EGMT 1530: America - A Mythological Take

Human beings seem to have a permanently paradoxical relationship to storytelling. We never know when are we the author of our own stories or merely an actor in a larger story that is unfolding through us. Nowhere is this duality more revealed than in that particular class of stories we call myths. A myth is never simply a story, it is a story that is supernumerary. Myths mark the silhouette of a broader schema of imagination and hold the key to our secret selves. A story of a juvenile boy working hard to escape poverty is just that, a story - repeating this form of narrative on enough occasions makes it into a genre, something that was mastered by the American short story writer Horatio Alger - realizing that this genre captures the collective desires of Americans makes it into a myth. Today, we know this myth as the archetypal case of a rags to riches scenario in which a person through sheer determination, grit, and a little luck, escapes poverty to go on to make immense wealth. We now consider this myth as the most condensed image of the exceptional promise of American freedom. Classicists, novelists, literary critics, anthropologists, politicians, advertisers, and even Instagram influencers, address and mobilize this self-abstracting and repetitious quality of myth in some way or the other, whether to identify the contours of a cultural space, a shared history, or collective desire. In this course, we will build on this understanding of myth to inquire into the nature of identity and difference in contemporary America. It is the premise of the course that something of the density and possessive hold of identities (of whatever form) can be understood by following the skein of myths that become dear to a collectivity. Practically, the course counterintuitively explores America, the land that birthed the freedom of pragmatism, as a place of such overlapping and clashing narrative universes. Our course will begin with addressing the relation between mythical time and historical time, following which, we will briefly explore three significant mythological clusters that have determined the dynamics of social life in America: the lure of the ‘American Dream’, the racial legacies of chattel slavery, and the sovereign claim to land by indigenous populations. The course will aim to hone in on the permissible mythological narratives that provide richness to these forms of collective experiences.