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Doris Lessing on storytellers as myth-makers: “Our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world”

By Elke Wetzig (elya) (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

From Doris Lessing’s lecture in acceptance of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature:

We are a jaded lot, we in our threatened world. We are good for irony and even cynicism. Some words and ideas we hardly use, so worn out have they become. But we may want to restore some words that have lost their potency.

We have a treasure-house of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come upon it. A treasure. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be.

We own a legacy of languages, poems, histories, and it is not one that will ever be exhausted. It is there, always.

We have a bequest of stories, tales from the old storytellers, some of whose names we know, but some not. The storytellers go back and back, to a clearing in the forest where a great fire burns, and the old shamans dance and sing, for our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world. And that is where it is held, today.

Ask any modern storyteller and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration, and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, to the great winds that shaped us and our world.

The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us -for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

Complete lecture: “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize

Image by Elke Wetzig (elya) (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Art, creativity, fate, and the end of the world: Revisiting Joseph Campbell

When The Power of Myth, the six-part PBS television series featuring Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Campbell, first broke upon the unsuspecting American public in 1988, it became an instant sensation and Campbell became an instant celebrity (I mean in a pop cultural sense, beyond and in addition to the substantial academic fame he had already achieved for his groundbreaking work in the scholarship of comparative mythology). The series became the most widely viewed program in the history of American public broadcasting, and it uncovered a massive television audience made up mostly of middle-class, educated individuals who were hungry for information and conversation about mythological, philosophical, psychological, religious, and spiritual matters. Ironically, Campbell himself never got to see this, because he died in 1987, shortly after his interviews with Moyers were completed but before the television series was put together.

Campbell’s work has also had a massive impact on popular culture. Star Wars is only the most famous instance of his monomyth of “the hero’s journey” being employed by filmmakers. The same storytelling pattern was also the direct basis for Disney’s Aladdin and The Lion King. The Wachowski brothers channeled it into the Matrix mythos. It influenced the 2007 I Am Legend adaptation and Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. It even shows up in the Rambo franchise; as David Morrell explains in The Successful Novelist, his thoroughly wonderful book about the art, craft, and business of writing, he consciously employed the Campbellian monomyth when charting John Rambo’s character arc and relationship to Sheriff Teasle in First Blood. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 25

We have quite a varied assortment of reading this week, including: an article about a brilliant reclamation of an abandoned Wal-Mart building for a wonderful counter-purpose; an analysis of Burning Man’s sociocultural-mythological function; a report on widespread distrust of the United States around the world; a fascinating interview with a psychologist on the nature and reality of synchronicity; news about the launch, in Poland, of the world’s first magazine devoted entirely to the real-world study and practice of exorcism; an engrossing essay by Jonathan Franzen about solitude, literature, and the inner life in today’s frenetically extraverted culture; a report on a visionary art community and project in Santa Cruz; reflections from poet Robert Creeley on the value of LSD to creativity; and an excerpt from Gary Lachman’s new biography of Madame Blavatsky.
Read the rest of this entry

“Metamorphosis” (SHORT FILM)

This post will launch our Cinema Purgatorio feature, wherein each Wednesday we’ll share one or more finds from the Internet’s rich trove of cinematic fascination. Whatever else may be true of the current state of our digital media-driven way of life — which flirts in so many ways with dystopian disaster — it’s a golden age of creativity for short films and visual media projects.

For this inaugural entry, we call your attention to “Metamorphosis,” an exquisite short film retelling the Venetian Renaissance master Titian’s series of paintings by the same name. It was produced by writer-director duo Luke White and Remi Weekes, who work together under the name “Tell No One.” They completed the project in association with the new exhibition “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012” from The National Gallery, London, which “brings together a group of specially commissioned works responding to three of Titian’s paintings — Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon and the recently acquired Diana and Callisto — which depict stories from Ovid’s epic poem ‘Metamorphoses. ‘”

In the story of Diana and Actaeon, the latter is out hunting one day when he accidentally happens upon the secret bathing place of Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt. In her outrage she exacts a revenge that only a god or goddess could conceive and carry out.

The film, in our opinion, is pure myth.

Metamorphosis from Tell No One on Vimeo

A Planetary Myth

Joseph Campbell once said that any new myth, in the “high” sense of the word as an overarching, meaning-making narrative, would necessarily have to be planetary in scope and nature, given the global outlook of our modern technological civilization. He said the famous image of planet earth as photographed from space — an image unknown to any previous generation before the mid-20th century — might serve as a suitable iconic symbol to accompany such a myth. Bear that in mind as you watched the video below with speakers turned up and the player enlarged to full-screen, because it could well serve as a kind of initiation, both cognitive and emotional, into this point of view.


Joseph Campbell: If you think of ourselves coming out of the earth, rather than having been thrown in here from somewhere else, you see that we are the earth, we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth. And this is the voice of the earth.

Bill Moyers: Scientists are beginning to talk quite openly about the Gaia principle.

Joseph Campbell: There you are, the whole planet as an organism.

Bill Moyers: Mother Earth. Will new myths come from this image?

Joseph Campbell: Well, something might. You can’t predict what a myth is going to be any more than you can predict what you’re going to dream tonight. Myths and dreams come from the same place. They come from the realizations of some kind that have then to find expression in symbolic form. And the only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet, not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody on it. And what it will have to deal with will be exactly what all myths have deal with — the maturation of the individual, from dependency through adulthood, through maturity, and then to the exit; and then how to relate to this society and how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos. That’s what the myths have all talked about, and what this one’s got to talk about. But the society that it’s got to talk about is the society of the planet. And until that gets going, you don’t have anything.

Bill Moyers: So you suggest that from this begins the new myth of our time?

Joseph Campbell: Yes, this is the ground of what the myth is to be. It’s already here: the eye of reason, not one of nationality; the eye of reason, not of my religious community; the eye of reason, not of my linguistic community. Do you see? And this would be the philosophy for the planet, not for this group, that group, or the other group. When you see the earth from the moon, you don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come. That is the country that we are going to be celebrating. And those are the people that we are one with.

Mythic Vision: Its lack killed NASA, its recovery may save us all

MoonwalkI’ve been observing with great interest the flurry of recent articles, essays, and editorials about the original moon landing and subsequent implosion of the U.S. space program. By far the most fascinating and moving is the essay by Tom Wolfe that appeared in The New York Times two days ago.

Titled “One Giant Leap to Nowhere,” it presents Wolfe’s oh-so-lucid and impassioned diagnosis of what went wrong with the U.S. space program in the wake of the moon landing. Specifically, says Wolfe, “NASA had neglected to recruit a corps of philosophers.” He recalls the electrifying combination of existential fear and giddy excitement that characterized the space race between the U.S. and the Soviets, and points out that, unfortunately, all of this potential fodder for a truly enduring mythic vision was utterly expended on a kind of single combat-style approach to the idea and practical project of space travel. “From the moment the Soviets launched Sputnik I into orbit around the Earth in 1957,” he writes, “everybody from Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson on down looked upon the so-called space race as just one thing: a military contest,” an epic battle of virtuous us against evil them, with our respective heroes, the John Glenns etc., playing the roles of our warrior champions.

The result?

On the morning after [the moon landing], congressmen began to wonder about something that hadn’t dawned on them since Kennedy’s oration. What was this single combat stuff — they didn’t use the actual term — really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, O.K., we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable … how far-seeing … but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?

The tragedy of this realization and its concrete aftermath — the four-decade implosion and marginalization of NASA — is seen, says Wolfe, in the fact that there really was and is a powerful philosophical goal (what I prefer to call a mythic vision) that informs the idea of space travel. He says he heard it articulated beautifully by an elderly Werner von Braun in the 1970s, near the end of von Braun’s life:

[As paraphrased from memory by Wolfe:] Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.

But, Wolfe points out dryly, “NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.”

earth_riseHe closes with a really brilliant insight and assertion that touches not only on the U.S. space program’s critical need but on the critical need that our civilization as a whole faces right now, as we stagger through an epochal crisis:

What NASA needs now is the power of the Word. On Darwin’s tongue, the Word created a revolutionary and now well-nigh universal conception of the nature of human beings, or, rather, human beasts. On Freud’s tongue, the Word means that at this very moment there are probably several million orgasms occurring that would not have occurred had Freud never lived. Even the fact that he is proved to be a quack has not diminished the power of his Word.

July 20, 1969, was the moment NASA needed, more than anything else in this world, the Word. But that was something NASA’s engineers had no specifications for. At this moment, that remains the only solution to recovering NASA’s true destiny, which is, of course, to build that bridge to the stars.

“The power of the Word.” Maybe I’ll be forgiven for using this provocation to launch into a quote from Ray Bradbury, who has waxed eloquent and excitable about the mythic aspect of space travel many times in his multi-decade writing career.

In his short story “The Toynbee Convector,” Bradbury tells of a man who saves human civilization from its multiple crises, most especially a grave crisis of spirit, by faking a trip into the future and “bringing back” a story about the better world we will end up creating for ourselves. In a massive exercise in self-fulfilling prophecy — which was precisely the man’s point and plan — his story lifts the human race out of its despair and sparks an excited desire to begin working toward that better future.

Here’s how the old man justifies his grand deception:

I was raised in a time . . . when people had stopped believing in themselves. I saw that disbelief, the reason that no longer gave itself reasons to survive, and was moved, depressed and angered by it . . . . Everywhere was professional despair, intellectual ennui, political cynicism . . . . The impossibility of change was the vogue . . . . Bombarded by dark chaff and no bright seed, what sort of harvest was there for man in the latter part of the incredible twentieth century? Forgotten was the moon, forgotten the red landscapes of Mars, the great eye of Jupiter, the stunning rings of Saturn.

. . . . “Life has always been lying to ourselves . . . . [T]o gently lie and prove the lie true. To weave dreams and put brains and ideas and flesh and the truly real beneath the dreams. Everything, finally, is a promise. What seems a lie is a ramshackle need, wishing to be born.

Now that’s an instance, albeit a fictional one, of Wolfe’s “power of the Word.” But then, fiction is exactly what we’re talking about — isn’t it? — whenever we talk about the Word, the meaning-creating Logos.

Fiction-makers of the world, your time has come.

Andromeda island universe