Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Myth



As all good con artists know, a compelling lie is a powerful and resilient beast. My great-great grandfather’s obituary noted his “splendid soldier record” in service to the Confederacy, even though he died almost 60 years after the war, in 1924. Forty years after that, when I was a little girl, play Confederate money was still a prize in gumball machines, and I had a grade school teacher who talked of kind slave owners and the cruelty of emancipation. I like to think of myself as a fairly smart and empathetic person, but without some excellent high school and college history teachers, I might still be attached to some vaguely romantic notion of the Lost Cause. I know plenty of people who are. Humans are hungry for myth—we need myth—and once we latch onto a gratifying story, we don't readily let go of it, no matter how empty or false or toxic it may be. It seems like a terrible weakness of the species. And yet...how would we survive without our gift for stories that nourish and sustain, stories that reconcile us to life and each other?
   


Myth
by Muriel Rukeyser

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."

*See the poem in its proper form here.


1. Portrait of Pvt. Edwin Francis Jemison, 2nd Louisiana Infantry Regiment. He served in the Peninsula campaign under General J.B. Magruder and was killed in the battle of Malvern Hill, July, 1862. From Wikimedia Commons.

2.  A former slave of U.S. President Andrew Jackson (probably Betty Jackson) and two of her great-grandchildren, 1867. From Wikimedia Commons.