Man — The Mythmaker

Last week I was reading about Barbe-Nicole Cliquot Ponsardin, the woman who created the modern champagne industry at the time when all the other winemakers were still trying to remove those pesky bubbles. Although Dom Perignon, the “mythical” creator of champagne, did make many contributions to the wine industry, developing and commercializing champagne didn’t happen to be one of them. That was the doing of the Widow Cliquot more than a century later. In addition to developing the riddling rack necessary for modern champagne, as well as a number of other innovations, she was also a master of commercial tactics, including finding ways to break the British blockade of the continent in order to ship 10,000 bottles of the 1811 cuvee Veuve Cliquot to Konigsburg. Yet the myth of Dom Perignon remains, almost untouched.

Mankind, and I’m using that term advisedly, has always had cherished myths. For example, there is the myth of man the great hunter, and perhaps this is linked to the myth of the lion as the king of beasts. Of course, the real hunting is done by the lionesses, and the only prodigious feats of the lion are his ability to mate with incredible frequency and to kill off cubs he hasn’t sired. Likewise, for all the myths about man as the hunter, studies have shown that the vast majority of food in hunter-gatherer societies comes from the “gathering” efforts of the women. Nonetheless, every year tens of thousands of men in the USA pay homage to the myth of the hunter by going out and trying to kill something most of them won’t even eat.

This male mythmaking goes beyond that. For example, most of the world knows Emilie du Chatelet, if they’ve even heard of her at all, as the mistress of Voltaire, yet this brilliant woman not only translated Newton’s Principia into French, clarifying and expanding it, but also provided the first detailed prose explanation of Newton’s mathematics, as well as converting the work into continental algebra. She also wrote Foundations of Physics, which integrated the work of Newton, Leibniz, and Descartes. Voltaire himself wrote that her intellect far exceeded his, and yet the world remembers him, not du Chatelet. History also records the intellect of Archimedes, but who besides historians knows about Hypatia?

Women don’t fare much better in the myths surrounding writing, either. Although “writing” has been largely an almost exclusively male-dominated field until comparatively recently in historical terms, it is interesting to note that what many scholars consider the first “great novel” [The Tale of Genji, @1007 A.D.] was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu — and that was seven hundred years before Richardson got around to writing Pamela. Historically, more than a few people seem to regard such writers as Poe, Verne, and H.G. Wells as the seminal figures in science fiction, but it’s far more accurate to cite Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first true S.F. novel. Of course, like Norton and even Austen, Shelley couldn’t even publish under her own name.

In the F&SF field, the current “grand old man” and mythical figure is always Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote forty-some novels and a dozen or so collections of short stories, and sold over 40 million books. Yet Andre Norton [Alice Mary Norton] wrote over 130 novels and had the first SF novel to sell over 1 million copies, and might have sold as many books as Heinlein, except that the sales records of her publishers are so fragmented erroneous that there’s no way to tell. And, then again, in sheer numbers, the books by another woman — J.K. Rowling — have sold over 400 million copies and dwarf Heinlien’s sales numbers.

So… why is it that so many mythical figures and accomplishments are male? Could it just be because most men, especially those who aren’t the ones doing the accomplishing, are obsessed with image… and women with results?