In a recent blog entry, Andrew Hickey tears into ‘comparative mythologist’ Joseph Campbell, for the negative and homogenising effect he’s had on genre fiction.
”If there is one person who I wish had never been born, it’s Joseph Campbell...The concept of ‘the Hero’s Journey’ has done more to ruin fiction and popular culture than any other concept I can think of. What annoys me is that something that was intended as a *description* is instead increasingly being taken as a *prescription*.”
In short, Campbell to Andrew is the man who said the hero can have a thousand faces, but only one sodding story! This low level of esteem is commonly held in our circles. Andrew Rilstone, for example, has written of “the increasingly cancerous influence of Joesph Campbell”.
I would readily agree that there are many points where Campbell’s work can be criticised. But is it really him to blame every time you see a crap film? Hasn’t he just become a handy target, whereas really we know better?
In fact it’s in the gap between Andrew’s two comments above that I want to insert my two-penneth.
How did we get into this situation? Campbell is now inextricably caught up in the popular mind with Star Wars. It probably was George Lucas’ namedropping of his Hero With a Thousand Faces that propelled him into the popular consciousness. Without this connection would they have made a popular TV series about him, The Power of Myth (even filmed on Lucas’ ranch) or brought out the accompanying (and refreshingly slim-line) book?
Yet Hero itself had actually been published back in ’48 and all his major works completed at least decade before Star Wars was released. Moreover, Campbell had been writing studies on myths and legends for those interested in history, culture or psychology. There’s no suggestion anywhere that any of it was intended as a practical guide for contemporary writers. When Lucas finally caught up with him and showed him the Star Wars films, he confessed to ignorance of them – for he rarely visited the cinema and didn’t own a TV.
But the real villain of the piece isn’t even Lucas - it’s Disney Exec Christopher Volger who wrote the 1992 ‘guide’ The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures For Writers, a book so appallingly autistic that burning would be too good for it.
Volger reduced Hero to the clod-hopping, meritocratic, evening-classes-for-all notion that it wasn’t even a guide but a manual. You just have to enroll in the course, read the set book with due diligence, follow the requisite sixteen steps and – hey presto! – your writing is mythic. That’s what it says on this here certificate, don’t it?
Volger made Campbell into cans, something saleable and consumable. It’s the difference between shamanic flight and a package holiday. It reminds me of the William Burroughs story Ah Pook Is Here about the wicked American capitalist who reads myths, but as if he were reading Moby Dick to know about whaling and having to skip all the bits about the white whale. If you wanted to make the mistake the other way up, you could read a recipe book then complain it was hard to relate to the characters. There’s no point wishing Christian Volger was never born because he already has been. But maybe there’s some way to fix the problem retrospectively...
For all their wooliness and New Age tendencies, the insight contained in Campbell’s works is that stories take on their own power. Any writer will tell you there’s some point where the story seems to surge ahead of him and write itself while he struggles to catch up. (Of course the operative word there is ‘”seems”. Stories are sentient life forms only in the worst of New Age mumbo jumbo.)
The point is that writing is a way of unlocking something, of accessing parts of your brain you didn’t know you had. The Surrealists fixated on automatic writing as a method of unleashing the subconscious. But in a sense all writing – at least all good writing – becomes automatic writing. As is said on www.jfc.org>the Joseph Campbell Foundation website:
“All myths are the creative products of the human psyche, artists are a culture’s mythmakers, and mythologies are creative manifestations of humankind’s universal needs.”
Of course the gormless literalists don’t even have the courage of their own convictions. They insist endlessly ‘all stories are one’. So if that’s the case, why do they even need this stupid manual in the first place? It’s like saying all roads lead to Rome, so I’d better bring a map. If they really believed what they say, wouldn’t anything they wrote take on that form, manual or not? Shouldn’t they even try to break from the mould, secure in the knowledge their story would reshape itself back into the one ideal form? Of course they would never do anything so edgy, so close to surrendering control! This is an essential part of colonising Campbell, that you can leave enough of a veneer to make your money-making seem somehow ‘spiritual.’
To re-iterate my main theme, the workaday hack writers don’t get it. So what else is new? You don’t judge a book by its slowest reader. The stupidest, klunkiest interpretation of something may well be the easiest one to get. It doesn’t mean it’s the only one. There’s a simpler reason for all the bad scripts out there. There’s bad writers.
PostScript: For those who haven’t yet had enough of this sort of thing, I posted some comments on Andrew’s blog about the relationship of Campbell to Structuralism. Given this description, I am not expecting an unseemly rush...