Source Book For Social Psychology
MYTHS AND LEGENDS AS PART OF SUBJECTIVE ENVIRONMENT
Not only are stereotypes and slogans carried in the mental patterns and come thus to affect actions, but there are whole sections of our mental content which are made up of stories, narratives, interpretations, and ideals which play important rôles in the control of social judgments and social activities. In truth, these more systematic legends and myths themselves contain much stereotyped content.
Thus, for example, M. Clemenceau's images and ideas of Germany in 1918 were tied up thoroughly with legends about the Franco-Prussian War upon which were superimposed more recent deposits of legends from the World War. And coursing through this more or less systematic picture were stereotypes such as were described in the previous chapter.
The making of myths and legends is a natural phenomenon of the mind. This is described in detail by van Langenhove. Not only are there illusions of memory in the repeated recall of events, not only is there elaboration and dramatization of these events, not only is there transposition of time and place and actual accretion to the legend or story itself,—but there is, furthermore, in the course of this process, which arises in intercommunication, the acceptance of this much repeated story as objective fact. Moreover, a delusion of any particular individual which may arise in a crisis such as a war, a famine, a flood, or other critical situation may become projected upon other persons in the telling and become part of the whole mental pattern of the group. As Campbell puts it:
Under special strain the orthodox may lapse from conventional belief into individual delusion, and the delusion of one person may in any group or
(462) period become a socially acceptable belief. Delusion is no strange and mysterious element, it is no foreign parasite battening on the mind, it is not the meaningless expression of disturbed physiological processes; delusion is an attempt of the personality to deal with special difficulties, in which attempt the mind not infrequently tends to revert to primitive modes of adaptation, which are at variance with the actual level of thought of the period and group in which the individual finds himself; it is an attempt which has gone wrong insofar as it estranges the individual from his social group. Delusion, like fever, is to be looked on as part of nature's attempt at cure, an endeavor to neutralize some disturbing factor, to compensate for some handicap, to reconstruct a working contact with the group which will still satisfy special needs.
Thus it was that during the World War a whole congeries of legends and myths we built up from delusion and illusion which were fastened upon the various national groups and will remain for generations a part of the mental patterns of these groups unless disturbed by other patterns more objective. While the psychiatrist may term these illusions and delusions reversions to primitive modes of thought, it is becoming more and more evident that the thought of the masses, corresponding as it does to the mental patterns of culture. is essentially primitive. And primitivity in thought is marked by emotional interpretations and by fictitious associations such as we have in magic. It is marked by illusions of memory, by elaboration, distortion and extension of items in experience which is much akin, as Freud has shown, to the dream consciousness. In short, primitive thinking is personal, subjective, and warm with emotion and feeling. It is, in fact, autistic in nature. It has little of the objectivity of scientific thought. It is marked rather by what Stransky calls the "logic of feeling" than by cool, deliberate, and impersonal conceptions. And the mental patterns of stereotypes, myths, and legends are simply the objectified, projected standardizations, the socially ac-
( 463) -cepted precipitates of this type of thinking. All kinds of historical events, ideals, utopias, and millenniums partake of this character. Napoleon and Machiavelli, for example, for H. G. Wells, with his Fabian coloring, are two very different characters than they are for a chauvinistic Frenchman, on the one hand, or for a believer in Real-Politik on the other.
In the first. selection from Sorel we have an incisive statement of the importance of the myth in social dogmas of various sorts. In the second paper we have selections from van Langenhove's analysis of the legends built up in Germany about the franc-tireur (guerrilla) warfare in Belgium and the accompanying perfidy of the Belgians toward the invaders. He shows how the legend runs its course from mouth-to-mouth,. face-to-face, narration to inclusion in newspaper reports, to becoming the subject of literary productions. It gets into formal military accounts, and finally into official histories of the war.
The 'selection from Addams furnishes a modern instance of the puce of myth-making in social control. While the groups involved ,?are immigrant folk, other superstitions among our own rural and ~even urban population are still current. Freedom from legend, myth, and stereotype is rare and depends on level of culture not on race, nationality, or geography.
The place of historical legends in our own national life is illustrated by Hart's paper. Similar materials on other national heroes such as John Brown and Walter Hines Page may be consulted through the bibliography. As a part of the culture of the Christian era, there is no more constant myth than in the recurrent millennial hope which has sprung up again and again in the course of western history. This idealism has served a valid social purpose in periods of crisis. Such hopes stabilize people when under great strain and provide a core for the integration of individual and social life when all ordinary mundane arrangements have failed.
We should not imagine from our analysis that social concepts could be very different. Rather we are exposing more or less common patterns of culture, at least as they have been prominent in our Western world. As one examines the nature of social life and its culture patterns, one is impressed with the fact that emotions and feelings play a very large part in their formulation and continuance.
The basic values carry emotional freight. These values and ideas are made
over into patterns congenial to the survival of our group. The slogans, the
mores, the standards, the legends, all revolve around the group as the most
significant, the most superior, the most important in the universe. Man's
personal egotism has its reflection in the larger egotism of the in-group
everywhere. And the mental patterns which we have examined in the present and
the previous chapter merely furnish another clue to the understanding of this
in-group feature of life and its reference to the personality.
- G. Sorel. Reflections on Violence. B.W. Huebsch (1914).
- R. van Langenhove. The Growth of a Legend. New York: Putnam (1916)
- J. Addams. “A Modern Devil Baby.” American Journal of Sociology 20 (1914).
- A.B. Hart. “American Historical Liars.” Harper’s 131 (1915)
- S.J. Case. The Millenial Hope Chicago: University of Chicago.