8 August 2021

THE MACHINERY OF MYTH

Philip Ball. The Modern Myths. Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination. University of Chicago Press, 2021.


‘Myths are not choosy about where they inhabit, and I am not going to be choosy about where to find them...They erect a rough-hewn framework on which to hang our anxieties, fears and dreams.... Myths are promiscuous; they were post-modern before the concept existed, infiltrating and being shaped by popular culture.’
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From the outset of The Modern Myths Philip Ball names and nails his concerns to the mast. For Ball modern myths penetrate “deep psychic strata.” They don’t have to be great works of literature because if too polished and too psychologically dense then their mythic power is diminished. Better they have an ambiguous narrative that is beyond characters or plot. It’s the sub-text that must come through to create parables, allegories, and prophecies about the complexity of the world are trying to make sense of. Myths don’t have to necessarily be about real events or be grounded in religion. For Ball that was too often the rule for the old classical myths and their critics. But we are dealing with modern myths and should not be purist. As the new myths can, and should, be shape-shifters.

All this is admirably clear-headed. And most of the time Ball makes a convincing case for his chosen modern myths. Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein, Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, Dracula, The War of the Worlds, Sherlock Holmes and Batman. Unconscious forces drive these stories causing them to mutate into ever expanding narratives of meaning and association. And the more remarkable thing about them is that they have entered the popular consciousness so deeply that you don’t even have had to have read the original text. They’re universal, iconic and communicate through numerous translations. 

These books are good choices to examine. But does Ball have something original to say about them? For this is over-researched territory. I felt it was both a Yes and a No for Ball: familiar conclusions resting along side of genuine insights. 

Robinson Crusoe has always been one of my favourite books. But what is it all about? Undoubtedly many more things than Daniel Defoe originally intended. An examination of capitalism (enjoyed by Marx); a comforting adventure for children; a homage and critique of British Imperialism, with its colonial racism, and an existential study of loneliness and survival. All this functions in Defoe but is Ball correct to say Robinson Crusoe doesn’t have a coherent literary style? (An argument that Ball also presents for his other choices.) I think it does. Not as obviously so as in say Defoe’s Moll Flanders or Roxana. For Crusoe’s Robinson style is almost invisible as Defoe catalogues, with almost documentary realism, his day to day living. Crusoe’s planning, calculation, building and nurturing, of his desert island home, have a mythic power. All is done, not just for himself, but the reader’s comfort, metaphorical or real, in order to survive in society – on or off an island.

Ball’s research for his Crusoe chapter is good but his sketching in of film and theatre adaptations of the book spends too much time on a mediocre film like Ridley Scott’s The Martian but ignores Bunuel’s poetic 1954 film, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. I found this very surprising for Ball refers to unconscious fears concerning Crusoe and his father. Bunuel’s conception reveals, in the form of a dream, such parental anxiety and also conveys the castaway’s spiritual loneliness. But overall Ball’s research for this chapter is excellent and I learnt a great deal about the book’s power to be an inspiration for the sociologist Max Weber and the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


Mary Shelly’s creation of the man who creates a man (perceived as a monster) was astounding. A late teenage woman, who suffered the early deaths of three of her children, creates a nightmare from out of her anguish. Indeed for some early critics the author, being a woman, was downplayed and emphasis was placed on the editing of the book by her husband Percy Shelley. Ball derides this sexist approach and suggests ways, other than the hubris of the scientist, for looking at Frankenstein.

The over-reach of science was not how the book was considered in Shelly’s time. The fear of the mob, still waiting in the wings, after the French Revolution; class conflict, racial tensions and, later on in the century, the shadow of Darwinism, were monstrous forces spinning out before and after Frankenstein’s publication in 1818. Of course our 21st century view of Frankenstein is now very much about the limits of science yet Ball doesn’t want to confine himself to this interpretation.

'Behind all the trappings of science and horror, Frankenstein is then at its core a personal story of human relationships. It is about the fears and failures of procreation and parenting: Victor is the original “bad parent”.'

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is seen as a very Freudian tale yet again not to be limited by this obvious psychological link. Ball skilfully alludes to Darwin and ideas of a bestial triumphalism; the disturbing split between ethics and political power and the myth of the doppelganger are evoked in Stevenson’s remarkable novella. In these areas of the book’s influence Ball is rewarding and fresh.

I found the Dracula chapter disappointing. It’s very familiar territory and Ball’s observations of the book have been said before by other commentators. Yet I do agree with Ball that Stoker’s novel is the least literary of his modern myth texts. However he does make a suggestive connection between Dracula and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey.

‘In many ways Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey represents his more metaphorical take on the vampire myth. Here again is the corrupt, Byronic aristocrat (Lord Henry Wotton) who saps the life-force of those around him. Wilde’s book is far superior to Dracula in literary terms, and provides a more nuanced and imaginative perspective on vampirism.’

A brave attempt is made to include a comic book hero for analysis as a mythic force. However I was never completely convinced by Ball’s championing of Batman. On Sherlock Holmes he is funny and engaging perhaps because Ball is a science writer and comfortably explores the mythic charm of deduction and reason.

However the best chapter in The Modern Myths is the one devoted to H.G.Wells’s The War of the Worlds.

The War of the Worlds justifies Ursula le Guin’s claim that “science fiction is the mythology of the modern world.” But it also bears out her suggestion that this is only a half-truth so long as we regard myth as “an attempt to explain in rational terms, facts not rationally understood.” That is a fair summary of much of Wells’s own motivation, in this book and others, we get a glimpse of what Le Guin says is another function of myth: to take over when the intellect fails. It is, she says, “a non-intellectual mode of apprehension.”

This is very well said and communicates the power of myth when we stop being bothered about how literary is the writing. The non-intellectual appreciation of a modern myth can allow the potential wildness of the unconscious to come more forcibly through. And then we can fancifully shape and adapt myths in other artistic forms. Though I think Ball’s rule, on the rough hewn narrative, conveying mythic forces, more effectively than the highly crafted story, is too strict (Unlike Ball I would include The Picture of Dorian Grey into the cannon of myths.) I still like my books to be well written, even in part, and still be adaptable myths.

The Modern Myths is a very good book but its detached enquiry makes for Ball’s analysis to hold back. He is full of enthusiasm yet his witty writing lacks an intellectual passion that truly inspires. Philip Ball refers to two great writers on culture and myth, Susan Sontag and Joseph W. Campbell. To return to Sontag’s essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster,’ in her book Against Interpretation and Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is to experience writers with integrity whose arguments have a well-earned belief, that’s never rigid, but open, expressive and sometimes profound. They can both passionately inform whereas Ball entertains and instructs.

Of course it would be unfair of me to quote their words. I don’t want them to compete for your attention over Stephen Ball’s The Modern Myths. Yet I recommend that after reading Ball’s book you also discover these earlier mythographers. For a study of older mythology can still throw light on modern myths no matter how self-sufficient, relevant and exciting new forms appear to be. -- Alan Price.

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