The chicken or the egg? Which comes first, history or myth? Joseph Campbell taught that a living myth refers past itself to the ineffable, serving four distinct functions. First of all, the mystical function introduces the individual to that which underlies all names and forms. It awakens religious awe, humility and respect. Second, the cosmological function explains how the universe works. Third, the pedagogical function defines a moral life in terms of the particular culture.
But here we are most concerned with the fourth, and most pervasive. The social function validates the social order and integrates individuals within the community. Originally, it oriented people to the mystery by presenting noble, storied figures at the center of the realm – or psyche – who radiated the blessings that flowed through them from the other world. These figures served this order and showed that everyone carried such potential within. If people still revere royalty, it is from vestigial memory of what the sacred King once meant.
In our modern, de-mythologized world, however, the social function of myth is to reconcile the gulf between ideals and realities. It temporarily resolves ambivalence, links us spontaneously to the priorities of the state – even as those priorities change – and determines our reactions when someone questions our unexamined habits and beliefs.
In simple terms, this type of myth equals ideology plus narrative. Stories help us digest the ideology. Myths determine perception, like the lenses of a pair of glasses. They are not what we see, but what we see with. We can’t see outside our bubble (but outsiders can see us.) We give our attention to one set of possibilities rather than another, and our intentions and dreams follow. So, myth creates fact. Indeed, myth trumps fact.
We draw stories from our past and abstract them into evocative icons (Plymouth Rock, the Alamo, and especially Pearl Harbor) that contain the essential elements of our worldview. They are so obvious that they never have to be “explained.” They transform history into sacred legends that describe reality to us and prescribe our choices and behavior within acceptable limits. “Myth,” writes Richard Slotkin, “is history successfully disguised as archetype.”
Curiously, if we add Custer’s Last Stand, the sinking of The Maine and 9-11 and to that list, we find that many of those iconic images are of our most famous defeats. On one level, this reflects the complex interweaving between the American Hero (or winner) and his shadow, the victim (or loser), that our mythology has been dreaming for four hundred years. The innocent nation, once again, finds itself victimized, under attack by absolute evil – as G. W. Bush said, they hate us for our freedoms – and so it is justified in responding with Biblical ferocity.
On another level, perhaps it points us toward a deeper insight, that the Hero must die in order to transform into something more mature. This is an insight that our entire political, economic, educational and religious systems continue to deny and resist. Can we even imagine a system, a culture or a masculinity in which defeat leads to deflation, introspection, self-assessment, grief, acknowledgement of responsibility, determination to act more ethically and apology rather than vindictiveness?
Indigenous myths, the dreams of entire cultures, emerge from the land itself and from the infinite depths of the past; no one “creates” them. Myths speak of origins, of the divine figures present at the beginning, of how the sacred breaks through into the material world. By contrast, mythic literature is created by specific individuals out of oral traditions, as Homer utilized stories that Greek bards had told for centuries. Our modern myths of American innocence and exceptionalism take this notion of mythic (primarily Biblical) literature into the secular realm and mixes it with stories and legends of confrontation with the evil Others of our imagination. My book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence elaborates on these questions.
From the very beginning, history and myth intersect throughout the story of America. If we were honest with ourselves, we’d admit that it is almost impossible to tease out the differences. But let’s be clear about this: we’re not simply talking about lies, distortions, omissions and propaganda. That’s “myth” in the lesser meaning of the term. We are talking about why we frame our stories about ourselves in the way we do, and why we are – increasingly – desperate to believe them, to use them to re-stabilize the crumbling building blocks of our self-image.
Myth and history are about what happened. The “why” it happened is a secondary question. When we read history in the same way that we look at myth, we discover something very interesting – motive is less important than results. An example would be the story of Oedipus. To the ancient Greeks as well as to Freud, who based his entire psychology upon this story, and to Oedipus himself (in Sophocles’ version), it didn’t matter that Oedipus was unaware that he had killed his father and was marrying his mother. It simply mattered, since he did do those things, that he was guilty. Mythology is about action, what happens. Psychology is about motivation.
Strategic decisions have unintended consequences. From this perspective, it doesn’t really matter if FDR’s intention to provoke the human disaster (which means “against the stars”) at Pearl Harbor for the greater good of defeating Hitler were primarily altruistic. This is what matters: by gearing up to massively standardized, subsidized, centralized, corporate-based production, the U.S. triumphed, finishing the war as the greatest economic and neocolonial engine in world history, with all European nations indebted to it, with almost no damage to its civilian population. It had primary influence in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East. It had become banker to the world.
It quickly resumed its old confrontation with the U.S.S.R. that, with the exception of these war years, had been boiling since 1918. It had an institutionalized military economy, a mass propaganda system (including Hollywood) and a model call-up system, a draft, that it would use in future wars. It had a G.I. Bill that soon catapulted most, or at least most white Americans into the middle class and provided mass markets for a new consumer economy.
It quickly found itself at war in Korea. And it turned its attention to Indochina, to support the French in keeping her colonies and to defeat the nationalistic revolution. By the time of the final French defeat in 1954, U.S. aid was running at over $1 billion a year (over seven billion in current dollars) and paying some 78% of the French war costs. That year the French left and the U.S. took over 100% of the costs – and the casualties – establishing itself in that quagmire for another twenty years, or thirty years after the end of World War Two.