One of the books that’s had the most influence on my life is The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. In it, Campbell incorporates the work of Freud (the collective unconscious) and Jung (archetypes) in tracing the mythological roots that unite us all — that have always united us all — across all time, culture, and geography. He expresses that connectedness like this:
Looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, unpredictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and woman have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization.
As the conceptual model for the ubiquity of the hero’s journey, Campbell borrows a term from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: monomyth. There’s a diagram of Campbell’s conception of the monomyth, as well as a suitably clear explanation of it and its applicability to our lives, here. To it, I would only add that, in the prototypical story, there is always something remarkable or extraordinary about the hero’s birth or origin.
I find Campbell’s truths particularly meaningful to our work at LVVS. Here’s why:
We readily accept the common wisdom that humans are storytelling animals. But we seldom wonder why. The reason can be found in The Elixir in the diagram linked above. We can find The Elixir alternately referred to as The Gift, The Boon, Enlightenment, and other terms suggesting a beneficial good. Regardless of what it’s called, it’s always imparted in words.
When our existence comprised close-knit tribes, we explained the chaotic phenomena of our worlds — changes in weather, in seasons, in light and darkness — and perpetuated our cultures by telling stories. As our existence increasingly comprises geographic distance, familial detachment, and emotional apathy, we explain the chaotic phenomena in our shared planet — war, political enmity, perceived injustice, and more — and perpetuate our self-imposed parochialism through social media. But we do all of that, then and now, through language.
If you doubt the ubiquity of Campbell’s monomythic framework — if you’re skeptical about whether language has always been the means by which we share The Elixir — consider these two examples from divergent times, cultures, and places:
- The infant Moses, a figure from 1,600 to 1,200 BC (depending on varying accounts) was found floating in a basket of reeds on the Nile in Egypt. He was hidden to conceal his identity as an Israelite from the Pharaoh. After killing an Egyptian slavemaster for beating a Hebrew to death, Moses fled to Midian, received his initiation from God through the burning bush, and returned to Egypt to lead the Israelites from slavery. He shared his gift in the language of the Ten Commandments.
- The infant Kal-El, a figure from the early 20th century, was found in a space capsule on the Kent farm in rural Kansas. He was hidden to conceal his identity as an invulnerable and preternaturally powerful being from the world. After vowing never to use his power to kill, Kal-El received his initiation from his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, moves to Metropolis, and reveals himself as Superman. He shared his gift in the language of The Daily Planet.
And therein lies our hope and the value of our work at LVVS.
We are descendants and connected by these mythological roots. They remind us that we have — always and everywhere — used the power of words to impose order on the chaos of our world. In the chaos of the world in which our students choose to make their ways, we are their allies and mentors (both mythic archetypes), helping them through their initiations, and helping them to earn The Elixir by which, on their Returns, they will help others. And if you doubt that notion, consider these words from Joseph Campbell:
The symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche … Freud, Jung, and their followers have demonstrated irrefutably that the logic, the heroes, and the deeds of myth survive into modern times.
Let’s acknowledge and celebrate our connective roots. We have heroic work to do.
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