Thursday, November 20, 2008

"The Hero with a Thousand Faces"

It's the title of a seminal book by Joseph Campbell, which I'm hoping to read shortly. I mentioned it previously, having heard of the book in the context of some reading about Harry Potter.

As I said in that post, Campbell apparently suggests that the reason for the universality of this archetype is that "every one of us shares the same ordeal." Note that this isn't based on my reading of his book - I hope to say more of substance at some stage. However, my thesis, which I am certainly not in a position to defend at the moment, would be the opposite of that - none of us actually shares an ordeal like this in any sort of significant respect. And yet, we all recognise these heroic narratives. Why is that? Why do they have a universal cultural significance?

According to the reviews on Amazon,
one unique aspect of it at the time it was published was its approach to Christianity. For Campbell, Christ's life had to be seen as a myth. Before him, most Western scholars wouldn't have dare to say such a thing. Others had written on that, but in a skeptical manner. Campbell's view is that the Virgin Birth, miracles, Resurrection, etc have meaning only because they ARE myths.
This represents a particular historic/philosophical approach to Christianity, which I believe has largely been considered unsuccessful. You simply can't reduce the historical figure of Jesus, and the events surrounding his life, to the level of myth. The canonic gospel-writers evidently took some trouble to establish the events they record as real events that happened at a particular time and place, with real people. As far as I know, no attempt to show the gospels, or for that matter the rest of the historical accounts in the Bible, are unsound has proved successful.

The Jesus narrative, I would argue, makes clear that Jesus is a universal hero, according to the archetype Campbell establishes. And yet where all the other heroes that he considers are myths or stories, Jesus is grounded in history. This makes him a unique figure in literary terms, as well as historical terms. The reason we are responsive to other heroes - in all different cultures - is to prepare us for this one specific, trans-cultural figure who is the hero that all humans should be looking for. The significance of a hero isn't that they have experiences that are representative of ours, but is that they have experiences that are in place of ours - instead of us.

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