When myth exhausts its power to transmit messages (how to marry, how to eat, how to be brave), it becomes a narrative that does not know how to resolve itself. Everything, says the contemporary novel, comes to a bad end. (It was in Victorian times that novels began to have ambiguous, unresolved, ironic endings.) Music, too, refuses to be harmonic. We are no wiser than man has ever been about our helplessness in nature. Our fate with love, death, despair, doubt, wealth, courage, everything that’s human, is no different after all those years of yearning for a better context. We’ve got here (to the electric light, the Buick, antibiotics, TV) bringing along practically everything we accumulated along the way. We still eat, with or without manners. We still dream idiotic and awful images. We still draw, sculpt, enrapture ourselves with music, dance, pray, and keep superstitions that would make a Malay laugh. As there is no absolute definition of a human being, it is unanswerable to ask if we have remained human. We have remained Jewish, Catholic, Sicilian, French, Presbyterian. Before that we were savages terrified of thunder, worshipful of fermented grape juice, wondering whether the gods allow us to marry our sister, first, or second cousin. We still have no information as to how races branched out from each other, where we first lived, where civilization arose. Our past is forgotten. We can forget it again.
Guy Davenport, “The Champollion of Table Manners,” from Every Force Evolves a Form