The Hero’s Journey Revisited
In his 1949 tome “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Joseph Campbell synthesizes his outrageously influential mythic model of the ‘Hero’s Journey’: a complex, multi-stage narrative progression that begins with an ordinary person called into an adventure, being aided by a wiser elder, crossing a threshold (a point of no return), facing a series of critical tests, descending into the darkest cave, facing an ultimate monster in a most challenging ordeal, being rewarded with a lesson/sword/gift, and then – in the climax – re-emerging in triumph.
The Hero’s Journey is Rocky bouncing up the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in that famous training montage in Rocky II; it is Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee approaching the black gates of Mordor with the Ring of Power; it is Luke Skywalker crashing on Planet Dagobah where he meets the exiled Yoda, who will teach him how to use “the Force”. It is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Avengers” and probably every other Disney movie in existence. The formula is so pervasive, so recognizable, and so resilient that it is probably the template with which the global community is now telling the official story of our collective campaign to defeat the monster in the sweltering clouds of a pandemic: the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
But, of course, Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” has long-identified problems – starting with its claims to universal applicability (a claim which some argue stems from Campbell’s white supremacy views) and the way Campbell seems to force different cultural patterns into his constellation of meaning. For me, the more damning assessment (not unrelated to the previous critiques) is the anthropocentrism of his model: the hero’s journey is told exclusively from the hero’s perspective. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, in a world where meaning is neither stable nor the especial preserve of human actors, a lot is cut out that might be interesting to sit with. It is as Nigerian author Chinua Achebe once wrote: ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’
I wonder what the monster thinks about the Hero’s Journey. Perhaps the dramatic winds and themes that drive the hero-to-be from his ordinary origins towards the sulphuric depths where he will encounter his nemesis are perplexing to the monster. Perhaps the monster is the least concerned about the binary scenario the hero is locked into – victory or defeat – and simply wants to perform other rituals and imperatives. Perhaps one cannot “kill” the monster, since what it means to die and to live (the modern assumptions we hold about death) are not fixed across bodies or biological configurations. There are stories where the triumph of the hero (and the death of the monster) turns out to have been part of the monster’s scheme all along. There are third and final acts in cinematic stories where the alien-defeating hero, swamped by the congratulations and festivities of a triumphant arrival, suddenly doubles over in intense pain and vomits. Aware of the concerned eyes that now fix their existential queries on him, he stands erect and reassures everyone of his good health, just as the camera closes in on him, revealing to the wide-eyed audience an alien presence gestating in his belly, a haunting stowaway in the narrative of victory.
This embarrassing excessiveness of things, this breaking-open of the anthropocentric model, this disruption of binaries, this inflection of the hero (wherein the hero becomes the “villain” or the vessel for the proliferation of monstrosity), is an invitation to humility. An invitation to examine our own claims to triumph. An invitation to listen to other imperatives beyond the village din of victory. I can think of no better example or figure than the alien-inseminated conqueror, the queered body of the hero, the fugitive foetus, to exemplify the central thesis of postactivism: the way we respond to the crisis, the way we attempt to defeat the monster, is the crisis.