We did it, readers. We made it to the end of The Hero With a Thousand Faces. All we’ve got left of Broseph and his book is a short chapter about endings, and a short epilogue about where to go after the end.
The End… sort of
The mighty hero of extraordinary powers… is each of us. … (pg. 365)
Campbell spells it out more explicitly than he ever has: we’re supposed to relate to, or identify with, or be inspired by, or otherwise connect with the hero of the myths. It’s just something that we do, or at least we can do, or at most we should do. The hero, in Campbell’s theory, is someone who finds the connectedness between themself, humanity, the world, and the spiritual power in and outside the world. That’s definitely something to strive for, even in a culture like America which doesn’t place due value on community and spirituality.
This is my thesis statement for this series conclusion, and I think it’s the thesis statement for Campbell’s epilogue, “Myth & Society.” Because he does not spend much time in the last chapter, “Dissolutions,” which discusses the death of the “microcosm” and the “macrocosm,” and it’s mostly going over territory similar to what we’ve already discussed, I’m not going to spend any more time there. The above quote comes from “Dissolutions,” where the hero meets his temporal, physical end and becomes one with the world – and turns into the hero we need in the here and now.
Happily Ever Now
For when scrutinized in terms not of what it is but of how it functions, of how it has served mankind in the past, of how it may serve today, mythology shows itself to be as amenable as life itself to the obsessions and requirements of the individual, the race, the age. (pg. 382)
I won’t lie: after the initial big-picture introduction, Campbell’s epilogue starts out a little shaky. He claims that religious and social ritual has, historically, been a way to metaphorize each individual’s existence, giving an enduring meaning to an otherwise “insignificant” person’s life. An individual is just an individual; the role they play in society, however, is something that does not change with time. Father Smith dies but there will always, most likely, be priests. It sounds good, regardless of actual historical truth, especially in light of Campbell’s ensuing claim: that anyone outside of society’s system of role-holding, either through exile, revolt, or simple indifference, is dead to society. His exact wording is that they are “simply nothing – waste” (383).
There’s another side to it, though, which made me release a tense breath, because I was about to pull out receipts. What about Hold-Fast, the tyrant ogre, the duty of the Hero to slay the beast of a decaying society in order to reinvigorate it – in other words, to change it and keep it from stagnancy?
Campbell gets there: the exile is in a league of their own, with their own role to work through. They are on a quest for an unvarnished truth about themselves and the world, separate from the trappings of society. I associated them, personally, with one of the two religious modes, the Way of Denial and the Way of Affirmation*. The exile is of the Way of Denial, one of or similar to the religious ascetics, more concerned with finding the truth than with their own comfort or happiness. The “accidents of geography, birth-date, and income” are inconsequential to their quest; I’d imagine those things might even get in their way.
What is the core of us? What is the basic character of our being? (pg. 385)
All For One, One For All
There are problems inherent in any dichotomous system like the one Campbell has laid out for us. The society vs the exile, affirmation vs denial – these are conflicts which become conflicts only when sides are taken. Both methods, after all, are trying to reach a sense of understanding of, even a union with, the world as a whole; both sides, as Campbell says, can reach that understanding.
The society might deem the exile too far beyond its roles – rules it believes to be written in stone, but really just written in that decade’s rulebook – to be capable of finding meaning, indeed so far from its roles that it threatens them. The exile, in turn, might deride the role-keeper as too enslaved in arbitrary and restrictive traditions which hinder a grasp of enduring, primal truths. In either case, each side might disbelieve the other’s ability to reach the kind of near-impossible, hero-level “enlightenment” that needs to be reached. More importantly for the purpose of this blog, so does Campbell.
There is no separateness. Thus, just as the way of social participation may lead in the end to a realization of the All in the individual, so that of exile brings the hero to the Self in all. (pg. 386)
The blog series thesis statement, I said earlier, was that spirituality and the connectedness of the world are things worthy of questing after. And if it’s a quest worthy of attempt, then it’s not a theoretical or abstract quest at all. Either it’s a fanciful idea, entertaining in really old stories the same way scarf-wearing fauns and pantsless rabbits are entertaining, or it’s something which deserves hard thought and real-life application.
Campbell argues that – in his time, the 1940s-50s, and equally in ours – our sensibilities are skewed towards the individual, undervaluing humanity’s collective good. I also believe that community, real community, is something rare and underappreciated – and so real spirituality is rare and underexamined. The problem is not that there are simply too many exile-heroes; it’s that not enough exile-heroes are coming back to boot out the tyrant-ogre. (Probably because every exile hates their own society too much.) Must we have individuality at the price of empathy and responsibility? Maybe, but I’d argue that you could have it at a better price – and, if not, then it might not be worth the trade.
Of course, by definition, exiles cannot be a large percentage of the population. Most of us will be, to some degree or another, a role-keeper. But I choose to believe that one does not need to be an exile in order to undertake such a quest, even if exile and trials in the desert are your typical hero’s itinerary. In fact, I believe it’s necessary to believe in a role-keeper – your average everyday Everyman – who can undertake an exile-hero’s search for truth. Dichotomies are dangerous, remember. Any motivated role-keeper can slip into the role of Krishna or Enkidu or Psyche; any role-keeper can take up the mantle of returning exile-hero for the purpose of shaking down truth and community and God.
This idea is crucial for a blog like this one, which examines stories and storytelling – the very vehicle of heroes. If the stories of Psyche and Krishna are worth more than an afternoon’s entertainment, then I’ve got a real duty to treat them and all the other stories as things which can change my life, as well as – if I had an extraordinarily inspired and hard-working day blessed by God Himself – your own lives, my readers. It means these blog posts, which I publish much too late every other Saturday, are not a hobby to pass the time, but an endeavor which I should approach with respect and gratitude, because the stories I’m reading show a way of life counter to both society’s role-bound, culture-locked stagnancy as well as to the exile’s overly isolated self-righteousness.
We’re all in the same Noah’s-ark boat. If stories are worth more than the time it takes to tell them – which of course they are – those of us who love them can’t afford to treat them lightly. Not to say we shouldn’t have fun, heaps and heaps of fun. I like gifs and capslock too much for that. But our stories, our good stories, are windows into empathy, courage, and perspective; our heroes show us how it’s done. Whatever story serves this purpose for you is a story which deserves to be treated well, whether it was published last month or has been told for the past two thousand years.
The way to become human is to learn to recognize the lineaments of God in all of the wonderful modulations of the face of man. (390)
And that’s that for The Hero. Go out and be heroes.
* I don’t think they called it Denial. I haven’t looked at my notes since May. Please forgive me, Profs. I think Denial gets across the idea, though.