COV&R-Bulletin No. 16 (April 1999)
"Christ follows Dionysus": Myth, Modernism, and the Mimetic Theory
A Brief Summary of Work-in-Progress
by Matthew R. Kratter
(Dissertation, UC-Berkeley, English Department)
In July 1914, on the eve of apocalyptic violence, the American poet Ezra Pound wrote to his publisher: "Jehoveh is a swine, a low grade anthropomorphic deity invented by the most loathsome of semites. . . America needs some definitely pagan publication." Contra his defenders, I believe that Pound's whoring after strange gods (like his anti-semitism) is constitutive, not intermittent; and much the same (to a greater or lesser degree) might be said of other "high modernists" like Yeats, Lawrence, Forster, Stevens, and the early Eliot. In this genealogy of literary modernism, the noxious influence of Nietzsche is present everywhere. Following the ancient trail trodden by the Lutheran clergyman's son, the modernists turn from the "life-denying" God on the Cross to the "life-affirming" radiance of the philhellene's imagined Attic paradise. In fact, one might define the movement, and the critical schools that have descended from it, in relationship to just this flight from Christianity to myth, the occult, national folklore, fascism, and neo-Dionysian ritual. My dissertation takes as its starting point the old critical debate over the relationship of myth to modernism (two words whose meaning the critics even now cannot agree on), but quickly moves on to the larger context of the birth of the modern social sciences, the history of myth interpretation, and the impact of the Gospel on the West.
Given what we now know (thanks to the mimetic theory) about the genesis of myth, it is a strange historical irony that modernists like Pound and Lawrence should be so anti-Christian, while at the same time employing myths in a manner that allows their original persecutory character to reemerge. Thus we find Pound in the Cantos resurrecting the Artemis/Actaeon myth as a useful model of how a modern genocidal purge might work: Artemis the slayer, for Pound, stands as a bracing alternative to that snivelling little Christian virtue called "Pity," which would have one refrain from setting the dogs on Actaeon. In much the same way, Lawrence (in The Plumed Serpent) resurrects the myth (and rituals) of Quetzalcoatl as a desired alternative to a "weak" Christianity that seeks to rehabilitate the victim. Pound and Lawrence fall into the same trap as Nietzsche and side with Dionysus against the Crucified.
The other half of my dissertation deals with the unmaskers of myth and ritual - especially Eliot, Joyce, and Faulkner, who for the most part belong to that lucky club of authors who (whatever their individual stances towards institutional Christianity) recognize the relevance of the Christian gospels to social theory. These modernists see myth for what it is, demystify it, and demonstrate its genesis in interpersonal rivalry and spasms of collective violence. In St-Denis, I mapped out the implicit anthropology that emerges from Joyce's treatment of enemy twins in Ulysses. Of course, both Joyce and Faulkner had the distinct advantage of having grown up in settings where many traditional rituals were still mostly intact. Joyce took great interest in the Irish custom of "hunting the wren," in which a bird is stoned and then divided up by the community on St. Stephen's Day (December 26). Likewise, much of Faulkner's obsession with lynching stems from his intense interest in the relationship between violence and mythology. In Light in August (1932), for example, he clearly sees that Zeus the thundergod is nothing more than a deified victim, and that Joe Christmas's death is homologous to the Crucifixion. Reading from Calvary, it becomes clear that the anthropologists' comparative method and the modernists' mythical method are just pit stops on the road to the Kingdom.
Matthew R. Kratter
E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org