Suszynski: What is a myth but a heroic tale?

I am a person with piles of books everywhere. One pile seems to collect more dust than the rest, because I rarely visit it. It’s a pile that my family inherited from my dad’s parents. In this pile, I know the books that belonged to my grandmother because she always wrote her name in neat script on the first blank page. She also annotated the books in tight cursive. My grandfather’s books are mostly written in Polish. Since I do not know the language, I occasionally look at the pictures and symbols.

One book in the pile has no identifiable owner. It’s a book called “The Power of Myth,” which is a transcribed and edited interview between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers.

I was sucked into this book immediately although I found myself nodding and then disagreeing almost in time with every turn of the page. But it got me thinking about myth, and whether I really know what the term signifies. I wrote down this quote: “Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance.”

I realized that I have been reading a lot about myths without registering its nebulous definition. As I look now at the pile of books that once belonged to my grandparents, I see a stack of our own family myths. There are archives of Goya paintings, a book on the Polish trade union Solidarność, and countless architectural digests of buildings I vaguely remember.

At its most simple definition, a myth is “a traditional story.” When I think of myths and Greek mythology, tales of heroes and their counterparts crop up. My sophomore year of high school, I made the mistake of picking “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand for an assignment in which I had to argue to the school board on why the book should or should not become part of the curriculum. I was shy then, and maybe still am, but I was not the hero of that assignment. I still have the image in my head of the main character, Howard Roark, in front of monolithic skyscrapers — radical and individual, the creative. It’s never been an image I am particularly attracted to, I didn’t like the character.

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Mythology, to me at least, comprises stories of communities, people coming together or witnessing something important as one. Rand’s “radical individual” stands in contrast to this ideal. Roark states: “I never think of myself in relation to anyone else. I just refuse to measure myself as part of anything. I’m an utter egotist.”

As I continued my search for an understanding of myth, I came upon Albert Murray. Murray lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement. He was a great writer, thinker, and lover and critic of music, specifically blues and jazz. One of his books, “The Hero and the Blues” illuminates the parallels between blues and fiction.

I find his arguments on heroism to be extremely compelling, especially in understanding current American events: “Heroism, which is, among other things, another word for self-reliance, is not only the indispensable prerequisite for productive citizenship in an open society; it is also that without which no individual or community can remain free.”

I love this idea of heroism as self-reliance. I think I fell into a trap over the years, of being wary of the hero. But this new definition, with echoes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, makes me regard the ideas of American democracy with a little more hope. Instead of delivering each other from evil, we can rely on ourselves, but not to the extent of Randian individualism, or what I deem “selfish individualism.”

This past week has been filled with optimism for the near future, but I was also crestfallen at the sight of so many maskless faces in the lift lines. On Friday alone, I had to argue with three different people about my comfortability levels over how many people I was willing to ride the lift with or the social distancing rules of the resort. It was as if, overnight, with vaccines in sight, the mentality shifted. Internally, I wrestle with being reliant on others for my own safety. I have always been a self-reliant person.

Murray coined the term “antagonistic cooperation,” which is surprisingly apt for the times. He compares it to the trials and triumphs of the hero. If you think of the fire that forges a sword, “For all its violence, it does not destroy the metal which becomes the sword.” The hero, for all the “antagonistic” dragons it encounters, is strengthened by the dragon’s violence without being destroyed by it.

It is a bit dramatic to compare this time to the adversity that heroes face, a myth for that matter, but I do like thinking about challenges in this way. In his lifetime, Murray certainly experienced more than I ever will. But I think in some ways, his message echoes Campbell’s idea that myths are stories of search for meaning.

I will never be able to read my grandfather’s books on Solidarność, but I do know that the movement played a large roll in ending communism in Poland. It’s a beautiful word, meaning Solidarity in English: “unity or agreement of feeling or action.” I am starting to think that solidarity and myth share a lot in common.

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