Essay: Aesthetics, the Mythic, and Picnic at Hanging Rock
BY Belle Campbell
What maketh the myth? By now most of you would have noticed this seems to be one of the central questions of this year’s publication. Maybe some more of you have thought about it yourselves – what makes a myth a myth, as opposed to a mere story? Or a tale? Or a fable, song, or history? Why do some myths feel more – well – mythier than others? I suppose there are some basic ingredients that most of us recognise in mythology. There must be a strong message, a clear takeaway that can be passed down through generations. Something that stays the same no matter how many details of the story change. It must speak to some fundamental human experience that ensures its vitality and relevance throughout time. And the characters must be strong – basic enough so as not to be confusing, but just flawed enough to be interesting. And the plot! Betrayal, desire, grief all the way down. All this is very well and good, but it’s an explanation that leaves something to be desired. After all, many of these things can be said about the last time I went clubbing. There were plenty of interactions with some deeply flawed characters, a healthy dose of drama, and a clear warning to never drink tequila again. So, what is it exactly that makes the feeling of a myth so distinguishable from the sordid tales of my night out on the town?
John C. Hunter notes that the main problem with the ‘mythic’ in general is its diffuseness (Hunter, 130). Because there is no consensus about the limits of signification, the term can be applied ‘to everything from the religious narratives of archaic societies to the ideological justifications for contemporary social arrangements’ (Hunter, 130). But most importantly, the ‘mythic’ can be used as ‘a means to head off more productive avenues of thought’ and distance certain texts from conventional literary categorisation and attention (Hunter, 131). Engagement with the mythic in literature is most commonly observed through the emergence of the Fantasy genre in works such as The Lord of the Rings, of which there has been consistent efforts to dismiss as ‘regressive escapism’ (131). Hunter argues that ‘habitual contradictions in the discourse of the mythic’ organise themselves around two oppositions that obscure and problematize the term further: firstly, the myth as a ‘timeless’ narrative without traceable origins vs. a ‘time-bound’, culturally contingent narrative, and secondly, myth as the narrativization of a ‘shared communal identity and spirituality’ vs. the ‘fundamental social heterogeneity and alienating materialism of modern culture’ (Hunter, 131).
Certainly, this formulation offers more questions than answers, but it does reveal a defining characteristic of the mythic, which is its liminality. Its resistance to categorisation. Originally coined by folklorist Arnold van Gerrep and taken up by anthropologist Victor Turner, the term ‘liminality’ has been used to describe ambiguous and disorientating experiences and spaces that exist between identified physical and social structures. In this way, the mythic is liminal because it is neither true nor false. It carries with it both elements of realism and fantasy. It is neither literature nor religion. It is not inherently spiritual, and it rarely has traceable authorship. One of my favourite examples of modern Australian mythology is Picnic at Hanging Rock. Originally published as a novel by Joan Lindsay in 1967, the story was adapted by Peter Weir in 1975 into one of Australian cinema’s seminal works. Set in 1900, the story centres around a group of female boarding school students who go missing at the mysterious Hanging Rock. Its unresolved conclusion, pseudohistorical references, and the hauntingly beautiful adaption to screen sparked such captivation that much of its audience believed it based on a true story. As such, the story has been elevated to occupy a strange position in Australian mythos and folklore, in part due to Lindsay’s refusal to confirm it to be entirely fictitious (Phipps). In this way, the text inhabits both the literary and the mythic, transcending and integrating both modes. It is my belief that the engagement with the aesthetics of the mythic are what elevate this work beyond ordinary literature, creating an enchantment that draws the audience into the story as the girls are drawn further and further into the mystery of Hanging Rock.
But what are the aesthetics of mythology? The transference of symbology and iconography in stories from different parts of the world suggest the presence of an uncanny or untraceable overarching structure. In Greek mythology, Prometheus moulded the first humans out of clay, just as Nüwa, the Chinese Goddess, moulded figures from yellow earth. Dragons and serpents appear in many mythologies and folklores, from the wingless, snake-like Eastern dragon to its winged, fire-breathing Western counterpart. Casey Haskins describes aesthetics as an ‘intellectual network’, an ‘historically evolving constellation whose constitutive items are somehow, in a way that very much wants fresh clarification now, linked by the dynamics of collaboration and dependent on one another for mutual intelligibility and existence’ (Haskins, 298). Perhaps we should view mythology less in terms of genre, but more in terms of a collaborative intellectual and social network that is a self-organizing, complex entity. Myths and legends have the distinct impression of being ‘authored’ – they are often neatly structured, detailed, and entertaining. Yet, who is the author of Cupid and Psyche? Who first told of the battles between Osiris and Seth? Who started the rumour about the Loch Ness Monster?
The authorless ambiguity of mythology adds to the mystery of the mythic aesthetic, blurring ‘traditional epistemological lines between individual and group knowledge’ (Haskins, 304). The aesthetic of the myth is self-organizing because it cannot be ‘reduced to the sum of the activities of its constituent parts’ and is ‘structured [so] that no single part controls the operation of the whole’ (Haskins, 304). So, despite the conventional publication of Picnic at Hanging Rock, its participation in mythic aesthetics and symbology has the effect of overwhelming Lindsay’s authorship and subsuming the text into the collective network of mythology and folklore. Her engagement with narrative ambiguity and the evocation of the genius loci of Roman folklore into the landscape of Hanging Rock are picked up by the ‘haunting notes of the pan-pipe’ of Weir’s adaptation which summon the signifiers of Pan, the Arcadian nymph abductor (Catania, 85). These subtle and undefined, yet recognisable, references entangle the text within the aesthetic network of mythology, producing the somewhat phenomenal audience response of generic confusion.
In short, mythology continues to fascinate in part due to its universality, but also due to the fact that in our modern cultural and social structure the myth is an anomaly. It is not history, nor religion, nor literature – but it takes from all of these things and becomes something else. Something that defies knowing and truth entirely but emerged and continues to emerge all around us.