ENG 290 – Great Books, Myth & Pop Music

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Allow for different definitions of myth, but take into account the prevalence of the term “traditional” as well as synonyms “fairy tale, fiction, legend, tale, story saga, lore, folklore, saga.”

A good work of art, according to Nietzsche, broadly interpreted to include  a good tragedy, a good myth, a good narrative, a good play, etc., must have a nugget of familiarity – “The beautiful appearance of the world of dreams, in whose creation each man is a complete artist, is the condition of all plastic art, indeed, as we shall see, an important half of poetry. We enjoy the form with an immediate understanding, all shapes speak to us, nothing is indifferent and unnecessary” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy) – in order to be accepted and understood by the audience. The familiarity of mythical or historical figures (Ovid, Sophocles, *Machiavelli) or the familiarity of a story that reflects universal human emotions with characters in recognizable positions (Ibsen), allows the audience to experience a catharsis.

“The psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling, which had been misunderstood both by Aristotle and even more by modern pessimists… Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heroes — that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge — which is how Aristotle understood tragedy — but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity — that tragic joy included even joy in destruction” (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).

It can be difficult to wrap our heads around the myths of ancient Greek and Roman culture, or the pillars of power in the Renaissance, as the key tragic heroes are abstract ideas involving gods and goddesses – or bizarre ruling families of warring Italian city-states – that we don’t really carry a working familiarity with in our 21st century lives.

BUT – The universal ability for “Great Books” or “Great Works” to withstand time and still keep our attention is their ability to convey the tension between our core human emotions. If the format is something we can understand, we can gain some sort of emotional connection to the play (cf. Nietzsche, “Dionysian”) as well as a critical one (cf. Nietzsche, “Apollonian”). The tension of the interplay between our conflicting view of art – our heads and our hearts, to simplify – is what sustains great art.

What are these emotions? Pop songs – the modern myth, I might argue – can show the way!





When art – in this case pop music – creates tension between two emotions (it can be as simple as playing major chords with sad lyrics) – great pop songs are made! Just like Great Books. Below we hear sadness and happiness mixed together to create perfect pop tension:

How else does this apply to our Ovid readings? Let us discuss myths in context of this content.

Led Zeppelin (myth within? – tension between fear and happiness) & The Mamas and the Papas (sadness and fear)

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 9.37.22 AMMyths. They’re popular.



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