Heroic Archetypes and Heroic Functions

The Thor and Odin archetypes, as you extend them to Hector/Achilles etc: This is powerful stuff. A possible organizing principle for everything to follow in this thread…. Oh, the irony. I am smirking a benevolent smirk, for was it not you, Sir, who were so above archetyping a while ago in my hero thread? ;) As you see, you cannot help yourself. You must.

I write this in response to the above quote from Andreas’s comment to my previous post, Captain America, Propaganda, and Heroic Violence. You’re not wrong, Andreas, in that I’m trying to organize heroes across stories, which, yes, I had given you a hard time for doing earlier in your heroism thread. At the same time, I think there is a difference, and it’s a really important one.

Two Sides of the Same Structural Coin

Required heroic reading.

Both approaches are structural in foundation. Joseph Campbell founded his Monomyth on Freudian and Jungian psychology; Dean Miller founded his on Georges Dumézil and his trifunctional hypothesis, which I know relatively little about but he mentions all the time in The Epic Hero. Warriors are the Second Function, and Miller examines them case by case. Campbell tried to define his heroes by their essence (i.e. Whether or not they were, at heart, a martyr or a warrior or a child or whatever), whereas Miller defines heroes by what they do, by what results of their actions. Thor is Thor because he defends, he maintains, he follows orders. Odin is Odin because he destroys, he tears down, he never, never yields. I’m tempted to call Miller’s a more pragmatic approach … but I think that’s more a product of my affection for both Miller and pragmatism.

Breaking Stereotypes

First off, Miller’s system transcends archetypes. Jesus and Achilles are very different archetypes (one a martyr, one a warrior), but they serve similar functions within their respective tales. Recognizing those similarities is insightful, and I don’t think the archetypal system allows for it. Furthermore, a functional analyst skips over the pitfall of stereotypes, a trap Campbellians, at times, seem eager to leap into. The characters are allowed to be who they are, as opposed to who someone outside the story determines they should be, expects them to be—be they heroes, villains, men, women, or minorities. And when they do or don’t behave in line with those expectations, that may be because of a host of influences, including culture (their beliefs), societal structure (their opportunities) and their own idiosyncratic desires—not necessarily because of some rigidly defined, transhistorical metaphysics. It’s more likely to me that it’s so difficult to find examples of female heroism in ancient Greek myths because they were very sexist, and so they didn’t want stories about female heroism, and much less likely because it is part of the Essence of the Feminine to yield to the Power of the Masculine or whatever.

Perhaps I am being overly-critical of archetypes and overly-generous to functions. Perhaps the more important point is to keep any categorical tool a half-sketched outline, instead of a rigid stencil. But continuing …

The Politics of Storytelling

A thousand faces crammed together to look like one European male.

Examining a story by function is much more elastic than the Monomyth, which must cram every story into its one model, oftentimes bending over backwards to do so. But the Monomyth also does more than that; the Monomyth makes every story One Story. Every myth is a heroic myth and every story supposedly illustrates a very specific kind of self-actualization. It is patriarchal, strongly Judeo-Christian, and oddly American-Dream-ish. We should wonder why it resonates so well with us….

Functional analysis, in contrast, preserves the integrity of the story, allows it to operate by its own logic instead of a logic imposed upon it, and it respects the beliefs of the storytelling system.

A concrete example: Buddhist and Christian monks. Both devote their lives to institutions that consume them; both are filled with overwhelming compassion for their fellow human beings (at least the good ones are); and both serve those people—these are their functions. But they arrive at these functions through two very different belief systems. The Christians, on the one hand, surrender themselves to an eternal God, through whose intervention they believe is the only road to salvation in Heaven. The Buddhists, on the other, meditate on the obliteration of their sense of self because they believe that only in that way can they escape the cycle of suffering. Their salvation is oblivion. Theravada Buddhism is, in fact, an atheistic religion—a qualitatively different beast from Christianity. They may have a similar effect within society or even on the human psyche, but the particulars of their beliefs are different. They can’t both be right about the facts of the universe. That, to me, is not trivial, nor is it to them.

Joseph Campbell, meanwhile, would say that they are not different and not only are they not different they are actually mistaken about their own values and beliefs. And then he would pronounce what they believe, regardless of whether or not they agree with him, just the way a psychoanalyst would tell a person what they are feeling and thinking, regardless of whether or not that is rooted in reality—and science—at all. I pointed out before on your blog and I’ll continue to do so here how Joseph Campbell got the lessons taught by many myths and stories wrong. Completely, dead wrong. Miller doesn’t because Miller isn’t trying to define what they mean, only how they function. The stories themselves and the cultures they come out of define what they mean.

The Elegant Analysis

Third, by analyzing the stories and heroes on their own terms, the functional system sidesteps the ponderous psychological cosmology that one has to drag along to make sense of Campbell’s interpretations, which makes it a more elegant system, simpler but no less penetrating, and keeps it open to the stories’ polymorphous insights, instead of reducing all stories to the same Monomythic epiphany. There are similarities across cultures, across stories, but there are differences too. And I much more easily believe that those similarities arose out of a common humanity, a shared evolutionary ancestry, and sober examinations of our absurd lives, just as those differences arose out of geography, economics, and the fickle whims of Fortune.

The Monomyth is certainly alive and well in our world, not least of all because we have books like The Writers Journey, by Christopher Vogler, telling us to write one way, and an entire industry, Hollywood, banking on the reproduction, ad nauseum, of that one story. It can, at times, be very powerful. But it’s just one story. And we only started consciously writing to that story in the 20th century. I want to read other stories, stories written way before Joseph Campbell or even Dean Miller. I want to read what they have to say and not least of all so I don’t have to read another inane Monomyth ever again.

A Final Caveat

Of course, I must always remember—and I completely own up to this very real possibility—that I could simply be bending over backwards trying very hard not to look like a hypocrite. 🙂


Captain America, Propaganda, and Heroic Violence

I saw Captain America: The First Avenger last week. I thought it was good. A solid OK. It was a good comic-book movie, as opposed to say, The Dark Knight, which was an excellent movie-movie. But I digress….

Captain America Comics No. 1

Damn straight.

A Different Hero Then and Now

I was intrigued with how they would dance around the problem of propaganda in this film, because, c’mon, if there were ever an iconically, jingoistically American hero, it’s Captain freakin’ America. He’s punching Hitler in the face on the cover of his first comic after all. But people didn’t roll their eyes at that. Well, to be fair, I don’t know what people did when they saw him. But I know what people didn’t do. They didn’t drag his name through the mud for encouraging a politics of aggression and militarism. They didn’t hold him accountable for throwing out due process of the law. They held him up, instead, as a hero.

Two Kinds of Hero

Thor's Battle Against the Ettins (1872)

Fighting for.

Dean A. Miller, in his indispensable book, The Epic Hero, identifies two kinds of heroes in Icelandic sagas: Thor (“willing to follow, serve, and represent”) and Odin (“absolutely resistant to any form of subordination to a directive principle”). They are both extremely powerful, necessary in their own ways, crucial in the right circumstances. Miller uses Thor and Odin as his labels for the kinds of heroes that they are (actually, “Þórr-warrior” and “Óðinn-warrior”), but he could have just as easily used Hektor and Akhilles, Arthur and Launcelot, Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ. Captain America very clearly is a Þórr-warrior; he’s fighting in defense of the established order, in order to preserve it, to save it. America means something to him, and he’s willing to defend it with his life. Which is interesting to me, because, for the past few decades, American mainstream popular culture has overwhelmingly chosen Odin over Thor.

Tyranny and The Man

Odin, the Wanderer (1886)

Fighting against.

The Vietnam War is often cited as a turning point in the popular consciousness of America. It wasn’t when we started to become suspicious of our government; it was when we started to assume it was guilty of … well, whatever was wrong at the time. Anti-heroes started springing up like mushrooms. Federal agents became more and more sinister, agents of The Man. Common people couldn’t turn to the government for salvation because the government, more often than not, was the source of the corruption. This is still, I would argue, our default setting with regard to Authority, and so I think our default hero is still someone who tears down social structures, as opposed to someone who defends and maintains them.

Heroic Violence

Heroes are, without exception, intimately tied to violence. Even if the heroes are nonviolent themselves, such as Jesus Christ or Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr., they attract violence to and around them. Not always on purpose, but always always always. It has to do with their function in relation to society’s structures: they are either tearing them down or making them stronger, always to the consternation of another powerful force, always with violent results.

Enter Captain AmericaCaptain America: Who Will Wield the Shield

Captain America is very much a defender and maintainer. His iconic weapon is, not accidentally, a shield. So I was interested to see how the new film would deal with this tension, avoiding the appearance of “oppression,” which is how power wielded by or for Authority is so often labeled these days (the Óðinn-warrior’s derogatory moniker being “anarchy”).

The movie, to its credit, did address this tension, but it did so in a way that was ultimately unsatisfactory to me. In what was probably my favorite sequence of the movie, Captain America’s first military assignment is to be a USO show, convincing people to buy bonds and encouraging the troops (or trying to) to stay the course. He becomes a one-man propaganda poster. The troops hate him when he tries to put on his show for them; they want the dancing girls to come back. It magnifies a growing disillusionment Captain America already feels. He’s being used by the government, but not in the way he wants to be. It’s interesting (vis-à-vis Thor/Odin) that, immediately after this, he establishes himself as Hero in the film’s first major (and violent) action sequence, rescuing a unit of POWs with the implied consent of his colonel-mentor but against official (governmental/Authoritative) orders.

Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull

Vhat are you looking at? I am evil, yah?

What ultimately irks me, though, is that the solution to the whole overriding tension that really interested me in the movie in the first place was to set in opposition to Captain America a horrendously evil villain. Not even a Nazi—a demon Nazi. This villain, Red Skull, simplifies the entire situation, and that makes it exponentially less interesting to me. True, the Joker is horrendously evil in The Dark Knight as well, but the issues he brings up and the ideas that he confronts the other characters with (and, more importantly, the conclusions that other characters come to with regard to those issues and those ideas) are still problematized, complicated, difficult. The Dark Knight‘s characters are forced to make pragmatic decisions, as opposed to idealistic ones. And that is a profoundly interesting kind of heroism to me, because it is essentially human, with uneasy solutions. The solution to Red Skull? Kill him; save the world.

The movie also misses the mark with the problem of propaganda. The soldiers hate Captain America (and Captain America hates himself) because he’s trumpeting the fight without doing any of the physical fighting. But that’s not why propaganda is poisonous. Propaganda is poisonous because it frames complicated issues in oversimplistic, extremist terms. Quick and violent solutions not only become reasonable, they become necessary. Anything else becomes part of the problem. Furthermore, propaganda’s heroes remain unfazed by the horror of both the opposing evil and their solution to it. They are committed to a kind of moral genocide against evil, and all of their enemies are unproblematically (and 100%) evil; thus, simplistically expendable. It, unfortunately, sucks the humanity out of the heroes and sweeps away the very real and very problematic consequences that come to a soldier who is confronted with violence and destruction on a large scale. Alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, night terrors, emotional numbness, alienation, nervous breakdowns. We don’t need to include these things in our heroism because they are good. We need to include them because they are human. And, ultimately, for our own psychological and philosophical well-being, so too must our heroes be.

Uncle Sam

I want YOU ... to comment.

Black Swan, Freud, and the Monomyth

SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS … spoilers, spoilers.

I just returned from seeing Black Swan at the cinema. As a piece of filmmaking, it is absolutely phenomenal. I have loved Darren Aronofsky since his debut, Pi. The only one of his films I have not seen is The Wrestler, mainly because that came out when I was living in China. I admit I don’t quite understand the story of The Fountain, but … ah, what storytelling!

Thus, he did not disappoint me with Black Swan, pushing us uncomfortably close to a mind maintaining but a tenuous hold on reality, gripping it with fingers slick with the sweat of obsession. But the question that my own mind is currently obsessing over is this: Is Black Swan ultimately a realization of or biting critique of Freudian psychology and Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth?

You can’t help but read the film in Freudian terms. I think I’ve seen the word “psychosexual” in nearly every review of it I’ve read. All the classic Freudian players are here: the overbearing, Superego of a mother, the fragile, repressed Ego hero, the free-spirited Id. The movie no less can be read in terms of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, with its Jungian concepts: the Bad Mother, the Hero, the Shadow, the Father. But the complexities that the film is able to twirl around with those concepts is what captivates me.

On the one hand, we have the Freudian reading: Nina, a sexually repressed ballerina lives at the mercy of her overbearing Superego, personified as her mother. Through her dancing and the prodding of her psychoanalyst/ballet director (who speaks in terms of “breakthroughs” and even sits her down on his couch before grilling her about her sexuality), she is able to unleash and ultimately harness her Id, breaking free of the confines of her oppressive Superego and achieving the height of perfection.

Joseph Campbell would describe it slightly differently, though in no less lofty terms: the Hero embarks on a journey of self-actualization by slipping out of her childhood prison (her Mother’s home/womb), aka The First Threshold, besting its Guardian (the Bad Mother), and entering the world of Adult Experience. There, she is confronted by her Shadow (her repressed sexuality) but with the guidance of her Father-figure/Mentor, she is able to overcome and assimilate her Shadow, becoming the Master of Two Worlds (her psyche and the stage) and reaching the height of perfection.

However, the critique of these readings comes in the actual events of the film, the things these overly metaphorical interpretations gloss over or try to nullify. The film’s horrifying plot introduces enough ambiguity that cracks begin to appear, if the above readings are not shattered altogether.

Take, for instance, Thomas Leroy, the ballet instructor. His obsession with Nina’s sexuality practically makes him a stand-in for Freud himself. Psychoanalysis would say he’s trying to help Nina express what has been repressed in her, but he’s doing that by literally sexually molesting her, both physically and psychologically. Furthermore, he has a reputation for this behavior. In what world could this possibly be acceptable? A world in which Freud is le roi.

The ending even complicates a black and white reading of Erica, Nina’s mother. Given a nuanced consideration, Erica can be seen as genuinely trying to keep her daughter alive, albeit in a severely imperfect way. Erica shows signs of mental disorder herself, but her actions are not only oppressive. She is also trying to protect her daughter, who exhibits signs of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (different from OCD), self-destructive mutilation, paranoid psychosis, and, ultimately, suicidal tendencies.

The ending, though, delivers the coup de grâce. Aronofsky achieves it by mixing the metaphorical with the literal when Nina finally battles her doppelgänger for psychic dominance. Campbell and Jung see this confrontation with what they call the Shadow as the ultimate test in human self-actualization and individuation. You must confront, overcome, and assimilate the Shadow, integrating it into your personality without it taking over, actualized in the movie by Nina’s fight with the phantom Lily/Nina/Black Swan in her dressing room, during which Nina confronts L/N/BS, stabs her to death (overcoming), and then delivers a bravura performance as the Black Swan in the ballet (assimilation). But the Shadow is part of your own psyche, so when you battle it (even figuratively) you are battling yourself. Thus, when Nina stabs her doppelgänger, she is literally stabbing herself.

This battle with her Shadow allows Nina to become the master of both her own psyche and the stage, a heroic triumph for Jung and Campbell. But it literally means death. This undercuts the entire Monomythic project and calls into question a society that would empower a perverted ballet director and hold as the ultimate perfection a suicidal (literally suicidal) obsession with achievement. Nina reaches her ultimate glory when she is at the height of her psychosis. Her catharsis, her breathy and elated realization of perfection as she bleeds to death, should give anyone pause the next time they hear Joseph Campbell’s maxim: “Follow your bliss.”

Ultimately, however, the question is am I seeing this in the film because Darren Aronofsky wants me to or because I want me to? I obviously have little love for Freud, Jung, or Campbell and quite a bit of love for Aronofsky. Thus, I recognize in myself a desire to see my own beliefs and values reflected in Aronofsky’s work. I don’t know. I’ll have to meditate on it. Because Black Swan does conform very well to Freudian and Jungian readings. But, honestly, their theories are so elastic, unscientific, and subjective that they consume and eradicate any utterance or text, which, of course, does not mean they are in any way “correct.” Ah, but that ending … it just seems so … perfect.

And a shout-out to the maestro of maestros, Clint Mansell, for another phenomenal soundtrack.

Studying Heroism: How to Start?

It is my firm belief that those who do not declare their prejudices and open them up to interrogation are those who most quickly fall prey to and are constrained by them. And it is with that in mind that I want to make clear my own prejudices concerning heroes and how one should study them. I respect anyone who dedicates their time to sifting through the stories of the past, but I do believe there are good and bad ways of doing so and I’m not always sympathetic to the dominant approaches in the mainstream.

Epistemic Problems

The first hurdle we have to cross is the ever-present and not insignificant fact that many of the subjects we will be looking at come to us across hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, in a very foreign language, from a very foreign culture. Any text that we have comes to us across that vast void, having been (in the case of oral epics) transcribed (possibly numerous times), redrafted and stylized by various scribes (scribes who often do not share our modern concern with accurate, literal copying), and translated into languages (in our case, English), which may bear little to no resemblance to the original artistic tongue. And that’s if there’s only one version….

That’s not a hurdle easily vaulted. So why is it important that we bother with it? Because we must be wary of any claims about finding an “authentic” or “original” myth. All that we have are necessary distortions. “True” myths, in many ways, do not exist.

Keeping that in mind can help us engage the stories, keep us from sitting back and assuming an easy answer. These tales and their heroes are coming to us with subtleties and nuances we may not readily appreciate. They aren’t Sunday morning reads. These are stories we have to wrestle with, puzzle out. And we have to be open to surprises that are waiting for us—even and especially in the stories we think we already know.

Hasty Theories

I remain suspicious of any theory that purports to explain too much. If the twentieth century taught us anything, it’s that no grand narrative or universal creed can account for the mind-boggling diversity found throughout the world—and there is a totalitarian danger in trying to impose one on that diversity. I have little time for the likes of Freud, Jung, and Joseph Campbell, as should be eminently clear by now.

I understand the desire for an elegant theory that explains everything, but I don’t want to study these heroes to reinforce what I already know. I’m not looking for a pat on the intellectual back. I want to learn; I want to make new discoveries (or at least discoveries that are new to me); and I want to push myself out of the comfort of my intuitions, broaden my thinking and better examine the assumptions that buttress my worldview.

Context, Context, Context

One of the hallmarks of meta-narratives a la Freud, Jung, and Campbell was the extrication of stories from the various contexts whence they came. That’s great if you want to chop them into bits and build your own story out of them, but it’s terrible for coming to a proper understanding of the stories themselves.

Context is key for a couple of reasons. First, any story becomes different by virtue of the telling. Reading the Iliad, however stirring it might be, is qualitatively different from hearing it sung as it would have been. Remembering how these tales were produced and how they were received can help us appreciate their historical importance. Imagine living in a world where there were no bookstores, no universities, hell, no literacy. Imagine hearing an epic, gathered with your friends and family, hanging on every word the singer sang, grateful just for the chance to hear the tale. If we could only approach every story in this way.

Second, context helps us understand the motivations and desires of the characters we’re here to learn about. If we’re to understand these heroes at all then surely we have to take the time to study their culture. To use the Iliad as an example again: though the fact of war remains with us in the twenty-first century, the details (including the goals of the participants) are substantially different for a US soldier stationed in Afghanistan than for an Achaean hoplite. It’s also substantially different for me, who was born in a country that has never (in my lifetime) been invaded, who knows battle as something that happens in other countries or in movies, and who has utterly no desire to ever kill anyone for anything. I’m a far cry from the likes of Sarpedon, who tells his friend, Glaucus :

[D]eath in ten
thousand shapes hangs ever over our heads, and no man can elude
him; therefore let us go forward and either win glory for
ourselves, or yield it to another.

Third—and most importantly—proper context reminds us that ours is not the only judgment these heroes have faced or will face in the future. We are not here to judge them once and for all. We’re here to learn from them, and to learn also what their societies thought of them and why they were (and perhaps still are) valued as heroes.

Humility and Respect

So where does that leave us? It is my aim to approach these heroes, ancient and otherwise, with humility and respect. I aim to meet them as best I can on their terms, in their stories. As Dean A. Miller says in his absolutely astounding book, The Epic Hero (which I heartily recommend to any and all interested):

[W]hat we have learned, after hard effort, is that these entertainments are composites of history in their own way, supplying evidence of ideals, mindsets, even providing a valuable record of fantasy’s explorations and limitations at the time: a record of human mind itself, solidified in its own moment.

I aim to explore those human minds, with all the respect and honor I’d hope to receive in return.