Friday, December 29, 2006

American Mythos

I've been thinking alot about the lure of the American "mythos" - the web of stories and underlying narrative that seems to inhabit so much American art. It's there in the wandering troubadour that was the young Bob Dylan; there again in the songs about cars and girls of the Beach Boys; and there in the deep musical and mythical certainties that seem to inhabit songs by contemporary artists like Midlake and the White Stripes. Clearly there are lots of different stories here; but the sense of space - the sense of escape - the sense of exploration - the sense, I guess, of freedom are key to all of this. This week, with both James Brown and Gerry Ford passing away, we see it again. The latter seems like from another distant age; perhaps because he was an old man - the oldest president - and that the other faces from 1974 are either dead or ageing; whilst James Brown seemed still with us to the end - he was due to play another concert on New Years Eve - and the music has its own mythos about it. Anthemic, rhetorical titles help, of course, but art, in this sense, ages, but doesn't grow old. Yet is it merely distance that makes me think that America has this underlying narrative that is worthy of constant exploration, whilst we have none? Writers like Jake Arnott and David Peace have tried to construct their own recent histories - yet its notable that whilst Peace's major influence, James Ellroy, weaves the Kennedys, Cuba and Watergate in his stories, Peace's latest book is Brian Clough, Don Revie, Leeds United. Arnott has said in interview that he wanted to find a different kind of gay history, in his approximations of sixties gangster homosexuality, and again, in the adrogyny of early seventies Bowie. You can see these writers looking closely at their own mythos, and where it's not there, creating it, but using the archetypes that they can relate to: working class culture, hidden gay history. What if you're neither gay or working class? Or for that matter Scottish or Irish - other "mythos" that writers are not afraid of plugging into? There's a great Catherine Tate scene where its a support group for ginger-haired people, and after fighting amongst themselves, they bond and sing a song of togetherness, before the camera goes outside the hall, where a KKK style hate-mob is converging on them, about to raise it to the ground. I could, I guess, try and uncover the hidden ginger history of these lands - but I don't think it's exactly what I'm looking for (and that sketch is funny if only because the colour of your hair isn't something that draws people together in any real way.) Given this - and given the difficulty of untangling class from English literature - it seems that my tradition, my mythos, is one of "dissent" - the tradition of Tom Paine, Wesley, the Chartists on the one hand; Coleridge and Southey's utopias - Aleister Crowley, Oz Magazine and CRASS on the other. Yet, here lies disappointment - magazines like Citizen 32 and Dreams That Money Can Buy, as well as online zines like 3AM Magazine, would probably put themselves in that tradition; yet there's something prosaic about good intention that doesn't always lead to good art (never mind the problems of dismal collections such as Poets Against the War). And besides, part of the allure of a mythos is the shorthand it provides for readers, audiences, magazines and publishers. I'm increasingly fed up with the commodification of literature (see previous posts on just about everything), but aren't nearly all literary bloggers? Yet are we part of a dissenting tradition when we've not yet matched rhetoric with art? It is one thing to kick over the statues, but another to replace them with something equally glorious (and art is nothing if it doesn't aspire to glory as well as the utilitarian). There are artists, of course, Dante or Faulkner come to mind, who formed their own mythos from what was their in their own personal life and circumstance - but how to do that? How to find that? I'm looking through my work wanting to find the sense of connectedness, which I know is there, and the essential way forward. Partly, my fiction is stalled, in ideas that I'm finding it hard to write except through very matter-of-fact prose; and tired with the lack of wonder in so much that I read, I'm reluctant to add mere stories to the pile. Yet, there's something honest about the story - it is a connection between reader and writer and doesn't require much in the way of pyrotechnics. Besides, without a shared mythos, where can find a connection?

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