People live in pursuit of fantasies and motivated by myths. I see myth as deeper and stronger than fantasy, but they permeate each other. How do fantasies and myths shape Utah and the people and cultures that occupy it? All around we see evidence of how inner life drives the shaping of the outer material world. Every day more and more land is torn up to be paved over and built up to gratify the fantasies sold to us, or to accommodate the myths that powerful groups live by.
I want to focus on one of these myths, which is particularly prevalent in this cultural area, perennially popular and aggressively promoted. That myth is the home as fortress.
This concept ascended to prominence in the Victorian age, when the industrialized world hosted the growth of a large new middle class. Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class, wrote about the canons of taste and consumption (conspicuous waste) that were established by privileged members of warrior societies and followed by the lower classes as a result of the invidious comparison that is essential to such a system. In this way, when the industrial revolution made huge fortunes for a few and comfortable surplus for many, the new middle class aspired to a lifestyle of leisure modeled on the standards that their rulers had built up over centuries. In other words, they lived the myth of a king or noble in his castle, and lived it on such a scale as to establish their lifestyle as a myth in its own right. (I use the sexed pronoun deliberately, as an explicit part of this ethos was the notion of the father ruling the nuclear family.)
This myth was revived in the notorious 1950s lifestyle, when the explosion in consumer spending and advertising following the war, together with the re-entrenchment of older gender roles, produced a wash of imagery which has been used as powerful and meaningful symbolism ever since. Indeed this was another myth in its own right, building on powerful foundations to establish itself as a Golden Age of American innocence and righteousness in the collective imagination. Stephanie Coontz begins her important historical survey The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by pointing out that the “traditional family” routinely invoked in political debates is in fact a caricature of the popular portrayals of the ideal family of that age – a caricature of a caricature. Perhaps the distortion, or distillation has made it all the more potent. After all, this illusion is a myth: built on strong foundations and bolstered by powerful iconography (since advertising in the mid 20th century blatantly based its manipulative tactics on recent psychological discoveries about the unconscious).
Over a century ago, Carl Jung foresaw that Germany's intoxication and enthrallment with the heroic myth was about to lead masses of men into suicidal catastrophic wars. Even so the heroic myth persists because of its power, which can be used for good or ill (try spending much time in New Age circles without hearing the phrase “hero's journey”). Similarly, the myth of home as fortress is powerful; despite the historical oddity of the Victorian and Baby Boom middle class family ideals, its roots go even deeper than those. This powerful myth can also be used for good or ill. Invoking it, calling for a devotion to it, is an act of social engineering that should not be done without grave consideration of the economic circumstances it works in: will they drive the myth primarily to good or ill?
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