Fear of Rabid Dogs

Margaret Anne Doody

  • Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time by Marina Warner
    Vintage, 104 pp, £4.99, April 1994, ISBN 0 09 943361 3

In his last days, the exiled and ageing Aristotle wrote to a friend: ‘The lonelier and the more isolated I am, the more I have come to love myths.’ We may puzzle over what Aristotle meant. Did he love folk-tales, religious stories or high-minded allegories? The Greek word mythos means (centrally) ‘story’ but all stories have or acquire meanings, and we tell ourselves stories all the time. A culture is the stories that it tells itself. In Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time, the Reith Lectures of 1994, Marina Warner takes up some of our stories and the ways in which we manage them. Her use of the word ‘myth’ is deliberately all-encompassing, taking in the varieties of meaning now attached to the word; and her ‘myths’ include, but are not limited to, the famous old Greek stories that have so vexed our lives. She deals with narrated stories (e.g. the Odyssey) as well as with dramatic forms (the Oresteia, Jurassic Park), narrative images, folk beliefs, popular canards – and lies.

Since the 19th century, myth has had both a high and a low status. At its high level, it is considered admirable or consoling or important. Yet at the same time, to be able to name something as a myth serves as a magical de-mystification, robbing the story or image of its centrality or transcendence. This is a favourite Victorian rationalist device – as in ‘Christianity is a beautiful myth.’ At the high level, at least, myth is considered aesthetically and socially creative, if not strictly necessary. At its ‘low’ level, ‘myth’ is a measure of untruth. ‘Myth’ often means a bad explanation of phenomena – even a dead, a putrid explanation.

As in her book on the Virgin Mary, Alone of All her Sex (1976), Marina Warner is a clearheaded but subtle mythographer, though she is sometimes a bit sweeping in her generalisations. She asserts, for instance, that ancient literary works, such as the epics and tragic poems, did not influence people’s behaviour in the way that films and video games do. That may be partly true, but it is not the whole truth. For one thing, Homeric characters (among others) figured in the ‘media’ – in recitations, dramas, pictures, mosaics, graphics on pottery. And they did not serve only as ‘tragic warnings’. For the use of a character as a model, it would be hard to beat Alexander’s deliberate and well-documented modelling of himself on Achilles. For Alexander, the epic was sufficient to ‘trigger desire and excite identification’ in the manner Warner attributes only to modern advertising. The danger here is of mythologising an absolute division between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, a barrier Warner elsewhere tries to break through.

Warner is attracted to myth and reacts against it, for she is always conscious of the social uses to which myth is put. A myth circulated in a culture, Warner urgently states, is anything but politically innocent. There is an innate division within Warner’s writing, for she partly loves myth and the mythic artists who are capable of getting our attention, filling our minds with material worth pondering – including artists as diverse as Steven Spielberg and Derek Walcott. Yet at the same time she is distressed by some of the controlling notions or clichés of our time – ‘myths’ in the lowest sense, dangerous rotten explanations. The six lectures do not allow her the scope to work out some of her own contradictions, or to delve into the varieties of types of myth she looks at. After all, the Oresteia is a myth in a very different sense from the cliché ‘boys will be boys’ (the title of her second lecture), which is no story, and has little in the way of image, but attaches itself as a belief or pseudo-belief to a variety of images in particular contexts. Warner is very shrewd at analysing both narrative and context. The most pernicious and least complex versions of myths, she evidently believes, are likely to be pushed at a public (as in video games) by commercial interests that have more than immediate financial gain at stake. The deployment of myth can serve to mould a public impervious to argument, and inoculated against discussion and dissent.

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