Tuesday, August 25, 2015

On Culture Relatability as a Necessity

There was a discussion on the necessity of a sense of "cultural relate-ability" for a myth to be both a myth and successful. I aim to argue that this is not necessary, but helpful in the creation, success, and permanency of a myth. While I would not be remiss as to remove this entirely, I find it hard to believe that a myth requires it. When I say "cultural relate-ability" what I mean is the idea wherein a myth success relies on the foundation structure that its audience understands cultural norms, ideas and identities that were common at the origin of the myth. Make no mistake, I think that this was important at the start of a myth, and that these cultural identities shifted to match its intended audience at the time, as per the norm of most verbal traditions, but in some mythologies, it is unnecessary.

I will take note of Native American mythologies, which mainly focus on the stories of divinity as happening between the anthropomorphic animals and nature that lies around them. One of my favorite myths from this tradition revolves around a snake and a hare and the gods. In this story, the defenseless snake is given fangs and a poison after a compassionate god takes pity upon the snake being beaten by the hare continuously.

Now, this myth is interesting to me because it doesn't rely on the same cultural identities and norms to make sense and to be a mythological tradition that continues to this day. I believe anyone can understand the myth without being lost, since it appeals to human nature than a socially constructed abstract concept that justifies certain mimetic ideas. In short, while relate-ability is necessary, it can stem from both culture and human nature to be successful, and neither replaces or outdoes the other.


Oromë said...

While I agree that a modern audience does not necessarily need to understand the culture in which a myth originated in order to understand the story, and even the message, of any particular myth, to disregard the culture from which a myth arose is to see it only in part, as a distorted image rather than a clear representation.

I'll use the example of the Native American myth above. While the story may not rely on an understanding of Native American culture in order to be interesting, it can only be fully understood within the context of its origin. Why are the animals a snake and a hare? Do those animals hold any special significance in Native American mythology? Is the purpose of this myth simply to explain how the snake got its fangs, or is it an examination of the predator-prey relationship that can only be understood within the context of Native American mythology? These questions, and many more, arise when we only take a myth at its surface value.

No story exists in isolation. Every story came from somewhere and has been told for a reason. Sometimes that reason is simple, while other times it is immensely complex. Either way though, the reason can only be discovered if one first examines the culture from which it came.

Varda said...

I also agree that an audience does not necessarily need to understand the culture a myth is representing, but the key with any written work, especially abstract works such as myths and poems, is to have some idea of what the author or culture is trying to portray.

Anyone can read a poem, myth, or even general story and interpret the words in the context of one's one life or one's own thoughts. For example, someone may read the poem we read for class the other day and, having no idea of the relationship between Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, form a completely different interpretation than anyone in our class would ever think of.

Additionally, I would argue that most readers/audiences develop a genuine need to discover the reasoning behind their favorite stories and therefore crave the significance that culture and background provide; otherwise, we wouldn't see so many lengthy interviews with famous authors and people wouldn't be studying Tolkien.

In terms of mythology, I think that without cultural backstory, or at least a background of an author, a myth would simply be another mass-produced fiction story with no higher significance.

Lórien said...

For a modern audience not to able to understand the culture contexts, backgrounds and philosophies of a myth is not the fault the myth, but the readers. We cannot place blame on the myth and say that it does not necessarily require a cultural background, because the errors lies within the reader who does not fully grasp the entire world which the mythology was composed to explain. Can a myth be read for its face value? Of course, and all of the very best mythologies can be.

Tolkien highly valued what he termed "applicability." This term arose when a modern audience who did not fully understand the backgrounds and cultural essence of Middle-earth attempted to overlay their thoughts and their world onto his writing. Often it was said and still is today that "The Lord of the Rings" is a allegory for the two World Wars. While this view can certainly be tempting, seeing as Tolkien witnessed both of these wars before the publication of his trilogy, it is entirely unfair and narrow-minded.

What Tolkien said about these views did not discount them entirely. He essentially stated that he disliked the term allegory because it is limited as one to one comparison. To him the trilogy was simply another piece of the puzzle that made up a mythology which was his life's ambition. To Tolkien, allegory was a controlling manifestation put in place by the author to try to strong-arm a reader into seeing a particular viewpoint. He prefers "applicability" which places all of the responsibility with the reader. In other words as a reader if you want to take the trilogy as some large and convoluted conceit for the rise of Hitler or the Kaiser, then feel free. However in doing so you are limiting yourself in a huge way. Part of the beauty of mythologies is that they have cultural backgrounds. This is what gives them their applicability.

As human beings we all ultimately share the same fundamental emotions and can relate to the same universal themes, thus as human beings we also have the ability within us to study and to empathize with a culture that came before us. I do not think that a cultural context is necessary to an enjoyable piece of fiction nor do I think that an understanding of a particular culture is necessary to enjoying and appreciating a myth. However, it is entirely impossible to create a mythology without one. It would be like trying to write a biography without a subject or a scientific paper without research or experimentation. Cultural context is what sets a myth apart from other fiction.

Sure, that Native American myth about the snake can be taken as a wonderfully rich tale and a beautifully simple exploration of justice and natural order: however, in doing so we rob ourselves of its complete value by not taking the time to learn about the cultural context. This myth very likely means something entirely different to the peoples responsible for it, than is it does to us. It seems to me it is worth our effort to see it from the authors viewpoint, as it can only serve to broaden our horizons and enhance our ability to synthesize a personal connection to the mythology, the world that it comes from, and our own society.