POST # 10. THE STRANGER

The term “xeno” is a prefix denoting an outside entity, something foreign, something that doesn’t belong. I named my protagonist Xeno for that reason, before I had any idea what his background would be, or what would make him like he was. Though uneducated, he’s intelligent and keenly aware of the unseen dynamics underlying observable behavior. That should have made him empathetic, drawing people to him who wanted to be his friend. Instead, he’s at a distance from everyone, even those he needs and cares about. As I said in POST #1, his story, our story, went from short story to novel because I lost control of him, and even now, as of this writing, I don’t know all of how he came to be the way he is.

To tell the story, I needed Xeno to have that insight into behavior and its underlying dynamics, but such insight is not usually the province of men, especially young men, and as a conscripted peasant fisherman in antiquity, he had to be uneducated to the point of illiteracy. Having him grow up surrounded by females2 was a way for him to absorb those skills and insights, but a boy surrounded by doting women wouldn’t have the shadowy vision that my narrator needed to convey the story’s dark overtones. Like so many other things in my writing, the idea came to me when I was doing something else and not thinking about the story, at least not to my conscious knowledge.3 Xeno’s toxic family forces him to look into the shadow of motives just to survive, while allowing him to be surrounded by females who don’t buoy him with the confidence and self-esteem that would make him unable to tell my story. That background also gave me his horrible grandfather and passive-aggressive father, the most poignant parts of his first dream, though in truth, I envisioned the dream before I created the family. I don’t know how that process, or those processes, worked.

When he’s old enough, Xeno leaves his family, becoming a crewman on a merchant ship that plies the Aegean, eventually making its way to Troy to deliver supplies. At Troy, Xeno encounters his Ithacan king, Odysseus, who shanghais the crew into the army. It may seem that Xeno resigns himself to conscription a bit too easily. Though he has pent-up anger, he doesn’t really want to fight and kill, but he doesn’t have the self-esteem to see what’s done to him as wrong, that he doesn’t deserve it. It’s as if his anger is turned inward. And though he never trusts Odysseus, it’s not rooted in this initial betrayal. Xeno and Odysseus see themselves in each other; keen observers of the hidden dynamics of human behavior. Odysseus, born into royalty, can use what he sees to manipulate people, while Xeno, a peasant fishermen, can only use what he sees to survive. This power to manipulate, sometimes on a grand scale, is what makes Xeno mistrust and fear Odysseus. Social class separates them, but so does Xeno’s wariness of his king.

Other soldiers pick on Xeno because he doesn’t take to soldiering, but as he finally adapts, he becomes dependable, though not a leader or a hero. He thus moves from outcast to non-outcast, but isn’t really “one of the boys.” He speaks fondly of Mitri, but only to frame his suspicions about Odysseus’ vindictiveness. When he first leaves Troy, the morning after it’s sacked, he interacts well with several of his comrades, but there are no deep or lasting bonds. After the main armies leave for home, and the ethnically divided garrison further subdivides into core soldiers and unwanteds, Xeno realizes that he doesn’t belong in either group. Later, when most of the garrison abandons Troy after the Phrygian ultimatum, some of those who are staying gather to see, for the last time, close friends who are leaving. Xeno observes this, but he’s never part of it.

Though Xeno hates being in Troy, he volunteers for garrison duty because he hates the idea of going home even more. It’s not clear, even to me, if his family knows where he is, whether he’s alive, or if they even care. One might think, therefore, that his relationships within the garrison would be that much more important to him, but he never tells Tlemos, his closest ally and protector, what he’s learned about the actual reasons for the war, or that he’s acting as Odysseus and Menalaous’ scout for the missing Trojan treasury. He lies to Xeriagxi and Ygpatajz about why they’re not allowed inside the walls, and his promise to look for the Ygdaxojzi sacred fish is just a cover, allowing him to search more openly for Trojan wealth and tunnels. True, all the tribes are kept out of the city with the same lie, but Xeno never reveals the truth to anyone, even as his relationships with Xeriagxi, Ygpatajz, and the Ygdaxojzi tribe blossom. He remonstrates with himself about his deceptions, particularly in regard to Tlemos, but he doesn’t change his behavior. It’s not clear whether he’s being tactically discreet, or if he’s too psychologically damaged to fully trust anyone.

Eventually, we learn that Xeno marries Xeriagxi, becomes part of the Ygdaxojzi tribe, and lives out his life among them. But even after Xeno’s children are in their teens, he  occasionally slips, and refers to the Ygdaxojzi as “them” or “they” instead of “we” or “us.” The family has a long-standing gesture for when Xeno has “shadow eyes,” when he’s moody, distant, and his thoughts far away. Their youngest son has those same eyes, for which Xeriagxi blames Xeno. As they sIt in their home one evening, in the glow of the hearth, contemplating the birth of their first child, a cheerful comment from Xeriagxi sparks memories of helpless terror in the Trojan horse. Xeno is not only damaged, he’s estranged from his culture’s emotional symbols and core myths; estranged from the very idea of believing, or taking comfort in, those symbols and myths. Even as he becomes an Ygdaxojzi with an Ygdaxojzi family, there is still a part of him that doesn’t belong there, though he’d twice forsaken Ithaca, and then Greece itself, when he abandoned Troy. In time, Xeno seems mostly, though not completely, settled in Ygdaxojzi life, accepted as a former outsider, though not as a native. But in the midst of hearth and home, a casual word sends his thoughts out into the howling night, and he’s so alone … so alone, like veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

1 even though Zeno was a common name in ancient Greece, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeno

2 We learn about Xeno primarily from his dreams and his grim narration of what he sees. When Prothenor angrily asks Xeno if Ktealos is his Spartan brother, Xeno replies that he’s the only boy after three sisters. This may be the only time we learn about Xeno from his dialogue with other characters, yet another example of how isolated he is.  I note this because it only occurred to me as I wrote the footnoted sentence, and was unnerved to have missed it until now.

3 My wife says it’s like being at a picnic when a bird flies over and drops one on your head: you have to intelligently decide what you’re going to do about it. Not reflexively wiping it off, thus not dirtying my hand as well as my hair, is her definition of creativity. It should come as no surprise that people like her a lot more than they like me.

POST #9. ESTRANGEMENT AND ALIENATION: THE RIVER PEOPLE

In a documentary whose name and source I’ve forgotten (though it has the feeling of “Frontline” in my memory), a television crew followed a squad of soldiers as they patrolled the streets of some then-contested section of Baghdad. In one scene, an officer, aided by a translator, questioned a local man about the movements of opposition fighters. The local man seemed to give equivocal, perhaps devious  answers, because his body language didn’t quite match his words, and as the officer left, he expressed disdain for, and mistrust of, “these people,” who he was ostensibly helping to liberate. He felt estranged, not only from the local populace, but from the country and his reason for being there. As it turned out, another Iraqi translator reviewed the broadcast, and found that the on-site translator’s words were very different from, and sometimes contradicted, what the local man actually said, and the difference was often more than mere incompetence would account for. Knowing that this miscommunication (if not sabotage) had probably been going on for some time, one could understand the officer’s sense of alienation, which was probably shared by others in his command.

Ambiguity, feelings of alienation, and uncertainty about the basic elements of communication and trust, are what I wanted to re-create in the segment about the river people. The Astyadji, from the River Scamander, never presented themselves at the walls, and the other tribes never mentioned them. It was only when Ygpatajz made a passing reference that Xeno learned of their existence, and when the Greeks first made contact, the Astyadji lied about why they never came around (or about their relations with other tribes), yet they were open about their loyalty to Troy, and to Hector’s baby son, whom the Greeks had so brutally murdered. They seemed to move about, perhaps hiding from the Djaporozji raiders, but they’d been concealing their abandoned campsites, as if trying to hide their existence from the Greeks before they were inadvertently discovered. It was hard to know the Astyadji. Meanwhile, the people from the five rivers gave ever-changing and conflicting accounts of what their tribal names were, or what those names meant, and there may well have been a sixth tribe (perhaps even a sixth river), but the putative members of that tribe denied their own existence, though they were plainly different from the other river tribes. The irony is that Xeno and the Greeks can’t translate their suspicions into open hostility because the garrison (the ancient counterpart to the American occupation force) is woefully undermanned. The tribes probably don’t realize that (though it will eventually become obvious), so they mask their hostility in aloofness and cultural ambiguity.

This sepsis of passive aggression parallels the relationships portrayed in the Iraq documentary. The Iraqis were overrun by an invading force which claimed to have liberated them from Saddam. That was a good thing for many Iraqis, but the resistance blended into the population and struck from anywhere and everywhere, so the “liberators” were suspicious of everyone; Viet Nam redux. The resistance retaliated against those who cooperated with the invaders, so even those who supported the Americans were reluctant to be seen assisting them. This situation could have been prevented, or at least curtailed, if a sufficiently large occupation force had been activated, as all the pre-invasion research had urged. (See POST #7. IRAQ: THE ALLEGORY 2.0) Subsequent troop surges couldn’t undo the gains the resistance made during the initial post-invasion anarchy in Iraq. Similarly, an adequately manned Greek garrison might have been able to stabilize the outlying areas for the new Greek occupation and reconstruction forces. However, even if such forces had returned to Troy, they would have encountered unstable surroundings, and maybe military opposition to their landing, because the undermanned garrison was too small to protect itself, let alone stabilize the Dardanelles.

 * * *

When I began this post, I thought that the estrangement of and from the river people was a continuation of the Greek’s alienated feelings as they pressed through Priam’s palace, where the ornamentation along the corridors was so strange it threw off their depth perception, and they discovered that this eastern culture was a theocracy, where the kings were worshipped as gods. I now realize, after further reflection, that this wasn’t the case. The alien culture the western invaders encountered as they sacked the city was the culture of Troy, the dominant power in the region, and they were bent on destroying that culture and civilization (though not the urban structure itself, as we came to learn). The  river people they encounter are local tribes of varying ethnicities, who had been suppressed by Trojan culture, and the westerners (Greek garrison) were merely trying to assess the lay of the land, and come to terms with the locals.

POST #8. MYTHS IN OUR PERSONAL AND COLLECTIVE MINDS

As I researched the major theories about the origin and function of myths, I found those rooted in the behavioral sciences to be the most ambitious and the least satisfactory, probably for the same reason. Studying myths from fragmented remnants of ancient civilizations is like reconstructing Trojan civilization(s) from fragments found at contaminated sites (see POST #4. THE ARCHEOLOGICAL RECORD). By the same token, theories of what goes on in the recesses of the human mind, based only on what’s observable on the surface, and theories on the dynamics of “culture,” which is itself a theoretical construct (and whose parameters change with different theorists), produce a cyclical accretion of rising, prevalent, and abandoned theories with rotating conceptual and methodological flaws. The psychological, sociological, and anthropological theories of myth all set out to explain everything about myths without the technology or methodology to explain much at all. It’s for these reasons that I’ve adopted a different perspective.

All scholars of myth, whether behavioral scientists or classical scholars, agree that myths, or the stories that become myths, undergo change over time. References in POST #6, to different variations of sub-myths about the House of Atreus, are prime examples of this variation. It thus seems that myths aren’t created as myths, magical stories with mystical properties. Instead, stories with variations become mythical when people in a society or culture respond to the story in ways that imbue it with mythical elements. With this in mind, I was drawn to two concepts of what myths were about, rather than theories of what myths were by their nature.

In a Teaching Company  course on classical mythology, Professor Elizabeth Vandiver defines, or rather describes myths, as traditional stories a society tells itself that encode that society’s world view, beliefs, principles, and fears. Because she’s a classical scholar, rather than a behavioral scientist, she’s able to sidestep anthropological, sociological, and psychological definitions of what a myth intrinsically is, and focus on an accepted body of classical mythology, by which she means Greek and Roman mythology. In her course, she treats the accepted myths (and variations, where they arise) as a given, and explores what they tell us about classical Greek and Roman society, world view, beliefs, and fears. It’s methodologically unsound from a behavioral science perspective, because she defines its basic unit of study, Myth, the way Justice Stewart defined pornography, “I know it when I see it.” However, one needn’t be a social scientist to know what stories Greek or Roman societies have consistently told themselves over the centuries, because we know what stories have become classical myths. Similarly, we in modern society know what stories have become myths for us (Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, America The Melting Pot, non-alcoholic intoxicants as the scourge of society, “Honest Abe”, american doughboys/GIs coming to the rescue, Norman Rockwell’s thanksgiving family, just to name a few), and we can use them to explore what our underlying beliefs, principles, and fears are. To me, these underlying beliefs, principles, and fears tell us a lot about why the story became a myth, and what the myth’s function in society is. To me, the underlying beliefs and fears (particularly the fears) are interesting in themselves.

Joseph Campbell is the most popular scholar of myth in recent times. Some of that popularity is, no doubt, attributable to the fact that he’s promoted his work on audio and audio-visual recordings as well as in print, so people can listen to and/or watch him, even on the go, as well as read his work. But the recordings wouldn’t have been so well received if his ideas hadn’t resonated with so many people. Though his methodology has been roundly criticized, with at least some validity, some of his basic ideas are well grounded, and compatible with Vandiver’s (who, ironically,  is one of his critics). The following is Campbell in a nutshell, as I understand him:

Humans of all cultures are struck by the mystery of life and existence. They want and need to come to terms with this mystery, and to feel connected to it. The primary function of myth is to help humans experience this mystery in a humanly manageable way, either through ritual, or contemplation of mythic meaning. Campbell can become more metaphysical than I’m comfortable with at this point, but humans are awed by the mystery and enormity of existence, and myth can alleviate the anxiety of that enormous and unknowable mystery. I’m comfortable with this narrower point because it blends with his second function of myth, proto-science. Myth explains the shape and form of the universe for cultures that don’t have the technology or objectivity to explore such issues scientifically. The third function of myth is to explain and validate  the existing social order, and the fourth function is to guide the individual through successive stages of life. I see these four functions as tending to overlap. The need to find a place in the enormity and unknowability of the universe also leads to proto-science, which may lead us to wonder why things in society are the way they are, and wonder what the best way is to transition from childhood to adulthood, and from adulthood to old age and eventual death.

Campbell says that we in modern society need new myths to serve these functions. I disagree with him on this point. I believe that in modern society, myths can no longer serve these functions. I don’t know what can or will take the place of myth, but I do believe that myths, as social and psychological devices, are obsolete. Our contemporary culture wars, now being played out in the political arena, are not conflicts over which myths to subscribe to, so much as whether to subscribe to the conventional, traditional myths, or none at all.

In this blog, our interest in myths will be directed at traditional stories (or images) a society tells itself (or repeatedly alludes to) that encode that society’s world view, beliefs, principles, and fears. These stories or images sometimes help people deal with (or avoid) anxiety about the unknown and unknowable mysteries of existence, or act as proto-scientific explanations of the structure and form of the known and observable world. Sometimes myths justify and validate the existing social order, and sometimes they guide an individual through successive stages of life within that social order. Myths are probably not created as myths. Rather, some stories or images resonate with people as serving one or more of the above functions, and become myths as they’re told, retold, (or repeatedly alluded to) and perhaps changed in the process. At some point, stories and images clearly become part of the body of myths of a culture. They can, at that point, be examined, analyzed, or “deconstructed” (apologies to Jacques Derrida) to tell us about the culture’s beliefs, principles, and fears.

I added the term “images” at the end, after going through this discussion without mentioning it. I think that images sometimes tell us a story of sorts, though not in so many words. Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving family is a good example of such an image; newly married people posing in stylized wedding photos is another. I thought of images as stories without explicit words as I was writing this post. Adding the phrase “and images” every time the word “stories” appeared would have made the post’s language awkward, and re-writing would have been tedious. It was easier to acknowledge the mid-post thought, and mention it at the end. This way of avoiding tedium does not mean that images are not myths in our modern society.