No intelligent conservative doubts the necessity of promulgating myth to convey and sustain social values. However, both the physical structure and the rhythms of modern life are different than in earlier times, and this must be understood in order to revive myth in the West.
It may help to look first at the transmission of myth in a surviving traditional society, and then to draw contrasts with a more conventionally modern one.
Modern Afghans & Ancient Greeks
Today’s rural Afghans lead lives remarkably similar to Classical Greeks. While it would be rash to draw any causal relationship, both societies share the architecture, agricultural calendar and an oral tradition that kept Homer’s epics alive and culturally-central for two millennia or more, before literacy grew common among Greek farmers.
The poorest, modern, rural Afghans and Ancient Greeks have lived in single-room cottages where a family ate, slept and wintered together; more in single-family or small multi-family, mud-brick compounds offering a few rooms; and the wealthy fewest in villas. As agrarians, each have tended to grow two crops a year (usually cereals over winter, then fruits and vegetables through summer), affording them much leisure time among two annual cycles of planting and harvesting. Broadcast media, unavailable to Ancient Greeks of course, only reached Afghan cities a generation ago and is still unavailable in many rural areas.
So Ancient Greeks and many modern Afghans have spent much time crowded intimately among their families, with little else to do but talk and tell stories, repeat myths and convey values, until these grow quite unforgettable and become intrinsically second-nature to them.
As Greeks absorbed their pagan religious and Homeric myths, today rural Afghans all know their Aesop’s fables (brought by Alexander), plus ancient Iranian cycles such as the Shahnama or medieval love-stories of Leila and Majnoon, more indigenous and intrinsically Afghan mythic and historical tales together with vast quantities of poetry and proverbs, plus Islamic material reaching from the Holy Koran to Hadith (validated stories of their Prophet Mohammad), and mythic tales of various prophets and saints which are often as implausible as they are instructional, vivid and charming.
This means that virtually all Afghans except the most urbanised – a recent phenomenon – share the same values conveyed through the same myths and cultural references (apart from a smaller amount of unique local material), just as Ancient Greeks must have done within their own culture. Among Afghans, this greater volume of shared information and wisdom encompasses 32 languages, many ethnicities and three Islamic sects, and they all know this (which is why when foreigners suggest partitioning the country, all Afghan groups stop squabbling long enough to disagree in complete accord).
In addition to conditions that encourage conveying and preserving myth, there are also intentional strategies, including more than repetition and play-acting to render repetition all the more unforgettable.
Sometimes myths are rendered more memorable in metered rhyme and metered prose as the Greeks did: Homer’s oft-repeated phrases of “wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn” are said to reinforce a spoken cadence in Classical Greek, much as the metre of haiku resonates uniquely in the Japanese language. For English-speakers, this is why it is easier to recall a bit of poetry or a passage from a Shakespeare play or a modern song-lyric, than to remember a non-metrical prose paragraph from a textbook. Poetry (including epic poetry) is, not surprisingly, Afghanistan’s most popular form of art.
Widespread Afghan non-literacy may also strengthen myth within a rural, spoken culture that is free from written distractions; another similarity with ancient Hellenes.
Values, often conveyed and vivified by myth, are reinforced by the limited social circle of Afghan rural life. In his definitive, 1970s book “Afghanistan,” the renowned, American anthropologist Louis Dupree observed that few rural Afghans had friends who were neither immediate family-members nor cousins: and it may largely be true today. Would that have been so different in the farming communities surrounding Athens or Macedon?
The combination of these factors did more than literacy to preserve and spread the Homeric myths, the Jewish Bible, the Muslim Koran, the mythological portions of the Sanskrit Hindu Puranas, and the more than 100 volumes of the Buddha’s sermons and fables preserved in the Pali Canon (even though most were written down early), and around the world even today many people can recite their respective mythic and/or religious text in full.
Myth at Work Today
My current client, Afghanistan’s 50-year-old Minister of Agriculture, grew up in a farming village high in the snowy mountains just outside of Kabul. His father, a civil servant, commuted by bus to the capitol, but it was only in the mid-Seventies that his village could receive television broadcasts.
Once his uncles’ wheat-crops were locked safely inside of their dry, mud-brick storerooms and there was no farm-work to be done until spring; once the schools were shut for winter (they close not in summer but in winter, and at harvest-time so the children can assist), the womenfolk sewed and cooked and preserved fruit and vegetables as delicious jams and pickles, the menfolk chopped wood and stoked the bokharis (like Franklin stoves) and played with the children, and everyone did what every Afghan loves the most, being together with family. It must have been no different for the families of Achilles, Odysseus and their Greek neighbours.
In the very dead of Afghan winter, when the village lay under a thick blanket of snow, the wandering storytellers would come and stay for up to a week, sheltered in the homes of his parents and his relatives. Day and night, sometimes until dawn, the modern, itinerant troubadours would retell Afghan myths, often acting out favourite passages with stage-props, in toasty-warm but smoky rooms heated by wood-burning stoves and lit by kerosene lanterns, jammed with an entire extended family spanning four generations. Over ensuing weeks or months, often snowed-in together, the smaller family units would repeat the stories and the children would compete to assume the best roles and act out the most dramatic passages.
“But you were Laila (or Bibi Miriam or Malalai) last time: it’s my turn!” a little Afghan girl may have cried to her sister, eager to don the old velvet curtain-scrap turned into a royal cloak, in order to impress her parents and siblings by playing the aristocratic Laila, a mythic Persian beauty whose handsome beau dies of lovelorn madness. Or Bibi Miriam, the Blessed Virgin Mary so adored by every Muslim family. Or Malalai, the very real and modern Afghan heroine who bravely-but-scandalously ripped off her veil and sent the menfolk to victory over the British invaders in the 1878 Battle of Maiwand; just as Homeric wives commanded their Athenian husbands to come back from Troy bearing their shields (signifying that they won and did not drop shields and flee) or be carried home dead upon them. Stirring stuff it is, and every myth imparts ancient values never to be forgotten.
The troubadours no longer draw near to Kabul, with its broadcast television and DVD-players, but the tradition no doubt survives across the many remote, snowy and mountainous regions. Stuck indoors together through winter after winter, loving Afghan families repeat the same myths over and over, and generation upon generation grow up cherishing the same ancient values conveyed by their age-old myths.
Today this Afghan Cabinet Minister, a fine and noble man, is a product of his country’s most deeply-held traditions, and he is thus a walking-encyclopaedia of Afghan myth and poetry and values with which he often regales us over lunch.
Quite unlike some of his colleagues who grew up in less-traditional settings, his intrinsically Afghan understanding is an advantage psychologically, culturally, morally and politically. Multi-lingual, travelled and well-educated, he is today as comfortable and effective talking to President Barak Obama or US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as he is sitting on a mat under a leafy tree, sipping tea with elders in an Afghan farming village. His rich culture, via myth and repetition, makes him fully Afghan, fully human and fully humane.
He exemplifies the curious Afghan word qaum, which describes the 360-degree, sum-total of an Afghan’s relationship to family and community and tribe, district and province and nation, including the uniting civic, cultural and religious values that encompass him there. It defines where (Afghans believe that) God intentionally placed every individual Afghan whom He created and, by extension, indicates why.
An Afghan’s qaum is, metaphorically, at once his home address, his GPS satellite map when he travels, his insurance policy and his top assignment. It is, at the most fundamental level, what he is. Everything else – his job, his interests and even his loves – come second and fit into the larger cultural rubric. His life, his values and his qaum are so fully integrated that he rarely stops to consider them; and in that sense it is a difficult concept for Western individualists to understand.
An Afghan without a qaum is a feral creature to be pitied, an impotent outcast, the motherless child of the heart-rending Negro spiritual. Within his qaum the Afghan is fully-armoured, knowing wherever and forever who he is and where he belongs, root and branch. Myth, plus its accoutrements and trappings, is how an Afghan learns of his qaum and the attending values, rights and obligations.
In that sense a typical Afghan probably differs little from an Athenian at the gates of Troy, or a Virginian Confederate at Gettysburg. As such, my statesman-client is of uncommon intelligence, education and talent, but otherwise quite similar to the vast majority of his well-rooted, socially-integrated and psychologically-secure countrymen.
When he meets an Afghan abroad, either they know of one another already or they quickly identify their qaums and start out with a fairly clear understanding. If an American meets an Argentine and they realise that they are both Catholics, they know that they share a certain volume of values superior to some of their other differences; the same if an American Mason meets a brother from a foreign lodge. But in Afghan culture, qaum means more.
There are many Afghan qaums, each with different membership but with core values and myths in common, and this is the glue that has preserved their culture for at least three-thousand years. To varying degrees, it is replicated in most traditional societies.
Do Americans have qaums, fed by common myth to transmit shared values to all? Once they did, perhaps even until recently.
Myths and American Qaums
American qaums are portrayed in American films, at least through the 1950s, either as iconographic or corny according to one’s taste.
Despite “Father” Pat O’Brien’s best efforts in “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938), Jimmy Cagney is going to the electric chair and the New York City street-kids who admired the gangster represent their respective urban qaums: the red-headed Irish boy and the curly-haired Italian-American, the stolid Pole and the small Jew.
So why was that Jewish boy hanging around with a Catholic priest? Be still, for you are in the presence of something sacred: myth. In mythical fashion, they reappear together a few years later, grown up at Anzio and Guadalcanal, wrapping one another’s wounds, or rifling teary-eyed through a blood-stained wallet to send a dog-eared photograph back to their dead buddy’s sweetheart or kid-sister.
This single myth conveys a truth that was readily visible, the truth of overarching American values, a shared loyalty to persons and places defined as American. It was especially valuable in wartime: “Sure, my guys might give the Dagoes (or pick your local enemy) a black eye now and then, but if some stinkin Nazi tries to lay a hand on ‘em, he’s gotta deal with me first!”
I would bet my life that it is precisely the same a few blocks from my rooms in Kabul, inside of the US military base there, as a permanent part of the American military mythos.
Born in the 19th Century, this particular myth was not needed before broad Pan-European immigration grew into millions, and the nation spread out from its chiefly Northern European origins. It portrayed something real or else it would not have so resonated among audiences and so repeatedly; and to a degree it was also prescriptive in helping to build an American attitude by portraying a value that people wanted to see strengthened.
Earlier in the 19th Century, De Tocqueville described overarching American values that ran broader and deeper than just nationalism, plus a commonality of source-material: every household, he said, contained a Bible and a copy of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” a masterpiece of allegory and myth. He noted the strong American tendency to form qaums (out of Northern European ingredients) in myriad voluntary groups united for various ends, and of course there were the ethnic qaums swan-diving into the American melting-pot. He described the mechanism and the material that it conveyed.
While not identical to Afghan qaums the American ones seemed close enough, but over time the differences became clearer. With endless vistas of land available almost for free; with new cities springing up from the prairie to the coast; qaum membership became optional. “Go West, young man,” said someone other than Horace Greeley and multitudes did, to reinvent themselves and leave their old qaums behind.
Certainly in Afghanistan, and one suspects in Ancient Greece, land was ever scarce, opportunities few and the support of one’s qaum was essential economically as well as socially and psychologically. This was little unchanged in the Pilgrim Colonies, but in the vast American frontier it became optionaI.
I believe that this relatively-new element of choice is far more important as the reason that America began to lose her traditions rather than, say, columnist Pat Buchanan’s focus on race and immigration. Whether or not most non-European immigrant families ever fully-imbue Western myth is a contentious matter. They may, and wholly uproot their own earlier traditions; or they may adopt what they need to live among their new countrymen and do so eagerly.
My Persian immigrant friends retain aspects of their beautiful language and rich culture at home, while enthusiastically embracing everything American: they get choked up at baseball games when the “Star-Spangled Banner” is played and they can do an Independence Day barbeque to make you drop to your knees. They can teach their American-born neighbours much about the Bill of Rights that they never had back home. But they worry, not that their children will fail to fit into their adopted homeland, but that their youngsters will leave old-world traditions behind. Can the process be different among the, say, the Hispanics about whom Mr. Buchanan apparently worries?
The American invention of the optional qaum, the psuedo-qaum, or even “Amazing, Low-Calorie, New Qaum-Lite,” is a far more critical matter.
Liberated from his or her qaum by the frontier, an American escaped the repetition of myth and some mythic values weakened: not so much the nationalistic ones that cost little to keep, but more the behavioural ones. Theodore Dreiser fictionalised this process in the early Twentieth Century with his tales of wholesome, small-town youths gone wrong under the bright lights of the big city.
In the 1939 film “Roaring Twenties,” Jimmy Cagney and his best buddy come home from the trenches of the Great War to find joblessness: his pal abandons his urban, Irish-Catholic qaum, they become bootleggers and finish gunned down in a hail of lead. Underlying much popular art of the pre-WW2 period is the theme of qaums lost by force or by choice, often at grim cost. American popular culture made the diagnosis early, probably because the paying audiences perceived the pressures and the risks.
America still has her qaums but they are almost all optional and transitory, due to a mix of economic pressures or opportunities, and personal choice. Only among the Amish and their like, or semi-cloistered Orthodox Jews, might one find an American qaum as all-encompassing as the Afghan version.
Amongst everyone else, people who spent a few years following The Grateful Dead went back to school and now practice law; people from Boston preferred to live in Wyoming or vice versa; a computer-designer drops out of the rat-race and opens a fishing-lodge while a youth who grew up in a fishing-lodge moves to Silicon Valley to take the dropout’s place. This is at once one of America’s greatest virtues and weaknesses, for really, an optional qaum is no qaum at all.
If one chooses a pseudo-qaum, one inherits a specific body of myth that will be different in, say, a motorcycle club than in a corporate law firm, a sewing circle or an urban group of young Goths. If you swop groups you switch myths.
Moreover, information technology offers long-distance access to different pseudo-qaums, each with its own repository of myth and values: innumerable people go online learning to speak Klingon, a made-up language of space-aliens from a television science-fiction series.
“No! No!” insists Darren or Janice, “I was a gangsta after I was a vegan, but before I got into online rodeo.” An Afghan would not understand this very well, or at least would not take it too seriously: his very real qaum came pre-installed.
Due to modern economic and geographic mobility, social options and technology, few individuals remain in the same pseudo-qaum for long; few imbibe the same body of myth for long; and values become both shallower and less universal individually and across all social groups. What one imbues over 18 months online among fellow-Klingon enthusiasts cannot compare with an Afghan’s, or an Ancient Greek’s, lifelong exposure to a consistent body of myth; nor, one suspects, is the vast repository of recently-concocted Klingon myth quite up to Homeric standards.
Nearly a century ago, T. S. Eliot warned of the death of pan-Western culture, through loss of a universal understanding of the Classics and the iconography, references and values transmitted within. He barely scraped the surface of the dilemma, made clearer in the modern and voluntary self-atomisation of the West.
Forget about sharing Classical references: nobody reads from the same script, even while getting the daily news.
Despite our pleas, the genie will not return to the bottle. There is no going back, barring a “Canticle for Leibowitz”-style apocalypse that drives Americans into self-sufficient communities and mandatory qaums, which would adopt their own myths and values, instilling them through social pressure and repetition. That seems unlikely for good or ill.
But there may be strategies to rebuild, at least partially, a common body of living myth founded on modern realities – but not by attempting in vain to replicate the circumstances of the past.
(Next: Part II, Revitalising Myth)
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