The Mythical Method

painting-penelopeWhen you are a child, you look forward to growing up and time never goes by. The future adult life is seen with the eyes of innocence: a wonderful, festive, harmless carousel, whose protagonists can enjoy their hard gained independence at last. However, once you eventually  find yourself in the world of maturity, that initial thrill that usually freedom gives, gradually fades away as your perception of time changes. What was formerly felt eternally slow starts to accelerate, till you realize that all that time that could be joyfully wasted once is actually finite and you start to look at the world that surrounds you with the alarmed eyes of “experience”, as Blake would say. Your certainties gradually crumble, and the future becomes less appealing than it used to be and if you look back, you cannot but have the impression that the past was ,after all, something warm, tranquilizing, bright, in a word: happy.

JoyceUlysses2This comforting vision of the past, can be found in many writers and poets, particularly  at the beginning of the twentieth century. Two world wars had brought death and destruction, the present was just like a “heap of broken images” (The Waste Land, T.S.Eliot) which left no room for hope.  Modern artists tried to express the consequent sense of loss, fear and paralysis that had pervaded those tragic decades in their works stressing this fragmentation and the impossibility of a future rebirth. Hence, they manifested a certain nostalgia for a past, which was seen as glorious, because it was vital and expression of universal values, while the present was fragmented and sterile.

ulyssesThe mythical method allowed those artists to show that gap between present and past. In Ulysses, for example, Joyce employs Homer’s myth of the legendary Greek king of Ithaca Odysseus, as the principle of unity of his novel. The three main characters of his novel are supposed to be the modern counterpart of Odysseus, Telemachus and Penelope, except that these great figures have lost the power of their symbolic value. Telemachus was the son of Odysseus and Penelope, who fought to have his family back. He stood up to his mother’s suitors during the long absence of his father, he sailed to inquire after his fate and he was by his side when he eventually came back to win his kingdom back. His equivalent Stephen Dedalus is the artist who has actually rejected his family. Molly Bloom , differently from  Penelope has put away her loom and is unfaithful, in fact she is having an affair after ten years of celibacy within the marriage. Odysseus is her husband Leopold Bloom, a middle-age Jewish advertising canvasser, who wanders around Dublin as Ulysses wandered around the Mediterranean sea on a series of inconclusive errands during which he meets the young writer Stephen Dedalus.

Once emptied of their symbolic meaning, the three characters show all their complexity and fragility. The fragments of their thoughts and experiences are included in the 18 chapters, which represent the 18  hours of the day the novel is set (16 th June 1904)  and 18 episodes of the Odyssey. Once again the myth helps the writer give order to the chaos of thought. Each episode, in fact, seems like a drawer whose function is to keep together all the pieces of the characters’ soul. Hence, the past provides a semblance of unity but it cannot cure the wounds of the present, leaving those souls desperately broken.


30 thoughts on “The Mythical Method

  1. Hi, interesting piece. Never encountered the mythical method before. Always knew Ulysses was based on Homer, but didn’t know there was a name for the process. Perhaps most books are based to some extent on myths and legends?

  2. Although I would know little about mythical methods in literature I can confirm the various speeds of time in relation to age. As the clock ticks on so does the intensity and urgency of experiencing life and exploring the world. If I could get an extension on this life assignment I would be grateful.
    You have really made me think with this post. I had to mull it over for ae time before commenting.
    Hope all is well with you and Mr Run.

    • Hi Sue, everything is fine. This is the period of exams and I am under pressure. I am really looking forward to having my holidays. This post was actually meant as a help for my students as the mythical method is one of the topics they have to deal with 🙂

  3. Is there any recognition of Bloomsday where you are? Here in NYC they reenact the trial against the book on charges of obscenity. I saw it a few years ago and it was fascinating and very funny 🙂

  4. Yet another insightful post Steffy — how do you do it?!

    There’s an interesting (if flawed) book on the Mythical Method except it doesn’t employ that term. Entitled ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ (by Christopher Booker) it suggests that most of the great stories from ancient times onwards use one or more of these plots, which he labels Overcomig the Monster, Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, the Quest and so on. While I don’t agree with everything he says, it’s easy to see how many myths use these tropes and how our narrative thinking falls under the spell of these plots.

  5. This reminds me so much of my graduate school days, reading Ulysses, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, The Dubliners. And starting, but not finishing, Finnegan’s Wake. I think that the mythical method adds another layer of complexity or point of analysis, one that has kept grad students busy for any number of years. And it’s a blueprint for writers, one that provides a coherent through line. Nice post!

    • Thanks Jilanne. You didn’t finish Finnegan’s Wake , hence, I feel bound to confess you that I skipped many (many) pages of Ulysses. You don’t exactly feel pleasure while reading many of his novels, but I can truly say that I admire his craft.

      • So, so true! I was trying to think about the section that reads like a newspaper reporter. That one was a yawner. A friend and I just had breakfast the other morning, and we talked about Ulysses and Moby Dick and how we skipped sections that held no appeal for us. Craft, OTOH, is a horse of a different color.

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