Several articles have been published recently about Columbia University students who complain that Classical Mythology needs to be taught “with more sensitivity”. Rape, incest, cannibalism and parricide/matricide are common themes of myth, and students who have survived traumas see them as “trigger” topics. If your professor ignores the horror of the scene and focuses on the beauty of the poetic meter or language, this is seen as insensitive.
Students may have a point from at least one perspective. I think of Carol Gilligan’s long-term study of girls entitled Joining the Resistance. She tells the story of Anji, a high school girl asked to write an essay on Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress”. Marvell is what we term a “carpe diem” poet, and the intent of the poem is seductive. We are supposed to be drawn in by the romantic, “live for today” atmosphere of the poem. However Anji did not see it that way; to her, this was a creepy old man speaking seductively, and this was frightening to her. It was not the kind of poem she would want to read before bedtime. When she discussed her understanding of the atmosphere of the poem, she was given a poor grade for incorrectly interpreting the theme. Gilligan has always made the point that women see things differently, and that modern education and psychology has often treated this difference as “immature” or “abnormal”. Who is to say that there is a “correct” interpretation of Marvell in that sense? If we agree that there is such a thing as fallacy of intent, then how can we make assertions about what the poet is “really” saying? But literary interpretation is a subject unto itself. The point is that a young girl is confronted with a piece of canonical literature, and is graded poorly for not seeing the poem according to the canon. Similarly, students who read stories of abduction, rape and incest in Classical Mythology may be horrified, especially if they’ve ever been a victim or known a victim of these crimes, and may receive poor grades for not interpreting the text in a manner appropriate to the Classics.
But now we need to take a step back. The great literatures of the world are not great because they deal with safe, pleasant topics. Sometimes literature is comical, but much of the literatures studied in the Humanities are about the problems of being human. Literature, art, and music are all ways in which we express things that are difficult, shocking, and even traumatizing. These arts don’t create human behavior, they mirror it. And it’s important to look in that mirror to try to understand ourselves.
I have taught Mythology for several years now, and one thing that is clear is that myth is the same as scripture—its truth isn’t in the literal reading, but in the metaphor. When my classes study Oedipus, one of my first questions is, “So, how many of you guys out there have wanted to kill your father and marry your mother?” This usually leads to laughter, because for the most part, the idea is absurd. According to Freud, all young men have Oedipal complexes (and women have something comparable, what Jung calls the “Electra Complex”), and yet it’s clear that no one literally feels this way about their parents. My cardinal rule when reading myth is this: if it’s absurd, repellent, shocking, or fascinating, then pay attention to it, because it tells you something about yourself. It doesn’t say something literal, but something about our core psychology, about what we’re afraid of, or what we’re drawn to—and this should make us examine why this is the case. In fact, all good literature should lead to self-examination; we relate to what we’re reading through our own experience. Life is a fundamentally uncomfortable subject in the broadest sense, because in order to live, something must die. We sustain ourselves by killing plants and animals, and both are living things. This is the real question that creation mythology looks at—it’s not about rebellion against the father (in Greek mythology) or about the weakness of woman (in Biblical mythology)—it’s about the conditions of living in space and time. Creation mythology talks about a time of essential unity that is broken apart, whether it’s being banished from Eden and away from Yahweh or whether it’s Cronos (Time) castrating his father Ouranos (Sky) so that his mother Ge (Earth) can bear her children. Adam and Eve eat the fruit and recognize difference—they are in the field of time. They can’t remain in the garden of Eden, because that’s not really being “alive”—Yahweh is in the zone of eternity. And if we think about what that means, there is a lot that is paradoxical, because the field of space and time is also a field of opposites. Everything that follows creation is about expanding creation, and about creating order out of disorder. Our flood mythologies talk about the need to start all over again through rebirth, something symbolized in baptism ceremonies. Even Odysseus (Ulysses) is belched from the water onto the island of the Phaeakians, naked and looking to Nausicaa (a young princess) for help. We struggle to make sense out of life, and every now and again everything falls apart and we have to pull ourselves up, start all over again. We could be suffering from depression, our comfortable career of many years may suddenly become obsolete, a loved one we have always been with may suddenly die. There are many situations that require us to start anew, and the associated difficulty cannot be underestimated.
Human beings are “storied” by nature; our lives run on a narrative. Bruno Bettelheim counseled young children through the reading of fairy tales. Children still live very much in the world of images—they have not been rationalized and concretized by our social and educational systems. The dilemmas of fairy tales help them solve real-life problems. For all of Richard Dawkins’ pleading, humans are not rational creatures—reason is secondary. It may not be good science to rely on “gut instinct” but most of us do that every day. We revert to whatever our “narrative” is to interpret situations, especially unexpected ones. Even Plato, that champion of Reason, made his points through metaphor and myth. Mythology tells us stories about the range of human experience, and provides something in the way of a guidepost. No myth can tell you how to live your life; it can only present you with the questions. Even reasonable adults have a narrative, and our desire for fiction books or movies allows us to explore narratives outside of our everyday experience—and even as something outside of ourselves, we can still find a way to relate to it.
Let’s go back to the question of “triggers”. I suggest that two main factors affect our discomfort with facing trauma: the explosion of available information, and our reluctance to allow risk in children. With regard to information, it’s not something our children value. There is no need to explore a subject in depth, or to learn anything except to achieve good grades. Students frequently brag to me (and to other professors) that they’ve “never read an entire book in their life”. When they don’t know something, they pull out their phones to look for the answer online, usually through Google or a similar search engine. Judging from most of the papers I receive, they are unable to separate authoritative, evidence-based information from the rest of the drek polluting our screens. They are incredulous at the idea of using the library, and if they do, they want to find the first semi-relevant thing and get out. Information should be available to them within seconds, and if it isn’t, they immediately lose interest.
I recall a book I read for one of my survey courses with the appetizing title The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg. The book is a study of the Inquisition trial of a merchant named Mennochio, and he is a puzzle to the Church authorities because he is obviously heretical, but they can’t pin down what brand of heresy he has espoused, or who taught it to him. Mennochio is literate, and has been fortunate to acquire a number of books. The number is not high by our standards—he had access to maybe 20 books. But he read every one multiple times, and spent much time thinking about them. As a result, he came up with his own independent view of the world, which was vastly different from official Church doctrine, and in fact critical of it. He did what we want our students to do—to read, re-read, think about what we’re reading, and connect it with other things we’ve read. We should come to some conclusion based on the evidence. In Mennochio’s time that was dangerous, and he was in fact found guilty of heresy and killed. There is an example of a society where information is not readily available, and among the literate there is a hunger to break out of the confines of what they are told to think and believe. We value this highly in secular culture; we have the right to think for ourselves, to draw our own conclusions. And yet—too much information is available, so it becomes overwhelming and chaotic. There is so much information coming at us every day, we can’t handle stopping and thinking about everything. We’re literally not equipped to do so—our brains can only handle so much information at one time.
The risk factor has been talked about recently, and it’s not a new problem. When I grew up, we would leave the house on our bikes on a Saturday morning, and reappear in time for lunch and dinner. We would go all kinds of places—over friends’ houses unannounced, into the woods, into broken down or unsafe structures—and this was normal. I remember the first time I heard the term “play date”—I thought “What the hell is THAT?” The playground at my elementary school lost its metal slide and jungle gym, and everything was replaced with much lower alternatives, which were of course made of plastic. Tires were cut up and put on the ground, to create a soft landing cushion if children fell. (They didn’t think about the horrible toxic odor those tires give off when it’s hot out, but that’s a different issue.) Children are not allowed to fall down or experience pain, and there’s no sense of adventure—good parents structure their children’s lives. There is no room for chaos, risk, or discovery, except perhaps in the virtual environment of video games. When I talk to friends who are parents they say, “Oh, but it’s not like when we were growing up—things are worse now.”
Are they really?
Concurrent with information overload is label overload. We now have labels for things that existed before, but because we have new labels and study behaviors under new labels, we decide there is “more of” something than there was in the past. Autism is a good example—are that many children really autistic? Are there more than there were before? Do there just seem to be more because we’ve tweaked the definition of the word? I don’t know the answer, but I’m suspicious when we think that human problems have changed in some fundamental way. It is more likely that we’ve just labeled and defined it differently. Sometimes this is good, because past problems that may have been ignored are now treated. But it can also lead to a zealous over-labeling of children engaged in normal developmental behavior. In short—I’m not convinced we are “worse off” now than before. The world stage changes all the time, but human nature is essentially unchanged—which is why mythology from 3,000 years ago is still relevant.
The point is that our society has made children “soft” and overwhelmed. They are pummeled with ridiculous learning goals and an obscene amount of standardized testing, and very little time is spent slowing down, thinking, and learning. We teach them that risk is bad. This is not necessarily the parents’ fault—our litigious society is hard on parents that don’t monitor their children every second. So I am not particularly surprised that these kids grow up unable to deal with environmental “triggers”—our society has made them that way.
Rather than soften the Classics, we need to talk more about what these myths say about ourselves. Jung noted that patients could be cured of neuroses when they realized they were not suffering alone—making the suffering mythical or universal helped patients feel that they were part of a larger system, and offered a sense of community and importance. Myth is a guide when we’re going through Hell, and unless you’re living inside a bubble (which is probably it’s own kind of Hell), you’re going to experience suffering. As Bucky Cat said in Get Fuzzy, “life ain’t all warm cream and dead rats”—if you’re life is on a smooth course with no problems, you’re probably not living your own life. Authentic existence requires making your own way, and that means facing your demons, not avoiding them. We don’t expand the world by hiding from it. We are naturally impatient for results, and balk at discipline, but the great irony of freedom and happiness is that it requires limitation and suffering.