Dicks and Dreams (The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

Author: Matthew I. Wanner

Why hello there and welcome to the first segment of TBD, the weekly blog series I have yet to come up with a name for because I hate naming things. This week we will be looking at The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. It’s most renowned for codifying a little thing called The Hero’s Journey. For those that don’t know, The Hero’s Journey is a way of looking at stories and myth that shows the similarities between all stories and the patterns they make. It should not, under any circumstances, be considered a format for writing a story. I’m looking at you, George Lucas. It’s a valuable tool for both writers and readers when it comes to understanding stories.

For a writer, it can be especially valuable when something is falling flat or feels unfinished. If you take The Hero’s Journey, compare the steps along it with promises you’ve made in the narrative that may, intentionally or not, be promising the next step in The Hero’s Journey, but not delivering on that. There’s no need, and you really shouldn’t try (George Lucas), to hit every step on The Hero’s Journey (fuck it, THJ now and for the rest of this series).

For the reader, it can be helpful for understanding how stories fit together, not just internally, but with other stories, all other stories.

All stories contain elements of THJ, that’s kind of the point. Joseph Campbell looked at stories, found that most followed these patterns, and wrote a book about it. A book I am reading. A book that probably deserves a better educated commentator than me, but c’est la vie.

I did, in a big way, underestimate the amount of time this book was going to take. So, to start us off, I’m going to be talking about the first part of the Prologue chapter, “Myth and Dream”. I promised a post today, so a post ye shall have. I think this will provide plenty of material as is since it is what motivated me to start this blog series. Much of it makes my brain hurt, some of it is racist, and there’s a lot of very strange ideas about phallus’ and dreams. Yes, Joseph Campbell quotes Freud a lot. Next week will be the rest of the chapter and from here on out, it should be a chapter a week unless I find a part that I feel deserves special treatment.

I have to get this out of the way as we dive into the book. Campbell spends a lot of time interpreting dreams. I’m not going to go over all of them, but there’s one where a man accidentally drops a hammer and kills his father and is then comforted by his mother. Clearly he wants to fight his father for his mothers affection and that’s why his personal life is in the shitter and his marriage fell apart. I mean, I guess that’s a possible reason, but Campbell treats it like the only possible reason and this is why I started this series. This dream, right here. There’s another one where a snake jumps out and bites a man right on the dick which has some shared symbolism, or at least Campbell claims it does, with an aboriginal tribe in Australia’s rites of passage for men, which involve circumcision. This is treated as though the symbolism is universal, but that the dreamer (who had a mother-complex, naturally) hadn’t moved on from childhood until he was committed to giving up his mother-complex, and that then the dream came and was his rite of passage into manhood. Honestly, I’m surprised at how much sense all the dreams in this book make compared to my bonkers ass dreams. This is where I’m stopping with the dream interpretation because it doesn’t get any better. I realize that this is a book written in the 40’s, and that it is definitely an artifact of its time, but if I want to get to the meat of the book, I have to wade through it.

Once you get past all the stuff about dreams and their hidden meanings, Campbell does draw on mythology to make parallels with both life as humans and society. It can be a little obtuse, and it can be hard to tell if he’s talking about myth or reality sometimes since he rarely signifies when he’s talking about one or the other. It does tend to stray into abstraction, but then it’s a book about abstract ideas, which would be rather odd if it wasn’t just a bit obtuse and abstract. It’s also a veritable forest of moms and dicks.

A particularly interesting parallel he makes is with Minos of Crete, famously the step-father of the Minotaur (and how did I never realize that is basically just “Minos’ Bull”?). When Minos didn’t sacrifice the bull Poseidon sent to be the sign of his right to rule, and, as Minos promised, sacrificed to Poseidon in return for securing him the rule. Minos doesn’t do that, his wife fucks the bull and BAM! Minotaur. Campbell reads this as Minos’ sacrifice was supposed to be the rite of him dying as his own person and becoming subservient to the state. It is like the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood, where the past dies and a new life takes its place. In the tale of Minos, he does not “die” as a private person, and instead the rite is broken and Minos becomes a sort of tyrant. It is only when Thesus comes, as something new to take the place of the thing that must die, that things are set right. I’m not going to quibble over his interpretation of the myth, I’m no scholar, clearly. He doesn't so much discuss, but present as parallel the way that in many cultures boys didn't get thier real name, or their full name, until they passed into manhood, and that in that sense, too, the past was dying and new life being born from it.

Campbell tends to, I hesitate to say ramble, but fail to get to a clear point. He draws comparisons, less than flattering ones, with modern people and life, well, modern as of 1949. It’s interesting here, where he bemoans that people are directionless and that men are nothing more than big children now, and that people care more about things than ideas, just how much he sounds like a baby boomer. I feel like some of his points would come across a lot better if the dreams were not involved. I found they muddied the waters, but who am I to argue?

He paints a hopeless picture, where people have turned from myth and symbols, where men lust after their mothers and leave their wives unsatisfied. I wish that sentence were a joke. He also offers hope, in the book, that we can reconnect with myth and story and sort ourselves out. He praises the creative people who are willing to undertake hardship to follow their particular creative calling and, well, flattery will get you everywhere.

This is going to be a more difficult undertaking than I imagined. I am looking forward to it, but this post almost became a paragraph by paragraph summary of the subchapter, and nobody wants that. The fact is that so far, Campbell has been hard to nail down, and I’m clearly going to be doing a lot more research as I read more into this. In fact, I would be particularly interested if any one could point me to some good criticism of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It has also become clear that I'm going to have to get into some Carl Jung since much of this book seems to stem from his ideas. I'm probably doing this book a disservice by just looking at this one subchapter, so maybe I can do it a better service in chapters to come.

We’re off, my friends, and it can only get better from here. Wait, what does that say about this?

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