Rethinking our favorite mythologies
As a young person, I was fond of the myth of Galatea and Pygmalion. Pygmalion was a sculptor who was disenchanted with women. He became more and more reclusive in his studio, carving away at a stand of marble, softening it into form.
The figure of a woman began to materialize, and his work took on inspiration and skill so exquisite that the stone seemed more and more like flesh each day. When at last he dropped his chisel, he was in love.
He adorned the sculpture with delicate robes and jewelry, arranged flowers and seashells at her feet. He talked with her as if she could hear. Alas, where he hoped there might be skin, there was but rock.
He prayed and made sacrifices to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. She listened, recognizing the faith and intensity in his passion. When next he returned to his studio, Pygmalion stepped up on the plinth and touched his lips to the lips of his masterpiece and felt not stone but warmth and softness. She had been brought to life as a woman, Galatea.
The story of Galatea and Pygmalion resonated with me because I was an individualist. I wanted to believe that skill and success came from within and only from within. I wanted to believe that I deserved any beauty I could carve out of my life.
I remember sitting at the Thanksgiving table with family friends during my freshman year of college. We were reflecting on my generation’s expressed interest in applying our lives to improve the world. I believed we might succeed. One of my friends, tickled, said, “Don’t lose that. Don’t become jaded.” I promised I wouldn’t.
We teach mythology to our children because we believe that they need to learn how to distinguish between great good and great evil before they can distinguish between the frequent subtleties of today’s versions. Perhaps growing up is the process of us realizing that our value decisions in life, unlike those in myths, have complexity. And maybe jadedness is when we give up in the face of that complexity.
I’m reading Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, which is about a gorilla helping a man uncover the cultural underpinnings of the relationship between humans and the earth. It has me thinking about the stories we tell about our lives that we struggle to recognize as our own mythology.
“Of course man is conquering space and the atom and the deserts and the oceans and the elements. According to [our] mythology, this is what he was BORN to do.”
- Daniel Quinn, in Ishmael
My mythology is not as simple as that of those born to be kings and gods and monsters and heroes. I am born to breathe, to eat, to grow. Anything else, I must carve out of my life. But I will not be carving it isolated in my studio. I will not become disenchanted with my fellow humans because, together, we must work out the complexities of our value decisions.
Mythology is mythology not only because it crosses a line of physical possibility, but also because it crosses a line into the oversimplification of values. With too much mythology, we remain children. With too little, we have trouble making out the patterns we are reaching for.
Myths often pit humans against their gods in an egotistical struggle — the young woman Arachne weaving a tapestry that eclipses Athena’s craftsmanship, the human Niobe boasting of the numerical abundance of her children — fourteen — against the goddess Leto’s mere two. The gods respond emotionally and destructively to these acts of disrespect. Humans, ever growing in skills and technologies yet ever flawed, must remain humble.
Humility might require that we start telling ourselves more subtle stories. Stories that question the mythologies we build for ourselves and our fellow humans. Stories that recognize the interplay between the individual choices we make and broader cultural tapestries.
One example of this complexity is the extent to which we trade value in the lives of those in the future for value in our own lives.
“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live. … You are captives — and you have made a captive of the world itself. That’s what’s at stake, isn’t it? — your captivity and the captivity of the world.”
- Daniel Quinn, in Ishmael
We are all captives of the incentive structures that have propelled us to scrape the Earth of resources. In rational terms, I have every reason to believe that my relatively luxurious way of life as an educated and employed citizen of the United States is putting me in great debt to the world. We are further captives of our circumstances, of our very bodies, of our existential crises.
Existential questions loom large. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow, is one of the few books that has ever calmed my existential fright. In it, people develop the technology to upload computer models of their consciousness to the cloud and thus ensure that a model of their individuality exists indefinitely.
Freedom from the captivity of one’s body. I could easily see myself romanticizing either side of the argument — my body is my only means of experiencing the world, so how could being be valuable without it? But to know that a version of my consciousness would go on forging these connections in thought far past the time when my body happens to stop functioning also seems beautiful and fulfilling. A collection of synapses playing out infinite stories of love and randomness against the mineral tapestries of technology.
This kind of immortality hardly seems possible within my lifetime, which makes me deeply jealous of those who may live in the future. But then, too, I have no doubt that those in the future will look back with jealousy upon me — all these resources I have access to and on occasion appreciate, and yet am participating in eroding.
It’s mythology to think that, at my 29th birthday, I’ve already made the world a better place. There is a higher bar for that than merely claiming that desire as a value. There is a higher bar for that than working hard or being a kind person. There is a higher bar for that than conquering the atom and the deserts and the oceans and the elements.
We don’t yet know what our chisels are, nor even fully our values. But we sure try like heck to make every last stone love us.