Thursday, December 23, 2010

Myth and Paradox

"Every myth is driven by the obsessive need to solve a paradox that cannot be solved."
~ Wendy Doniger, in the Foreword to Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture by Claude Levi-Strauss (emphasis in original)

Okay. So I've been reading a lot of cultural anthropology lately, particularly the mid-20th century structuralists. If you're a writer who came up in the era of the Disney memo and its aftermath, you've already been exposed to a subset of these ideas. Chris Voegler's book, The Hero's Journey, was basically a recodification of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces in screenwriting terms. I think technically Campbell would be classified a comparative mythologist rather than a true structuralist, but I think nobody would dispute that his work was related to what came later from the structuralists. Certainly, they were all looking for commonalities among groups of folkloric stories.

In any case, if you've read Voegler or Campbell, you've been exposed to one collective myth analysis. What I've been reading lately are similar studies about other kinds of collective myths -- that is, myths other than the hero's quest. Not all the work of the comparative mythologists and structuralists is relevant to writers, but some of it is. Levi-Strauss's studies of Pan-American myths have been particularly fascinating to me (especially the stuff on twinning and untwinning -- whoa dayumn), and Vladimir Propp's work on Russian folk tales has been a thought-provoking read. Highly recommended if you're interested in that sort of thing.

For something like the past ten years, I've been quietly proposing my own theory that genre romance novels are, at their core, an attempt to recast the woman's sociobiological paradox into a pleasant and easily digested story type with a guaranteed positive outcome. And Alicia has been saying for quite some time that romance novels are folkloric in nature. We didn't pull these ideas out of thin air -- for my part, I was strongly influenced by, again, an anthropological study I read some years ago, which I can no longer cite because I can't find it. (But why is it always the anthropologists who are making these bells chime?) The study was either commissioned or produced by a Harvard professor, and it made for fascinating reading. I wish I could tell you more than that, but all I ever had was a paper copy of the study and only heaven knows where I put it. I may have lost it in a move a few years ago.

In any case, the paper addressed the two sociobiological functions of both genders and how that has influenced gender roles. The female's two functions are to get pregnant and to feed the young. The male's are to inseminate females and to fight off predators.

It's that grouping, or that division of roles, if you prefer, that causes a paradox. The female needs a male to get pregnant, of course, but she also expects him to fight off predators. Except that sometimes the male himself is a predator. So she needs to bring a potential predator close in order to keep other potential predators away. The trick for the female is to find a man who is willing to fight others but not willing to fight her. She has to trigger his protective instincts rather than his battle instincts.

In romance novels, the hero almost never starts off as perfect hero material. He's an unreachable lone wolf, or a brooding wounded heart, or a charming rogue who's delightful to be around but can't be trusted in an emergency. The heroine recognizes this in him, this initial tendency in him to have traits that might not make him such a perfect partner. And she also generally recognizes traits in him that would make him a worthy partner, things like strength and size and power. The journey of the romance novel is one in which the heroine develops trust, the hero develops protectiveness, and both of them develop mutual love and passion.

We retell this story over and over in genre romance novels and other formats because it's an important myth. I don't mean "myth" in the sense of something that doesn't exist -- in fact, happy marriages and good partnerships do exist, and plenty of them. I mean "myth" in the anthropological sense of a story that is part of a cultural tradition or heritage. These are stories that contain a deeper meaning, something almost primal. These are stories that help us understand the world and our parts in it. For female readers of romance novels, these may be stories that help us understand the almost instinctive ways we identify and come to love good men.

In any case, all of this is just to say that I really got a kick out of the Doniger quote, and now you all know why. fwiw.



Leona said...

ALL of this because you get a kick out of a quote? :D I heart this blog.

It's funny because I was just expounding on this idea with my husband recently. As well as they way people look down on romance books. (whole other myth buster to happen there!)

I really love this blog. The way you explain things helps me to remember and know. And when I forget, I can go look it up under something logical. Sigh.

Okay, back to your regular programming. I'm working my way through my paranormal, and you know what I found? A comment to myself to look up a particular blog of yours regarding use of him vs his LMAO

Stella Omega said...

Yeah, solving a paradox that cannot be solved.

because not every female is a woman. Not every man is male.

For me, the answer is to deny and de-construct that male/female dynamic in my life, in as many ways as I can, and to subvert the romance genre to my own ends.

Edittorrent said...

Stella, good thoughts! I like the idea of the paradox that can't be solved, but I suspect that's what makes it eternal, as Theresa points out, and it's always thus, whether the gender roles match the sexual roles or not.

I tend to think of the essential romantic issue == the danger-- is intimacy vs. identity, and that's going to be true whenever we love, more particularly in romantic relationships, but in parental relationships too. It's the danger that makes it thrilling, and ripe for subversion too.

It's all far, far more complicated than most critics think, I think. More complex, and more primal same time. Talk about paradox!

Edittorrent said...

Stella, I think that kind of deconstruction is very useful in that it challenges our preconceptions. It can both broaden and deepen our understanding of intimacy. But I don't know how to workaround biology. I mean, yes, sometimes a male is not a man, but he still probably can't get pregnant or breast feed a baby. Unless there are some new scientific advancements I'm unaware of. I don't know the answers -- I just find this all interesting.


Wes said...

Tuesday I saw the Cohen brothers' version of True Grit, and I submit that it (as well as the original) falls into the category of myth. Not only does it present the image that many Americans want for their past, it incorporates all twelve stages identified by Vogler. I won't spoil the film by listing the scenes that correspond to each stage, but Matty clearly meets her mentor when she encounters Rooster Cogburn, and she literally crosses the threshold when she plunges her horse into the river. The film follows step by step to the last one, Return with the Elixir, when she travels to meet Cogburn many years later.

BTW, Vogler is not alone in finding someone pirating his work by submitting it word-for-word except for the author's name.

Also BTW, see the flick. It's good.

Dave's Girl said...

Interesting blog, but it's deeper than this; suggest you look at Kal Bashir's 510+ stage hero's journey over at which I think goes over this material quite well.

Wes said...

Coen. Coen brothers.

BTW, what does fwiw mean?

Edittorrent said...

Thanks for the link, Dave, but I was really talking about a different structure. I only mentioned Voegler and Campbell to give readers a frame of reference, not because this relates to the particular structure they worked with.


Edittorrent said...

fwiw = for what it's worth


Saralee Etter said...

Oh, I'm so glad I read your blog! I totally agree--genre romance novels are telling and re-telling the important myths about our identity and purpose. They articulate our unspoken beliefs and help us understand that we're not alone in believing them.

People who read (and write) genre romance novels accept and share certain basic notions about how we form loving relationships with men. Okay, I know you said that.

But I think there are lots of people who have different paradigms in mind. They are probably the ones who gravitate toward the mystery genre and other kinds of stories.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post!

I so agree with this- I tend to think of the essential romantic issue == the danger-- is intimacy vs. identity, and that's going to be true whenever we love.

I've been digging deeper into my heroine's motivations and her relationship block over the past week, and this is what I hit axs her rock bottom issue.

Could have saved myself some time by reading this post first- except I think it helped me really get it to work it out myself. Slow learner- moi?