I promised a friend last week that I’d soon get to unveiling what I called (somewhat grandiosely) “The Christian Myth of Language.” Most literary theories have a mythic element to them. . . a brief story or description that answers etiological questions about language and/or literature. These brief stories may serve as a starting point in the development of a theory, but not all users of a theory are required to believe them. So, for example, the Freudian myth describes language as a kind of mental pacifier the ego attempts to cram into the id’s yowling yaw. You don’t have to believe this in order to understand and experiment with its implications in a text.
Hence the term “myth”: The story which I’ll tell in Part II stands in the same relation to true, living Christianity that written myth stood in relation to the actual pagan beliefs of the Romans or Greeks. It’s not entirely untrue of the religion, but you won’t get a complete sense of what the religion is just by reading it. It’s been distilled for a particular rhetorical purpose.
Before I begin with the “Christian Myth of Language,” though, I’d like to provide some more brief examples of the myths that back other critical theories, to help adjust expectations and for the sake of context. Hence this blog is part I; next week I will publish the second, more exciting bit. (This week’s entry is fairly dry; actually. If you’re not that interested in general course literary criticism, feel free to pass it by. But come back next week!) What follows here are four brief summaries, done on a whim. . . “mythic” versions of four of the most popular literary theories in school. I make some huge generalizations, and I leave a lot unexplained; so if you want to ask any questions, or make any corrections. . . go for it! I’ve also written a paragraph or so beneath each suggesting a positive way to incorporate the myths into one’s own reading practices. Without further ado. . . .
Jungian / Archetypal Criticism. According to the Jungian myth, all of our minds connect in sleep within a pool of powerful, reoccurring patterns and figures. Storytelling is a means of manifesting these figures from our dreams in waking life, and those who are most gifted with language are those who can fish the lowest underlying patterns up to the surface. Jungian critics love to study mythology and religion proper, because they see religious myths as some of the purest versions of their archetypes, their name for these unconscious patterns.
Despite some fringe anxiety, Jungian criticism is not on entirely bad terms with Christianity. C.S. Lewis, for example, gave a nod to the archetype when he suggested that similarities between the Gospel and Norse mythology are evidence of God-given “good dreams,” intended to prepare pagans for the truth. The popular Christian author John Eldredge is a complete Jungian; his work makes an appeal for the Bible by describing it as the ultimate hero story, using archetypes to compare it to works like Braveheart and The Lord of the Rings. Eldredge doesn’t acknowledge his debt, which is unfortunate; but he does show that it’s possible to use Jungian theory constructively, even if you don’t believe everything in its myth of origins.
Feminist Criticism. Like the archetype hunters, Feminists also acknowledge the existence of powerful, reoccurring patterns in literature and religion; unlike Jungians, however, they’re not impressed. The Feminist myth of origins describes a process of linguistic stratification. Once upon a time, patriarchal proto-societies wrote stories and codes based on arbitrary inequalities they enforced between the sexes. Over time, those stories became the accepted background wisdom of large portions of the world, informing and changing the way language was used to talk about gender, thus further reinforcing patriarchy. More stories were then written, and more unexamined prejudice was built into language. After several millennia of this process, it now becomes hard to speak, read, or write without perpetuating false and unfair gender categories. Feminist critics seek to expose the way language and literature do this.
There are lots of different ways you can go, after you’ve done a feminist critique; there are lots of ways to reconstruct gender – which is why there are lots of different kinds of feminists. Laura Bush has publicly declared herself a feminist, as has Larry Flynt. Both the founders of Ms. and Cosmopolitan magazine consider themselves to be sincere, ethical feminists. All of these people have wildly divergent ideas as to what femininity should be, but the valid insight that unites them is that gender is a social construct, distinct from biological sex. The feminist myth of language describes a process by which the arts of writing and reading may have created these false, non-biological ideas of femininity and masculinity. Even if you don’t entirely accept the myth, keep it in mind and you will discover untruths and half-truths about gender buried in whatever you read.
Marxist Criticism. The Marxist myth states that all literature springs from a desire either to justify and preserve the economic stratifications of the day, or else to protest and subvert them. Authors may not be consciously aware that this is what they are doing, but the social forces that position the author to write, and the impact that his or her writing will have, are best described in terms of economics. Really good literature, literature that endures outside a few decades or even a few centuries, is literature that reveals the plight of the working classes and envisions a better future. However, no text is entirely free from the biases of the economic system in which it was created. Finding them and revealing what they are is what the Marxist critic sets out to do.
Few words raise the hackles of (particularly American) Christians like the name Karl Marx – and with good reason. Marx was not a fan of religion. His ideas were used to rationalize some of the greatest horrors of the 20th century. Yet it would be foolish – it is foolish – for Christians to hold our hands over our ears and try to shout louder than everything that he said. Marxist literary theory sets out to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” particularly the poorer, working classes (Proverbs 31:8). Though we may have different ideas about the origin and purpose of writing (to say nothing of the ideal human society), the Marxist myth of literature can provide a noteworthy example of advocacy through reading.
Deconstruction. And now we come to the hippest, edgiest kid in Literary Theory 101. The deconstructionist myth of language says a long time ago, a bunch of old, white, male writers brashly asserted that a word and a text could have a single, correct meaning. They bolstered this claim by privileging some words over other words. In fact, however, all texts and words can have any number of meanings – and the discovery of one single, correct one is impossible. If you take away the arbitrary privileging of one word over another – say, white over black – then the claims of one central “meaning” will fall and make room for a great diversity. Deconstructionists read for paired concepts (e.g. truth / falsehood, presence / absence) in which one word is privileged over another, and then show how, by collapsing the opposition between the two, they can make all sorts of other interpretations possible.
Deconstruction is bizarre; it’s hard to contradict, and clever college students may find it empowering if they can master its schtick. . . but to many people, it’s just deeply discouraging. Deconstruction has it out for Western culture, for sure; yet I don’t think that’s why people don’t like it. Rather, I think it’s because we all want meaning in our lives. Most of us feel we have meaning, from time to time; and if we don’t feel like we have it now, we hope that we’ll have it again in the future. We want to find meaning in the texts we read, and we want there to be meaning behind the things we say. Yet there is a way in which the Christian myth of language confirms the gloomiest notions of deconstruction. . . but that will have to wait for next week.