Friday, October 26, 2007

Tales Told a Thousand Times

It's almost impossible to hear Joseph Campbell brought up without immediately hearing about George Lucas. This, I suppose, is inevitable, as Lucas was vocal about his appreciation of the ideas of Campbell. In so doing, Lucas did a great service to the current and probably future generations by keeping Campbell's name at the forefront of any discussion of mythos and the nature of gods and heroes. Lucas's love of Campbell was a great boon to the original storyline of Star Wars. As brought up in the first Star Wars movie, however, the student does not always live up to the expectations and legacy of the master. It is here where we find the David Brin essay I linked to in my last Mythology Project post. I'm not actually going to argue the main point of Brin's essay. In fact, I find it rather compelling and probably fairly true. At the very least, if Lucas's universe isn't intentionally, it certainly depicts a black and white world, where the forces of good are defined by an unambiguous sense of "the light side" and the forces of evil conveniently wear black and choke those who get in their way. With the benefit of two more movies than there were when Brin wrote the essay, that has become even more apparent, as Anakin's descent in to Vader displayed as much empathy and understanding about the nature of changing sides as a Jack Chick tract. That is to say, none at all. No, my problem is the attempt to drag Joseph Campbell down with Lucas. To quote Brin:
By offering valuable insights in to this revered storytelling tradition, Joseph Campbell did indeed shed light on common spiritual traits that seem shared by all human beings. And I'll be the first to admit it's a superb formula -- one that I've used at times in my own stories and novels.
So far so good, right? It's also possible to see the but:
Alas, Campbell only highlighted positive traits, completely ignoring a much darker side -- such as how easily this standard fable-template was co-opted by kings, priests and tyrants, extolling the all-importance of elites who tower over common women and men. Or the implications that we must always adhere to variations on a single story, a single theme, repeating the same prescribed plot outline over and over again.
To tackle the second part first, we historians (or pretend internet historians) will tell you that humans do, indeed, tend to repeat a single story, a single theme. It's human nature. There's a reason why a father tells his son the mistakes of a misspent youth, then smiles and shakes his head when the son goes out and makes the exact same mistakes. It's a thought that is at once terrifying and comforting. The terror comes from the realization that Santayana's proscription that, "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it," has not only been tested and proven time and again, it has also seemed powerless to convince us to actually learn the lessons of history. It's comforting because it gives the continuity necessary for life. A parent has a hard enough time helping a child grow up as it is. Imagine if the human race were reinvented every single generation and the child were completely alien to the parent. Nothing would ever get accomplished. To handle the first of Brin's objections, we look at Joseph Campbell himself:
When we turn now, with this image in mind, to consider the numerous strange rituals that have been reported from the primitive tribes and great civilizations of the past, it becomes apparent that the purpose and actual effect of these was to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life. The so-called rights of passage, which occupy such a prominant place in the life of a primitive society (ceremonials of birth, naming, puberty, marriage, burial, etc.) are distinguished by formal, and usually very severe, exercises of severance, whereby the mind is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments and life patterns of the stage being left behind.1
Now, before I jump forward to the next paragraph, it's important to point out that Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces in the 1940s, so Freud was still the main game in town when it came to psychology. Still, it's an important realization.
Most amazing is the fact that a great number of the rituals and images correspond to those that appear automatically in dream the moment the psychoanalyzed patient begins to abandon his infantile fixations and to progress in to the future.2

After providing a long example of the aboriginal ritual of circumcision, Campbell states:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high instance of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid.3

All of the above quotes come from the very first section of the first chapter of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It is clear that Campbell provides a very clear refutation of any use of mythology by priests or kings by pointing out the simple, startling fact that mythology is meant to resonate with all of us. We are all, in some way, the mythological hero, setting out to overcome all obstacles and undertake some grand quest. That quest is, in Campbell's words, "to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward."4 Brin, however, was quite right to point out the differences between the Star Wars view of the universe and the Star Trek view. I've watched them all, so I understand exactly what he speaks of. I'm more of a Babylon 5 guy, though. If Star Wars points backwards to a universe filled with old superstitions and outmoded ways of thinking and Star Trek points forward to newer and brighter ways of looking at the world, Babylon 5 straddles the area between the two worlds, standing, as it does, at the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind. So it is to that moment we will go next in an attempt to understand where mythology once was and where it can be in the future.

1Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1949), 10. 2Ibid. 3Ibid., 11. 4Ibid.

No comments: