Friday, September 10, 2010

9: Reward

On Page 212 of Hero With a Thousand Faces comes The Diagram which me and George found so exciting. The Hero sets out; he crosses the threshold of adventure; he experiences some kind of crisis; he returns home with some kind of reward. It isn't too hard to spot this pattern in the lives of Luke Skywalker, Barack Obama, King Arthur and other people of that kind.

Campbell claims that the structure is "universal": by which, I think, he means no more than "examples of stories with this structure can be found all over the world". His followers, however, have made a much grander claim: they say that all stories follow this structure; that this diagram represents the only story that there can possibly be.

Christopher Vogler's the Writer's Journey uses Hero With a Thousand Faces as a template for Hollywood scriptwriting and has been taken seriously by a lot of people who should know better. He writes:

In his study of world hero myths Campbell discovered that they are all basically the same story – retold endlessly in infinite variations. He found that all story-telling, consciously or not, follows the ancient patterns of myth, and that all stories, from the crudest jokes [*] to the highest flights of literature, can be understood in terms of the hero myth; the "monomyth" whose principles he lays out in the book.

Well. If we define "hero myth" as "story which conforms to the pattern proposed by Campbell" then it is trivially true that all hero myths conform to Campbell's pattern. (If you reserve the word "science fiction" for stories which are based on accurate science, then it is a no-brainer that all science fiction is scientifically accurate.) But Vogler goes much further. Not only do all hero-myths conform to one structure, but all stories are hero myths. In the hands of his more wooly-minded followers, Campbell's theory undergoes a further metamorphosis. "Stories with this structure occur in all cultures" becomes "All stories have this structure" which in turn becomes "All stories ought to have this structure". Campbell's observation becomes an imperative.

Question: Is "All hero myths have the same structure" synonymous with "All hero myths are basically the same story"?

The diagram in Hero With a Thousand Faces is a circle containing only 4 points. Point 1 is where the Hero sets out from and return to: the other three points contain a total of 17 things which might happen to him along the way. They represent different versions of the Hero's journey. When the hero sets out he might fight a dragon, or his brother, or some other opponent who guards the doorway between the normal world and the world where the adventure happens. He might defeat it or he might charm it. On the other hand, he might literally die or be swallowed by a whale, in which case the adventure might happen in the afterlife. In some stories, the hero is given the opportunity to go on a quest, but refuses it, in which case (of course) the story ends there. At the "nadir of the mythological round" the hero might marry a special bride; on the other hand, he might be acknowledged by his father, or by a father figure; someone might give him a magic "elixir" or he might steal it. On the way back he might be chased by hostile forces (if he stole the treasure) or be accompanied by friendly ones (if he was given it as a gift).

Vogler's version, on the other hand, has 12 points: the ordinary world, the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, the meeting with mentor... a fixed sequence rather than a series of possibilities. Vogler admits that he has changed Campbell's pattern (in order to make it more relevant to the contemporary world in general and movie making in particular – which rather undermines it's claim to being universal). He also says that when using it to create your comic book or dirty joke, you shouldn't stick to it too closely. But it is very striking how proscriptive Vogler is compared with Campbell.

Campbell: The mythological hero, setting forth from his commonday hut or castle, is lured, carried way, or else voluntarily proceeds to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence which guards the passage....

Vogler: The hero is introduced in his ORDINARY WORLD where he receives the CALL TO ADVENTURE. He is RELUCTANT at first to CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD where he eventually encounters TESTS, ALLIES and ENEMIES

Another version of the diagram currently resides on Wikipedia. There, Campbell's structure has morphed into an eight point diagram, a sequence of events which happen in "all" stories. Where Campbell has "crucifixion" and "dismemberment" as two of the things which might occur at the threshold of adventure, Wikipedia has "death and rebirth" as the only options for the bottom of the cycle (where Campbell has "apotheosis" or "elixir theft"). But all are agreed that because this story is universal:

stories built on the model of the hero myth have an appeal that can be felt by everyone, because they spring from a universal source in the collective unconscious, and because they reflect universal concerns.

Vogler goes so far as to talk about the story's intrinsic "magic" and asserts:

If you want to understand the ideas behind the hero myth, there’s no substitute for actually reading Campbell’s book. It’s an experience that has a way of changing people. It’s also a good idea to read a lot of myths, but it amounts to the same thing since Campbell is a master story-teller who delights in illustrating his points with examples from the rich storehouse of mythology.

Never mind spending 40 days in the wilderness or meditating 'neath a tumtum tree. Don't even bother studying the Talmud or going on a weekend retreat with the Alpha Course. Merely reading Hero With a Thousand Faces is enough to change your life.

It's a little like one of those Calvinists trying really, really hard to save your soul you because it has already been predestined that your soul is going to be saved; or a Marxist struggling towards the Revolution because the Revolution is historically inevitable. You've got to try really, really, really hard to make your story fit Campbell's narrative structure, because all stories, from high flown myths to dirty jokes, fit in with that structure, whether the storyteller means them to or not.


The Ordinary World: "A man walks into a bar."

The Call to Adventure "He notices that the man who is tinkling away on the piano is only about a foot tall."

Refusal of the Call: "He asks the barman why piano player is so short. The barman says he will tell him in a moment..."

Meeting the Mentor: "....But first, says the barman, he must rub a Magic Bottle which is kept behind the bar for first time guests."

Crossing the Threshold: "The man rubs the bottle as he was told"

Tests, Allies and Enemies: "And, lo and behold, a magic geni appears."

The Approach: " 'Since you have never been to this bar before, I shall grant you one wish!' says the geni."

Ordeal, Death and Rebirth: "The man thinks very hard, and says 'I'd like a million bucks.' "

Reward: "The geni says some magic words, and lo and behold, a million ducks fly into the bar, and starting quacking furiously."

The Road Back: "The man is disappointed."

Resurrection: " 'No, not ducks!' he says 'I wanted a million bucks -- a million dollars.'"

Return with the elixir: " 'Yeah' says the barman sadly. 'And do you think I wanted a twelve inch pianist?' "


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Thursday, September 09, 2010

8: Ordeal

Douglas Adams' notion that the process of using astrology may be valuable, even if astrology itself is bunkum, is an attractive one.

He puts the theory into the mouth of a dippy astrologer in one of his least funny books, but he makes much the same point in his own voice in "Is there an artificial god?" one of the essays he wrote after he died. In the latter piece he argued that Feng Shui, although based around notions about the flow of "chi" and invisible dragons, may nevertheless be a good way of answering the question "How do we make buildings which are pleasant to live in?" He thinks that energy and dragons may be tools of thought which enable us to get our heads round difficult, multi-dimensional ideas. He wonders if "God" may fall into the same category: not true, exactly, but a valid tool of thought for some people at some times. (It is not recorded if he remained on speaking terms with Richard Dawkins after giving this lecture.)

Mr Phillip Pullman, similarly, suggests that Adam and Eve may be analogous to imaginary numbers like the square root of minus one. No such number can possibly exist, but using that non-existent number can enable you to solve complex geometrical problems with practical applications in engineering.

If you ask a skeptic what Astrology is, he'll probably say that it's a means of predicting the future, but that it doesn't work. Or else he'll say that it's a theory which ties people's personality to the date and time of their birth, but that it certainly doesn't work. He may even say that it's a complex religious system in which the whole of the universe can be mapped onto a human individual ("as above, so below") but that it quite definitely doesn't work.

But this simply isn't true.

We've all got friends who use Astrology, and this isn't what they believe. Five minute of observation would have told us that Astrology was, in practice, a social ritual. Young people play Astrology because "What Star Sign are you?" is a good way of starting a conversation with a stranger at a party: by the time you've observed whether the stranger is a typical or atypical Libran (or, if you are advanced student, whether that pesky line up between Mars and Neptune has caused any health scares for Sagittarians this week) there's a very good chance that you've found something more worthwhile to talk about. Older people play Astrology because reading out newspaper horoscopes is an amusing way to pass the time during your ten minute coffee break. It's funny when they are spectacularly wrong, and it's a good conversation starter when they are coincidentally right. ("It says that people born under the sign of the Crab are going to go on a long journey – and come to think of it, Chippenham is a fair distance away." "You didn't tell me you were going to Chippenham...")

I'm not saying that the people who play Astrology think Astrology definitely doesn't work. They don't think that it definitely does work; but the game would be no fun if they didn't think that it might work. But hardly any of them believe in predestination, astronomical determinism, macrocosm and microcosm.

I'm assuming here that Astrology has no intrinsic value. In fact, I am literally agnostic, in the sense of having no knowledge, on this point. It might be that the personality types represented by the 12 signs cleverly represent 12 kinds of people – that they are "archetypes". It might be that picking a set of personality traits more or less at random and then comparing yourself with them encourages you to notice things about yourself or your friends which you would not otherwise have spotted. ("This random character generation system says that people who share my birthday are likely to be physical cowards – and come to think of it, I really didn't want to go on the roller-coaster at the theme park last weekend.") It might be that the system contains real insights about whether people who are "strongly rooted and often think of the past, holding onto momentos and thinking about childhood" [*] are likely to get on with those who are "rather stoic, enjoy power respect and authority, but are willing to toe the line for as long as it takes to achieve their goals". It might even be that people born in July really are are more likely to be nostalgic for childhood than those born in December, say because the latter never got to go for picnics on their birthdays.

The only thing I'm almost certain of is that the position of the planets on your birthday doesn't have a deterministic influence on the rest of your life.

A few thousand pages ago, I mocked my brief under-graduate flirtation with Sigmund Freud. And I do indeed cringe when I think of essays in which I said things like "Othello's handkerchief now vanishes from the play, since when The Whore has the Phallus there can be no Phallus." And I understand that the whole psychoanalysis thing is rather undermined because, like Astrology, it Doesn't Work. On the other hand, I think that our Anglo-Saxon reticence about bottoms and lavatories makes it slightly too easy to disregard Freud simply because he keeps using the word "penis" (or, indeed, "widdler"). If people notice Sigmund sitting on my shelf, they are apt to titter "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" as if that closes the matter. I don't think it does. I think sex probably is quite important for many people, and I think that guys do spend quite a lot of time thinking about their cocks.

More importantly, I think that the process of looking for Freudian symbols in the works of Shakespeare caused me to notice things in the plays which I might not otherwise have spotted. I think reading and "having belief feelings" about Freud broke me out of the bad A Level habit of treating texts as repositories of raw material for "character studies". My A Level teacher wanted me to treat Othello and Iago as if they were realistic human beings, which they plainly aren't. Sigmund encouraged me to look at the play as a collection of patterns, symbols, structures -- a thing which someone constructed. It is true that Othello's handkerchief passes through the hands of all the female characters in the play. It is true that he goes from regarding Desdemona as perfect in every way to being physically disgusted with her at the exact moment when she loses the magic handkerchief. This does feel a little like a little boy who starts out thinking that all women are wonderful and perfect and just like Mum, and then starts to think that all women are disgusting and stinky and sluts; Freud does think that this happens at the exact moment when he (the little boy) spots that ladies don't have willies, or indeed widdlers. Ergo, Othello's Mummy's hanky is a phallic symbol.

Did Shakespeare have this in mind when he wrote Othello? No. Did it lead me on to notice some interesting things about the structure of the play? Very probably. Would I have started thinking about patterns and structures in plays if I hadn't embarked on the Quest for the Holy Phallus? Probably not. Might I have noticed other, equally interesting, things if I had been trying to work out if Iago was a Capricorn or a Sagittarius? Or the point in the play when he returns from the underworld with the "boon" or "elixir"? Do Freudian analysts gain valid insights into their patients problems while trying to spot the Phallic Symbol in last nights dream? What would Alan Moore have to say about any of this?

You don't need to be a Freudian to think that swords, guns, spears, lances – and probably swagger sticks and canes and truncheons and motorcars and space rockets and rottweilers (to say nothing of lightsabers and wands and sonic screwdrivers) – are "male" symbols; partly because they are willy-shaped, but mostly because they are symbols of strength and you can hit things with then, and because, all things being equal, men are stronger than women and more interested in careers which involve hitting things with sticks. But it seems a big jump from that to saying that if you read enough stories in which male characters have big hitty-sticks, you can start to infer a picture language in which "hitty sticks" have a meaning which was obscure to the people who originally told the story and the people who originally listened to the story, but which we Freudians, Frazerians and Campbellians have miraculously decoded.

[*] A characteristic of Cancers, apparently, but one that obviously doesn't fit me very well at all.


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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

7: Approach

In another of the Mythos lectures, Campbell asserts that there are two concepts of God. The first kind of God, the kind he approves of, believed in mainly by dark-skinned people in the Olden Days, is the one which purports merely to be a symbol.

The Indian spirits (we are told) were symbols of and things which pointed to the Final Incomprehensible Mystery – but not the F.I.M itself. Indians (we are assured) would sometimes point to a physical place and say that this was the mountain on which God made the world, but they knew quite well that it wasn't. They knew quite well (says Campbell) that someone from a different village would have pointed to a different mountain, but that all the mountains were just symbols for the F.I.M. Was this really part of the timeless wisdom of the ancients, I ask myself? Or did it merely show that a process of "demythologisation" had fairly recently, occurred?

Or again. A dead Egyptian dude named Ahknaton (father of the more famous Tutankhamen) tried to set up a new religion in which the myriad gods of Egyptian polytheism were replaced by a single figure called Aten. Freud got very excited about this, particularly since Ahknaton married his own mother (almost definitely). Even C.S. Lewis acknowledged that it's quite...interesting...that there was a monotheist movement in Egypt at about the same time as Moses is meant to have been leading the monotheistic Jews out of, er, Egypt. But according to Campbell, although Ahknaton replaced the pantheon with Aten, he was quite clear that Aten was not the F.I.M. Aten was merely a symbol which could point you towards the F.I.M.

Again, maybe. People who know about this stuff seem more inclined to think that what Ahknaton really said was "Aten is the name of the old Sun God; and it's still OK to use the Sun as a symbol of Aten; but we ought to remember that Aten is not the Sun but merely the being who created the Sun". In other words, he was a bog standard monotheist who thought that you should take care when fooling about with graven images.

Now, the other kind of God, the bad kind, believed in by modern, light-skinned people and especially Jews, says that He Himself is the F.I.M and is therefore the only possible God. This bad religion is described as being "closed"; the good kind is described as being "open".

Now, that fella Jesus, dont'ya'know: he believed in the good, "open" version of God. That's why he said "I and my father are one." That's why the Big Bad Jew crucified him. Well, naturally: Joseph Campbell believes in a Jesus who agrees with Joseph Campbell about everything, in the same way that Elton John believes in a Jesus who agrees with Elton John and Tony Blair believes in a Jesus who agrees with Tony Blair. (Don't mention Philip Pullman. It will only upset me.) The trouble is that the line "I and my father are one" is embedded in a text, the Gospel of John, which is pretty clearly a literary creation with an argument running through it. It's true that John says that when Jesus said "I and my father are one" the Jews threw stones at him. But you could not possibly take John's Gospel to be saying "They threw stones at him because they thought that he was saying that the YHWH of the Old Testament was only a symbol for God, not God himself; and that YHWH was in any case not a personal being but an abstract symbol for the final incomprehensible wassissname." John thinks that the Jews threw stones at Jesus because they thought Jesus was, blasphemously, claiming to be YHWH, which, according to John, was precisely what Jesus was in fact claiming. From the opening paragraphs where John tells us that "the Word was God", through the passages where Jesus applies the divine Name to himself, to the scene where Jesus asks God to "glorify me with thine own self... with the glory I had with thee before the world was" John is highly committed to the doctrine of the Trinity. You can't rip a particular phrase out of a philosophical dialogue and use it to claim that John thought Jesus was a pantheist.

Unless, of course, Campbell is playing a Jesus Seminar game. He may think that "John's Gospel" is a text without value but that, by accident and without understanding it, "John" preserved a fragment of what The Historical Christ really said, and from this fragment, he, Joseph Campbell, can reconstruct T.H.C's true teaching which, very conveniently, is in complete agreement with the historical Joseph Campbell. But a position as subtle as that surely needs to be argued for, not taken for granted?

This kind of thing happens over and over again in Campbell's writing. A phrase, and incident, a story, a symbol seems to have an intrinsic, built in, essential meaning regardless of what it is doing in the story where you found it. It doesn't seem to matter what a story means to the person who told it; or to the people who heard it; or to the people who repeated it. The story, or the components of the story, have their own meaning. Don't go to Jews, or Christians, or Indians or Eskimos to find out what Jewish, Christian, Indian or Eskimo mythology means. Go to Joseph Campbell.

The Greeks had a god of wine, and the cult of the wine god involved drinking wine. And get this: when the Greek wine-worshipping dudes drank wine, they used, get this, a cup. And, get this, when a Catholic Priest celebrates Mass in a Cathedral, he also uses a cup. So a picture of a Dionysian mystery on the side of a Grecian Urn [*] looks a bit like a Mass, inasmuch as they both involve cups. And wine. And human beings. So you can point to Grecian Urn and say "Oh, look! A Eucharist!" or even "Oh look! A Western Grail Tradition."

What does drinking wine mean to a catholic at Mass? What did it mean to an initiate of the Dionysian mysteries? It would, of course, be extremely interesting if we could show that the Very Early Christians borrowed some of their ceremonies from the Mystery Cults. It would show, for example, that some of the Very Early Christians knew what those ceremonies were. It would show that some early Christians thought it was already to borrow ceremonies from pagan temples. It wouldn't show that Catholics were really Dionysians or that Dionysians were really Catholics. "They both involved cups" doesn't seem to be very strong evidence one way or another. Neither does "If we study different mythologies, we will be able to intuit a picture language in which cups always and irreducibly mean the same thing, even when that irreducible meaning wasn't apparent to the people who were actually participating in the cup-ceremony." Paintings of mothers with babies are very likely to look like paintings of mothers with babies regardless of who paints them. This doesn't mean that any picture of a mother with a baby is a Madonna and that all Madonnas have a hidden meaning which Campbell knows and the Pope doesn't.

Have you ever been at a church service when a little Brownie [=Girl Scout] has carried a little flag with a picture of a fairy on it down the aisle and handed it to the Vicar, who put it in the place where the alter would be if we hadn't had a Reformation? It doesn't take any vast insight to spot that this ceremony is based on a military church parade. We can work out why flags were an important part of military communication in the olden days and why they continued to be an important part of military symbolism even when they stopped being useful. But I think it would be reckless to say that the little eight year old is "really" performing a military ceremony and that the Brownies are "really" a paramilitary movement. (Or that the Marines are "really" interested in baking cookies and taking baskets of fruit to old ladies, come to that.) I think its more likely that some person in authority, very likely Lady Baden-Powell, thought it would be nice for little girls to have some ceremony to perform on the first Sunday of the month excluding school holidays and invented one based on military church parades because she remembered them from the last War.

Just because two things look the same it doesn't follow that they are the same.

[*] Not as much as he did before the global economic meltdown.


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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

6: Tests, Allies and Enemies

I recently watched Mythos – a series of (apparently amateur) recordings of lectures which Joseph Campbell himself gave towards the end of his life, with links by a hippy lady who hasn't yet worked out the correct way of sitting on a chair.

They horrified me.

In episode 2, the Spirit Land, Campbell reads out the entire text of a speech by a Native American leader named Chief Seattle. The gist of the speech is that the Suquamish were prepared to sell their ancestral homelands to the white settlers, but only on condition that the white folks loved and cared for all the trees and fish and wild horses and buffalo as much as the Indian did.

I think we have to be very careful of ascribing timeless natural wisdom to the Indians or the Gypsies or the kinds of Jews who play violins on people's roofs; of saying that they are more in touch with the natural world than us sophisticated people, and, what's more, that they have a wonderful sense of rhythm. In even savage bosoms there are longings, yearnings, strivings for a good they comprehend not, don't you know? I think that the native Americans probably had their own, culturally specific way of looking at the world, and that if we take particular poems and speeches out of context we are likely to misunderstand them. I also wish to ask questions about precisely what kind of timeless natural wisdom it is which tells us love the wild horses and if they are the same wild horses introduced to the Americas by the Evil Spanish Catholics, less than a century earlier.

This is by the way.

I am uncomfortable about the romantic environmentalism of the message. How many of us are prepared to live in a world without trains, cars, and telephones? I know I'm not. So in what way is it useful to beat ourselves up about how our "talking wires" have made it hard for the redskins to see the pretty landscape? (Do modern native Americans, in fact, wish to go back to living in their aboriginal, pre-Columbian state? And why would that kind of nostalgia be any more respectable than that of a white European who wishes we could all go back in time and live in a pure, pastoral, organic, pre-industrial-revolution society with happy rosy-cheeked peasants and bubonic plague?)

This is incidental.

Campbell is moved to tears when Chief Seattle asserts: "One thing we know, which the white man may yet discover: Our God is the same God". "Compare that with Genesis 2" exclaims uncle Joe. Joe thinks that Seattle's view, in which the whole of the world is sacred and in which "to harm the earth is to heap contempt on the creator" is preferable to the Biblical view in which God is separate from the created universe, and in which He kicks the human race out of Eden and places the land under a curse. I struggle to square Campbell's universalism in which all religions of the world really say the same thing with his apparent belief that the hippy god of the Injuns is different to and better than the nasty deity of Old Testament.

But even this is not really my point.

My real point is this.

Everybody knows that the speech which so desperately moves Uncle Joe was not written by a native American leader in 1854 but by a white, Christian screenplay writer in, er 1972.

Well; it's pretty speech, and it contains a lot of stuff which is true for Campbell. ("A noble heart embiggens the smallest man – regardless of who said it.") But given that Campbell's original academic background was in studying native American mythology, this sort of thing makes me jittery. It implies a scarily gung-ho attitude to his source material.

In the same series, Campbell purports not to understand what the word "God" means. He apparently once asked the famous Jewish theologian Martin Buber to define the term, but didn't stay for an answer [MODERATELY GOOD THEOLOGICAL JOKE]. He thinks that "God" probably means the incomprehensible mystery that lies behind the galaxies.

I am not sure how helpful this is.

What does Campbell mean by "mystery"? Does he mean "the bits that science hasn't worked out yet, but which will probably weird us out when we do know about them"? In this case, he's a bog standard western materialist, pointing out that the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but in all probability, queerer than we can imagine.

Or does he mean "The Thing or Things which we can't weigh or measure or quantify or detect, but which nevertheless exists in some way, and which came before the galaxies and caused or intended them in some way"? In this case, he's a bog-standard agnostic, reluctant to be tied down on what's going on in the universe, but thinking that there's probably a Force or Spirit running the show.

Or is the thing or things that we can't weigh or measure or quantify in some way analogous to a human mind? In that case, he's simply a theist, albeit an atypically non-dogmatic one.

In the book Masks of God, he comes over all Kant and says that the Final Incomprehensible Mystery is literally un-knowable. The Final Incomprehensible Mystery is not God: rather, God is our cultural symbol for "that which is absolutely unknown and un-knowable." In Western Mythologies (a Bad Thing) the F.I.M stands in some kind of relationship to the universe. All mythology and philosophy and religion is about defining that relationship, which you can only do by analogy. If you think that Humans are to the F.I.M as children are to their parents this does not (NOT) mean that the F.I.M is anything like your father. It only means that there's a quality in the F.I.M which is in the same relationship to the universe as a father is to his children.

Eastern Mythology (a Good Thing) on the other hand, says that the F.I.M and the Universe are the same thing. This is Good because it allows the universe and everything in it to be sacred. "Everything is sacred" is another phrase I suspect of being literally meaningless. "Sacred" means "set apart, special, separated out". What does it mean to say that "everything" is special? ("When everybody's somebody, then no-one's anybody.") "Everything is sacred" translates to "Nothing is sacred" or "There is no such thing as sanctity". I suspect that "All Gods are one One God" and "There are no Gods" also come out the same.

I seem to recall once hearing an orthodox Jew patiently explaining that you could, if you liked, say that Judaism had no sacraments; and you could equally well, if you liked, say that in Judaism, everything was a sacrament – but really it was a silly question because "sacrament" was a Christian concept with no Jewish equivalent.

Towards the end of Mythos (the TV show) Campbell remarks that he is sometimes asked how modern people can get some sense of "ritual" back into their lives. Aha, says the sage: but we eat, we drink, we make love to our wives – what more "ritual" do we need?

And this is the inexhaustible whassisname that is crying out to us through all the stories in the world? This the One Truth which the Sages call by many names? "Mythic living" turns out to mean "doing whatever it was we were going to anyway, but applying the word 'mythic' to it" The great secret is that from now on we should eat our Weetabix more respectfully.

Follow your bliss. Whatever you do take pride. Keep calm and carry on.

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Monday, September 06, 2010

5: Crossing the Threshold

Shortly before Star Wars (and shortly after the Eternals) there was rather a good comedy series on Radio 4. You may remember it. You've certainly read the (much less good) book that was based on it. One of the main jokes was about the search for the "the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything".

Douglas Adams seems to have constructed his scripts in reverse. He seems to have dreamt up absurd comic reversals and then worked out some even more absurd comic back story which allowed those reversals to make a kind of sense. At any rate, I can't believe that he worked out how matter transportation beams worked, and then worked out what kind of effect they would have on the human body, and then deduced that the best source of salt and protein would be a bag of peanuts. I think that he decided that "I've got some peanuts" would be a comically incongruous thing for Ford Prefect to say after the destruction of the Earth, and then worked out a quasi-logical reason for him to say it.

The phrase "the Question to the Ultimate Answer" is dropped in, almost in passing, at the end of episode 3. It's a delightfully meaningless reversal. The explanation – that a race of people spent millions of years discovering an Answer which is useless to them because they didn't know the Question – is essentially a shaggy dog story. The revelation that the great Question to which the Answer is 42 is "What do you get if you multiply six by nine?" – is as good a punch line as a shaggy dog story ever has.

But I don't think that we took it like that at the time. I think that those of us who wore out our copies of the Pan paperback; wore "XLII" badges on our blazers; and treated towels as significant objects (if only for a single summer) thought that the idea that the Secret of Life, he Universe and Everything was contained in two digits was Very Profound Indeed.

The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy says that no-one on Earth ever realised that the whole planet was a big computer intended to calculate the Ultimate Question: "which was odd, because without that fairly simple and obvious piece of knowledge, nothing that ever happened on the earth could possibly make the slightest bit of sense." When Arthur Dent discovers the truth, he immediately says that it explains a lot things: he's always thought that something big, even sinister, was going on in the world "and that no-one would tell me what it was."

But the "fairly simple and obvious piece of knowledge" which makes sense out of history also has the effect of rendering history pointless and senseless. Once you know that human civilisation is actually a big question-seeking computer programme, it's quite hard to work up much enthusiasm for studying, say, the life of Cardinal Wolsey. Once some helpful person has identified all the drawings of UFOs in the Pyramids, there's no real need to visit them. Once Eric has informed you that the Bible is really, really important because it contains incontrovertible proof that the human race has been visited by extraterrestrials the last thing you want to do is re-read the story of Balaam's Ass. Whether we are talking about Freud or Frazer or Forty Two, Great Big Structuralist Secrets represent the incredibly appealing idea that there is an answer -- a simple answer -- that you can know, and wear on your lapel, without all that tedious mucking about with scholarship.

Some Christians believe that the Bible, and in particular, the book of Revelation, contains a fairly simple and obvious piece of knowledge without which nothing that happens on earth makes the slightest bit of sense. Human history is a great big battle between Christ and Darkseid Satan, and it's all going to culminate (real soon now) in the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Millennium, and the Second Coming, though not necessarily in that order [VERY GOOD THEOLOGICAL JOKE]. As the Ship of Fools website points out: this has the unintended consequence that between 70 AD and 1948, nothing whatsoever happened.



There was Star Wars, the big meta-story.

And there was the Eternals, the story that was the grain of truth hidden in all the other stories.

And there was Van Danikin and the other conspiracy theorists, explaining that there was one very simple and obvious fact without which nothing much which happened on earth made the slightest bit of sense.

And, of course, there was the Eternal Champion, and never mind that Elric is as dull as pigshit, no book in the world is ever quite as exciting as the First Book of Corum is the first time you read it; and there was John Carter of Mars, which I was just finishing with; and there was E.E "Doc" Smith which I was just starting with; and all the superheroes who'd been around for ever and ever; and then the BBC transmitted the Ring Cycle live from Bayreuth and more or less ruined the rest of my life.

So obviously when I finally obtained a copy of Hero With a Thousand Faces it was was going to become a talismanic book.

I mean. There I was I spending summer holidays going to Glastonbury (the town, that is, not the festival) in order to commune with the Holy Grail at Chalice Well. Seriously. There was I voluntarily reading Malory in the original, including the Tristran sections, which god knows I wouldn't do now. People talk about "spirituality" as if they know what it means. I don't. I never have. (They won't tell me. I've asked them.) But pretty clearly, I had a something shaped hole, and discussions about unemployment and nuclear weapons with vaguely earnest lady vicars were not making any serious attempt to fill it. Hero With a Thousand Faces exclusively revealed that Jack Kirby was right about all mythologies having a kernel of truth, but wrong in thinking that that truth was about space aliens. And George Lucas was right about there being only one Story, but Star Wars wasn't that story. And all that stuff about civil war slavers on Mars and Venture Scout kids bringing western democracy to green aliens whether they wanted it or not – all that pulp fiction wasn't, as everyone was always telling me, a waste of time that a clever lad like me ought to have grown out of: it was the only worthwhile thing you could possibly be reading. And it was no longer necessary to pretend that "42" or "I know where my towel is" were the icons which represented the Simple And Obvious piece of knowledge without which Nothing Much made Any Sense. There was a simple, easily photocopyable and pinable upable diagram on page 212 which represented the big secret. Which was the big secret.

Owning a copy of Hero With a Thousand Faces represented the fact that all stories were one story; that all stories were true; and that Star Wars and the Eternals and comic books and Dungeons & Dragons were not merely important, but actually the only important thing there was.

I can't remember if I actually read it or not.


Sunday, September 05, 2010

4: Meeting With The Mentor

Had Jack Kirby read Joseph Campbell? He might have done. He was one of those autodidacts who read un-systematically and uncritically absorbed what he read. But the source (or possibly The Source) that Kirby claimed for the Eternals was not Campbell but Eric Von Daniken.

Ah, Von Danikien, Von Daniken! Spinners in cheap seaside bookshops: Gold of the Gods alongside Our Mysterious Spaceship Moon, The Jesus Scroll, Dune Messiah, Jaws and the Bermuda Triangle. Self-evident truths that NASA, the Pope and the Evil Archaeologists have suppressed, revealed for 25p on very cheap paper.

He's still alive, apparently. His latest book is called History is Wrong.

Kirby seems to have taken Chariots of the Gods very seriously indeed. He didn't believe the specific conspiracy theories cooked up by Daniken, of course, but the idea that mythology and religion and civilisation are one vast cargo cult, based on confused, garbled memories of encounters between ancient human beings and extraterrestrials is one he seems to have found plausible. (Why else, he asks, do all mythologies agree that the gods live in the sky? Don't native Africans in jungle movies always think that the white man and his aeroplane is some kind of deity?) He returns to the idea over and over again. His widely derided Devil Dinosaur includes a story in which a cave woman called Eev is imprisoned by an alien computer called the Demon Tree. He produced an unpublished portfolio of science fictional interpretation of famous Bible stories, and did the concept designs for a movie (or possibly theme park) based on Roger Zelazny's unreadable Lord of Light.

He doesn't seem to have regarded any of this as particularly in conflict with his Jewish faith. The Ancient Astronaut theory seems, if anything, to validate the Bible for him. These old stories: maybe they aren't literally true - but maybe they aren't just something that some guy made up, either. And my stories, well, they're only guesses about what might really have happened but who is to say I am not on the right track?

It may only be a grain, but it's a grain of truth.

George Lucas had definitely read Joseph Campbell. According to the Making of Star Wars, he came across him while working on the third draft of his space opera.

"I spent about a year reading a lot of fairy tales – and that's when it starts to move way from Kurosawa and towards Joe Campbell...I started to realise that I was following those rules unconsciously. So I said, I'll make it fit more into that classic mould."

It isn't quite clear what Lucas did with Star Wars to make it fit in with Campbell's template. The Making of Star Wars points out that in the older drafts, Luke had brothers and sisters, where in the final version he is a loner. The figure of Ben Kenobi - as the Old Man who pops up just after Luke's first adventure and gives him advice and a special weapon - first appears in the post-Campbell drafts.

What is clear is that between Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back, Obi-Wan's treacherous apprentice had morphed into Luke Skywalker's daddy, and the driving force behind the trilogy was re-envisioned as the redemption of this Dark Father and his reconciliation with his Son. (One rather assumes that Harrison Ford wouldn't have taken Sean Connery along with him on the quest for the Holy Grail if Campbell hadn't revealed that all quests stories are really about Atonement With The Father.) Regular readers will know that I prefer the Wild West, Fairy Tale cosmos of the original Star Wars movie to the heavily mythical stuff in the sequels. But a lot of people seem to think that the Empire Strikes Back is quite good. Would a pre-Campbellian version – in which Vader is simply the murderer of Skywalker Snr – have sunk without trace?

By the time you get to Return of the Jedi, the films have completely bifurcated: Luke and the Emperor and Darth Vader act out their mythological psychodrama on the Death Star, while, in another part of the forest, Han Solo and the the Ewoks rather half-heartedly go through the motions. The prequel trilogy exists purely in order to make sense of this section: to explain why Luke's father turned to the Dark Side; why he turned back; and why it mattered. The raison d'etre of Episode One is to retrofit Star Wars to Campbell's "monomyth". So if Campbell can take quite a lot of the credit for the Empire Strikes Back, he must also take the majority of the blame for the Phantom Menace.

Lucas seems to have had strong ideas about what kinds of scenes he wanted in his movie; but to have struggled to work out how they fitted together. There was always going to be a desert planet and some sort of race or chase and a scene where big, or possibly small, furry creatures destroyed or helped destroy an indestructible armoured battle station. But how or when or in what order changed from draft to draft. In the early versions, our heroes were going to visit the Empire's throne world called (confusingly) Alderaan. Quite late on in the proceedings Lucas realised that you don't need a world-city in a movie which has already got an indestructible armoured battle station. The two or three scenes in which the baddies explain their plans to each other could just as well happen on the Death Star itself, and that could also be the place from which the goodies have to rescue the princess. (The best place to imprison the spy who stole the plans to the Ultimate Weapon is on board the Ultimate Weapon itself. Obviously.) But he liked the scene where the heroes approached the baddies' lair through the disgusting sewers, so he transferred that bit to the garbage masher on the Death Star. You can see the join, but only just.

The process of writing Star Wars was a process of chopping: of cutting away foliage until a very simple, classical shape emerged. So you could see why Lucas would have found Joseph Campbell and his theory of the monomyth so attractive. If you chop and delete hard enough, said Campbell, you will find that there really is a pattern, a simple pattern, underlying every story: and that that pattern is Really, Really Important.

It's said that in order to make a carving of a duck, you take a lump of wood and cut away everything that doesn't look like a duck. It must save a lot of time if a man turn up at your door with a supply of duck templates.

Structures and templates can be terribly helpful: of course they can. Every bookshop can sell you a shelf full of books that will teach you the correct structure for a blockbuster novel. And if you don't quite know how to start your masterpiece, then it must be terribly useful to be told that a 70,000 word novel must be divided into 60 scenes, and that scene 56 should wrap up the romantic sub plot to leave the hero free to encounter his worst failure (scene 57), moment of hopelessness (scene 58), and saving act (scene 59) before wrapping everything up as quickly as possible in scene 60. It's not the only way of writing a book; but it's certainly a way and it gets you past the "how the heck am I going to start this thing?" stage.

So if young George was struggling with the question "When should Obi-Wan give Luke his father's magic six-gun?" it may have been very helpful for Joe to say "Right after he leaves the homestead: because the proper mythical time for The Hero to encounter Supernatural Aid is after he has crossed the Threshold Of Adventure."

Structures are easier to stick to if they have some kind of "belief feelings" attached to them. That's why fad diets which have discovered that you can become instantly thin if you eat, or give up, one particular flavour of food are so much more popular than ones to say "Eat less food". If it's a miracle breakthrough, it's easier to obey. So it may be that Campbell's assurances that the Heroes Journey was not only quite a useful structure for writing to but "the secret opening through which the the inexhuastible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation" gave Lucas the confidence to pick a structure for his film and stop damn well picking at it.

It must be said that when Star Wars came out in 1977/8 no-one particularly spotted the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos, but a lot of people did notice that it was a fairy tale in science fiction dress. The critics made a big deal about how it quoted and incorporated previous movies – a bit of Wizard of Oz, a smidgeon of Lawrence of Arabia, a generous tablespoon full of the Dambusters. This really was the key thing which people took away from the film. The review page in my local newspaper kept using the word smorgasbord. I recall a prophet of acupuncture (or, as it may have been, homoeopathy) on Pebble Mill At One explaining that all the different forms of mainstream and alternative medicine ought to form a big happy synthesis – in the same way that all the different kinds of movies had come together in Star Wars.

And I really do think that this was a big part of the appeal of the film: not that it was full of robots and spaceships and that Harrison Ford got some good lines and shot first but the sense that when Obi-Wan gives the lightsaber to Luke, it's an old familiar tale happening all over again for the first time.

So perhaps Campbell did not "influence" George Lucas. Perhaps he merely confirmed something which George Lucas already felt. Perhaps, in fact, he became a convenient icon, an ideogram which represented what the movie was always going to be about. You don't need to agree with Joseph Campbell. You don't even need to have read Joseph Campbell. All you know on earth, and all you need to know, is summed up in five magic words.







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