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Facts and Myth

09/02/04 12:00AM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) Dragnet's Sergeant Friday used to want "Just the facts, Ma'am." But a visit to a lighthouse in Maine reminded commentator Peter Gilbert of the importance of understanding not only facts, but stories and cultural myths as well.


(Gilbert) I went to a meeting on the coast of Maine recently. A bunch of us gathered to talk about humanities programs for the general public. We talked about reading and discussion groups in hospitals for health care providers; and book groups in prisons, Adult Basic Education centers, and public libraries. Reading can be not just a solitary activity, or even a private interaction between author and reader; it can be a shared, social activity as well.

We talked about how literature - stories like Homer's Odyssey, and myths - can be so powerful that they transform lives. Sometimes a book holds a mirror up to nature or to ourselves, and what we see in that mirror affects us - sometimes in subtle, incremental ways, other times in immediate and powerful ways. One person told how once, during a book discussion of Homer's Odyssey, a young woman burst into tears and ran from the room. She returned some time later, and explained that her father was a Vietnam veteran, and that she had just realized that Ulysses's story in The Odyssey, trying to get home from the Trojan War, was her father's story.

During a break in our meeting, several of us went down the road to see the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse and Museum - a photo-perfect Maine lighthouse that for decades has sent a powerful beam of light into the darkness. It turned out that the volunteer guide was a retired cultural anthropologist specializing in Cambodia. He told a story about how, a few years ago, scientists announced that they had discovered a new species of large mammal in Cambodia. They hadn't found the animal itself, just pairs of its antlers - horns elegantly twisted like cork screws. They'd given it a scientific name and everything. Seventy internationally renowned scientists had signed a petition to have the species declared endangered, but, he told us, he knew the species didn't exist.

How could he be so sure that there wasn't a new species - even without waiting for the results of the DNA tests, which confirmed that he was right? Because as a cultural anthropologist, he knew that the people who lived in that region manipulated animal horns for religious purposes. After all, horn is essentially the same stuff as fingernails - easily malleable. As he said with a smile, those mammal experts knew the facts, but he knew the myths!

As Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell, and others have recognized, stories and myths are our shared experiences, embodied wisdom and truth, and projected dreams. Stories like The Odyssey and that tale about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree help us understand what life's all about - is it fame, wealth, and power, or love, honesty, and justice. In our personal lives, and in our collective lives as well, our stories, belief systems, and myths are sometimes even more
important than the facts.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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