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Delve Seminar Summaries: The Hero’s Journey & The Modern Memoir

[by Matthew Kulisch]

Week 1, October 4th

You might say that a Delve is a blunder—even to the experienced Delver, familiar with Literary Arts and its programs—there are circumstances, issues of timing, number, the spectrum of age and experience, shyness, or even how much sleep you got Friday (the night before), that seem subject to what the theorist and author, Joseph Campbell, calls “apparently the merest chance,” “one of the ways in which an adventure can begin.” To our little group of eighteen, fearlessly and certainly led by guide, Satya Byock, all were at play.

Yet I was struck, almost immediately, by the thought that I was surrounded by a gracious, sharply intelligent, diverse, thoughtful collection of people—who, further still, were also finely tuned into the paradoxically personal nature of our topic. Could it be that my 2nd Delve with Literary Arts would match my first? Even better it? The Hero with a Thousand Faces calls both fortune and folly transcendent: “a great temple can be established anywhere…Any blade of grass may assume, in myth, the figure of the savior and conduct the questing wanderer into the sanctum sanctorum of his own heart.” Taking that, you might also say that a Delve is a temple, or, perhaps, conduit.

When Satya opened up discussion for our group, after all the introductions, she conducted us toward three questions: (1) What is a hero?, (2) What is the hero’s journey?, and (3) How does such a journey start? Yet we, again almost immediately, skipped to the third. (I like that about Delves: discussions gravitate toward interest.) And got seemingly a little sidetracked, our own kind of blunder—on Eat, Pray, Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert and Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless. Quickly the question became not “How are you called?” but “How do you know you are called versus just plain painfully deluded?” As the group discussed these side texts—themselves honing in on the perhaps surprising pairing of mythological theory with memoir, Campbell with Richard Wright’s Black Boy looming on the horizon—I found a few memories bubbling to the surface. Imagine 19 year-old me, donning a suit every day, tying a skinny black tie into a smart Windsor knot, snapping on the little black pocket protector with my name engraved, hoofing around a few copies of The Book of Mormon with a bicycle and a matching Mormon missionary pair. The words of the KJV Bible knocking about in my head, “Many are called but few are chosen.” And two women from Sao Paulo, Monica and Fatima, visiting London, who met and were taught by me—and now attribute to me the beginning of their journey into Mormonism as I myself was (secretly) on my way out. Were they silly to join up? Was I silly, or even false, to leave? Or merely some understandable brand of stupid, simply for being Mormon in the first place, and therefore saved by being smartly out? I could imagine a thorny judgment being passed, reminiscent of the ones being passed on Gilbert for being a white woman plugged neatly into an Orientalizing pop-cultural tradition or McCandless for ignoring his elders, for not knowing the land. It’s tempting to judge at a distance. Yet the hero seems always, squarely, at the center of the action.

I ask to illustrate, because I am really not sure myself. But what is a hero? How is she called? And to what journey? Perhaps the journey begins like our discussion did, skipping the neater questions that set the stage and blundering into the adventure. Campbell calls blunders like these not blunders at all, but the revelation of an unsuspected world; he swears it might “amount to the opening of a destiny.”




Week 3, October 18th

Let’s try to deal, a little bit, briefly, with the thorniness of Time: it may have been the single issue which surrounded, bound our Week 3 discussion of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Did we more than touch on it? I’m not certain we did anything more than talk around Time—because, well, how do you engage with something that has the fear of death on it? Yet death was our’s, and Campbell’s, sort-of entry point.

We started our discussion with a question of duality, of goodness versus evil; say that the hero journeyed, responded to her call, had her training and her trials, overcame, and then on her return—transformed—was given a sort-of choice or given to a sort-of fate (we couldn’t decide) to either truly return to the realm of real life or to depart or remain in the realm of the blessed, was either choice good? Should the hero have chosen, at the end of her journey, to be separate—or know, by her transformation, that her journey had made her essentially separate—would she still be good? Would she still be a hero then? There was, I believe, a kernel of Christian thought in this; most definitely there were the assumptions attached to heroism in our culture and time—that struggle, service, or sacrifice for the greater good is what makes a hero. In such a system, duality is an expression of values and judgment: good over evil, service over self, life over death.

One of our number was quick to jump in, urging caution, pointing to Campbell’s telling of the myth of Arjuna—from the Bhagavad Gita—noting, for hearers of that story, that the god urges Arjuna to make war, despite Arjuna’s soulful reticence, because it is his dharma, or (we might say) war-making fulfills the measure of Arjuna’s creation. The two stand, charioted, in the middle of a battlefield. Arjuna is positioned as the lead warrior against his own family, a civil war; and it is on that battlefield that the god, Krishna, reveals himself in all his manifold manifest glory. To quiet Arjuna’s fear and doubt, Krishna tells his friend that the men he’ll kill are already dead, in effect, that death is in store for them all already.

For us, who might be tempted to find a moralized beginning to the cycle of violence, the search for a justification to these questions of good versus evil, of returning to work goodness or of remaining in in blessedness, seem something of a chicken and egg problem. Yet Campbell seems to say it is not or but rather and: attaching any special significance to our individual life is an act of ego that focuses the lens too securely on the Self. In truth, Campbell would say, the egoist Self belies the fact that we are involved in a psychic and mythic process of chicken and egg, always and already together.

Time, then, or simply death, is mythically the stuff we’re always engaged in. I thought of our cells, which die and regenerate themselves every 24 or so hours—and who is to say we are the same person then, day to day? I thought of Schmendrick the Magician, from Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, insisting “there are no happy endings, because nothing ends.” Mostly I thought Campbell quoting Ovid: “Nothing retains its own form; but Nature, the greater renewer, ever makes up forms from forms. Be sure there’s nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form.” As Campbell himself says, “Thus the next moment is permitted to come to pass.”




Week 4, October 25th

There is an ongoing dialogue I have with myself: how to resolve what I have learned about myself—one might say “my Self,” that is the paradoxically unique and meaningful identity situated in this moment of time and the individual that is always and already part of a group, a categorical member of and site for a lump sum gathering of socio-cultural and linguistic markers of “gay,” “white,” “man,” “nerd,” “American,” “millennial,” and so forth; ever am I trying to resolve this Self with what I have learned or might learn about those are not me, who are categorically other. And here we conclude our final week with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces directly, preparing for memoir (and Wright’s Black Boy) in our final two weeks of Delve. As one might think, the dialectic between Self and Other can be particularly thorny territory. Yet Campbell has something surprising to say to this, declaring, “There is no separateness. Thus, just as the way of social participation may lead in the end to a realization of the All in the individual, so that of exile brings the hero to the Self in all.”

Campbell argues, really, that social participation—in effect, the Community; which one could read as tribe, clan, religious sect or tradition, nation-state, etc.—was the way of the hero in the past (what the hero existed to affect, to be the boon for). He says, “For the democratic ideal of the self-determining individual, the invention of the power-driven machine, and the development of the scientific method of research, have so transformed human life that the long-inherited, timeless universe of symbols has collapsed.” Perhaps this was Campbell’s way of saying that secularism reigns supreme in our day and age; one might say that technology—and Campbell, who died in 1987, did not live to see the internet—reigns particularly over my generation. This was a fact that our group took in different ways: some noting simply that it was interesting, others celebrating scientific progress and technological expansion as a way of upending old social orders and bringing connectedness to the world in a manner we could beforehand have never dreamed of, while others still felt that Campbell did not give science its due (positing that, had he lived to see it, Campbell would have celebrated as well). Well, who can know?

Chiefly, I worry that Campbell is right. That “the problem of mankind today…is precisely the opposite to that of men in the comparatively stable”—and here we discussed what Campbell may have meant by “stable,” did he suppose less warlike? less upheaval? or did he merely mean their myths were more entrenched and trusted?—“periods of those great co-ordinating mythologies which now are known as lies.” Campbell continues: “Then all meaning was in the group, in the great anonymous forms, none in the self-expressive individual; today no meaning is in the group—none in the world: all is in the individual.” He concludes that, effectively with institutions gone, “the lines of communication between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut.” We say, I believe, evidence of this everywhere. Yet there was quite a bit of (friendly) disagreement over what that means: some said this only renewed their trust in the prevailing mythologies of our day (i.e.—secularism, technological progress bringing connectedness, the scientific method), while others saw an essential failure of these current myths to rekindle any psychic sense of Campbell’s “All in the individual.”

There’s no solution I can think of. Nor even a proper diagnosis. Yet I am trained—in terms of education, anyway—in the prevailing theoretical fads of my time: identity politics, structuralism, post-colonial theory, race/class/feminist and queer theories, deconstruction. All of which, in popular use, seem to have been fitted to the task of diagnosing (accurately, in my mind) the inherent oppression, sublimation, and power relationships integral to our systems today; and I dare not take issue, in fact rather applaud, the importance of a good diagnosis. Yet one need only spend an hour online in the Comments section of any particular issue to see how quickly things break down into screaming matches, flame wars, trolling, and ultimatums, which themselves appear far more characteristic of an ideological “us versus them” separation—not Community on the scale of Campbell’s old debunked social orders, but rather a narrower almost single-issue community based on whatever categorical identity to which one belongs in the moment. The ultimate individual. The Self, only in a smaller and smaller pool. And everyone else—rejected as “Other”—in an ocean that swells with every further disconnection and rescindment.

This reality strikes me as deeply ironic, because of the project identity politics actually suggest. The father of deconstruction, Derrida, argued that the Self and the Other are in a privileged binary relationship, and that the goal of deconstruction was to destabilize this relationship; one might do it, he said, by recognizing the Self in the Other (perhaps just another form of Campbell’s “All in the individual”) which would essentially plateau the space between Self and Other, allowing the Self to clearly see the Other for the first time. It is not, argued Derrida, an erasure of difference—which might simply return us to the Community of the old orders above—but rather an authentic understanding of the value in difference that is neither the Community of the old orders nor the ugly plight of the individual, what Campbell terms “the silences of [humankind’s] personal despair.” Campbell calls this project the quest “to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul.” It’s what we need a hero for. Or maybe, just maybe, it is the hero that must be called into the midst of the Self.


Week 5, November 1st

After four weeks of Joseph Campbell, our Delve was primed to leave mythological theory behind and engage with the second half of the title subject, the modern memoir. Yet we would not be leaving Campbell behind: The Hero with a Thousand Faces would serve as both guide and foil for our discussion of the first hundred and ninety-three pages of Richard Wright’s Black Boy.

To say that Black Boy was a change of pace would not be an exaggeration. Wright, though he hardly leaves the scope of his own rich internal landscape—he or somebody literally asks, “What happened?” when World War I ends—that landscape struck our group as vital, engaging, even sadly relevant to our time. We felt, in fact, that the richness of the internal nature (as opposed to the outside, the overly concerned with contextual) of Wright’s telling was what made the memoir so vital and engaging—and so well fitted to a mythic reading, in light of what we’ve learned about the hero’s journey.

It was Wright himself who seemed to provide the thesis, if you will, for such a reading. As a boy, Wright becomes obsessed with learning new words—before even he knows their full meaning—simply having them seems important; he is introduced to and sidles up next to story through a young teacher, Ella (who is thrust out of his life by his grandmother’s worry just as quickly for introducing him) because story is dangerous; finally Wright begins writing stories himself, publishing his first story as a middle schooler. His thirst for words, to ask questions, and see them answered, he does flatly because he “wants to,” and because he doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t want to; and his thirst is constantly met with condemnation that he is a willful, sinful, foolish boy—a characterization that he both laments (for the cosmic injustice of it) and rails against. Wright calls it an “attitude toward life” that made him “want to drive coldly to the heart of every question and lay it open to the core of suffering [he] knew [he] would find there.” Psychology, fiction, art, politics all fascinated and engaged him; they “made [him] love talk that sought answers to questions that could help nobody, that could only keep alive in [him] that enthralling sense of wonder and awe in the face of the drama of human feeling which is hidden by the external drama of life.”

In many ways, Wright reminded me of Gilgamesh or Achilles or Inanna—a figure of mythic proportions who seemed (in his understanding) to be heights above his fellows. Sharp, intelligent, utterly fearless and undaunted, positively spiteful of authority illogically or unethically exercised, yet deeply empathetic and sensitive to suffering. Hungry. A hero in and of himself, if the boon be his books or his very life.

If not for racism: that seems to be departure point from the Classical forms and Wright’s own journey. I have to return again to Campbell, what he characterizes as the odd shift of the mythic hero’s journey to the unaddressed suffering that any modern hero’s journey would have to assuage. Campbell calls these monsters “the silences of [humankind’s] personal despair.” Put another perhaps more poetical way, it is the quest “to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul.” In this, telling his hunger—a racialized, black hunger—may be the very thing that is boon for us after all.


Week 6, November 8th
In our final meeting, discussing the latter half of Richard Wright’s Black Boy and how it might be read through the mythic lens of Joseph Campbell, the group was almost reverent—deferent to silence, quiet and contemplative. The reading itself was hard to swallow, partly due to sheer volume, yet mostly (I believe) due to its coursing absorbing relevance.

It was into this relevance that our guide, Satya, led us. Wright himself ends Black Boy with what—through Campbell—feels like a kind of invitation: “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all…” We discussed, some of us with reservation, some with admiration, the brazen almost-indignant frankness by which Wright lived his life—how Campbell’s mythic hero occupies a sort-of “Othered” position, even self-“Othered,” which is required to speak her Truth. I thought for a minute of the half-god Achilles, who the poet places—in the midst of his rage—away from camp, outside of the realm of the agora, brooding in his menace by the sea; Homer knows to place the hero apart (whether bodily or mired in the psychic scope of his problems). Because the questioning, destabilizing, or epoch-ending nature of the hero’s mission, not all of the hero’s discoveries or pronouncements are easy for others to swallow; nor even will society recognize the hero for what she is. And today, Wright’s pointing finger and searching sound is paradoxically (and perhaps sadly) as applicable to the ever-present though more insidious forms of racism in our now. Our group made much of this, for good reason—even visiting the racism we had borne witness to throughout our lives, or experienced ourselves, or seen played out in Portland’s history.

Yet we also felt that this memoir held greater relevance to the hero’s journey precisely because of its, what some might consider, ancillary nature to historical events: it was Wright’s accessibility as “inexpressibly human” that defined his heroism. The access he offered to his rich internal landscape, the way a deep look into the inside can reveal important truths about a great universal outside, the surety and honesty of his voice—those were the things that resonated as most heroic, in the mythic sense. Regard, the thing we love to spend on what the modern world considers the newsworthy acts of heroism, seemed not at all the point: Wright’s journey was personal.

And so Satya spun us—for our last hour together—toward a different kind of discussion altogether. Ending a Delve is difficult, because, by their nature, they are wholly different from a book group and wholly different from a class yet take the very best of each. Yes, we are responsible to each other to do the reading; and, no, there are no exams. Rather, Satya invited us to talk openly about how Wright and Campbell had changed our sense of our own journeys—if we wished to. In a way, I feel, this was a gentle invitation to consider ourselves as human creatures waiting for, or in the midst of, our “call.” We talked about death, about our children, about our spirits, about our own complicity and disgust with oppression. About enlightenment. About stewardship. Even about truth. It was a perfect end.

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