Towards a New Mythology

When the sun has set over Disneyland, Anaheim, California, and the lights are turned down, one can see the expectation for something about to happen on the face of every person looking at Sleeping Beauty’s castle as the nightly, seasonal fireworks begin. The day has been long. Everyone is tired, children and adults alike. Many are grumpy because of the various annoyances and complications that are involved in securing the best possible vantage point for watching the show. Music plays, gunpowder explodes, and people are quickly caught in the spectacle of the twenty-minute show. Near the end, an old, yet somehow familiar, voice welcomes us, reminding us that Disneyland belongs to us and that this is where dreams and memories come alive.[1] Many children have never seen the old television shows and may not recognize the voice as belonging to Walt Disney, but they nonetheless recognize the shift in awe and respect when he speaks. It is as though God is talking, and those bursts of colors are divine, angelic figures. By the end of the show, the mythic experience that Disneyland has to offer is punctuated, secured, and cemented on the memory.

For the American, raised in a century founded upon the rugged individualism of pilgrims, Disneyland is one of the most genuine of mythic spaces. When we imported our myths from Europe, our founding parents emphasized the simplicity of life, the need for hard work, rooting ritual to the family living room. Local church congregations served more as a place for social gathering. The notion of the church as the ritualistic place was left in Europe. As the country grew, local myths and spaces cropped up, but not a single, unifying locale, brought together all things American until Disneyland.

For the younger generations of the modern USA, many of whom are now having their own children, this is the mythos we[2] have to work with. We do not question the validity of “God” or question the archetype, but, rather, question where the ecstatic feeling can be found. For some of us, that feeling is the most potent in popular culture, which is often discounted as “profane” art; however, these images are more potent and resonate more loudly to our imaginations in large part because they are the most familiar images of our childhoods. With everything else being constantly debunked, these are the only images that remain constant, which offers security, and a good place for projection the notion of religiosity, bring with it the God archetype.

In order to have a new mythology, we must first have a poet to express it. By the guidelines laid out by Roberts Avens in his book, The New Gnosis: Heidegger, Hillman and Angels, as inspired by Heidegger and Hillman, Walt Disney is such a poet: “A poet, in his capacity of the mediator (messenger) between sky and earth, between Gods and men, is continually bringing things into the open, showing them in their imaginal essence” (55). Further, “images acquire the characteristic of autonomy, self-referentiality, and simultaneity only when they are watched in a detached way…” (Avens 98). The imaginal space constructed by Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers is one full of images of fantasy constructed in an unnatural way. The unnaturalness detaches the images from the everyday experience while simultaneously drawing the Guests’ attentions to them, bringing them into the open, or conscious realm. These images are those of the American cultural unconscious that have become deeply rooted, in part, because of Disney’s films: images of beloved fairy tales, idealized images of the frontier or small town USA, or romanticized images of the future. Disneyland allows us to experience all of those images. When coupled with the thrill aspect of some of the rides, it brings about catharsis, and the anxieties and tensions of a world confused about its own mythologies are released by the drops and twists of roller coasters or in the story rides that insist that there is a better tomorrow on its way.

One counterpoint to the Disney qua new mythos assertion is stated by Avens: “We prefer to busy ourselves in asserting our identity against the world without realizing that this self-assertion, this search for identity, is nothing more glorious than a futile attempt to remain the same from moment to moment…” (19). Disneyland seems to control every aspect of the experience, so our poesis is limited to how we interact in this controlled environment. In truth, there is evidence all over the park where people attempt to assert their identity. One example of such can be seen in the queue for the Indiana Jones attraction. The first half of the queue is situated outside the attraction entrance, which is decorated to look like the jungle surrounding a ruined temple. All along this stretch of the queue, people have carved various messages, mostly their initials, into the trunks of the bamboo trees growing there. For some of these trees, this has resulted in entire patches of missing bark. Clearly, people are attempted to assert their identity and define their independence on the controlled aspect of the environment. Avens suggests that this is done only to remind ourselves that we are the same form moment to moment – but how can we actually be the same in light of a mythic experience?

In a similar counterpoint, Avens describes how archetypal psychology “supplements this insight [that an image is not what one sees but the way in which one sees] by using the criterion of response: metaphorical and imaginative response to images is better than fanciful or literal because the former deepens and complicates the image instead of dissipating or eventually freezing it into an object that can be manipulated by ratio” (25). Disney and Disneyland have literalized images, and that cannot be denied. When hearing a fairy tale, many imagine the story using the same visualization as the Disney film, and are often surprised to find that the stories are not the same. How can literalized images how any mythic power? This generation is one raised on static, literalized images, and those are the ones transmitting the myths. The imagination is discouraged in all educational sectors from running free on the basis that an imaginative person cannot find a well-paying job. All that is made available are the images someone else thought up, but each person is allowed to do with those images – especially through the toy tie-ins – as he or she desires, even if that means rewriting the story. However, this play is restricted to playtime. Avens reminds us that “the mystery of play is akin to that highest and most absorbing play of which Heraclitus speaks, the play of aion, i.e., of the world as the dispensation of Being” (73). The need for Play emerges from a necessity, which forms an “essential component of the imaginal psyche itself” (Avens 79). This necessity, inherent in the images we play with, is tied to their essential nature. They emerge to fill an archetypal void created by suppressing play. But with enough suppression, literalized images are necessary to remind us how to play and dream.

It is an error of archetypal psychology to suggest that the only way to restore this stagnation is to return to old images in order to unlock the Truth of the Divine Being or Dasein.

Humans are unable to fully unlock this divinity, and it can only be understood through human images, or archetypes that point humanity in that direction. There are no rules as to how the archetypes manifest; Hillman suggests that the most potent archetypes in the West are those shaped by the Greek gods and goddesses. But, just like the Christian system both Hillman and Heidegger write against, this is outmoded and out of date. The archetypes need new faces in order to breathe new life – relying on the same faces that are 3000 years old is what lead us to the existential crisis of the twentieth century in the first place, and we would not be discussing the image of the archetypal God if the archetypes still had relevance.

Mickey Mouse and friends do not possess religiosity in the traditional sense, but they nonetheless fulfill the need for some sort of figure to be in their place. Archaeologists could dig up artifacts from this culture, thousands of years from now after our documents and records are long gone, and will encounter toys and figurines of Mickey Mouse, or even Barbie or Star Wars toys, and what will they think? The only logical conclusion is that there are objects of divinity and they were probably worshipped as some kind of god. It is for this reason that it is important to embrace new mythologies of all categories, since they are the ones that will be remembered.

Works cited

  • Avens, Roberts. The New Gnosis: Heidegger, Hillman, and Angels. Putnam: Spring Publications, 2003. Print.

[1] This refers to a recording played during the fireworks soundtrack of Walt Disney’s dedication of Disneyland in 1955: “To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land. … Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”

[2] I am being purposefully inclusive.

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