Sunday, May 27, 2007

History and Mythology and Methamphetamine

Back in the 70s I had a friend who was heavy into speed. He had a tiny little house on a back alley and there were many nights when I’d be bored or coming down from some drugs of my own and I’d drop in. He worked at a little desk with a little lamp and stacks of books and he was always writing in this perfect handwriting smaller than anyone’s I’d ever seen. He was working on some grand theory of everything, tying together ancient civilizations and contemporary cultural theory in way I don’t think anyone but he understood.

What he was doing then, long before personal computers and the internet, is what I think we would all do today if we had a high-speed internet connection, a blog, and some crystal meth. I can remember how those little lines of fine white powder just burnt like hell, very different from the coke we’d sometime share that would numb the back of your throat and make everything glow a wee little bit as it made everything slightly more interesting.

For a lot of people I think drugs are all about the pleasure. But for some, for the curious, it’s all about how they make the world more… interesting.

Anyway… I don’t do those things anymore, my body can’t survive the strains it could shake off thirty years ago. But I was playing on line a while ago and had a kind of metaphorical flashback to 4 or 5 in the morning, in that little house on the alley as I started to write something about the ancient Greeks and the British invasion.

So, you need to understand that Euhemerus was a Greek mythographer (4th Century BC) at the court of Cassander, the king of Macedonia. He is chiefly known for a rationalizing method of interpretation, known as Euhemerism, that treats mythological accounts as a reflection of actual historical events shaped by retelling and traditional mores.

The writer Robert Graves said of Greek myth: "True myth may be defined as the reduction to narrative shorthand of ritual mime performed on public festivals, and in many cases recorded pictorially." (The Greek Myths, Introduction). Graves was deeply influenced by Sir James George Frazer's mythography The Golden Bough, and he would have agreed that myths are generated by many cultural needs.

Myths authorize the cultural institutions of a tribe, a city, or a nation by connecting them with universal truths. Myths justify the current occupation of a territory by a people, for instance. All cultures have developed over time their own myths, consisting of narratives of their history, their religions, and their heroes. The great power of the symbolic meaning of these stories for the culture is a major reason why they survive as long as they do.

Myths that are based on a historical events over time become imbued with symbolic meaning, transformed, shifted in time or place, or even reversed. One way of conceptualizing this process is to view 'myths' as lying at the far end of a continuum ranging from a 'dispassionate account' to 'legendary occurrence' to 'mythical status'. As an event progresses towards the mythical end of this continuum, what people think, feel and say about the event takes on progressively greater historical significance while the facts become less important. By the time one reaches the mythical end of the spectrum the story has taken on a life of its own and the facts of the original event have become almost irrelevant.

This method or technique of interpreting myths as accounts of actual events, euhemerist exegesis, dates from antiquity and can be traced back (from Spencer) to Evhémère's Histoire sacrée (300 BCE) which describes the inhabitants of the island of Panchaia in the Indian Ocean as normal people deified by popular naivety.

As Roland Barthes affirms, "Myth is a word chosen by history. It could not come from the nature of things.”

Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) was a French literary critic, literary and social theorist, philosopher, and semiotician. Barthes's work extended over many fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism, semiology, existentialism, Marxism and post-structuralism.

Barthes' 1957 book Mythologies was a collection of interrogations of pieces of cultural materia conducted to expose how bourgeois society used them to assert its values upon others. For instance, portrayal of wine in French society as a robust and healthy habit would be a bourgeois ideal perception contradicted by certain realities (i.e. that wine can be unhealthy and inebriating). He found semiology, the study of signs, useful in these interrogations. Barthes explained that these bourgeois cultural myths were second-order signs, or significations. A picture of a full, dark bottle is a signifier relating to a signified: a fermented, alcoholic beverage - wine. However, the bourgeois take this signified and apply their own emphasis to it, making ‘wine’ a new signifier, this time relating to a new signified: the idea of healthy, robust, relaxing wine. Motivations for such manipulations vary from a desire to sell products to a simple desire to maintain the status quo. These insights brought Barthes very much in line with similar Marxist theory.

Now, the thing that I want to take from all of this is this notion of “mythology” not as some imaginary realm of dragons and elves, but as the end of a process that involves the removal of actual events from their concrete historical moorings.

And so we fast forward to early 1964 and the beginning of what we all now call the “British invasion.”

I started thinking about the British invasion as an example of cultural mythology when I read the article “Before the Beatles: International Influences on American Popular Recordings, 1940-63” by William L. Schurk, B. Lee Cooper and Julie A. Cooper in the May 2007 issue of the journal Popular Music and Society. It is an academic journal and, as such, most often stuffed full of the self-evident nit-picked into absurdity. I published a couple times in the journal, presented papers at their conferences over the years and, because of my odd mix of academic and music business credentials, I am a member of their advisory board (which is to say, I don't pay for the journal).

But I digress….

In their introduction the authors write that, “This discographic compilation is designed to debunk the myth of 1964 as the foreign influence watershed year in American recorded music. . . . The misconception being examined is that, until the arrival of The Beatles, Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, Hollies, Kinks, Zombies, and others in 1964, American recording charts were largely devoid of foreign-born performers.”

In 40 pages chock full of charts and tables these scholars present a very well-reasoned argument that there was a significant non-US presence in the pop charts well before the supposed invasion, and that US-artists fared far better during the invasion than is generally believed. But I would extend this conclusion a bit farther.

The mythology of the British invasion is tied to a much larger mythology of America in the 1960s, and an even larger mythology of the 1960s itself. The exit of Eisenhower, the arrival of JFK, Kennedy’s subsequent assassination, the baby boom, Vietnam, rise of drug use, etc., all neatly places the 1950s in a conservative pin-striped box and the 1970s into a polyester disco shirt box, the 80s into a Reagan-Gordon Gekko-shaped box and so on.

If there is anything the culture needs to get over more than the myth of the 1960s I don’t know what that might be.

The essence of that myth is that we had our chance, the planets were aligned, we could have had a utopia, but we blew it. Now the planets won’t align for another 9,000 years so, really, what’s the point? This is a horrible, self-centered, banal, and destructive mythology, more destructive than any Reagan-based mythos the Republicans can muster.

I still like paisley, I long for the return of ruffled cuffs and collarless jackets, and I kind of miss the beads. But perhaps it’s time to see the 1960s as the superficial paper-thin bourgeois “revolution” that it was (and take another look at the 1950s while we’re at it) and try walking forward one more time before the light fades entirely.


Master of Disaster said...

I almost think the way the 1950s is represented is the most off the mark. Calling it the decade of conformity and McCarthyism misses all the great literature, journalism, film, and music from the decade. It's like people assume just because most men wore suits back then, they must have been soulless automatons.

Stan Denski said...

I think you're right. I have a friend who says that the 60s are very much overrated and the 50s and 70s very much underrated. The music alone of the 50s... Kind Of Blue for crissakes.... It was the reactions to the conformity that make it the mother of the 60s counterculture.