Sing sorrow, sorrow, but good win out in the end. – Aeschylus
As a mythologist (and sharing our common curiosity about these things), I felt a responsibility to watch several recent (November 2013) documentaries on the Kennedys and read much of the journalism on the subject that was published this month. On TV, pundits lined up to calmly and rationally discuss the major issues and then conclude, predictably, that we should all trust the dominant narratives of John F. Kennedy’s life, of his death, and by implication, of our own innocence.
Daniel Mendelsohn’s work rises above the general level of bogus pontification. He is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and his recent essay on the Kennedys is noteworthy for two reasons: First, and very rarely among nationally-prominent journalists, because he often addresses social issues from the perspective of Greek myth.
And second, because, like the New Yorker itself, he functions ultimately as a gatekeeper. It is a great gift to American thinking to point out that we can discern very old stories in our national obsessions and our repetitive behavior. But it is a great disservice to use mythology to subtly manipulate that thinking, to define, as all gatekeepers do, the proper range of acceptable discussion, and to demonize those who stand outside it. It reduces mythic images from mystery to parable: This is how you should interpret the image.
Mendelsohn acknowledges that Jacqueline Kennedy made Camelot the official myth of the Kennedy Administration. But, he says, Greek tragedy may be more appropriate, because
Athenian drama returns obsessively—as we do, every November 22nd—to the shocking and yet seemingly inevitable spectacle of the fallen king, of power and beauty and privilege violently laid low.
A related mythic theme evoked by the Kennedy saga is that of “family curses…‘original sins’ committed by a patriarch that come back to haunt later, innocent generations.” The list is quite long: brother Joseph’s death in war; brother Robert’s assassination; brother Ted’s scandal at Chappaquiddick; airplane crashes, madness, murder scandals, drug addictions and early deaths – all stemming from the alleged crimes of the family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy. Mendelsohn suggests that this is tragic thinking: “…assuming that there is a dark pattern in the way things happen…”
Using the Oedipus and Oresteia myths as examples, he reminds us that
…the impulse to expose, to bring secret crimes to light…lies at the heart of Greek drama. You could say that all tragedy is about the process of discovery, of learning that the present has a surprising and often devastating relationship to the past…slowly uncovering the deeper meanings of things…
This desire underlies much of our curiosity about the Kennedys and the national trauma we associate with them. So we “…constantly revisit it, as much to convince ourselves that such a thing could happen as to hope, each time we go back, that it might turn out differently.”
Indeed, we revisit both the assassination as well as the entire weekend that followed, from the first news through the Oswald killing to the grand funeral procession that (for a time) re-established our national sense of continuity and purpose.
This suggests that the conclusion to be drawn is not about “the role of the media”—about news and how we get it—but about drama: about our need, as ancient as the Greeks, to see certain elemental plots re-enacted before our eyes, at once familiar but always fresh.
So far, so good. Mendelsohn then moves to the theme of the King/God/Hero as sacrificial victim, which, he says, has deeply influenced our fifty-year-long response to these stories.
Hero and victim: our ambiguous relationship to the great—our need to idolize and idealize them, inextricable from our impulse to degrade and destroy them—is, in the end, the motor of tragedy, which first elevates and then topples its heroes…
But we are talking about an American story, which was born in what Joseph Campbell called a “de-mythologized world,” a world suffering from a profoundly diminished imagination. It’s not that we have no myths, but that we are unconscious of them – and of how little they nourish us.
Indeed, the myth of American Innocence offers only one alternative to the Hero: the Victim. If Americans feel the constant need to revisit the theme of the Hero reduced to victim, perhaps it is because many of us sense that our long-assumed sense of white, male privilege (and its shadow of victimization) that underlies our national identity and military/industrial empire is collapsing. Perhaps we all know at some deep level that the cracks in the veneer of the walls of the City are exposing a rot that we cannot ignore much longer.
And this is where the gatekeepers come in. Their function – as intellectuals, professors, writers, broadcasters, pundits and journalists, as managers of elite opinion for our upper-middle class – is to control the spin and sheer up those cracks in the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. This is where Daniel Mendelsohn shifts from classicist to gatekeeper:
The tragic conviction that there are long-hidden reasons for the fall of kings finds its most extreme expression, today, in the obsessive desire to find “plots” of another kind in the Kennedy story: here you can’t help thinking of the conspiracy theories. With their Rube Goldberg-esque ingenuity, their elaborateness directly proportional to their preposterousness, these can end up looking suspiciously like madness (That other favorite tragic subject.)
Mendelsohn the classicist wrote 95 percent of a very insightful article, but Mendelsohn the gatekeeper inserted the above paragraph, and by doing so, revealed its real agenda.
What is the difference between the old myths and ours? Greek drama, like all art forms deriving from indigenous myth, expresses archetypal themes and is embedded in the physical places where some of those themes were first told. As such, it still retains the soul-making potential to connect readers and audiences to their essential natures. It still carries the possibilities of a functioning mythology. It is and will continue to be re-told to modern audiences because its themes are our own. It remains relevant to an understanding of both who we are (what Euripides, in the words of Sophocles, showed) and who we might become (what Sophocles himself tried to show).
The myth of American innocence, by contrast, functions essentially on what Campbell called the sociological level – to enable us to rationalize the contradictions of our lives and our belief systems, to live in a mad system without going mad, by projecting our madness upon The Others of the world. As such, our myth is profoundly unstable. The truth (in mythic terms, Dionysus at the gates of Thebes) always threatens to intrude upon our fantasies of innocence, good intentions and exceptionalism. Because these cracks in the myth continually appear, because we are clamoring for a different story, the gatekeepers must continually re-tell it, as if one more re-telling will put us back to sleep.
In the case of the Kennedy assassination, the gatekeepers know that most Americans doubt the dominant narrative. They know that if that doubt were to become universally expressed, then many other aspects of our American story would be called into question. So the gatekeepers have been working overtime for the past three weeks, so that we might sit down for Thanksgiving dinner to feed on fantasies instead of on dreams.
Public education, writes Noam Chomsky, is a system of imposed ignorance in which the most highly educated people are the most highly indoctrinated. “A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehension – it becomes unconscious and reflexive – that you just don’t think certain things…that are threatening to power interests.”
From this perspective, it is the thinking of the “educated” classes – the teachers, managers and professionals – that most need to be kept within the bounds of acceptable debate. In this realm, our most important gatekeeping institutions are not the major TV networks (their function is obvious enough), but the media consumed most innocently by these classes, the so-called liberal media: The Public Broadcasting System, the New York Times, the Washington Post and The New Yorker.
I’m not calling for a boycott of these venerable institutions. I’m suggesting that as you read and watch them, it is more important than ever to remember the necessity of understanding their real intentions. If, as Mendelsohn says, “…all tragedy is about the process of discovery,” then why not let people discover the truth – and the tragedy – for themselves, instead of spoon-feeding them with such heavily-loaded words as “preposterousness” and “madness?”
An authentic capacity to think mythologically brings with it the knowledge that each truth, rather than ending the discussion, merely points us further down the road to deeper truths. It dispenses with one-dimensional parables and soothing reassurances in favor of metaphor, nuance and symbol. It gifts us with better questions, not cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all conclusions. It invites us further into both the tragedy and the mystery at the core of our stories, our behavior and our identity, and then it offers us a model for who we – and our nation – might become if we were truly in alignment with our soul’s purpose. It expands our imaginations rather than constricting them. It speaks truth to power. And that is why we need to be familiar with mythology: not for armchair pontification, but to change the world.