Book review: from cronuts to the Kardashians, Mythomania looks at the significance of everything
Cultural critic Peter Conrad always finds something witty and even exaggerated to say about the things he notices, although some might find his work to be an exercise in over-interpretation
by Peter Conrad
Thames & Hudson
Last year Donald Trump was asked what his ideal president looked like. He replied: “Harrison Ford on the plane.” Trump was speaking, of course, of that cinematic classic of grimy political realism, Air Force One, in which President Harrison Ford memorably throws a terrorist off his aircraft. In both Hollywood and the fizzingly opaque mind of Trump, the commander in chief is now an action hero in his own right.
There are in fact two Air Force Ones: the phrase is a call-sign for whichever one currently holds the president as human cargo, rather than designating a particular plane. And Air Force One has become in itself something of a myth, as Peter Conrad argues in entertaining style: a globally understood symbol of the US president’s thrusting potency and command of the skies.
Mythomania is a collection of themed essays about modern culture, some of which began life as BBC Radio 4 programmes, and it follows consciously in the footsteps of the first great deconstructor of cultural symbols, Roland Barthes. In Mythologies, published in 1957, Barthes mused brilliantly on the meaning of subjects ranging from detergents to red wine, plastic and wrestling.
“The topics Barthes dealt with uncovered the hidden mythical content of daily reality,” Conrad notes approvingly, and in similar fashion he inquires in elegant and allusive style about such up-to-date phenomena as laptops, selfies, S&M fiction, vampire movies, the Kardashians, the downfall of Oscar Pistorius and chicken-based restaurant chains.
Barthes himself is a regular reference. What the Frenchman said of the Eiffel Tower (it is a “virtually empty” sign that therefore “means everything”), Conrad argues is true also of the Shard in London. Barthes pondered Einstein’s brain and its afterlife as an object of scientific curiosity; Conrad ponders the brain of Stephen Hawking and his “frail, ephemeral” cosmology.
Conrad combines an archly literate wit – discussing the “cronut”, he calls it this “miscegenated pastry” – with a readiness to engage in broad cultural diagnoses. When the cronut was first invented, in order to buy one you had to queue from 7am outside the New York bakery of its creator, Dominique Ansel. Conrad observes: “In an affluent society, where we have too much of everything, it is modishly retro to be seen on a breadline, like clients at a soup kitchen or starving third world refugees.” (This applies equally well to the modern scourge of pop-up dude‑food restaurants that are too hip to take reservations.) Meanwhile, discussing an annual parade of giant inflatable children’s characters (SpongeBob SquarePants, Spider-Man ) through midtown Manhattan, Conrad calls it “a version of the march past of armaments that rumbled through Red Square on May Day in Soviet Russia – equally ideological”, which is both funny in its exaggeration and completely accurate.
Any such exercise in cultural interpretation risks striking some readers as an exercise in over-interpretation. But Conrad has vast erudition and a playful style. True, one sometimes admires more the impressive spread of bullets than the pinpoint targeting, as in chapters on the resonances of the names of Apple computers or the Oyster London travel card. But he always has something interesting to say, and it is a brilliant example of his generous frame of cultural reference that he notes, in an essay on vaping, that the character Sam Slade in the British sci-fi comic 2000AD smoked “a robotic cigar called Stogie”.
A meatier discussion of the role of myth in society is offered in a longer concluding essay on Barthes himself (as well as Marshall McLuhan, Jean Cocteau, The Matrix and Dan Brown ). The aim of Barthes’ own analysis, he said, was “to liberate the coveted object and thereby destroy it” – and in this, of course, he failed. Now there are even, Conrad suggests, more myths than ever before. Politics is conducted with the help of “image consultants” and its religion is “storytelling”, aiming for narrative rather than elucidation. On social media we all become mythic versions of ourselves or others. (Why else is it full of trolls?)
So, Conrad argues, myth is not just one aspect of society that the determined critic can unravel; it has become the world itself. Still, we have choices. In an amusingly provocative and strangely apt passage, he spends some time comparing Islamic State with the Church of Jedi – two religious or pseudo-religious groups that employ myth as a style or lifestyle gesture.
“A degraded mythology,” Conrad notes, attracts “credulous neophytes”, so maybe what we need – and all we can do – is not to attempt to destroy mythologies but to invent better ones. As Barthes said, “As long as there is death, there will be myth.”