Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Mythical Method in Song and Saga, Prose and Verse: Part One

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Mythical Method in Song and Saga, Prose and Verse: Part One

Article excerpt

T.S. Eliot's 'mythical method' is a publishing author's practice of taking an ancient or received story as the organizing principle for a self-standing and contemporary narrative. Joyce's use of Ulysses is an example. Homer's epic had a long history of exegesis, including serving as one of the sources of Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost. (JCN)

Let us begin by working backward from the famous first note that T.S. Eliot added to The Waste Land: 'Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jesse L. Weston's book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance.'1 In the first chapter of Weston's book (published just two years before the epochal poem) Eliot and his readers found the following 'genuine elucidation of the Grail problem':

The main difficulty of our research lies in the fact that the Grail legend consists of a congeries of widely differing elements-elements which at first sight appear hopelessly incongruous, if not completely contradictory, yet at the same time are present to an extent, and in a form, which no honest critic can afford to ignore.2

Eliot's confident assertion of the explanatory power of Weston's study- which he later disavowed with the rest of his notes to the poem-and Weston's own admission that the Grail myth is bedeviled by instability and contradiction, make manifest the shifting meanings and fissures that were latent in the 'tradition' that Eliot and the other modernists inherited and selfconsciously remade. Homer and many of the classics of the East and West would be similarly mined, but the process begins in the penumbra of the Arthuriad, with the always receding image of the Grail and its fleeting promise of a transubstantiated final basis for meaning. Moreover, the determination of any given myth's meaning is, itself, the Holy Grail of myth's literary study. On the one hand, all myths may tend to mean the same thing, as with Frazer and C.G. Jung. On the other hand, no myth may mean what it initially or literally seems to-or seems unable to-as with Lévi-Strauss and Sigmund Freud. Similarly, literary uses of myth, just like interpretations, stabilize it, by specifying a given myth's meaning, even as they also problematize it, insofar as they depart from or advance upon previously received meanings, and so call them into question. Enter-or re-enter-'the mythical method.'

i. eliot's Waste land and joyce's Ulysses

Eliot's so-called 'mythical method'3 is a publishing author's practice of taking an ancient or received myth, legend, or traditional, archetypal, or historical story-from the point of view of literary realism a tall tale or fantastic legend-as the skeleton or organizing principle or scaffold or template or infrastructure or pentimento for a narrative or plot that is both ostensibly self-standing and in some sense 'modern,' or more contemporary, and yet can be mapped onto a kind of archaeological other original. Eliot thinks the post- Flaubertian mess of the contemporary novel's reflection of anarchic modern life might well need this kind of ancient stay against present chaos, or this means of reinventing the novel form. He repeats an Arnoldian idea with a difference-it's not that literature could replace religion or old creeds, but rather that it could be re-invented by their remains. Eliot seems to deplore the Bahktinian unspecifiability of the omnigeneric novel, and sees this structured way of escape from it. Thus Eliot famously wrote:

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, any more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigations. It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. …

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