What’s your view? If you hear/read something you disagree with (or causes an uneasy feeling) do you feel it best to denounce or inquire? Maybe you know the odds of starting “healthy dialog” by beginning “You lying bastard”? Coming from a time when education taught me there were “Four Forms of Formal Written Discourse,” I accepted one form as “Argument.” Back in the ignorant old days’ argumentation did not mean yelling and accusing. But now I’m going to make one of those turns my former students hated, often volubly and with anguish. My advice then was as it is now. Take a breath and consider. Some things of the “moment” have a surprisingly clear (not that I’ll be capable of achieving that clarity) have a very human and curious (meaning quirky) story behind them.

For now set aside my opening for this instead. What part might COVID19 play in an ancient story? The part, I’ll suggest, is old as all that’s Tragic and Comedic in theatre; the conflict between the individual and the group or the gods (aka higher powers). I think all cultures have myth legends. I’ll start using the Greek ones because fair numbers of readers will have some familiarity. Similar legendary tales exist in native stories about Naniboujou or Man-A-B-Sho, but very few readers would recognize the names of the “hero” character or know of his part in giving the loons their red eyes. So, ancient Greeks and the classic struggle between an individual (hero) and the gods (larger power). Prometheus, an individual hero, demonstrated protest against the gods keeping too much power to themselves (sounds political already, doesn’t it) and stole fire to give to people for warmth, light, cooking, etc. (An awful lot of material culture depends on our use and mastery of fire and heat, from roasting coffee, baking, and making metals without fire there’s nothing.) The gods (you could also say circumstances, traditions, or etc.) saw this as a wrongful act and punished Prometheus for his breach. Depending on how the tale is emphasized in telling it, Prometheus can be a bold hero, a renegade, or a vile defiler of the gods’ proper rule and order. Prometheus can be seen as an individual here or as a stand-in symbol for all people united against domination by capricious gods.

My point, often as difficult for me to know as thee, is though none of us will meet an actual mythic character such as Prometheus, Orpheus, or Oedipus the roles they play in society are a part of social life probably going as far back as we can surmise and continuing into today where we think the past is outdated and we’re not. (The Greeks called such thinking hubris.) It’s only human to want to think of ourselves and our times as THE center of what’s going on. But put this in the mental percolator. Is it possible that a lot of what we assume and think we see makes us like folks in a snowstorm being distracted by every flake? “Look at that one!” “Oh look at THAT one!” You get the idea. In the snowstorm of the now we’re buffeted and pummeled by the constant appearance of flakes and flurries. Cultivating a longer or wider view you begin to see pattern. In a snowstorm blowing SE off Lake Superior the flakes and flurries dazzled in my headlights as I drove home but those forces were minor compared to the drift experience led me to expect when I reached a particular stretch of highway. Experience in individual and social or cultural life is a valuable asset. It helps us see beyond the flakes and flurries to the place where something larger looms ahead. That’s useful. Some people believe in their ability to discern. Are they like Prometheus? Others are convinced that individual insight is near impossible and it is by far better to follow whatever wisdom is being handed down from the current god forces.

The argument I’ve tried to make is that the basic framework of human social life changes externals, but the roles of the players go on as before. The color values or roles can be switched from obverse to reverse, but the players carry on repeating their functions. (Kabuki Theater from Japan is another example of the interplay of ancient roles with present day viewers.) Recognizing this does nothing, ZERO to change or influence the pattern of play. It might, however, provide some small personal peace from not being so caught up in the whirl of flake and flurry. In past times this was called “wearing the world like a loose garment.” It’s along the lines of what Robert Bly passed along from an Asian source, “In the old days a wise man was not an important person. He took any small task that came along. Essentially he did nothing, like these walnut trees.” An Oriental insight, turns out, is good as a Grecian one. Doing nothing as well as a walnut tree does so would be a remarkable achievement. In the hurl of current news and views social or cultural experience can be lost or misused or ignored. It takes a discerning eye (some might call it an eye of faith or hope) even to attempt looking for it. Whether doing so is worth the bother, well, that’s entirely up to you.

Now, back to the past year’s mythic role of C19. Invisible and infectious, the C19 character influenced most all our lives in fundamental ways. Fear of this malign force had us hide our faces from others, repeatedly perform ritual ablutions, limit human contact, and essentially cloister up like Medieval Nuns and Monks. If you had the virus you’ve still not met the character that had you worshipfully spay letters and boxes to ward off C19’s evil spell. None will ever meet C19 in the flesh, but how well we know it in myth, fear, apprehension, and behavior change. C19 is a powerful player, but is it Promethean and if so in which direction does it work its influence on us? (I say as much as we allow it.)