Justification | Myth and Emotions

The International Conference “Myth and emotions” will carry out a profound and contemporary reflection on the relationship between mythology and emotion. For this purpose it will reunite highly respected international researchers and other well-established or trainee researchers to provide―whether through theoretical reflection, textual analysis or the exhibition of artistic expressions―methodological principles and practical approaches aimed to establish criteria of interpretation on the relationship between myth and emotion in contemporary literature and art.

Progress in the knowledge of thought and psychology bring to light dimensions that have remained hidden during centuries. In the contemporary era the most recognized researchers have demonstrated that our behaviour depends less on rational causes than emotional causes. Moreover, one of the most characteristic phenomena at present is the execution of human acts by merely emotional impulses. More than in any other period in history, individuals react as consequences of impulse, most of the time unexpected. Advertisements, which offer promises that are rationally unrelated to the product on sale, unquestionably make profitable the impulsive behaviour converted into a stereotype of the consumer society.

This explains the current strength of disciplines that―like psychobiology or social psychology― investigate the nature of emotions, how they originate, what they mean and how they manage to modify rational logic. Specialists agree on several basic traits of emotions: a) the existence and perception of a previous occurrence; b) intense, fleeting and interconnected psychosomatic experiences; c) a distinction (with either a corresponding attraction or rejection) between agreeable and disagreeable circumstances. Emotion―in its interaction with feelings, moods and affections―largely shapes our response to the world. It conditions our motivations, gives us energy and orders our private and social behaviour.

Myth cannot stay on the sidelines of this reflection. The Conference adopts, as a work hypothesis, the following definition of myth: explanatory, symbolic and dynamic account of one or various personal and extraordinary events with transcendent referent, that lacks in principle of historical testimony; is made up of a series of invariant elements reducible to themes submitted to crisis; that presents a conflictive, emotive and functional character, and always refers to a cosmogony or to an absolute, particular or universal eschatology. The emotive nature of myth lays the foundation of the research proposed for this Conference. This definition will be matched with other less canonical definitions, resulting in the mythification of characters, places and historical events.

A classic example can illustrate the aim pursued. Virgil recounts how Eurydice died of a hydrus or water-serpent’s bite. Afflicted and seeking consolation in song, Orpheus entered the Underworld through the caverns of Cape Tenarus, searching for his beloved Eurydice. The poet relates an incident that appears to contradict rational logic: it seems unreasonable to go beyond death to search for someone. Yet emotional logic readily accepts Orpheus’s descent. In fact, there is nothing more natural than wanting the return of one’s beloved, and undertaking any means—even an unnatural one—to make it happen. The mythical tale reveals, albeit in a perplexing way, that physical death (in this case, that of Eurydice) does not have a sufficient explanation for Orpheus; his descent privileges emotional logic over other ways of expression and comprehension of the world (even logical). Hence the Orphic adventure, or that of Alcestis in search of Admetus or Hercules in search of Alcestis.

But mythical tales do not only affect characters. Orpheus’s sorrow was such that the Dryads and Nymphs “flooded the mountains with tears of compassion”. Like those deities, the reader of the Aeneid and the audience of Offenbach’s opera also feel compassion for Orpheus. Emotion also has a cathartic dimension: the reader and audience become emotionally involved in the plot and experience the character’s emotions: they suffer with him and wish him a solution that no rational logic can promise. They understand Orpheus’ sorrow, caused by a sense of guilt (to look back just as he was leaving Hades despite the pact, another emotional act), they even accept the implausible descent to the hidden dwelling. In an unexpected way, the reader and audience feel ready to undertake, at least imaginarily, Orpheus’ endeavour. Without knowing it, they justify illogically what they cannot logically endorse.

This is one of the meanings of literature, visual arts and performance: bring to light the usual resource of our psychism to a purely emotional explanation, that allows the achievement of the undeniable objectives of the human being. Rational logic and emotional logic complement themselves.

There are no myths without a return to the origins or without a reference to the end, whether it be individual or of the community. The literary motive of the descent to hell appears in all cultures and is an obvious sign that it forms one of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Its mythical adaptations (like the typical case of the poet) propose concrete solutions to individual and collective problems, impose an awareness of identity, inform on the origins and destiny, as much from the individuals as from the community. Our origin and our mythical destiny have emotional and affective derivatives: they are active ingredients in a world in which we feel closely identified and connected, or inversely, from which we want to distinguish and disassociate. Myth, emotion, cosmogony and eschatology are therefore connected.

In this respect, one can find innumerable examples in contemporary literature. In Man and Superman (George Bernard Shaw), Octavius hears with fear that his beloved, Ann, has been left in the care of Jack Tanner (a Don Juan figure): the destiny that unfailingly unites her with the seducer overwhelms him. In El Señor de Pigmalión (Jacinto Grau), the duke feels attracted to the doll Pomponina: an inanimate object comes alive and cruelly takes control of his heart. In Der Zauberberg (Thomas Mann), the young man Naphta recalls his affection for the ritual practices of bloodthirsty Jews over those of bloodthirsty Christians: he ultimately rejects Christian rationality for Jewish savagery. In La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (Jean Giraudoux), Hélène reveals her unconquerable love for Paris to Andromache: her erotic impulses are Aphrodite’s will. In all these texts, a character experiences an emotion that is motivated by a myth related to origin, destiny, the sinister or the fantastic. Here, then, is a promising field for research on the relationship between myth and the biopsychology of emotion.

Myth criticism should include the description and analysis of the paths whereby the rhetoric of individual and social psychology intersects with the cultural practice of myths. Thus, studies of mythology should include considerations of emotional logic, as well as of the consequences of an empathetic connection with myth (the cathartic dimension). They should also reveal the parallelism between “emotional origins” and “emotional destiny” (the cosmogonic and eschatological dimension). Finally, they should study the relationships between emotion, myth, the sinister, and the fantastic.

Ultimately, this Conference aims to provide a study, as wide and thorough as possible, that brings guidelines and models capable of interpreting the mythical-emotional phenomena. Its implementation will be of great help to understand an important part of the writing and art of modernity and post-modernity, as well as cultures and thought of our current society.

The Organizing Committee invites researchers who can provide―either through theoretical reflection or textual analysis―their methodological principles or practical approaches on the problematic of the combined relationship between myth and the logic of emotions in contemporary literature and art (since 1900).