Centuries later, when the Mycenaean age was almost forgotten and the power of Athens was rising, the bones of Theseus were discovered on the island of Skyros and transported to Athens for reburial. His mistakes and failings were forgotten or forgiven and the Athenians recognized that he was the dead hero they needed in order to compete with Argos and Tiryns, Mycenae and Corinth.
Were they the real bones of Theseus? Was there a real man called Theseus? Does it matter? Half the world probably believes that there was a real man called Sherlock Holmes who lived in Baker Street, London, and it is his statue, not his creator Conan Doyle’s, that stands outside Baker Street tube station. Our lives disappear and can only be superficially reconstructed by archaeology and history. But stories, biographical or fictional or a mixture of both, tell us what we are and have been and probably always will be. Stories reflect our dreams and desires, our ephemeral relationships and secret selves as well as our actions and reactions. Stories are the inner substance of the cities and landscapes we inhabit, the pulse beneath the skin of our outward lives, the meaning behind all the things and routines that clutter our visible existence.
John Spurling wrote this in Arcadian Nights, focusing on the classic figures of Greek myth and history. But is it not a plausible observation on the chaos and stupidity of today’s cult-like social-political-criminal movements thrashing all concepts of truth, justice, and civility in the country today?
And is it not, therefore, a strong argument for the power and value of literature in representing the truth and the fiction of life on this planet?
Take two stories: The university graduate who enjoys reading biographies and the occasional novel each day on his commute into the city, and the local tradesman who hasn’t read a book since High School but watches Fox News and attends MAGA rallies wearing his own custom Liberty vest and waving a flag celebrating an armed insurrection against the country he professes to love.
Both stories are imbued with dreams and desires: Paul Gauguin in the South Seas, Davy Crocket at the Alamo. It’s all fiction. But it’s fiction that fuels those dreams and desires: sometimes thrusting us forward, often dragging us back into the pit.
I’m confused, however. Recalling the wisdom of Maxwell Scott: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Does this suggest that the legend is more beneficial to society or that it simply makes a better story?
Today the controversy over the Texas Alamo, the wildly embellished history of the not-so pristine Texas Rangers, the obscene whitewashing of the January 6th insurrection by the Republicans, the Trump Big Lie claiming election fraud, the rush to disenfranchise those populations that are not in lock-step with the racist politicians, and the cowardly opposition to Critical Race Theory, a study which seeks to disclose the truth behind the myths, suggests that the legend might make us all feel better and inflate our sense of honor and importance but, to borrow a cliché, Only the Truth Will Set us Free.
Leave it to the bones of a mythical Greek hero to lead me down the labyrinth of thoughts and conjectures. Can I face the beast with only critical thought to protect me or should I slip into my magical denim vest with the rampant eagle on the back and see what Tucker has to say on the tube?