Art in life and life in art #1

On the history of myth, risky pursuits, and modern exercise, etc.

A book you can chew on

A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong, about why we believe what we believe, and how that’s changed over time, from ancient to modern times. I picked it up because I was looking for something about the beginnings and evolution of the human act of storytelling—mythmaking, in other words. Not “myth” in the sense of “fake”; Armstrong attempts to reclaim the word here.

The book could be read in the context of being an introduction to the Canongate Myths series of novellas that retell old myths, which includes Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Jeanette Winterson’s Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles. The book could also be read in the context of Armstrong having written a long list of books on religion (none of which I have read yet; I plan to get to A History of God soon), and much of it deals with belief in the divine and the spiritual.

It deserves a more extensive discussion, but for now, this:

In our scientific culture, we often have rather simplistic notions of the divine. In the ancient world, the ‘gods’ were rarely regarded as supernatural beings with discrete personalities, living a totally separate metaphysical existence. […] When people spoke of the divine, they were usually talking about an aspect of the mundane. The very existence of the gods was inseparable from that of a storm, a sea, a river, or from those powerful human emotions—love, rage or sexual passion—that seemed momentarily to lift men and women onto a different plane of existence so that they saw the world with new eyes.

Mythology was therefore designed to help us to cope with the problematic human predicament. […] We all want to know where we came from, but because our earliest beginnings are lost in the mists of prehistory, we have created myths about our forefathers that are not historical but help to explain current attitudes about our environment, neighbours and customs. We also want to know where we are going, so we have devised stories that speak of a posthumous existence […] And we want to explain those sublime moments, when we seem to be transported beyond our ordinary concerns. The gods helped to explain the experience of transcendence. […]

It is, therefore, a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought, which can be cast aside when human brings have attained the age of reason. Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking ‘what if?’—a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries in philosophy, science and technology. […] ‘What if this world were not all there is? How would this affect our lives—psychologically, practically, or socially? Would we become different? More complete? And, if we did find that we were so transformed, would that not show that our mythical belief was true in some way, that it was telling us something important about our humanity, even though we could not prove this rationally?

I’m not a religious person, and I’m not an atheist. As a child, filling out official forms in Malaysia that mandated information on one’s religious beliefs, my mother always said, “Just put ‘freethinker’”—whatever that meant.

Not to oversimplify it, but I think my biggest obstacle to religion has always been that I found it difficult, precisely as Armstrong said, to think about God/gods as “supernatural beings with discrete personalities”. So the way she writes about myth here, and about religion as one kind of myth, makes sense to me—makes people’s need for religion understandable. As she told NPR, myth is “the history of the human psyche”, of “how we try to make sense of our puzzling and beautiful world”.

A song I’m stuck on by a band that’s possibly growing on me

Which I came across while watching the first episode—campily funny, charmingly offbeat—of Jordan Peele’s six-part Youtube series Weird City.

It’s from Leopold and His Fiction’s 2017 album Darling Destroyer.

I’m also hooked on “Saturday”.

Something mortifyingly funny + true of our modern condition

This longform piece from the New Yorker, “Outdoor Voices Blurs the Lines Between Working Out and Everything Else”, about athleisure fashion taking over cities and how it commodifies women’s bodies in concert with Instagram. (For those not based in the U.S. who are unfamiliar with Outdoor Voices, or OV—tagline: the oxymoronic “Technical Apparel for Recreation”—just substitute it with Lulu Lemon.)

Jia Tolentino writes with tongue firmly in cheek for most of the piece, but reaches for a more conciliatory tone at the end by implicating herself—just marginally, haha. This was such a pleasure to read because it reminds me of George Saunders’ dystopian short fiction, except it’s real. I giggled in a few places. E.g.

When I got home from my shopping spree, I tried on my Super Bloom-colored leggings and bra top. “Doing things is better than not doing things,” I told my boyfriend, who was still in bed after a week of thirteen-hour workdays at an architecture firm. “You look like a mommy blogger dressed as the Easter Bunny,” he said.

Tolentino draws upon an earlier article, “Pajama Rich”, by Moira Weigel—also interesting and worth reading, especially about the evolution of athleisure in comparison to denim jeans. And this:

As the Lululemons symbolize aspiration, the spandex enforces the discipline needed to achieve it. Offering convenience, the pants also nag us to exercise. Self-exposure and self-policing meet in a feedback loop. Because these pants only “work” on a certain kind of body, wearing them reminds you to go out and get that body. They encourage you to produce yourself as the body that they ideally display.

I think I just might write about my fraught relationship with exercise (and my overused pair of spanx-y Lulu Lemon tights) sometime. And no, I have not embraced the athleisure trend.

The women of Free Solo

Yes, you should watch Free Solo, which won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. I was completely affected by it.

It’s not just a rock climbing film. It speaks to universal desires, and asks primal and profound questions about life and death. I’m intrigued by Alex Honnold the same way I was intrigued by Ayrton Senna after watching Senna—in large part because of their uncompromising single-mindedness. Which is why I started reading The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life. (A few people have asked that I share my thoughts on it when I’m done. Will do.)

In the meantime, turn your attention to the woman who co-directed the film—and my latest journo girlcrush. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi was making award-winning documentaries even before Meru and Free Solo (I’ll be checking out all of them!) and you should read this Outside feature on her. More here on how she and her husband, Jimmy Chin (the climber-photographer-filmmaker you’ve probably heard of), brought their respective talents to bear on the film.

Sanni McCandless, a life coach for “intentional living” and founder of the Outwild festival—also Alex Honnold’s admirably self-possessed girlfriend in the face of his possible death and his suckerpunch bluntness when asked how he felt about their relationship (to be fair, he said they were still in their early days at the time, and he was weighing it against a dream he’d held for most of his adult life)—keeps a blog. This post and this post may be of particular interest as far as they relate to the film.

For an interesting glimpse of what went on behind the scenes of Free Solo:

I still think about this: Would they have continued to make a film if Honnold had fallen and died? What kind of film would that have been? What sort of answers would that film have provided to the primal and profound questions about life and death?

Something to tickle your funnybone

Here’s an old goodie. Who knew Kate Beckinsale was so hilarious? She’s not terribly interesting when she plays the conventional love interest (I’m thinking about Pearl Harbour), but she was great in Love and Friendship, and I’d love to see her in a proper laugh-out-loud comedy!

Some words to live by

On aspiration, self-actualisation, and friendship:

When we’re aspiring, inarticulateness isn’t a sign of unreasonableness or incapacity. In fact, the opposite may be true. [...] If we couldn’t aspire to changes that we struggle to describe, we’d be trapped within the ideas that we already have. Our inability to explain our reasons is a measure of how far we wish to travel. It’s only after an aspirant has reached her destination, [Agnes] Callard writes, that “she will say, ‘This was why.’”

Joshua Rothman
The Art of Decision Making

It is important to clarify here that the ideal self is not a counterpoint to the real self in the sense of being inauthentic. Unlike the seeming self, which springs from our impulse for self-display and which serves as a kind of deliberate mask, the ideal self arises from our authentic values and ideals. Although it represents an aspirational personhood, who we wish to be is invariably part of who we are—even if we aren’t always able to enact those ideals. In this sense, the gap between the ideal self and the real self is not one of insincerity but of human fallibility. The friend is one who embraces both and has generous patience for the rift between the two. A true friend holds us lovingly accountable to our own ideals, but is also able to forgive, over and over, the ways in which we fall short of them and can assure us that we are more than our stumbles, that we are shaped by them but not defined by them, that we will survive them with our personhood and the friendship intact.

Maria Popova
Reclaiming Friendship: A Visual Taxonomy of Platonic Relationships to Counter the Commodification of the Word ‘Friend’”

If you enjoyed this letter, please take a second to “heart” it down below. You can also send me a recommendation via email.

Know someone who would enjoy this newsletter too? Please tell them to subscribe at emydeewrites.substack.com. A personal thumbs-up would really make my day!

Yours,
E.

www.emilyding.me
Facebook – Instagram – Twitter
Comments, recommendations, story/travel ideas?
emydeewrites@gmail.com
Catch up on past letters here.