities rather than differences.

Welcome to Mythic Thinking Version 3.1.bluuuurrrrgh

Since I launched Mythic Thinking, I’ve had to rethink my hosting on three separate occasions. The first time, I tried doing a Website Tonight account on GoDaddy, but that was just too difficult. While I appreciate all of the attempts by “geeks” who made web development easier for us Muggles, I struggle with the lack of intuitiveness many of these programs provide. I’m an intuitive person, and dealing with the frustrations of having a website isn’t something I want to deal with. I’d started dabbling with WordPress.

So that lead to version 2. A coworker offered to host my website and set me up with WordPress.org, free hosting, and all was hunky dory. Until my website got blocked–flagged for distributing malware. According to Google’s Webmaster tools, my website was clean, but the hosting server was not. This lead to another move, some more autonomy… and, a loss of content. I’ve been running Mythic Thinking for something like 3 years, so the loss of content came as a big, fat blow to my ego.

So, now, welcome to version 3. I found some of the past year’s posts on another computer, saved separately from all of this programming mumbo-jumbo, which lead me to the grand decision of starting Mythic Thinking from scratch, and slowly uploading these old posts. This is a good thing, I’ve decided. I’ve come to terms with it, I think.

For those who met me during the lifespan of Version 2, or even that one person who has followed me since Version 1, you are already familiar with my current dissertation project about Disneyland and American mythology. This will remain the core of Mythic Thinking until the day I defend and I can start expanding my horizons.

That said, I can’t help but suspect that all of the woes and pains I’ve suffered during the past week is divine payback for making the decision to cut Hermes, god of technology and other things, from my dissertation. For that matter, I’ve decided to cut all of the gods from my dissertation. Not because the gods aren’t cool enough for my dissertation, but because I want to divorce myself from archetypal psychology right now. One of the posts lost in the blogosphere is my one on James Hillman andSurfing LA in which I describe why I disagree with archetypal psychology. I guess I’ll have to rewrite something about that someday.

So pardon the dust. I’m not going to rush through recreating this website. Posts are going to come nice and slow. Eventually, I’ll get everything back up and running. I’d say that I’ll get it done when I get around to it, but since I do have a Round TUIT on my desk, that excuse doesn’t really work.

More Potter? Maybe I’ll finally write my book…

Summer 2007 was a really fun summer. I attended a Potter Con, stood in the Austin heat at Book People for the midnight book release, and was getting ready to start my new life as a Pacifica student. The previous fall, I had just completed my Master’s Thesis, Searching for the Golden Snitch, addressing some then-unformulated theories about the relationship between literature and American myth, which I was energized to edit for publication.

And then 2 very goal shattering things happened:

1. I became a college professor in the fall of 2008. That move from perpetual student into semi-student/semi-teacher complicated my relationship to the Potter mythos. I could identify with Potter as a student, but I had a more difficult time identifying with Potter as a teacher. I have not fully explored yet which Potter teacher I identify with best, because most of the strongest teachers possess some trait I haven’t claimed yet for myself. This will be something to consider later. Anyway, after this awakening, I stopped writing Potter papers at Pacifica. The ones I have written, I’m holding on to for the sake of “The Scottish Potter Book.”

2. I went to Pacifica. You’d think this would be a good thing, right? It’s the “Harvard” of Mythological Studies. My previous myth degree was a self-guided degree in the Humanities, so I lacked a strong faculty to guide me through the material. As a result, I read just about everything I found relevant by Joseph Campbell (which was a lot in retrospect), but only a little bit by C.G. Jung. I’d read Jung sure. I relate to his work because I intuited much of what he claims long before I knew who he was. But at Pacifica, I learned more about Jung and became a bit disillusioned with Campbell. OK, that’s a lie. I became disillusioned with the whole “Hero’s Journey” bit, which I have written about previously.

So The Scottish Potter Book was put aside. I did have a friend read it, and I have comments and feedback that will help me write said book, but I need a new organizational structure and thesis. Dissertation first, Potter later.

What does Pottermore.com have to do with anything? This is probably the best announcement I’ve heard since finding out the release date for the Harry Potter, years 5-7 Lego video game. With the completion of the final book, there was a big bruhaha that resulted in a teaser announcement by J.K. Rowling code named “The Scottish Book”. Could this website finally fill in some blanks concerning backstory? Could this website be The Scottish Book? Considering the magnitude of the idea, Rowling would either need to publish a 20 volume Hogwarts: A History, or she could write a website right? Websites can be constantly updated and revised. This is a good thing, Rose.

And perhaps this is the kindling I need to finally get off my duff and finish the Scottish Potter Book.

My original dissertation plan was to write about Potter, but I’m very glad I chose Disney instead. Disney is a much smarter choice when it comes down to exploring American myth, for obvious reasons (i.e., it’s American). Getting past the American part, Potter is myth, which is why it became the world wide phenomenon it did, and this is why books need to continue exploring the topic. That’s what academics do. To paraphrase Walt Disney, the artist just makes the work, then the academics come in and tell the artist what it means.

The Importance of Cultural Context

After my last inspired post, I went semi-consciously offline for awhile – literally and figuratively. I’ve spent the last couple weeks delving into the core research for three dissertation chapters, and have come to the conclusion that too much reading is not conducive to either writing or blogging. But every now and then a question pops up that I feel a need to address, in large part because it ties in so nicely with my dissertation. That said, I’m really looking forward to being able to someday not blog about my dissertation…

Today’s thought was inspired by a post over at Mythic Musings. The author posed the relevant question, Is mythology dangerous? This particular question was raised in response to the author’s exploration of the Pandora and Eve myths. Both of these stories suggest that women are to blame for the hardships of the world, and suggestions have been made by many mythologists that myths such as these are used as tools of oppression, leading to the argument that mythology shouldn’t be taken literally. A very, very valid point.

But I think there’s more to the argument than that. The mythological studies scholarship holds that myth is inspired by something greater than humans. Indeed, the early myth-makers were the great poets, seers, priests, etc., of a particular society. Yet, the scholarship does not hold that modern myth-makers are likewise inspired; rather, they command a really good use of their myth tools (language, music, images, etc.). This disconnect is a matter of perception. Once upon a time, the priests and poets (etc.) were revered by their people as being the voice of the deity. However, in this new-fangled structure of civilization, we’ve separated the deity from the everyday and placed a lot of responsibility upon the individual for their talents. Yet the end result is the same.

It all boils down to cultural context. What I mean by this is that mythologists should take culture into account. On one level, there is the culture that gave birth to the myth. For example, with Eve and Pandora, both emerged from early civilizations that saw women as both inferior and potentially as a danger to men. Myths such as these furthered the cultural mores. And there is the other level: modern mythologists are reading these old myths from their own cultural framework. Thus, it is very easy in our pro-feminist western world to read the myths of Eve and Pandora as “repressive.” As a woman, sure, I don’t appreciate being blamed for all of the ills in the world. But I hesitate to call ancient Greece and the ancient Hebrew world “repressive” in the Feminist sense. Different, definitely.

Myths are some of the best artifacts of a culture we have, because they give us a view into the psychology of the culture. We can glean more from myths and legends than we can, in many cases, from material remains.

The real danger comes when myths are taken out of their context and used to control. For example, ancient Greek myths are ancient Greek myths. They are not modern American (or whatever your home culture is) myths, and should not be used in the same way (and herein, for anyone paying attention, lies my distaste for the works of James Hillman). This is when mythology turns into propaganda, and this is when readers of myth get disillusioned and discouraged (as is happening in America today), or the cultural shadow threatens to destroy a society (as happened in Nazi Germany).

In my own research, also known as “the Scottish Paper on Disneyland,” I’ve had to reconcile the fact that Disneyland is a Cold War era myth, and this has completely reshaped my reading of the lands. It is nonetheless American, and it has been constantly updated such that the Cold War myths are slowly being altered to the new era or are being phased out (and I’m leaving California Adventure out of this consideration). The values that are expressed through Cold War myths are still relevant today, which is why Disneyland is still a potent myth-motif for today’s world; though, the love and praise for America that Walt Disney bled into Disneyland has become less important, which – I will say it honestly – is a damn shame.

Someday, post-doc, I’d love to travel to Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai to compare their Disneylands. I have a suspicion that the removal of the American mythos from the park compromises the potency of the experience. Eventually (i.e., as a graduation present), I’ll make it to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, but knowing that this was designed as Disneyland, part deux, I suspect that I’ll find the richness of the myth alive and well in Florida. After all, Ridley Pearson’s Kingdom Keepers series is based in Disney World, not Disneyland.

Some Thoughts about Modern Mythology

A question was posed over at mythicmusings.com that came to me via Twitter: Are we missing a modern mythology? My initial answer, which should come as no surprise to anyone who either knows me or has been reading this blog for awhile, is an emphatic NO! that is quickly followed with a series of examples (Disney, Harry Potter, Buffy, etc.). Gut reactions aside, this is a question worth considering a bit further.

Reading Joseph Campbell and the other modernist mythologists, it’s easy to conclude that myth in the modern world is dead. Campbell et al mourn for a romanticized era “long ago” when myth was a daily fixture and people ran with the gods. In the middle of Campbell’s research, though, is a very telling phrase: “What is mythology? Other people’s religion. What is religion? A misunderstanding of other people’s mythology.” Many times I have read this phrase, and many times I have underlined it, but I’ve never really mulled this one over properly. The first error of this statement is to assume that mythology is *only* other people’s religion, but it wasn’t very fashionable until recently to reflect inward and look at one’s own culture, which leads us to the second half of the phrase: to consider religion as simply a misunderstanding of other people’s mythology suggests a systematizing of a mythos that essentially takes the magic out of the gods. Campbell is highly critical of Christianity, and this particular phrase, though general, seems to be coming from his own Catholic wounding, which is a dangerous place to write from without some kind of acknowledgement.

So let’s ponder this further. Campbell goes on to give us four functions of mythology: cosmogonic (creation myth), religious (belief system), social/cultural (behavior system), and psychological (individual context). He tells us that true myths necessarily have all four components. But where this idea falls apart is when it comes to the American mythos. America was founded on Enlightenment ideals (the same ideals Campbell blames for the death of myth) of individuality, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideals have shaken the Western world for the last 200+ years, but especially so in the aftermath of World War II, a war that brought the world together in a way human history has never known and from which America emerged a victor. And of course, who writes the history and myths of a given “empire?” Always the one who wins the war. So these fundamentally American Enlightenment ideals have shaped the modern world, for better or for worse. American myth in the context of Campbell’s four functions looks like this: 1. Cosmogonic = the founding of the country by pilgrims and colonialists, the Revolution, and Manifest Destiny/Westward expansion; 2. Religious = the idea of the nation as unifying factor, a concept that gives a god-like identity to this pervasive unifying factor; 3. Social/Cultural = the Bill of Rights and the boundaries of our individuality; 4. Psychological = the Missionary’s Call to tame the West and our entitlement to our inalienable rights. The mythology is already built into the culture, but to fully grasp it, we have to redefine what we consider “god.”

Turning to another aspect of modern mythology – and one of my favorite topics – popular culture. In considering ancient mythological systems, I’ve often taken for granted that the gods were a daily fixture, just as Campbell suggests. One factor that tends to be overlooked, however, is that there was no separation between church and state in these systems. What we call their religious stories could just as likely have been their popular culture at the time, because the truly religious aspects were known only to the priests (which would not have been told to the Roman historians during the spread of the empire). Look at Greece as an excellent example (and since Greece is the foundation for Western civilization today, it’s the essential example). In Greece, there were festivals that included public displays of myth, notably the Dionysia, during which people would gather at the theater, worship Dionysos and watch a lot of plays. These plays, Aristotle notes, were meant to bring the Greek community together, to build communitas and to move us toward a communial catharsis. Plays to the ancient Greeks were like going to the movies today. Similarly, the poet Homer would have told his story on a smaller scale, sitting on the street corner and reciting to whomever would listen. Homer was like watching television. Then there were the initiation cults, and there are many modern parallels to those, from Boy Scouts to Freemasons, to college fraternities/sororities, to fan clubs. And it is from the plays, the poems of Homer and some of the leaked stories from the initiation cults that we have any idea what Greek mythology looked like. So the long-winded answer to the question about modern myth is to look at the movies, television, social organizations, and other literary media to find modern myths.

Our notion of God has changed, because we are a world in which there is now separation between church and state. In the Western World, we don’t believe that good government should be run by the deity, because we make a clear distinction between god as our spiritual leader versus the very-human leader who runs a country. Indeed, Western history is riddled with examples of how a king who rules with Divine Right can pose a major problem for a kingdom and some examples of those that succeed. Note that the successful god-kings were the ones whose country was completely isolated from the rest of the world, namely Egypt. The more contact Egypt had with the Greco-Roman world, the harder it was to maintain its Divine Right.

So then, what is mythology? Campbell gives us a good starter definition and some tools to work with. I use the working definition that mythology is comprised of the stories that shape the human experience with distinct flavorings of culture and time. To understand one’s mythology is to understand one’s experience in the cosmos, and vise versa.

The difficulty with the current state of the world is that there is not and cannot be a single unifying cultural mythos. Even the imposition of the American Enlightenment ideals is a dangerous game. Campbell had the forethought to recognize this when he told us that it was time to work on the myth of the planet. The planet is made up of diverse individuals, each of whom operate under their own mythological system. The one thing we do share in common is the planet and the limited resources she has to offer. When Campbell tells us to write the stories for the next generation, I believe he is wanting us to write the stories that encourage the next generations to work together to help the planet. This particular mythology, unfortunately, is a direct counter to the apocalyptic mythologies that the Western world has adhered to for so long.