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This article is taken from PN Review 118, Volume 24 Number 2, November - December 1997.

Fear of Happiness Louise Glück

Among the distinguishing characteristics of mythic or totemic stories, let me call two of the most obvious to your attention: first, by definition, they stay in the mind - durability distinguishes the archetypal from the anecdotal. Second, more peculiarly, they mutate, or our perceptions of their fundamental truths change. Perhaps 'mutate' is inaccurate; better to say that what magnetizes attention shifts. A story with staying power will offer a variety of possible centres of focus (though these may be perceived sequentially rather than simultaneously). Stories of this type, whatever their scale (and they may, superficially, resemble the anecdote), possess a certain interior spaciousness within clear outlines, so that they seem, on reflection, at once copious and eternally unresolved. In simpler terms, every time I see Children of Paradise, it has a different hero. And every time I read Wuthering Heights, I feel a different moral or emotional imperative. When I was sixteen: value passion. Meaning sacrifice anything to it. When I was twenty-five: be wary of passion's tendency to screen narcissism. And so on.

All this holds true, as well, in the realm of the personal. We have, each of us, certain charged stories or referents, the sorts of stories we tell those people we wish to befriend, so that they will see what has formed us. What is odd is that, over time, the same story can be used to make different points, though we may continue to befriend the same sorts of attractive strangers.

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