Why We Need to Be Done with Joseph Campbell

Posted: February 26, 2010 in Braak, poetics
Tags: , ,

Done, done, and done.  I don’t know why I’m writing about Campbell now, particularly, except that his name, or the filthy story-telling laws that have become his legacy, have cropped up in a few different locations over the last few weeks, and I think it’s about time that “The Heroes Journey” becomes the quaint, antiquated notion of a plot engine that it was always destined to be.

In fact, in the realms of sociology and anthropology, Campbell is kind of already passe — much of his fieldwork was less than rigorous, and, in the long run, it is more valuable to ethnographers, folklorists, and mythologists to study the intricate differences between cultures than their broad similarities.  It makes for a pretty lame folklore department, for example, if they hand you the Ibonia and then just say, “Yeah, it’s all Hero with a Thousand Faces, don’t worry about it.”

He was refreshingly valuable at one point, of course — much in the same way that Franz Boas was.  (Franz Boas was history’s Most Awesome Anthropologist; that’s him on the right, doing a cannibal eagle dance.)  There was a need in post-colonial anthropology to recognize that other cultures are not the product of incomprehensible alien mutants, but regular human beings who resolved their existential and moral questions in much the same way that everyone else does.

But Joseph Campbell (and James Frasier and Franz Boas) has already happened, as it were, and so there’s no need to dwell on him.  And, of course, it’s not the social sciences that do, but the arts — the writers and the theater practitioners & such, because the arts are always about ten or fifteen years behind basic science.  Somehow, the idea of a cultural archetype, of a universal “super-story” from which all other stories are derived, has become fascinating to actors and writers and directors, and it’s about time we ditched it.

See, the most important element of Campbell’s work is that it’s not proscriptive, be descriptive.  You can’t measure the quality of a story by comparing it to some Campbellian ideal of mythic purity; you can’t, in fact, even use it as the groundwork for a story — the more firmly you try and base your story in that mythic ideal, the more generic your story ends up looking.  Because that’s exactly what “universal” means:  generic.  The appeal of seeing a story that is clearly the “Hero’s Journey” is not the statement that it makes intellectually or morally, not the questions it raises, not anything like that — it is the basic pleasure of seeing something that you recognize.  Pleasure of Recognition is the easiest, cheapest, and most boring method of provoking a response in an audience; it’s the same motive force behind all those Scary Movie shitfests.  It’s a fairly useless way to write anything, because it guarantees that you won’t depart from the generic.

Ostensibly, most of this is not Campbell’s fault, and I only blame him personally (and hate him, personally) because it pleases me to do so; the fault lies in the people who’ve taken the Hero’s Journey and tried to use it as some kind of manual for storytelling.  It’s not; it’s a lousy way to go about it.

I have, by way of example, a friend who’d written a play, and he and I were discussing it at some length.  In particular, the discussion focused on a particular character, and whether or not that character ought to be included in the final draft — his answer for it was essentially that “rival characters” appear in the mythic archetype, and therefore a “rival character” needs to appear in his play.  There is no circumstance that should ever yield this conclusion; it is only the wild misuse of Campbell’s research that causes it.

The fact is this:  Campbell was either mostly right, or mostly wrong.  If he was mostly wrong, then we don’t need to talk about him at all, fine, we’re done.  If he was mostly right, we STILL don’t ever need to talk about him, or measure our work according to his laws — his essential premise is that because human beings are broadly similar physiologically and neurologically, then their cultures will be broadly similar, and their stories will be broadly similar.  Those similarities are built-in on a basic, inextricable level.  You don’t have to actively try and make your work conform to the Hero Archetype, you see, because whatever you write, you won’t be able to help it.

In other words, Campbell’s conclusions are all fairly useless.  It’s like saying, “Have you ever noticed that everyone tells stories with WORDS?”  Yeah, great job, Joe.  Now that we’ve gotten that crap out of the way, could you maybe come up with some means to help me make this story a specific, individual work?  “Have you ever noticed that everyone that writes a story down uses their HANDS?”  Thanks.   Something, maybe, about how to make this story one that by its nature must be written, because it is distinct from those works to which it is similar?  Oh, you think I should just ignore you and do it myself?

Good.  Good idea.

(The question of why this is still so popular in the theater, especially among actors, is one for another day; I maintain that it’s because actors, in general, eschew intellectual rigor in favor of glib conclusions.  Why is that?  Who knows — except that if they had wanted intellectual rigor in their lives, they certainly would not have majored in Acting.)

  1. Katy says:

    Thank you for this! I too love Franz Boas and this reminded me of a sadly unfinished paper I worked on long ago about Katherine Dunham and Zora Neale Hurston as anthropologists.

  2. Mary Jones says:

    You forgot to blame him for George Lucas.

  3. Erin says:

    I actually do enjoy playing with the “archetypal hero” myth from time to time in fiction, but it’s just that: playing. Campbell’s theories get taken far too seriously, if you ask me.

  4. You know who else always used “rival characters” in drama, though? Shakespeare. So your playwright friend’s foundation actually goes beyond and before Campbell. So does the foundation of much Western drama. I’m not sure Campbell (who meant a lot to me when I was younger, although he’s proven to be, like Kerouac or Salinger, the kind of literary influence I outgrow) entirely to blame for crystallizing an extant set of tropes into something like a storytelling system.

  5. braak says:

    Yeah, but Shakespeare also didn’t use rival characters. There’s no one who says, “Hey, this guy needs a rival, because Shakespeare always puts rivals in his plays.” But there are people that say, “This is part of the Hero’s Journey,” or whatever, and “therefore I need to put it in here.”

    I think, actually, that while many authors may be guilty of creating a set of extant tropes (though I don’t think that’s fairly a thing to be guilty of) Campbell is entirely to blame for crystallizing it, and for planting the idea that the closer we hew to that pure set of tropes, the better.

  6. braak says:

    I just want to be clear, in case my nameless friend happens to drop buy (or, by SCIENTIFIC DEDUCTION, one of you figures out to whom I am referring)–his play is fantastic. I am serious about that; I love it, it’s a great play. The particular element to which I’m referring is, I believe, a relatively minor sticking point, all things considered.

  7. Brian O'Raleigh says:

    I agree Campbell’s been overdone by many, myself included, as I realized quite recently, but the gem he left me with in this god forsaken age was the concept that we each have a singular journey to pursue; and to muster the courage to do that is the actual essence of ‘the hero’s journey’. Following Campbell , or anyone else, is of course a contradiction of what the man taught.

  8. […] thing is a dream anyway, why SHOULD she be worried about slaying the Jabberwock? — oh, right, Hero’s fucking Journey.  You can’t be a Hero if you don’t Refuse the Call), but then eventually she does, and […]

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