Academic journal article Criticism

"Atlantis Buried Outside": Muriel Rukeyser, Myth, and the Crises of War

Academic journal article Criticism

"Atlantis Buried Outside": Muriel Rukeyser, Myth, and the Crises of War

Article excerpt

In 1968, Muriel Rukeyser wrote a poem called "Myth," responding to Moreau's 1864 painting Oedipus and the Sphinx:


Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the roads. He smelled a familiar smell. It was the Sphinx. Oedipus said, "I want to ask one question. Why didn't I recognize my mother?" "You gave the wrong answer," said the Sphinx. "But that was what made everything possible," said Oedipus. "No," she said. "When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered, Man. You didn't say anything about woman." "When you say Man," said Oedipus, "you include women too. Everyone knows that." She said, "That's what you think."1

Oedipus fails to recognize the mother because he refuses to acknowledge the feminine. He gives "the wrong answer," revising the entire story: the patriarchal "correct" answer is refigured as a mistake, a blindness to female difference that is shown to be the origin of Oedipus's misfortunes. The sphinx, meanwhile, both reclaims woman from the hegemonic category Man and rejects the presumptuous universalism of Oedipus's second-person pronoun. Rukeyser's version is an alternative explanation for Oedipus's blindness, but also a troubling of mythic origin itself: where Oedipus's victory over the man-eating femme fatale "made everything possible" in the original, his mistake has a doom-laden legacy here, in itself a counter to the Old Testament origin myth of the Fall through Eve, and perhaps even to narrative in general. Inverting and undermining Oedipus at the same time as using his story to make a point distorts the usually unsullied window onto human consciousness myth is assumed to be.

This essay will sketch a movement in Rukeyser's career, which "Myth" performs in miniature, from the revision of individual myths, adapting their political content to the demands of testimonial witness, toward an interrogation of the my thopoeic itself, occasioned by the loss of direct witness during the Second World War. "Myth" is a cheeky poem facetiously wielding Oedipus as a stick with which to beat lazy gendered language. Throughout her career from the early 1930s to 1980, though, Rukeyser would insist on the necessary energy of myth for the writing of all political poetry, for the articulation of "everything possible." Her central statement on the imagination ,The Life of Poetry (1949), written over a ten-year period in the 1930s and 1940s, places myth at the center of the poet's proposed contribution to "the future":

If our imaginative response to life were complete, if we were fully conscious of emotion, if we apprehended surely the relations that make us know the truth and the relations that make us know the beautiful, we would be-what? The heroes of our myths, acting perfectly among these faculties, loving appropriately and living with appropriate risk, spring up at the question. We invented them to let us approach that life. But it is our own lives of which they remind us. They offer us a hope and a perspective, not of the past in which they were made-not that alone-but of the future. For if we lived in full response to the earth, to each other, and to ourselves, we would not breathe a supernatural climate; we would be more human.2

Here myth functions as a reminder of desire and possibility: its resonances are not rooted in humanist universals, but are the potentially temporary resonances of lives lived incompletely. Myth for Rukeyser was a central mode of passion, a powerful expression of struggle: when we see ourselves in myth, we do not see our uncorrupted, primitive being, but a common desire for a better world. Rukeyser allies myth to poetry as a "type of creation in which we may live and which will save us."3 It comes from what Rukeyser called "the lost, the anonymous, the dream-singers": myths are forgotten dreams rather than hidden qualities, and as such they are contingent. Myth is found in Indian tribes "singing of how they would save themselves, and would rise and fight; and then, losing that promise, began to tell, to sing their dreams, fusing their wishful dreaming. …

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