Muckers, Muckrakers and Mythmakers

Tom Wolfe wrote — in the appendix to his classic piece “The New Journalism,” which for now you can find here — that myth couldn’t have been “further from the minds of the realists who established the novel as the reigning genre over a hundred years ago. As a matter of fact, they were turning their backs, with a kind of mucker’s euphoria, on the idea of myth and fable.”

The phrase “mucker’s euphoria” is characteristic — Wolfe sees mythmakers as afraid to get mucky. But the great novelists are muckers, muckrakers, and mythmakers. Great Expectations, for example, although rich in contemporary detail, is simultaneously a fairy-tale. Why does Miss Havisham never take off her wedding-dress? Not because this is sociologically plausible. Rather, she encodes mythologically the way women tend to get hella pissed if you don’t show up to the wedding, with repercussions extending unto the next generation. Miss Havisham has things to tell us about Victorian social mores, but the essence of her story could easily be transplanted to any other society at any other time. Magwitch, likewise, is both an exposé of the practice of transportation to the colonies and that character from a fairy-tale who, if you do him a good deed early on, will later repay you with interest.

The journalistic immediacy of these characters helps them to hold our attention in the first place — but it’s their mythological resonance that makes them stick in our memories.

In the early 1980s, semiotician Thomas Sebeok composed a report for the US Office of Nuclear Waste Management titled “Communication Measures To Bridge Ten Millennia.” An excerpt appears on the Long Now Blog. Seeking a way to prevent future civilizations from entering geographic areas contaminated by our nuclear waste, Sebeok proposed establishing an “atomic priesthood” of physicists, anthropologists, semioticians to disseminate “folkloristic devices.” As Umberto Eco comments in The Search for the Perfect Language, “It is curious to see that, having been presented with a choice of various types of universal language, the choice finally fell on a ‘narrative’ solution, thus reproposing what really did happen millennia ago. Egyptian has disappeared, as well as any other perfect and holy primordial language, and what remains of all this is only myths, tales without a code, or whose code has long been lost. Yet they are still capable of keeping us in a state of vigil in our desperate effort at decipherment.”
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