Friday, June 8, 2007


Any writer who makes a memorable myth has accomplished something. I mean the kind of myth that, because you've read a book, comes to mind when you see something wonderful or awesome in the world.

A week ago, I was leaving Georgia after a very difficult trip on family business. I had an early morning flight out of Atlanta. Since I'd been staying in Columbus, I had to be up at 3 AM to start the long travail of taking ground transportation to Atlanta to be there two hours early for security screening before the flight. In the still, quiet middle of the night, much of the Southeast was veiled by smoke from the wildfires burning in the Okefenokee area on the Georgia-Florida border. The full moon hung just over the trees in the west. The pall of smoke in the air turned the moon orange. I instantly thought about something in the book Dragonfly by Frederic Durbin. That story unfolds in a dystopian underground realm in which a lurid, omnipresent, artificial Harvest Moon is, not to give the plot away, a highly dynamic prop.

Kudos to Durbin. For a myth to wing its way out of a story and into a reader's real world, a lot has to be right about the story. It has to be entertaining, it has to keep disbelief suspended, and the mythology has to seamlessly suit the tale itself - then resonate with reality as the reader knows it. Peter Beagle is terrifically good at this sort of thing. From the supple skein of invented myths in Last Unicorn, to the titular plot device in his recent story "Salt Wine," he's always conjured mythic imagery that feels true.

It isn't just a function of fantasy. Early science fiction writers described planetary exploration in a mythopoeic way that seized the imagination of young scientists and engineers, who then spent real-world careers making the myths come true. Then Apollo catapulted the myth of exploring other planets into the realm of moon-dust-gritty reality. The romance of landing on the moon may have been lost on the public in the decades since; but the iconic "Earthrise" photo by William Anders galvanized the public imagination and the environmental movement with lasting results.

A recent article in the Washington Post throws light on Harvest Moon, salt wine, "Earthrise" and everything else of the sort. Daniel Levitin, a former record producer and now professor of psychology and music, writes about the reaction of the brain to Beatles tunes: "Great songs seem as though they've always existed, that they weren't written by anyone. Figuring out why some songs and not others stick in our heads, and why we can enjoy certain songs across a lifetime, is the work not just of composers but also of psychologists and neuroscientists.... In my laboratory, we've found that listening to a familiar song that you like activates the same parts of the brain as eating chocolate, having sex or taking opiates. There really is a sex, drugs and rock-and-roll part of the brain: a network of neural structures including the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala. But no one song does this for everyone, and musical taste is both variable and subjective."

Myth too, I think. If your tastes are wired for it, perceiving a fantastic fictional trope in the real world lights up some neural circuitry. There's nothing quite like it – except chocolate, sex, drugs and songs like "A Hard Day's Night."

1 comment:

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel said...

So very true! Thanks for your thoughts on this timely topic. (Now I know why you have not surfaced on FCL. You've been busy over here.) Sounds to me like we need Chocolate Moons, just for starters....