Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Marina Warner: Six Myths of Our Time. Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts, and more

From: Amazon
When: Hilary term, 2008
Verdict: Extremely useful & fascinating
Fate: Kept for use (although immediately lent to game a researcher friend).

How did I get into Warner this year? Something relating to cannibals, surely. The six essays in this slim volume cover a range of fields from female medieval mystics over shoot-em-up video games to Hannibal Lecter. Although titled "myths of our time" this span comes across as perfectly natural. Warner convincingly argues that our contemporary pop-cultural myths are related to those of our culture in the past; reading her makes one think that Ovid and Victorian landscape paintings can be a meaningful keys to the public collapse of Britney Spears or to the Columbine massacre.

The essays were originally a series of BBC radio broadcasts and each center on a theme – Monstrous mothers: Boys will be boys; Little angels, little monsters; Beautiful beasts; Cannibal tales; Home. The last is about nation and perhaps less interesting to us non-Britons, the first five a meaty and thought-provoking foray into our culture's ideas (new, old and changing) about extreme women, appropriate masculinities, the mythological and fetishized innocence of childhood, the terrifying natural world and cannibalism as a metaphor for conquest and taboo-breaking. The brief and helpful introduction places the essays in a theoretical context, and although the texts themselves are easily digestible by an educated mainstream audience, there is a good list of sources and further reading for the academically inclined.

I realize there millions of people out there who just don't see the point of pop-cultural criticism, let alone Cultural Studies, so I'd like to take this opportunity to explain why I find it important. Cultural myths are stories and structures behind stories that help us construct who we are: in a culture we have them in common, so that being able to recognize and understand certain narratives places us with the group of people (like "Westerners" or "Finns" or "Academically educated women") to whom those stories are available and meaningful. And as we place ourselves within the appropriate group to decode the stories, we try those identities on for size. When the shoe fits, we find ourselves aligned with a culture, and realize something about our individual personalities. And even when it doesn't, we have to place ourselves in that position to read the message, and may find ourselves in a position of being somehow inferior or wrong relative to the norms of the surrounding culture, and under subconscious (or conscious) pressure to conform.

Since we all do this even when we are not making any active analysis at all, it is fascinating even to the layman to see a pro slice and dice some popular stories from our worlds and lives to see what went into constructing them. Warner's approach is sometimes surprising and I often find myself disagreeing with her along the way – "like NO WAY can this be relevant" – but at the end, pieces in my brain have shifted, or a veil has been lifted, and I look up from the world at a world that no longer looks entirely the same. The power of stories is, obviously, here too at work, deconstructing other stories. In that sense Warner (who is also a novelist) is a little like Harry Houdini, who was a stage magician but committed his life to exposing the frauds claiming to demonstrate real supernatural events. Houdini revealed their magic to be nuts and bolts, smoke and mirrors and invisible wires, and some people who had invested their self-image in believing in Spiritism (etc) felt too affronted to deal with the truth.

Talking about veils, Warner is also two surprisingly rare things in British letters: a female public intellectual and an unapologetic feminist. The book contains some sharp observations about the different contemporary echoes of St Paul's recommendation that women veil themselves and not speak in public. It sucks that this needs spelling out but her feminism obviously does not suggest that she would somehow dislike men, and her essay on how our ideas about masculine problem-solving have changed from intelligence to brute force is both brilliant and scarily relevant. Actually, that goes for much of the content of the essays, which are from 1994 – my only gripe with Warner is that she is not psychic, that she could not write about Britney and school shootings and reality game commercials because those things had mostly not happened yet. Luckily, she is prolific. I am very seriously planning to write every word she's ever written.

I own the aesthetically very pleasing Vintage paperback, which is the one I would recommend.

Byt Six Myths of Our Time: Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts, and More: Vintage Books Edition on Amazon.

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