Tuesday, May 21, 2013

When a Thousand Faces Aren't Enough: The Hero in Plural Society

I'm going WAAAAY back with this blog. This was the first paper I ever wrote as part of my masters in Religious Studies. I've recently been rethinking about the topic after a couple articles on the Huffington Post's religion section. Ryan Thomas Neace, a friend's brother has started to write for them and his articles prove thought provoking on the subject of what it means to be a "Christian man." (I hear he also had an excellent science teacher in High School)

So here it is -- the wall of text that is my first term paper. WARNING: I haven't re-read it since then. So I'm kind of scared. :)

When a Thousand Faces Aren't Enough:
The Hero in Plural Society


            In 1949, Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces broke ground with the analysis of the monomyth. Campbell's analysis of scores of hero myths from many different cultures showed a latent plot structure and recurring themes that illuminated the reading of countless other stories. The second half of the 20th Century saw many new stories for print, screen, and stage that showed the influence of this seminal work.  While ahead of his time, Campbell was still rooted in the early 20th century. It must be pointed out that along with more subtle biases, Campbell is at times blatant in his disregard for tribal culture. On the first page of his text he mentions listening “with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo.(Campbell 3) Labeling this as a markedly unacceptable statement for a scholar is not nit-picking but necessary. The greater weakness, however, of The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the hero itself. A more appropriate title would be The Hero with a Thousand Names, as the face hardly ever changes—it is the face of a man from the dominant societal group. Campbell's analyses are of exceptional importance in American society for white, affluent male's. His inspiration, however, rings a bit less true for women and minorities.

            In 1986, Carol Pearson, deeply influenced and inspired by Campbell, published The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. This was an attempt to follow down Campbell's path while including myths and analyses more relevant to the facets of society left out of Campbell's original work. Not all of the heroes of Pearson's work are warrior princes who use brute force to attain their goal. The female heroes addressed in The Hero Within are not all prepubescent girls kissing frogs or stepping through mirrors. Pearson shows that there are other options of hero role models for female and minority communities. While focusing a great deal on self-improvement topics (and doing it well), Pearson's work is a step towards a more universal hero but falls short of being a “Hero with a Thousand Faces for everyone.” Something is still missing.

            Before continuing, it is most important to note that used here, “myth” or “mythology” refers to a story or group of stories that hold meaning for a group of people. Their realistic truth is unimportant. What is important is their underlying message. Any story that speaks to someone on a deeper than normal level is mythic. Mythology, therefore, can include sacred texts, apocryphal stories, fairy tales, and historical or public figures. One should not be offended if they come across a story from their own religion labeled as mythology.

            Campbell was greatly influenced by the psychology of Carl Jung and the ideas of collective unconscious and archetypes figure prominently into his work. It is no surprise, therefore, that Pearson continues the Jungian analysis of heroic archetypes. While the descriptions below offer quick glimpses into the six archetypes that Pearson focuses on, it should be noted that each archetype is dynamic and covers many different characteristics. And, as Pearson points out, when an archetype is attempting to be active in an individual that is repressing it, the archetype will act out in a shadow form—a negative incarnation that is an attempt to get the individual's attention. The Warrior described below can be a great liberator of the oppressed when allowed to come forward, or a narcissistic despot in its shadow mode.

            An understanding of Campbell's analysis of the structure of the monomyth is important before examining Pearson's six hero archetypes. The majority of Pearson's archetypical analysis is based firmly on this structure. Coming after Arnold van Gennep's Rites of Passage, Campbell makes good use of the three stage hero's journey, labeling them Departure, Initiation, and Return. The Departure section includes subsections such as “The Call to Adventure,” “Refusal of the Call,” and “The Crossing of the First Threshold.” The nature of this initial call and refusal of it becomes important for Pearson in determining which heroic archetype is dominant for a specific person or myth. During the Initiation, the hero is often trained by a stranger who shows up at the right place and the right time. The hero is able to overcome the trials on the road to the ultimate quest with the help of strangers and friends met along the way. This section of the monomyth is highly reminiscent of the liminal period of rites of passage as detailed by van Gennep and Victor Turner. The Initiation period of the monomyth is where the hero is sucked out of everyday life and imbued with great creative energy. And as Turner shows, the liminal period can gain a sense of autonomy. The hero often would prefer to remain by the slain dragon's side—basking in the glow of communitas as it were with his colleagues and their supernatural boon. For this reason, “The Refusal of the Return” is the first sub-section of The Return of the hero in the monomyth. Liminality speaks even to the hero, yet the greatest quest of the hero is returning to everyday life with the boon and bestowing it upon the community.

            Considering this monomythic structure, certain well known myths come to mind easily. From religious leaders such as Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohamed to social revolutionaries like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Female models, however, are a bit harder to imagine in this structure. Those who do come to mind often end up being women who played the role of men—such as Joan of Arc. It is true that Campbell's analysis is a beautiful description of the many fascinating myths described in his work. They are inspirational and rejuvenating. Just as Turner's communitas would have it. But perhaps Campbell tried too hard for uniformity by leaving out other myths that may have been too much out of the mold. It would be hard to fit a martyr-nun peg into a slaying-the-dragon hole after all.

            Pearson attempts to rectify this by analyzing myths within the framework of six heroic, and unisex, archetypes. These are: The Innocent, The Orphan, The Wanderer, The Warrior, The Altruist, and The Magician. In order to understand her analysis, it is necessary to describe each archetype in brief. The Innocent appears at two points in Pearson's work. The first is as a child. Parents address all the needs of the Innocent. The child is never wanting and is bathed in happiness. This Edenic existence sounds too good to be true, and it is. As the child grows and is able to comprehend more of the world, they learn that parents establish boundaries and at times must enforce them and that God does not always appear as the protecting shepherd. Thus the Innocent evolves into the Orphan. The Orphan is characterized by the feeling of being forsaken. Whether it is the idea of parental abandonment or God's denial to help, the Orphan is on their own. They tread water in life as they look to others for help. At this point, he Wanderer decides that the situation is either too hopeless to be salvaged or that the grass is most likely greener elsewhere and lives as a transient. For Pearson, this is a powerful archetype for women who feel trapped in the gender roles they inherit. A stay at home mother who decides to embrace her inner Wanderer need not pack up her bags and abandon her family, but may find other ways to search for meaning in life while not giving a monopoly of her time to other people. As the Wanderer's journey leads them to the ultimate heroic quest, the Warrior hero emerges. This is the hero of Campbell's work. The Warrior uses force to slay the dragon and complete the quest. Even though the Warrior returns to society with the boon, they act mainly for themselves. The Altruist also appears at times as one of the thousand faces. The Altruist is the giver, the paschal lamb, and the nature goddess renewing the crops. Jesus and the Buddha are found in Campbell's work and fit very well into the Altruist mold. Many myths with female heroes also contain Altruists. After the Altruist, Pearson returns to the Innocent because, with boon in hand, the hero can return to an Edenic life. All may not be perfect, but the mature Innocent realizes it is how it is supposed to be. Lastly Pearson addresses the Magician. Similar to the Altruist, the Magician gives to others, but is able to change the world just by will. The Magician has mastered all other archetypes to the point of accomplishing things automatically.

            When comparing Pearson's archetypes to Campbell's work, the structure of the monomyth becomes the focus. For Pearson, the archetype does not always remain the same through the entire arc of the monomyth. Certain stages of the adventure call for specific archetypes to dominate for certain events. For instance, before Campbell's call to adventure, most myths begin with a prelude. Describing the setting and characters, this prelude gives a good idea of which archetype Pearson would choose for the hero at the beginning of the adventure. In many myths, the setting is one of abundance and benevolence. Society is functioning properly and the fields are fertile. This would hint at an Innocent hero. The setting is idyllic. There is no fall from grace. The focus of the call, the dragon as it were, comes from without. It is a new character in the myth that calls for action. If, on the other hand, the fields are ravaged by drought and the king is a despot causing great suffering and injustice in society, the hero often comes from the Orphan archetype. An Orphan hero will often wallow in their own misery waiting for salvation from without—a modern yearning for a Deus ex machina ending. One of the most heroic acts the Orphan undertakes is the initial decision to act at all. An essential aspect of the Orphan is also a genuine acknowledgement of suffering and the need for help from others. This is highly reminiscent of Campbell's popular statement that “we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us—the labyrinth is thoroughly known.” (Campbell 25)

            As Pearson illustrates, once the Orphan decides to act they will often enter into the realm of the Wanderer. Equally often, a myth starts with a soon to be Wanderer such as a maiden trapped in a tower.  Here, the initial action is to leave. Salvation is to be found in a journey. The shadow of the Wanderer, however, can often become a narcissistic individual following their deluded bliss down many quick roads to happiness. This false consciousness is often hard to overcome and is often followed by a fall from grace establishing a backwards step to the Orphan. The Wanderer, when activated in a positive aspect, is able to separate get happy quick schemes from their true bliss. The knowledgeable Wanderer follows their bliss down whatever road it may take them. Campbell was very clear that in many myths, the symbolism of the hero's slaying the dragon is the annihilation of the ego. In a very salient point, Pearson points out that no hero is truly able to slay their ego if they never successfully develop one. This is the boon of the Wanderer—finding oneself. Here, the hero of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha comes to mind. While Orphans will often go through a great part of their life conforming to what society thinks they should be, they never find out who they really are. No ego means no dragon to slay. And without a dragon—no hero (Pearson 71).

            It is often difficult in modern society for individuals who have decided to develop their Wanderer to act on that decision. This is true for both sexes. A stay at home mom, having decided she would like to return to school to receive a degree in a subject she has a passion for, may feel just as trapped as a man working a job he hates just so he can support his family. In either situation, it would be impossible to pursue the path of the Wanderer without support from others. In Campbell's structure, it is often on the wandering road of adventure that the hero meets their supernatural help.

            The monomythic structure now arrives at its climax—the Warrior hero meets the quest objective. The slaying of the dragon is the quintessential heroic deed. The annihilation of the ego allows the hero to accept that they are one with not only nature, but with their community. Without the journey and finding oneself, the hero would have never found a dragon to slay. As Pearson points out, the original quest objective of the Warrior was mere survival. Staying alive at whatever cost. This has gradually evolved into a more chivalric Warrior who fights for a cause and has at least some moral code with regards to how they use their power. The most proficient Warriors are highly competitive but compete against themselves—they find honor in other Warriors even if they do not agree philosophically. The Warrior archetype was the most prominent in the myths explored by Campbell and continues to be by far the most popular in contemporary myth and in society. The urban jungle is full of Warriors competing mainly against each other in the dog eat dog corporate world. Women who expect to compete in this environment are required to assume the trappings of the Warrior and prove their worth in proverbial battle.

            Another possibility exists for the heroic climax—the hero gives themselves up for the good of the community. In its first edition, The Hero Within labeled this archetype the Martyr. But after Pearson perceived a negative social connotation to this term, she changed it to the Altruist in subsequent editions. The Altruist gives. This can be a Mother Theresa figure that gives up possessions or a career in order to help the less fortunate, or it could be a Christ figure that sacrifices themselves for the good of society. On the other hand, the shadow of the Altruist is the codependent enabler that constantly denies their own needs in order to take care of others. These gifts are not given freely, but usually at a cost of either requiring recognition for giving or as a reason to lay guilt on the receiver. The true Altruist gives and expects nothing in return. As mentioned before in Campbell's analysis, the hero acquires the boon and often wishes to stay in the other world. But the truly heroic act is returning home to bestow the boon on the community. This is where the Warrior transforms into the Altruist.

            In some rare instances both in myth and in history, individuals have been able to master the aforementioned archetypes and become a Magician. Pearson describes the Magician as a “namer”--they are able to see each individual for what they are and draw that essence out of them naturally. When around a Magician, many people will say they feel like they are themselves around them. The Magician has a lot in common with the Weberian charismatic leader. The Magician is able to envision an ideal and by sheer will make it happen.

            Having detailed the correlation of archetypes to the monomythic structure, there is still something missing. The original goal of both Campbell and Pearson was to provide a heroic journey applicable to all people regardless of demographic. The use of unisex archetypes with gender neutral names certainly helps, but at the end Pearson's analysis is basically identical to Campbell's with the archetypes signaling different stages of the heroic journey. The problem, it would seem, is not then with the analysis of heroic mythology, but with heroic mythology itself. Commenting on the absence of female heroes in his book, Joseph Campbell said he was looking for more heroines to include. The overwhelming majority of heroes found in myths were male. Females appeared mainly in fairy tales as prepubescents. As Campbell says “It was the men who got involved in spinning most of the great myths. The women were too busy; they had too damn much to do to sit around thinking about stories.” (Campbell 2004 p. 145)  Even without a quantifiable study, Campbell's words ring true.

            Since 1949, many new myths have appeared. Many more women writers have had a chance to get published. More minority voices are heard in mythological settings. It is possible nowadays to find an example of a hero from almost every demographic—if one looks hard enough. If the point of myth, however, is to guide humans on their life's journey, finding the appropriate myth should not be a journey in itself. What a plural society needs is easy access to many different heroes. Our modern mythology encompasses books, television, movies, and public figures among other things and it would be here that easily accessible heroes would appear.

            If Campbell's statement on the authors of myth being, historically, predominantly men, then a look at the best-seller list of the past several years provides welcome relief to this trend. The recent success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series features an ingénue who falls in love with a vampire. What develops is a codependent relationship where the female is ready to give up her own humanity in order to be with the young and powerful male vampire. A heroic role model she is not. Meyer decidedly drops the ball when it comes to providing young women with an appropriate hero figure. Another successful literary series, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter franchise features several important characters with one very important trait in common—they are children (an often overlooked minority). Rowling has stated that her goal in the series is to teach tolerance for those different from the social norm. In this she succeeded. The female character of Hermione is from a lower social status among fellow wizards given her half-nonwizard heritage. In effect she is a biracial wizard dealing with forces still seeking a pure-blooded world. Rowling also makes it clear that for the title character, when faced with dangerous situations, the salvific “magic” is often found inside him. Rowling does a much better job than Meyer of providing more appropriate heroic models for her readers.

            With so many motion pictures being adaptations of books, it is hard to separate the two at times. Given the less rigid time demands than television, movies have been able to evolve more easily than television in searching for applicable modern heroes. The Dark Knight from the Batman series offers the best example yet of a hero for the 21st century. The obvious hero of this movie is Batman, but the character of Gotham's District Attorney, Harvey Dent, provides a much more dynamic hero. Dent seeks out the position of District Attorney in order to bring down the organized crime crippling the city. He is fully aware that, as he becomes more successful, his life will be more in danger. He accepts this risk as necessary if he is to succeed in improving his society. Here we have a Hollywood hero figure squarely placed in the land of the Altruist--willing to give up his life for what is right (luckily the “right” and “wrong” in The Dark Knight are easily identifiable). While it is true that at the end of the movie, Dent turns against society, hopefully we will continue to see heroes in the vein of the “good” Dent. Batman is painted as a similar Altruist hero. In order for society to maintain the myth of Harvey Dent as hero, Batman instructs the police commissioner to place the blame for Dent's actions on Batman—thus forcing Batman into seclusion. In this movie, we see double Christ figures giving their lives, one literally and the other figuratively, for the betterment of society. While neither of the two heroes are Warrior archetypes, they are both, however, male. Progress is a long road indeed.

            If the literary world is at least partially attempting to break the male dominant world, television is not nearly as successful. Television may inherently have a more difficult time producing an evolving and more relevant hero due to its time limit of 43 minutes for an hour long show, but there is still the sense that television is no way near as creative in finding new heroes as literature and motion pictures. Desperate Housewives title speaks for itself. There are also dozens of crime shows involving either old fashioned police work or high tech forensic shows—all with decidedly superficial characters falling into their own bland archetypes. Some writers have been partly successful in breaking the mold. House M.D. is an interesting example of a show falling outside of the blasé television norm. While many of the fellow doctors are female or from minorities (and bisexual to boot), the character of House is a white male. The oppressive and repressive aspects of society are often projected onto House's character. Playing the role of society, House is given all the prejudices of society while the fellows show what society could be if we embrace our plurality. Another interesting series is, not surprisingly, Heroes, where run of the mill people are suddenly infused with superhuman powers. The heroes of this show are certainly diverse and a deeper analysis of the series may reveal many beneficial results.

            While the entertainment industry is often where society looks for its mythology, it is always behind the curve. Entertainment does not usually change society, but the opposite is often true. As a result, it is much easier to find contemporary heroes for a plural world in public figures.          The campaign season and election day of 2008 provided a vivid example. The most obvious hero of this political battle (Warrior archetype imagery intended) is Barack Obama—the United States' first African-American President. It would be hard to ascribe President Obama's popularity during the campaign season, however, simply to his race. Mr. Obama symbolized a politician that society had not seen for several years. Placing diplomacy over military power, Mr. Obama shows some of the Magician qualities that were glaringly absent in previous presidencies. Calling on Americans to improve their lot by their own hand, he can easily be viewed as the catalyst for action that the Orphan so much needs or as the supernatural aid that the hero encounters early on in their wandering journey as described by Campbell. In Mr. Obama, society sees the hero that they can be. Capable of overcoming congenital obstacles, each individual member of society can be a hero. In filling this role of heroic inspiration, both Mr. Obama and society need to remember, however, that it is ultimately the individual that performs the heroic deed and not the magical friends encountered on the journey.

            It would be easy to look back on Election 2008 and remember only Barack Obama. But the campaign season was filled with other individuals from diverse backgrounds that were capable of inspiring millions. Even in his defeat and at the hands of ruthless late night comics, Senator John McCain proved that age is only a number. At 72 years old, Mr. McCain showed that senior citizens (the fact that the “politically correct” term for this demographic has not entered into a society-wide discussion merely shows how much of an “invisible minority” they are!) are fully capable of upholding one of the most stressful, both physically and mentally, jobs in the world. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton achieved the same result for women. Mrs. Clinton faced many questions concerning her gender and desire for high office that were considered acceptable. Interestingly enough, once these same questions were posed to Governor Sarah Palin, they were viewed as sexist. This is most likely due to society's viewing Mrs. Clinton as a Warrior and Mrs. Palin as an Altruist. Both women should be considered heroes both for what they were able to accomplish and also for what they refused to give up in the process. Lastly, the campaign of 2008 saw for the first time a Presidential candidate from a non-mainline Christian denomination. Mitt Romney showed that the United States, while not agreeing with all of his policies, was ready for a Mormon president.

            While the demographic data for these presidential hopefuls places them, at least in part, outside of the affluent, white male norm, are they archetypically different from the dominant Warrior hero? For almost all of them, the answer appears to be “no.” Each and every one played the politically barbaric game of campaign warfare. The Warrior archetype was thoroughly engaged. Only possibly in the case of Mr. Obama do we see signs of a different mold. And even then, those signs were most obvious after he appeared to have the election firmly in grasp.

            The original question concerned Joseph Campbell's analysis of the monomyth and if it was equally applicable to all people. Carol Pearson went on to re-analyze the monomythic structure by applying six unisex archetypes to the hero. These archetypes, more than being six separate heroes, were simply applied to different stages of the heroic journey outlined by Campbell. Pearson, essentially, shows that Campbell's analysis and structure are sound. Yet it is still difficult to analyze myths using Campbell and Pearson's methods that are applicable to females and minorities.

            When analyzing these myths, it is important to remember that there are two separate stages to the process. One stage involves the analysis. The assumption that Campbell was off the mark and that The Hero with a Thousand Faces was inherently chauvinistic at worst and inapplicable to women and minorities at best is wrong. The analysis is solid. Pearson runs into the same trap of having a remarkable analysis that still falls short of the mark of being universal. Her focus on self-improvement, however, is a welcomed departure from Campbell's scholastic bent.

            The second stage in the process, however, is the mythology itself. Any analysis of myth, no matter how brilliant it is, is still a slave to the myth. A chauvinistic myth will result in a chauvinistic analysis. Campbell's work was not inherently androcentric. The mythological pool he had to draw from was. Thirty-seven years later, Pearson ran into the same problem. While progress had been made, the 80's saw the height of the Wall Street greed and corruption of the “Me Generation.” Pearson was able to draw on some of the mythology that resulted from the founts of the women's rights movement, the civil rights movement, and the multi-cultural diversity that society had come to embrace. There is still, however, a very long way to go.

            Much like the battle against racism, we must look back at how much ground has been covered mythologically. Heroes are not always male anymore. They are not always white. And they are not always Warriors. Progress has been made towards a universal mythology. But as racism still has a good deal of ground left to conquer, mythology is still a long way away from offering a realistic cross section of the heroes of plural society. To accomplish this, as Campbell noted, we must encourage women and minorities to create their own mythology and make their own heroes. Not simply Warrior heroes with a different color, gender, or sexual preference. But fundamentally different heroes that are applicable to who the author wants to be. The world today is faced with serious problems never before imagined. Society needs a corporate tycoon hero who recognizes the effects his wealth has on the environment as well as his profit margin. A politically successful hero that, instead of pandering to special interest groups, truly believes all people are created equal and have the same rights. A female hero who is able to be successful at work and at home without being a bulldog. Ultimately, it is society's responsibility to create these myths. Without them, mythology will become irrelevant and instead of being guided by heroic dreams, individuals will become guided by self interest. The entertainment industry and public figures can work towards accomplising this new creation by using one of Pearson's self-improvement exercises: each day upon waking up, imagine the ideal world you would like to live in and let the Magician in you do the rest (Pearson 212).

Campbell, Joseph. 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. MJF Books.

Campbell, Joseph. 2004. Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. New World Library

Pearson, Carol. 1998. The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. HarperOne.

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