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. 🙂


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.