Words to remember

"Never doubt in the darkness what you believed in the light."

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the One True Myth

I had been meaning to pick up Joseph Campbell's book the Hero with a Thousand Faces for several years now, but owing to circumstances entirely beyond my control (read: lazy), I hadn't done so before now. At any rate, I believe I have accumulated enough familiarity with the primary sources of many mythical stories, something I would've had earlier. I won't be finished with it for a little while, but here are a few preliminary remarks.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of the book is a heavy reliance on Jung and Freud (duh). Jung I'm not familiar with, beyond the theory of archetypes, so I'll leave that alone for now. As to Freud, however, I was under the impression that a lot of his theoretical work and methodology were now frowned upon by experimental psychology. It could safely be said that Freud produced an interesting theoretical framework, but left little that could be spoken to by the application of a scientific method. I'd have to agree with the Newsweek issue in 2006 which labeled him "history's most debunked doctor". For one, after reading Plato's Republic, Freud's division of the psyche into id, ego, and superego had a decidedly familiar ring to it. Interesting philosophy, but not great science. And if repressed sexuality counted for so much with Freud, one is honor-bound to ask: "Sigmund, perhapz eet ees teim fur ein Kold Schauer, ja?" What does his preoccupation with sex tell us about his own thought processes, and does such a preoccupation reveal a fatal prejudice? The Oedipus complex is a sham; the nomenclature itself is phony. Oedipus was never subconsciously attracted to his mother; he was quite consciously attracted to Iokastê. It would make very little sense for him to be attracted to the mother he never knew. That would necessitate an intuition or retention of childhood memories which modern psychology simply debunks. And it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the complex is as universal as Freud would imply. (Penny for your thoughts on that one, though, Sigmund) However, Freud has proven most difficult to dislodge in just about every discipline except psychology. Art, music, literature, politics, philosophy still cling to him. Campbell's reliance on him, then, I find a little problematic.

It was in looking in Campbell's timeline of the hero and how the figure of Christ fits into it that my ears pricked up. This is always where these analyses seem to fall apart. The treatment of Christ as a hero might have some credibility, but only to a degree. He breaks the mold in certain ways. The comparison that stuck out most vividly in my mind was that of Christ on the Cross to Buddha under the Bo tree. The motif of World Savior, World Tree is there, sure. While Christ's temptation by the dark Lord of the Earth comes earlier in the Gospel narratives, it is here that Buddha is challenged. Evidently, he pulls through, and is told by the gods to proclaim his particular brand of enlightenment to men. Here is where things seem to get dicy; Buddha's public ministry is just beginning. But for Christ, "it is accomplished". The wisdom He brings to Men has, in a sense, already been brought. Buddha's Way is only then disseminated. But in Christ, all else preceded His self-sacrifice on the Cross. It is redemptive, and enlightening insofar as it bestows the light of salvation on all mankind. Man gains Buddha's Way from the Bo tree. It is a philosophy. Christ indeed does give us a philosophy- but He also gives us something else. Knowledge of how the universe works is not enough. No concept of balance or universal harmony sufficiently encompasses what He gave us. And the focus on Buddhist reincarnation is a further point deleterious to the comparison. Where Christ promises the fulfillment of Creation, Buddha remains bound to the circles of the World, the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. This is likely a product of the belief that there is no permanent and immutable self or soul.

Another critique is that the myth presumes a process of becoming or knowing in the reaching of heroism. A hero gains mysterious and awesome powers, which "are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time". That doesn't work so well with Christ. He knew what powers He had, and constantly proved this. His miracles didn't start with the Resurrection. Before then He healed the sick, cured the blind, cast out demons, even rose Lazarus from the tomb. His powers were no surprise to Him, and they were not won in a quest or journey. They were part of His very being. He was from the Beginning God's Son, the Uncreated Word, and so did not, indeed could not come to know what that means. He always knew what it meant.

What makes many myths so fascinating is how they show one man suddenly coming to know his own abilities, the power that lies within him. This is one of the central pivots of mythology. But it is the reverse in the Incarnation. That is a story not of a human coming through diverse trials to a secret source of strength/knowledge/wisdom/might. It is a story of how God emptied Himself and took on the raiment of one of His own children, humbling Himself and sharing in our existence. So Christ again breaks the mold in some pretty signal ways (or perhaps it would be better to say that that mold was too small all along to contain Him).

Anyway, that's all for now. The book could easily do without the thin notion that Christ is just another man, or just another man-made hero. It's an interesting book, though. Hope I can finish it without torpedoing what little is left of my GPA.

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