History and Myth

by rthieme on August 29, 1998

tomsawyer-wikiThe way the world works when we are ten years old is the way we think the world will work forever.

Once upon a time, I read Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer.” That imaginative world became part of my foundation. I didn’t think about it, it just happened. I absorbed his images with unconscious innocence.

A decade later, the memory of Twain’s world somehow slid sideways suddenly. I saw it as a kind of three-dimensional pop-up instead of the flat background of my life. I saw that Twain had created a myth in his books that formed a cultural lens. Something happened that enabled me to see that lens, and that meant I could see something else, something beyond it, a matrix of understanding or possibility that had focused those images.

Another decade passed and I found myself in Hannibal Missouri at the site of the house where the girl who became Becky Thatcher in “Tom Sawyer” had lived. I saw not only the house, but the signs and narrative that defined the house as “touristic space,” teaching people to see a real white house through an overlay of interpretation derived in turn from the myth created by the book. It was like an experience of parallax, opening and closing now one eye and now the other, seeing how myths we believe become part of our history.

As we grow, the developmental stages of our lives strip us of illusions, leaving the bare skeletal bones of the scaffolding we had climbed inside our own minds. The images we once innocently believed peel like some ancient ad for a long-ago circus from a billboard in the rain.

One of this column’s readers, Douglas Wright, wrote of a training film he had seen in the eighties that showed how we form our basic understanding of the world as children. Around ten years old, we wake up, look around and adopt an attitude toward life based on what we see.

Even then, Wright said, kids who had only video games viewed the world differently than those who had early computers who in turn viewed the world differently from those with fancier multimedia machines. The length of a generation was already contracting.

Wright was fascinated with how supervisors used that film. Employees raised in the depression experienced it as punishment to have unpaid time off, while a boomer felt that mandatory overtime was a punishment – which the depression-era worker would have experienced as a reward.

Their histories had generated different myths.

A myth is a fundamental construction of reality, a way of framing meanings and possibilities that are so fused with images – images of ideas, images of things we think actually happened – that we are offended when someone calls our belief system a “myth.” In fact, a myth expresses our deepest beliefs. A myth is what we think is true. In the past few hundred years, what we call “history” replaced other myths as a way of framing our experiences in a meaningful shared narrative.

When we share a myth with others, it feels like reality. That’s why the challenge to our myths – from political myths to religious myths – feels like an assault on ourselves. That’s why those who have never experienced the contextual shift that enabled them to see their myths in a bigger context are willing to slaughter those whose construction of reality feels like an attack on their very being. They don’t know that their core self includes and transcends whatever myths they were given by their cultures, the way the myth of Tom Sawyer snapped in modular fashion into the world I was building as a child.

It is not a foregone conclusion that we will all choose the same myth as the organizing principle of an inter-planetary twenty-first century culture.

It is ironic that religious extremists resemble one another more than they resemble the open thinkers in their own traditions. They share a terror of the breakdown of the rigid structure that props up their fragile selves, a structure that quakes with fear rather than the certainty they express.

My insights have been influenced by my experience of computing. People who don’t connect with people or systems that compute don’t think that way. More than ever, we do not share a single history. When generations lasted a few decades, there was sufficient continuity in our myths to provide a platform for discourse. These days it feels like generations are about three years long. The great gulf fixed between those who learned “history” from books and those who learned it from television, computer games, and Hollywood movies can only be bridged from a point of view that includes and transcends both the text on a page and the flickering images on a screen.

The world of ubiquitous chips is developing its own myths, myths so close to the hearts and minds of those inside that they can not see how they are molded by the information infrastructure that teaches them how to see and think. In the long run, there is no going back to thought worlds that have vanished, any more than we can live inside a ghetto of self-imposed isolation from a global economy. In the short run, however, frightened people, societies, and cultures sure can try.

What a spectacle we humans are! As a species, we’re a million years old, with the wisdom of earthly life in our genes. In five thousand short years, we have tried on maybe thirty civilizations. The foundational myths of those civilizations seemed as real as Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence on a summer afternoon. The kaleidoscope turns. The modular fluid world of computing teaches us that images morph faster than we can think, but – bless our hearts – we try to hold on to those images the way a Hollywood stunt man hangs onto a speeding car, his body horizontal, his legs in the air – if he ever existed, that is. Beyond that digital image. Beyond the hallucinatory fever of our brimming brains.

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