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.”
3 thoughts on “Muckers, Muckrakers and Mythmakers”
Ken Kesey said that "the need for mystery is greater than the need for answers." But that could be going too far in the opposite direction from Wolfe… would you settle for, the need for mystery is as great as the need for answers?
Louis Auchincloss, in The Style's The Man, discussed why The Scarlet Letter, Wuthering Heights, and The Great Gatsby are “perfect novels.” He wrote that “the creators of such protagonists cannot rely on their readers' recognition or identification. They are dealing almost with myths.” Auchincloss went on to speculate that part of what makes mythical characters so intense to read about may be their loneliness…
Perhaps the lack of a mythic dimension is the most serious limitation of Tom Wolfe's heroes. Sherman McCoy and Charlie Croker are not the heroes of folklore but rather the heroes of opinion-editorials. Nobody could take them for gods, as G.K. Chesterton compared Mr. Pickwick and his friends to gods.
Nabokov says somewhere that the great novels of the realist tradition are actually great fairy tales.
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