Joanna Kavenna won the Orange First Novel prize for her debut novel, Inglorious, in 2007. Her other works include The Ice Museum and The Birth of Love. Her journalism has appeared in the London Review of Books, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Here she speaks about the difference between ancient and modern myths, and how they often serve to highlight the surprising similarities of shared experience.
What are present-day myths, and how do they differ from the myths of older times?
Well, to take one kind of myth as an example, there's the hero’s journey: it’s one of these Ur myths, a very recurring myth. Joseph Campbell wrote about it as the monomyth: in other words, the kind of myth that is in almost everything. So you could say that the hero's journey is an ancient myth.
You could start by saying it comes through classical works, as far back as the epic of Gilgamesh, one of the most ancient myths that we have, from Sumeria. The basic idea is that the hero leaves the confines of their safe village, the place that they know, and they go out into the great world where they meet friends and foes. They fight battles and they suffer hardships and they gain revelations, and at the end they get a kind of prize, some sort of reward before going back to the village with their new-found knowledge.
It's a recurring myth. You see it in the Odyssey, you see it in the grail legends, you see it in Jesus in the wilderness; there’s this perpetual reiteration, but it's not only an ancient myth because you see it in all of our contemporary culture as well.
Take Star Wars. It has exactly the same structure: Luke grows up in a boring place and longs to escape, and finally he does leave and has adventures and eventually gains the prize of becoming a Jedi. This narrative crops up everywhere and the reason it does is because it is perpetual, and this is why myth is so interesting, because it derives from real experience.
We all follow a similar narrative. We're all born into a family and we understand that we're safe in a particular environment, or at least most of us are, and then we leave the family and go out into the wider world. So it is a completely perennial human experience. That's how I understand a myth. It's a story that doesn't purport to be true, but is very reflective of a general experience, and in a way that's why it's survived and reformed in so many ways.
Some have argued that the myths of the modern world include things like progress, or perhaps the myth of human rights. Would you say that these are myths in the same sense? Do they deserve the same consideration or is it just a linguistic trick?
I suppose in the context of myths of progress, you could have a myth of the self, or the idea that you create from something that’s fairly intangible an overarching story to explain it.
And I think that’s fine as long you don’t get stuck in literalism. In a way, any myth is fine within reason so long as it does not purport to be the literal fact. That’s when you get into real trouble, because you get people fighting wars over these originally mythical constructions, things that were meant to be symbolic and not absolutely precise and eternal in relation to people.
Our experience is very unknowable and very vague. A myth has that within it, that sort of unknowability and that vagueness. If you lasso a myth with general facts and this notion that you can confine and prove and realise, then I think you get into terrible trouble with negative impacts in the real world. That's where you go horribly wrong. But it's an error of perception, I think, not an error of myth.
So do we have to approach the world with two mindsets, one that can accommodate the myth and one that cannot?
I think we have to not be adamantine about things that are extremely tenuous. Take another extraordinary idea, the initiation myth, which runs throughout many myths – Osiris, Jesus – where the hero suffers a horrible trial by death or near death, before vanishing from the world for a certain amount of time. In the ancient Egyptian epoch, it was usually three days.
This is what happened in the pyramids. People went into the pyramids for three days, going into initiation – encountering death and other worst fears – before coming out again. It's an extremely resonant myth, one which I think we can all learn from, but it you are completely adamantine, saying, “Jesus was definitely there for three days and I'm prepared to fight a war and kill anyone who disagrees with me,” that's when problems begin.
Would you say that myths are a necessary crutch to human existence or are they just a useful and interesting addition?
Myths are so perennial and recurring. I can't think of a single civilisation that we could produce as an example that doesn’t have what I would call myth. Even pseudo-secular and rational civilisations still have a myth of the self as tangible, unchanging and realisable.
Myth is just such an ingrained part of human existence. I think its been proven to recur, this odd thing we do where we craft narrative. We start it when we’re children; we develop these fables about what’s around us, these stories to try and assimilate unwieldy experience into something retainable. It’s a way of trying to put yourself in the story in some way. Otherwise it’s just carnage, existential carnage. So, it's difficult to avoid them.
Am I right in saying that part of what you are suggesting is that we can only see ourselves in the third person if we mythologise the path that we’ve taken, or what’s happening to us?
That's an interesting point. To use the hero’s journey again, by referencing experience that is very subjective – going through life; spending a day in a massive city, encountering friends as foes in an urban setting – yet nevertheless experienced by many, myths tend to synthesise elements of experience which are oddly resonant with all of us.
That's why people like Jung get into concepts of collective unconscious; because of these odd, repeated resonances across myths and symbols. Jung then starts to elaborate this idea that it's because we all have, at one level, the same being, the same experience. But you don't necessarily have to go that far. You can just say that we’re all put in the same position on the Earth, in this unknowable universe, in our mortal frame. We all suffer the same consequences of time and age, and the same fears of mortality and of harm coming to those we love.
So the perennials are quite distinct. I think what myth is doing is drawing on the perennials, and as you say, saving the individual from this weird isolationist feeling that your experience is subjective and unique to you and can't really be communicated. There is a lot of experience that is subjective, but myths hint at the fact that there is much which is oddly resonant to everyone.