Modern Minds and Power of Myth

NEW YORK – International bestselling author Daniel Mendelsohn and Simon Critchely, professor of philosophy at The New School and host of the popular NY Times blog “The Stone” presented “On Truth (and Lies) in Myth at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on March 6.

The conversation about the roots of ancient mythology and its meaning in the modern world – Mendelsohn said “the line separating modernity and antiquity is not as hard as we imagine” – was held in conjunction with the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Handel’s Semele.

The event was co-presented by BAM and the Onassis Cultural Center as part of the Hellenic Humanities Program at BAM. Violaine Huisman, BAM’s Director of Humanities welcomed the guests and introduced Mendelsohn, the featured speaker, and Critchely, the moderator of the ongoing series of talks.

It was interesting to learn that scholars debate over the degree to which the ancients saw their religious stories as myths. A strong reason for believing they were taken lightly, even by non-intellectuals, is the co-existence of many versions of the same story.

“Greek myth is much more fluid and plastic than our religious stories,” Mendelsohn noted. Euripides’ Jocasta does not kill herself and his Helen was innocent of the blood of the Trojan war.

That point opened the door to a fascinating discussion about what makes some versions more compelling than others.

Myth’s primitive function seems to be that of explaining the universe, but they are also vehicles for deep truths about human nature, explaining why societies retain myths after they are called into question as facts.

Mendelsohn also noted that “Much of Greek myth is obsessed with the limits of knowledge…built into myth is awareness of its own limitations,” an issue that later becomes important in philosophy.

Mendelsohn said we are still “endlessly creating myths.” It seems some knowledge or lessons about life must still be conveyed in mythic form.

Perhaps so that they can be remembered and sink in more deeply than what is learned in classrooms.

There was intriguing talk about the role of celebrities in society, and the family keeps coming up as a context, which was illustrated by the story of Oedipus – and the Kennedies.

“We still feel a need to profile a limited number of families and we keep telling stories about them when their lives seem to enact the basic problems of life – what we say about the Kennedies is completely pre-modern,” Mendelsohn said.

For example, that fate is not kind to people who are too successful or beautiful.

The opera much of the audience was about to attend reflects another common theme: the danger of wanting things too much.

Semele is the mortal mother of Dionysus by Zeus, whom Mendelsohn noted had a zest for extracurricular activities that did not involve his wife, Hera.

Some versions have Hera befriending and goading Semele to demand that Zeus reveal himself in all his divine power – which led to her incineration.

Semele is also said to have longed for immortality, but many characters are also destructive by trying to squeeze as much as possible out of life, or their lovers.

That myth is the form of tragedy – which is associated with Semele’s son Dionysus – arose at a particular time and place, is a fact that was explored at BAM.

“For 100 years in the most important city in the world the primary literary acidity was the retelling” of the societies myths – it did not believe them literally but is kept revisiting them.” Why?

Mendelsohn said the received mythology was problematic for the new Athenian democracy, where everyone is supposed to have equal rights and duties. “That the whole mythic system is about aristocrats,” was a problem, he said. “What do you do about characters like Achilles…who is so selfish and not at all group oriented,” as a democracies require?

“Tragedy is a product of the democratic state,” Mendelsohn concluded, “a place to question and adapt old myths to the new democratic environment,” but where there is still a basic human need to admire greatness.

Some citizens become generals and presidents and must rise to the occasion.

For all their educative value – the concept of catharsis was also addressed – tragedies seem to also be a source of sadistic pleasure.

There is a touch of “better that it should happen to him than to me,” Critchley said, and he touched on Freud. Mendelsohn persisted in his sociological approach, asking “why does society keep staging the suicides off women?”

It is the patriarchy putting pushy women in their place he suggested.

There is another fascinating element in the staging of myths. Even when people know the ending, they seem to hope that this time everything will turn out right, that they finally make the right decision.