Myth and Progress

Essay from Blue Mesa, March 1995

Abo, Chaco, Walpi, Old Oraibi, Canyon De Chelley; Keet Seel, Ojo del Padre, and Datil. American nouns like these are as full of depths and possibilities for some of us in the Southwest as Delphi, Lesbos, Arcadia, and Eleusis are to classicists. Keet Seel and Arcadia are shadows of each other, wild places, the haunts of gods, oases in the outback of history that the Myth of Progress would define as futureless, with no progressive potential, archaeological trinkets only slightly more meaningful than Kachinas and Caryatids lathed in Taiwan. And to most people in the commodified cultures of the East and West, the ancient world, and its modern equivalent the developing world, are in fact museum souvenirs, a plastic scarab, a poured-glass obsidian butterfly, an Anasazi wind-chime made of shards. The Myth of Progress, concerned as it is with the material, the technological, and the marketable, doesn’t have much room for anomalies like the American Southwest, places it defines as being merely local, of no global significance other than tourism and as a virgin territory for the various extractive and exploitative industries. Of course, it’s different for people who live in such anomalies. For us who see the southwest as a mythological sanctuary, a place where the past is still alive, ennobling and energizing the present, Keet Seel and Abo and Ojo del Padre are no more mere “local color” than the Erechtheum or the Omphalos at Delphi. Oraibi, Chaco and Canyon de Chelley embody a tradition whose full meaning has yet to be realized in a possible future in which the planet has been resacralized and the adaptive ingenuity of Southwestern cultures is refigured as model of ecological sensitivity, humility and common sense.

In the meantime a more brutal view prevails. Financial and corporate America sees the Southwest as synonymous with the primitive, the backward, the undeveloped, the unevolved. Lots of potential. Good workers. Cheap labor. Coal, oil, gas, uranium. Lots of scientists. Lots of “empty” land to be subdivided forever like timber companies clear cut forests. A good place to retire, to build bombs and to bury poison. Lots of potential.

This reductionist, cost/benefit analysis of the Southwest makes clear the difference between two standard views of myth-- one as a gross inaccuracy, the other as a psychic reality. The myths of Arcadia or Chaco Canyon, for instance, are living truths of the spirit and facts of the imagination; the Myth of Progress, in this context, is an error in moral accounting, a manipulative falsehood demeaning the Southwest in order to milk it dry.

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