A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

A euhemerist is a person who thinks he or she can turn myth into history by leaving out the supernatural elements. The historical Jesus may be a work of euhemerism; the historical Noah is certainly one, as is the historical Troy, and the historical Atlantis, too. It’s a matter of separating those old twins, historia and fabula: what really was and what you wanted to happen. Many historians find euhemerism disreputable. Myths, they say, are just that. Perseus is just as much a fiction as Bellerophon. But I’m wondering, without the myths, where would we be?

Consider, e.g., the fantastical stories that attended the discovery of America: the Seven Cities of Gold, the Northwest Passage, Prester John, Atlantis, even. You hear a rumor, you cross the ocean in your leaky boat, you lose yourself in the forest. You find nothing like what you were looking for, but the rumor persists, its life has nothing to do with the forest, or the ocean, or the boat, it has a life of its own, banished from one place it appears in another, and maybe this is all right, because if there were no rumor, who would cross the ocean at all?

Or to take another example: I have spent some time trying to understand what happened in Thebes and afterwards, in New York City on September 11, 2001, I have spent a long time looking for the truth, and it occurs to me that I could go on for a long time like this, looking for the truth, and finding one account after another, and trying to put them together, without getting closer to what was, to whatever had actually been, because what has been is in its heart unapproachable, closed, even the present is lost to you as you apprehend it, and as for the past, forget it, you might as well dig in the sand for ancient ruins, and in fact, you stand a better chance of finding what you were looking for if you dig than you do of recovering the past, because now and then your digging might turn something up, whereas with the past it’s hopeless. About the only way to recapture it would be to position yourself millions of miles away from the Earth, and to train a very powerful telescope downwards; then you could see what had happened long ago, although there would be no sound, only a series of silent conversations on topics you could only guess at, and dancers moving to music you would never hear. Even then the past would flee from you at the speed of light; you would have to move backwards, farther and farther away, increasing the power of your fictitious telescope, in order to know, really, how things had been, and so, even as you held it in view, the world would get smaller and smaller, dimmer and dimmer, until finally its radiation became imperceptible by any instrument, lost against the background of the cosmos, and at that point, why not accept that stories are what we have, and try to tell them well, as Mr. Savage suggested long ago, in what now seems like another world.

© 2008-2023 Paul La Farge. All rights reserved.