The Ancient Modern

Further Thoughts on Myth  /  Joshua Alan Sturgill

Myths are so elegantly misleading.

And we can’t help but create them: every fact, story, science, fable, memory, artall carry within them the element of Myth… the element of the Unfinished. Myths take us as on a stroll through a majestic garden. But they can’t identify the flowers. Myths bring us out of the temporal, but can’t reach the Eternal. They’re a kind neighbor who walks with us partway down the road, but only so far before he has to get back home. Myths are wild animals in a zoo; beautiful paper wrapping a priceless gift. Myths are a step stool, not a ladder.

And not all Myths are equally revealing, equally obvious or clear. Contemporary sitcoms and dramas are Myths. Huge-budget comic-book-hero movies are Myths. They tell us something of our longing for transcendence, but very little about transcendence itself.

I’ve been thinking through our contemporary Myths. What do fantasy films and romances and courtroom soap operas teach us through the Mythic language of narrative images? I find the answer to this question a little disturbing.

Our current Myths tell us:

that Nature is expendable
that science heals the wounds it causes
that humanity is “evolving” toward more violent states of being
that morality has no particular place in the war between good and evil
that good and evil are on equal footing, but evil loses because it does not understand human erotic affection
that erotic affection is the most powerful force in the universein a sense entirely limited to the physical world
that death, God, religion, higher states of being, prayer and all supra-natural beings and ideas are neither as rewarding nor as interesting as erotic affection.

For better or worse, this is what our Myths tell us. I am thinking of movies and television, comedy and drama, romance and fantasy.

How much nature is collaterally destroyed in an Avengers movie? This is one extreme. But think about any romantic comedy. How much time is spent out of doors, in nature? Food and water and weather either magically appear or are entirely absent. Nature does not exist in most of our entertainment. And we find this Myth entirely believable.

Similarly, from sci-fi to CSI, the driving force of the story is erotic affection. There is an attraction we hope will overcome its obstacles and reach a sex act or a marriage. Characters are motivated by their affections alone, and we find this motivation obvious and ultimate. That characters should be moved by love of Godor, of literature or history or of selfless compassionis very rare.

We absorb and express these Mythic messages semi-consciously. We crave and seek out stories that affirm or verify our Myths and those that that deny or disproveand sometimes ridiculeideas contrary to our Myths.

I think these Myths, and our obsession with creating them. says something about both their importance and their ineffectiveness. Like a weak drug we must take in large does, it relieves some symptoms, but doesn’t help heal the cause of the suffering.

I began by saying that Myths can only take us so far. True enough. But I should add that I believe in the power of Myths to take us in the right direction. Rightly oriented Myths are essential to our spiritual and mental health; the best and truest Myths will make the best and truest culture.

The difficulty, in a world saturated with shallow Myth, is to find where and how the deepest Myths are being offered. We should go thereto that place, book, idea, personand give the deepest Myths the freedom to guide us as far as they can.


All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2020 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

2 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on Myth

  1. If you smear grime across the face of garbage, what have you lost? But if it were smeared across the beautiful painting, the effect would be so much the worse, and so much more striking, that one wonders whether the image in the painting would be overlooked or lost, or perhaps even chastised and held responsible for the grime that now covers it over. So it is that what is [more] beautiful, [more] profound, shall be held to a higher scrutiny—and this scrutiny can be a very dangerous thing indeed.

    At least, so it is that I see with what you refer to as ‘human erotic affection.’ What you mean by that is Love, but you dare not say it, because the painting that IS ‘human erotic affection’ is too covered over with grime. But I dare to say that even the lowest animal carnality cannot escape the fact that it is only an emanation of a higher form of love—[but an emanation nonetheless.] I do not believe that sexuality has any Being aside from itself AS an emanation of the highest form of love: and to not realize this is to, once again, lose the painting to the grime.

    I think, my friend, that as I read this article, I found that you expected too much from human society, and in your high expectation you denied the name of Love to Love herself. Do you not call it Love when snakes copulate? When Bonobos touch? Or even, yes, when confusion fools the drunkards? All are manifestations of it, cannot be any other than it, when one keeps one’s eye on the painting.

    “that erotic affection is the most powerful force in the universe—in a sense entirely limited to the physical world”
    Erotic affection is the Door to Love, and if (in highest expectation) you deny this to human beings, then you deny them the very grace they need to even live.

    “that death, God, religion, higher states of being, prayer and all supra-natural beings and ideas are neither as rewarding nor as interesting as erotic affection”
    You cannot teach algebra to a toddler, they shall always take the rattle. And is it not some incarnate truth which makes them do so?

    I do not deny that the grime exists, but even angels sometimes appear as dirty beggars.

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  2. Daniel:

    Thank you for your comments. They’ve made me aware that I should clarify my use of the phrase “human erotic affection.” I chose this cumbersome formulation precisely because I do not mean “love.”

    What I had in mind instead are the many, many instances in television and movies where the driving force of the narrative is an erotic/sexual attraction between two characters – an attraction which, in the story, has no sense of real timelessness or transcendence. One season, the characters are “in love,” but next season, they have moved on to other “love interests.”

    I do no deny that attraction and affection are part – and a good part – of our experience. But real Love is found in perseverance, self-giving and transformation. These qualities are rarely found in screen-based entertainment.

    “Human erotic affection” might well be, as you suggest, the “toddler’s” first experience of love. But isn’t the purpose of art to help us move beyond first experiences and mature into our full potential? If so, why does the art of the screen so seldom offer us models or aids to reach this potential? There are, to be sure, certain movies or shows that stand out as great artistic representations of real Love (I’m thinking particularly of “A Hidden Life” which I recently watched).

    But these few works are lost in the tidal wave of pornography – which seems to be the direction most of our entertainment is moving. Pornography moves even further away from Love, further even from “human erotic affection.” A sitcom or romcom, at least, still has elements of affection and elements of the human.

    Pornography leaves us with nothing but the erotic – as you say, “grime smeared across the face of garbage.” But I agree with you, that somewhere underneath is still the beauty of our humanness. So we have to ask ourselves (a communal question, not merely individual): why is the distortion of humanity, the defacing of Love, so enticing to the modern world?

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