Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dream the myth onwards

Here's the introduction I wrote to the book of academic papers, The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who (2010) - available as a paperback and on Kindle and things.
Dream the myth onwards
Simon Guerrier

Do stories matter if we know they're not true?

That seems to be central to the idea of myth. They are stories that matter. Ken Dowden, in his book The Uses of Greek Mythology, argues that “myths are believed, but not in the same way that history is”(1). If they were true they would be history. But stories still illuminate the truth.

The father of psychoanalysis certainly thought so. Sigmund Freud used the stories of ancient mythology to illuminate aspects of the human condition. Most famously, he named a group of unconscious and repressed desires after the mythical king of Thebes, Oedipus.

The story of Oedipus has been retold since at least the 5th Century BC. By linking to it, Freud suggested that the desires he'd uncovered were not new or localised. They were universal.

Freud was clearly fascinated by myth. His former home in London – now a museum – contains nearly 2,000 antiquities illustrating myths from the Near East, Egypt, Greece, Rome and China, many lined up on the desk where he worked. He argued that psychoanalysis could be applied to more than just a patient's dreams, but to “products of ethnic imagination such as myths and fairy tales” (2).

But, as Dowden points out, you can only psychoanalyse where there is a psyche. Who are we analysing when we probe ancient myths – which have been retold for thousands of years? Do we examine a myth as the dream of an original, single author, or of the culture that author belonged to? Dowden argues that “psychoanalytic interpretation of myth can only work if it reveals prevalent, or even universal, deep concerns of a larger cultural group”(3).

He also quotes Carl Jung, who developed the idea of the “collective unconscious”, a series of archetypal images that we all share in the preconscious psyche and which, as a result, appear regularly in our myths. Jung warned against efforts to interpret the meanings of these images: “the most we can do is dream the myth onwards and give it a modern dress”(4).

That seems to me what Doctor Who does, retelling old stories in new ways, surprising us with the familiar. The archetypes of Doctor Who – the invasion, the base under siege, the person taken over by an alien force, regeneration – have been embedded for decades. Yet the series keeps finding new ways to present them, and new perspectives and insights along the way.

That's also true of this book, probing the Doctor's adventures for new perspectives and insights. The essays contained here don't take Doctor Who as the dream of one single author whose unconscious desires can now be exposed. Instead, it probes our shared mythology as Doctor Who fans – of which the TV show is just a part – to explore our own cultural unconscious.

“Myth” means many things in this book. It's any fiction with a ring of truth. It's any story with cultural of psychological value. It's any work with staying power, whose themes and ideas are still relevant generations after the first telling. It's the established, fictional history of characters and worlds, the “continuity” so often complex and contradictory. It's the moment at which a character becomes a hero or even a god. It's anything we want it to be.

And that is why it's so revealing.

(1) Dowden, Ken, The Uses of Greek Mythology, London: Routledge 2000 [1992], p. 3.
(2) Freud, Sigmund, Totem and Taboo, Leipzig and Vienna: 1913, English translation ed. J Strachey London 1955. Cited in Dowden, p. 30.
(3) Dowden, p. 31
(4) Jung, Carl and Kerényi, C, Science of Mythology: Essays on the myth of the divine child and the mysteries of Eleusis, 1949, English translation, cited in Dowden, p. 32
Thanks to editor Anthony S Burdge and Anne Petty at Kitsune Books for permission to post it here. I landed the Doctor in ancient Greece in my book, The Slitheen Excursion - where he met what might be the real people who inspired the myths of Athena, Noah and the Medusa, amongst others.

1 comment:

Le Mc said...

A superb book if I do say so myself. :-)