The other night an old friend from LA was in town and came to dinner. He’d just finished adapting a nonfiction memoir for the screen – that’s what he does for a living. He said he was pretty satisfied with his work, and had “followed the Joseph Campbell hero stuff” carefully, so he feels the screenplay is structurally sound.
Coincidentally, I happened to be reading A Fire in the Mind, a biography of Campbell. Campbell performed a vast cultural service in putting his arms around all world mythology and telling us that myths are the source of our self-realization — the observing ego needs a mirror by which to assess its progress, and myths provide it. He advocated deliberately seeing yourself as a main player in mythic time, and emphasized the utility of getting off the beaten path. Myths give us the blueprint for the “hero’s journey” each of us must take, and in short surmise, this is how it goes: the hero leaves home, undergoes an initiation, and returns. Suffering and loss are involved and then insight and direction are gained. The hero myth is a traditionally male thing and if you are biologically minded as I am, in it you can see the life history of many mammals simply being reenacted by homo sapiens. The male wolf, for example, lights out for the territory (yes, Huckleberry Finn follows the hero’s trajectory long before Campbell named it), finds new ground and a mate, and sets up shop, sometimes starting a new pack, and sometimes joining another one.
Probably one of the main big draws of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is that it’s a gal’s hero journey and the very first thing the narrator departs from is a marriage, which is usually where women end up at the end of traditional stories. Very appealing to the modern American sensibility. I just finished Where Did You Go, Bernadette?, which is a fun read, and it too is a gal’s hero journey; as of course is Wild, the subtitle of which: “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail,” says it all. Women do seem to need to have a nervous breakdown to initiate their heroic journeys – what is up with that?
So…I’m getting old but frankly I’m finding this narrative redundant. Okay it’s all fine and good but to me it doesn’t go far enough. Personal satisfaction at the end of a hike up a mountain or around the world or a journey to Antarctica – well, so what? We have seven billion people and counting on this Earth and so what if each one of us finds our “bliss”? (Campbell got it that people would misinterpret his directive to “follow your bliss” and later said you should “follow your blisters.”) Are all these books Campbell’s fault, I wondered? Shouldn’t story-telling push us farther than our own individual “potential”? Can we only tell stories this way because writer’s workshops and how-to guides like The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers have rubber-stamped what it is to have an identity and only those stories that fit this mold will be published or produced as movies? Hasn’t this all become a contradiction in terms?
Aha! Campbell got better and better at synthesizing and communicating his message and a great place to get a big dose of it is in The Power of Myth, which is a book-length conversation with Bill Moyers. Campbell explains that in fact, we need new myths that reflect modern life, but he said things are changing so fast now it will take more time for those new myths to emerge. Campbell’s whole thing is that virtually all religion (another person’s religion is a myth to you and vice versa) tells the same intrinsic story (see hero, above) thus indicating a deep unity at the base of all humanity no matter what race or tradition. The tribal thing gets in the way, he said. When you condemn another tribe’s myth/religion you create trouble (and yes we see that everywhere in the world). He said the next iteration of myth needs to incorporate the planet. Everybody into the pool: it’s all one big story we are all in it together. And maybe citizen science will give us a new format for telling stories about our Earth – saving nature together, reuniting the riven disciplines of art and science – citizen science puts its arms around the world like Campbell did, and goes even deeper than mythic time. Citizen science is about evolutionary time. Now there’s a story.