Victor Pelevin, the iconoclastic and wildly interesting contemporary Russian novelist who The New Yorker named one of the Best European Writers Under 35, upends any conventional notions of mythology in this “sharp, funny and . . . numinous” novel (The Sunday Times).
By creating a mesmerizing world where the surreal and the hyperreal collide, The Helmet of Horror is a radical retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur set in an Internet chat room. They have never met, they have been assigned strange pseudonyms, they inhabit identical rooms that open out onto very different landscapes, and they have entered a dialogue they cannot escape—a discourse defined and destroyed by the Helmet of Horror. Its wearer is the dominant force they call Asterisk, a force for good and ill in which the Minotaur is forever present and Theseus is the great unknown. The Helmet of Horror is structured according to the way we communicate in the twenty-first century—using the Internet—yet instilled with the figures and narratives of classical mythology. It is a labyrinthine examination of epistemological uncertainty that radically reinvents this myth for an age where information is abundant but knowledge ultimately unattainable.
“The classical myth is reinterpreted with black-comic brio . . . Is Pelevin after all Russia’s Thomas Pynchon?”—Kirkus Reviews
“A brilliant post-modern, eclectic vision of myth, mind and meaning. And of the human dilemma and its horns, ancient and modern.”—A. S. Byatt, The Times
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The Helmet of HorrorThe Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur
By Victor Pelevin
Brilliance AudioCopyright © 2006 Victor Pelevin
All right reserved.
‘No one realised that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same . . .’
-Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths
According to one definition, a myth is a traditional story, usually explaining some natural or social phenomenon. According to another, it is a widely held but false belief or idea. This duality of meaning is revealing. It shows that we naturally consider stories and explanations that come from the past to be untrue — or at least we treat them with suspicion. This attitude, apart from creating new jobs in the field of intellectual journalism, gives some additional meaning to our life. The past is a quagmire of mistakes; we are here to find the truth. We know better.
The road away from myth is called ‘progress’. It is not just scientific, technical or political evolution. Progress has a spiritual constituent beautifully expressed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby:
[a belief] in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms further . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
In other words, progress is a propulsion technique where we have to constantly push ourselves away from the point we occupied a moment ago. However, this doesn’t mean that we live without myths now. It only means that we live with instant myths of soap-bubble content. They are so unreal you can’t even call them lies. Anything can become our mythology for fifteen minutes, even Mythbusters programme on the Discovery channel.
The foundation of this mind-set on progress is not faith, as happens with traditional cults, but the absence of it. However, the funny thing is that the concept of progress has been around for so long that now it has all the qualities of a myth. It is a traditional story that pretends to explain all natural and social phenomena. It is also a belief that is widespread and false.
Progress has brought us into these variously shaped and sized cubicles with glowing screens. But if we start to analyse this high-end glow in terms of content and structure, we will sooner or later recognise the starting point of the journey — the original myth. It might have acquired a new form, but it hasn’t changed in essence. We can argue about whether we were ceaselessly borne back into the past or relentlessly pushed forward into the future, but in fact we never moved anywhere at all.
And even this recognition is a traditional story now. A long time ago Jorge Luis Borges wrote that there are only four stories that are told and re-told: the siege of the city, the return home, the quest, and the (self-) sacrifice of God. It is notable that the same story could be placed into different categories by different viewers: what is a quest/return home for Theseus is a brutal God’s sacrifice for Minotaur. Maybe there are more than just ‘four cycles’, as Borges called them, but their number is definitely finite and they are all known. We will invent nothing new. Why?
This is where we come to the third possible definition of a myth. If a mind is like a computer, perhaps myths are its shell programs: sets of rules that we follow in our world processing, mental matrices we project onto complex events to endow them with meaning. People who work in computer programming say that to write code you have to be young. It seems that the same rule applies to the cultural code. Our programs were written when the human race was young — at a stage so remote and obscure that we don’t understand the programming language any more. Or, even worse, we understand it in so many different ways and on so many levels that the question ‘what does it mean?’ simply loses sense.
Why does the Minotaur have a bull’s head? What does he think and how? Is his mind a function of his body or is his body an image in his mind? Is Theseus inside the Labyrinth? Or is the Labyrinth inside Theseus? Both? Neither?
Each answer means that you turn down a different corridor. There were many people who claimed they knew the truth. But so far nobody has returned from the Labyrinth. Have a nice walk. And if you happen to meet the Minotaur, never say ‘MOOO’. It is considered highly offensive.
Started by ARIADNE at xxx p.m. xxx xxx BC GMT
I shall construct a labyrinth in which I can lose myself, together with anyone who tries to find me — who said this and about what?
What’s going on? Is there anyone there . . . ?
So what’s going on round here?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Ariadne, are you there?
She started this thread. Seems this isn’t the Internet, just looks like it. You can’t link to anywhere else from here.
Hello! If anyone can read this, please answer.
I can read it.
Who posted the first message?
It’s been up on the board a long time.
How can you tell? There’s no date on it.
I saw it three hours ago.
Attention, roll-call. There’s just Nutcracker, Romeo and me here, is that right?
At least, we’re the only ones who want to join in.
Right, so there are three of us here.
But where is here exactly?
How do you mean?
Quite literally. Can you describe where you are now? What is it — a room, a hall, a house? A hole in someone’s xxx?
Excerpted from The Helmet of Horror by Victor Pelevin Copyright © 2006 by Victor Pelevin. Excerpted by permission.
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