The Presence of Myth

Phil Cousineau

Not long ago I was teaching a screenwriting class at San Francisco State University and chose to close one session with a clip from John Huston’s thirty-seventh and final movie, The Dead, an adaptation of James Joyce’s stirring short story. As I introduced the scene for my class I felt my heart pounding.

The Dead is sometimes called the greatest short story in the English language,” I explained to the class. “It takes place on a single night in turn-of-the-century Dublin, on the Feast of the Epiphany. There is a ritual gathering of old friends and the slow revelation of a secret that exposes the truth about the marriage of the two main characters. That is the plot, the overstory. The understory is revealed in the slow accumulation of details: a piano recital, a poetry reading, an after-dinner speech, a haunting Irish ballad, a wife’s confession, and the strange report that ‘snow was general all over of Ireland.’ In this sense the understory is the movement of soul in the lives of these characters, described by Joyce in his book, and Huston in his film, as the strange interdependence of the living and the dead.”

I turned off the classroom lights and ran the VCR, which was cued up for the last three scenes of the film. In the first scene Angelica Huston, playing the wife, Gretta, descends down the staircase of the Dublin mansion where the dinner party was held. But she hears the siren melody of an old Irish ballad, “The Lass of Aughrim,” being sung as she leaves, and it seizes and transports her, a sure sign of a mythic moment. Stunningly framed by a stained glass window, like a madonna, she begins to weep. Huston intercuts the sorrowful gaze of her husband Gabriel (Donal McCann) as he watches with utter incomprehension a look he has never seen before on his wife’s face.

The chance singing of the song has ignited the memory of a long-ago romance, and it’s as if a trap door has opened underneath the story. Hidden depths emerge. These are the mythic depths of anguish and passion that exist in the souls of everyone, including our wives, husbands, closest friends, which is why the greatest folklore, art, and literature appeals across time and space.

The final scene takes place in a bleak hotel room. Gabriel confronts his wife and she reveals that the song she just heard was once sung to her by a young lad named Michael Fury, who died of a broken heart for her when she was young. In this epiphany is the realization that there are inaccessible places in the heart and memory, even for husband and wife.

“I suppose you were in love with this Michael Fury?” Gabriel asks with an ache in his heart.

“I think he died for me,” Gretta answers, then collapses onto the bed in tears.

Gabriel is utterly baffled, turns away, asking himself in the film’s mournful narrative track, “Why am I feeling this riot of emotion?” He moves dreamily to the window and peers out at the “snow falling faintly through the universe,” wondering whether he has ever understood his own wife or ever known the depth of love of which she is capable.

The scene dissolves like a dream to a montage of snow-covered medieval ruins.

The narrator intones, “One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than face and wither dismally with age.... His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

My heart was in my throat as the lights came flickering on in the classroom. I have long vaunted the mysteries of what the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss called “participation mystique.” This is the uncanny ability to write characters so thoroughly that an audience can drop into a kind of dreamtime participation in the story. But rarely have I so deeply identified with a series of characters as I did that morning, though I have read the book and seen the movie each a dozen times.

As the students stirred in their seats, adjusting their eyes to the bright lights, I was left wondering with Gabriel, Why am I feeling this riot of emotion?

My class of thirty students sat in stunned silence, waiting for me to speak. In the front row a young guy in a Francois Truffaut T-shirt and his long-lashed girlfriend squirmed in their seats, then turned painfully away from each other, like the fateful couple in the film, as if pondering in their heart of hearts the breathtaking lines about the difficulty of ever understanding their own lovers.

I watched them with tenderness, as if projected forward by the story and able to see them struggling with love and death in their various futures. Looking at their faces trying to get used to the classroom lights, I found myself reeling backward in time, recalling my first night in Dublin, December 1974, when my landlady, Mrs. McGeary, handed me a copy of Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners, saying, “Here, take it. You need to read this,” and how I read until dawn, recognizing in Joyce a mentor, a kindred spirit, and more, my own destiny, closing in around my soul.

The class waited as the last minute of class ticked off and I recalled the night I helped my brother and sister clean out my father’s apartment after he died. On the reading table next to the chair in which he died, I found a beautiful bound edition of Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses. I picked up the book and wished we had had a chance to read it out loud together, at least had one last chance to talk about it.

The class bell rang. Still, the class did not stir. They would not move until I said something to wrap up the film. I realized that they were right where Joyce wanted his readers and Huston wanted his viewers reeling in the “riot of emotion.” They were in the mythic moment.

I suddenly felt like my college professor twenty-five years before must have when we asked him, while the Vietnam War was still raging, what he would do if his draft number came up.

I began tentatively, and then a great calm came over me as the words seemed to choose me. “John Huston called this movie his love letter to Ireland. Before he died he told the press that reading James Joyce when he was a young man made him want to become a writer. Joyce was only twenty-five when he wrote The Dead. That can either intimidate us or inspire us. Twenty-five. That’s just about your age, isn’t it? I found him when I was about your age. It changed everything. What he taught me was to trust the ‘riot of emotion’ that arises when we touch the depths. Can you feel it — can you feel the myth? What I’d like to urge you to do is try to get what you’re feeling at this moment into your own scripts. If you haven’t gotten there yet, go deeper. Then go back and go deeper yet. If you do, you will find the secret opening to myth, dream, and art.”

© 2001 Phil Cousineau
from Once and Future Myths,
Conari Books, Berkeley, Ca.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.

Phil Cousineau is a writer, storyteller, teacher, editor, documentary filmmaker, travel leader, and photographer. His life-long fascination with the art, literature, and history of culture has taken him on journeys around the world. He lectures frequently on a wide range of topics from creativity, mythology, and film—to soul, writing, and travel. His books include The Blue Museum,The Olympic Odyssey: Rekindling the True Spirit of the Great Games, The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life, Riddle Me This, The Art of Pilgrimage, The Soul Aflame, Soul Moments: Marvelous Stories of Synchronicity, and Deadlines: A Rhapsody on a Theme of Famous Last Words. He also edited Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey. His screenwriting credits in documentary films, which have won more than twenty-five international awards, include: Ecological Design: Inventing the Future, The Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey, The Peyote Road, The Red Road to Sobriety, Your Humble Serpent: The Life of Reuben Snake, Wiping the Tears of Seven Generations, Eritrea: March to Freedom, The Presence of the Goddess, The Hero's Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell, and the 1991 Academy Award-nominated Forever Activists: Stories from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
email: pilgrimage[AT] (replace [AT] with @).
Photo by Jo Beaton.

Phil's new book of poetry, The Blue Museum, is reviewed in this issue.
Please check the Talent Index for more of his work.

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