Myth and the 'Now' Part Twelve: Approaching Ordinariness


From the darkness come two poles, light and dark; between those poles archetypes form, moving into orbit around one pole or the other. In the gaps between, strange images (birds whose eggshells form the world, dew droplets combining to make reality, and so on) and non-sequiturs (from an ice-giant’s armpit comes the first man and woman, for example) roam unbridled. This is the zone of the Myth.

As the light grows stronger, so the images become clarified: in the zone of Romance or Legend, superhuman figures come into conflict, quests and tasks are set, there are clear beginnings and endings. But the archetypes are the same. And, as Romance turns into the High Mimetic, the zone where human figures become more vulnerable and the world grows more solid, and grisly deeds and death contrast with wisdom and sanity in ways which we can almost share, we can see the same archetypes. The narrative is further defined, paralleling history itself, as in Shakespeare’s great Tragedies and Histories - but the bones of Myth show through.

Similarly, as children we participate in a world without an awareness of law or sequences or even cause and effect - it is we who emerge from the darkness into a reality in which everything is non-sequitur at first. Gradually, things begin to make sense: time and order, colour and motion take the place of primal polarities. The towering, partly-archetypal figures of our parents and guardians slowly dwindle into vulnerable human figures. We learn to split apart our souls into thinking compartments, some for rationalities, others for imaginings; whereas at first the universe is awash with emotion, we are taught as time goes on that feelings belong largely inside ourselves. We cease to participate in the world in the same way. But the bones of participation show through.

Myths mutate into Legends, which transform into embellished stories of real kings and leaders; our awareness mutates into early childhood and then into the garnished but harder world of later childhood.

Then comes the zone of what Frye called the Low Mimetic, in which life is presented as more prosaic. The lumbering god-like beings of Myth have diminished through the superhuman heroes of Legend and the grand leaders of Tragedy and History and become characters whom we might just meet in the street - except that they aren’t, quite. The fiction of the Low Mimetic contains stories which do not stretch the bounds of credibility quite as far as Shakespeare’s plays or the legends of yesteryear, but they are not yet documentary accounts: events are still designed; incidents and outcomes purposeful and controlled. An author is still present; characters are not 'real', they are crafted; a plotline exists, even when it is deftly disguised as a series of random occurrences.

Comparably, as childhood wanes into adolescence, we are still part of a world haunted by order, by a sense that some kind of unity must be around the corner, or a feeling of betrayal and injustice when we find it missing. Adulthood beckons to us with the same sense of ‘conclusion’ as the final part of a novel. The sense of Myth lingers.

It’s tempting to equate the Low Mimetic, that mode of fiction that is supposed to be about ‘ordinary people’ and which developed with the novel with a sense of verisimilitude. ‘Verisimilitude’ means ‘like truth’ and so we think that the 19th century novel and many of its successors are representations of 'the world as we know it'. In these kinds of stories, people meet occurrences which, we imagine, might happen to us as we sit reading the book: accidents, marriages, love affairs, deaths, divorces, and an almost infinite amount of what we might be tempted to term ‘real life events’. But verisimilitude is ‘like truth’ - it isn’t actual truth. It disguises itself in different clothes from its predecessors in the High Mimetic or the Romance or the Myth behind them, but they are clothes nevertheless. What we find in the Low Mimetic is the same polarities, the same archetypes, the same motion towards light or dark, but this time dressed in ‘ordinariness’.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for example, would be classed as a Low Mimetic piece of fiction. In our next instalment, we will see just how much its weight is carried by the skeleton of Myth beneath its surface.

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