My fee for grocery shopping for my parents last week was Steve Martin’s Pure Drivel. Of all the books in the discount bin at the grocery store it seemed the most promising. That isn’t saying much, of course. Grocery stores aren’t known for their excellent book collections. Let’s be honest, it was an act of desperation. I’m desperate for a good story.
Sadly, Martin’s book has lived up to its title. It is nothing than pure drivel and not amusing enough, even for drivel, to read all of. It’s one of The New York Times Bestsellers so obvious there are a lot of people who disagree with me, but clearly our tastes differ. Possibly the problem is that I’m in a mood for more than amusement.
Thinking about this dilemma, as I sat at our kitchen table, chit chatting with my parents, I noticed a book my dad brought home for me the other day: Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita. The bland title had initially been a turn off but I started leafing through it tonight. The table of contents finally piqued my interest as I saw titles to works I’ve long wanted to read. Flipping through the pages I noticed sub-titles with names I haven’t yet heard of from their mythology. So, finally, I have another book to read. And this one I think I’ll finish.
Before sinking into it too deeply I’ve been caught by a comment on the back cover about the Mahābhārata (one of the oldest epic poems of India). It claims that the Mahābhārata is such a plentiful treasury of Indian culture and beliefs that it is said “whatever is not contained within it is not true of India.” It strikes me as sad that we have nothing like this in our culture.
America has no shortage of literature but we do have a shortage of cultural myths. Sure there are a few mythic American figures but no great legends. The native myths of this country are cramped in reservations. We are foreign to them and they are foreign to us. The rest of us only have remnants of tales from our ancestors’ home countries, many of us hardly have these. The American dream has always been about the present more than the past. Many of our parents or grandparents or great grandparents who immigrated here wanted to forget their old identities and create new ones. As an Enlightenment project, our nation has tried to put away such irrational things as myths and legends.
I think this is particularly true of white American culture. It is no wonder that we often feel as if we are culturally neutral. As a mixed race (and most of us whites here, especially outside the coasts, are very mixed) we have no particular stories to even go back to. So we borrow stories from around the world.
I wonder what it would be like to have grown up with native myths and legends. I think about my Vietnamese friend Long An who wrote, around their new year, “It’s very fitting that it’s finally the year of the Dragon, as it beckons all of us back to the sacred myth, and that no matter what our divisions and quarrels are, at the end of the day we’re all still from the same egg.” What would it be like to have a sacred myth that beckons all of us?
There is no shortage of American writers attempting in their own way to answer this question. I see this in our comic book industry, our literary fiction and especially in our films and tv shows. I don’t think it is something you can create retroactively. Still, I’m very much looking forward to these two adaptations of fairytales. It looks like these film makers are doing more than retelling European fables, it looks like they’re trying to create legends.