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Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Hero With a Thousand Faces



"The gods as icons are not ends in themselves. Their entertaining myths transport the mind and spirit, not up to, but past them, into the yonder void; from which perspective the more heavily freighted theological dogmas then appear to have been only pedagogical lures: their function, to cart the unadroit intellect away from its concrete clutter of facts and events to a comparatively rarefied zone where, as a final boon, all existence -- whether heavenly, earthly or infernal -- may at last been seen transmuted  into the semblance of a lightly passing, recurrent, mere childhood dream of bliss and flight." 

Considering how much of his exegesis celebrates the heteronormative male's dominion over female elements, it is perplexing to witness Campbell prescribe mythic thinking as a solution to our supposed crisis of meaning. Neither the imitation of the hero nor the metaphysical interpretation of his journey as a testament to the eternity of the Self constitute a clear guide for everyday living. Were Campbell correct in assuming the decline of the myths' influence, we would still be hard-pressed to find ethical grounds for their restoration to an honorable place in pluralistic societies.

According to Campbell's monomyth, the hero (typically: a man) is part of a diad with his God, (usually: a paternal figure) who confronts the former with the shattering revelation of the hero's own truth. The hero's journey is itself a metaphor for that truth, which is ultimately the realization of some great universal unity. The hero's trophies (i.e. his rescued princess!) are purported to symbolize the elevation of consciousness to that unitarian vision.

Campbell's contention is that all of myth has but one message, audible on that high frequency of mystery, the exalted level at which ordinary signification breaks down. The message is a metaphysic of the constancy of undifferentiated Being, in which we are supposed to discover a justification for all of our suffering and travails (amor fati).

A sober-minded intellectual might instead entertain the possibility that mystery is a reference without a clear referent; the semantic dance of mythic narratives may not conform to a unified theory positing anything more than categories to use for legitimate comparison. One might even suggest that mystery is not media but the point where meaning ends -- for good or ill, the frontier of arbitrariness.

And so: Campbell's genius lies not so much in finding coherence but in articulating schema on the basis of which to comment on similarities and differences. In that respect, his monomyth is immensely valuable. Despite his excessive eagerness to promote his own brand of stoicism as the origin and essence of all myths, his denunciation of literalism and theological parochialism is certainly much to his credit:

"Mistaking a vehicle for its tenor may lead to the spilling not only of valueless ink, but of valuable blood."

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