The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Freshman Seminar for Heroes, Pt. 2: I Am Not Your Father

pt 2

(I would apologize for the never-ending stream of Star Wars allusions. But they’re not going to stop, and I’m not sorry. So you’ll really just have to buckle in and get a blacklister or something.)

I’m not going to lie: a lot of the sections in Chapter 2, “Initiation,” are pretty darn sexist. You could probably guess that from the titles “Atonement With the Father” and “Woman As the Temptress” alone. But I think I can work with it and force some kind of non-intellectual, spiritual vibe out of this mess of hyper-sexualized psychoanalysis.

“Hyper-sexualized” is probably the best way to describe the talk of men and women in this chapter. An indicative quote:

The mystical marriage with the queen goddess of the world represents the hero’s total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master. And the testings of the hero, which were preliminary to his ultimate experience and deed, were symbolical of those crises of realization by means of which his consciousness came to be amplified and made capable of enduring the full possession of the mother-destroyer, his inevitable bride. With that he knows that he and the father are one: he is in the father’s place. (120-121)

Freaky. It’s all kind of incestuous, the metaphor so caught up in jealously erotic overtones that it loses some of its impact – doesn’t it?  The queen goddess of the world, a world mother in her own right, is a stand-in for the hero’s own mother. The hero replaces his father, standing in the father’s position, which makes it all the more confusing, and unappealing. Is this supposed to be a positive situation? Is this the ending we’re supposed to be rooting for, for the hero’s sake? After fighting those sticky-haired ogres and the women who tried to tickle him to death, the hero gets generational angst and weird spiritual incest as his “total mastery of life”?

The thing with the parental/spousal stuff in this chapter – the Queen Goddess, in “Woman As the Temptress,” and the terrible but generous father in “Atonement With the Father” – is that, when stripped of all the uncomfortable sexual trappings that Campbell gives them, they point, in essence, to expectation and reality. The hero expects the World Goddess to be a perfect mother and wife, but then, through some event, he finds her to be “intolerable” (122); she represents both life and death, creation and destruction (113-114). Likewise, the hero has to face the father, who holds “the germinal secret,” “the paradox of creation, the coming of the forms of time out of eternity”:

The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands – and the two are atoned. (147)

Campbell cites both the story of Phaëthon and Job, which, to be fair, I find pretty compelling evidences to the truth of this particular hypothesis: the heroes want enlightenment, answers, the Truth, but their expectations wildly differ from the reality they receive.

A mythological son (or daughter) can’t catch a break from their parental units. Sure, for Campbell, the Atonement With the Father goes much better than it goes for finding out your wife is your mother and also repulsively carnal (thanks, Broseph). But in either case, the reality is always much more intense than what they expected/wanted.

Let me go out on a limb here with my hypothesis: we want our parents to protect us and to keep us perfectly safe and loved, but mothers like the Wicked Stepmother and fathers like the hands-tied Phoebus exist because parents, in the “real” world, are disappointing.

Don’t get me wrong, there are so many wonderful parents out there. I have great parents. But parents, in the end, are human, just as fallible and as repulsively carnal as their offspring (unless their offspring is asexual, like yours truly). No one will ever be born to a World Goddess Mother who embodies only the life of the universe, and no one will ever have a father who can keep them from deep-frying the skin of the earth with a flaming chariot. Some children will think their parents can keep them safe at first, and other children will know from the start that their parents can’t. But the point is that the expectation of being safely protected, being spoon-fed the truth by a gentle, easy-t0-see parent, is always disappointed by reality.

Okay, I’ve been using the word “reality” in a way that isn’t the same as the way I defined it a few blogposts back. The real world, reality – both contain the physical and the spiritual, but all I’ve mentioned have been the physical parents. Sorry for that – but it is kind of the point.

It’s not that physical parents themselves, in real life, are symbols. It’s just that we use parents in myth and fairytale to symbolize something else: a need for, maybe even a belief in, perfect protection, perfect parental love. The World Mother is transformed into a repulsive disappointment, and so is Campbell’s “happy ending” in the Atonement of the Father; by taking the place of and becoming the father, the son loses parental protection. It’s all just a mass of letdowns. (Luke Skywalker could tell you that in Return of the Jedi. Just saying.) But being let down only comes from having your hopes up, so where did those hopes come from, anyway?

There has to be a spiritual precedent. It’s probably a philosophical/psychological point that could be debated well on both sides, but I don’t think the human race could expect something so wonderful out of something that has been so consistently disappointing, without having something more-than-human as an example. And, in a weird way, that gives me hope, just like everything in our mythology that points to something more-than-human.

Sure, a spiritual realm that exists beyond and interacts with physical life is amazing. But this added suggestion that we have perfect parental protection to look forward to, if we find the spiritual stuff in this life or the next? So much the better. A need for control, IMHO, is one humanity’s most exhausting foibles.

At one point, Campbell says this about the Atonement With the Father:

For the son who has grown really to know the father, the agonies of the ordeal are readily borne; the world is no longer a vale of tears but a bliss-yielding, perpetual manifestation of the Presence. (148)

I have to disagree, if only partially: before, and in the following sections, Campbell discusses a parent than be replaced by the child. This quote, I think, speaks more to a spiritual parent, one you don’t have to worry about replacing. Is that a lazy way to look at the spiritual world – as a place where you’re not in charge of anything anymore? If it is, I think I’m okay with being lazy. Humans are just toddlers, wandering around and trying, poorly, to take care of other toddlers, anyway. It’s not like we’re doing such a great job most days, anyway.

And If I can replace Darth Vader, or even emotionally weak Anakin, with someone I never have to battle to the death with – much less someone who never gets tangled in a forcible limb-removal race with me – why on earth or anywhere else wouldn’t I?


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