The Hero’s Journey: A Revision

K. sends me Jessi Klein’s article, “Epiphany in the Baby-Food Aisle.” Klein writes from her experience as the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old — her child the same age as my daughter Frankie. Klein describes an epiphany of sorts that occurred recently as she listened to Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert talking on Oprah’s Super Soul podcast about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The gist of it is that Gilbert thinks we need to reconceive the hero’s journey. “It’s not the exclusive territory of men,” writes Klein, “and it does not have to involve faraway lands.”

Instead, she argues, we ought to reconceive the hero’s journey in terms of motherhood.

“The article is powerful. It makes me ‘feel all the feels,’” writes the Narrator afterwards, wincing a bit at his use of that phrase, though he means it sincerely. The article really does trigger in him a wide gamut of emotions.

“Parenting is hard,” he adds. “We doubt our capacities. We rise to the task as best we can.”

In that sense, motherhood is heroic — undoubtedly so, notes the part of me committed to truth. Why, then, do I respond defensively?

“What about Alice and her journey through Wonderland?” wonders the child in me. “Why, upon imagining women’s journeys, must we rush automatically to motherhood?”

“My positioning as a subject,” writes the Narrator, “bars me from believing fully Klein’s account of motherhood as a hero’s journey that rarely gets its due. My sense, instead, is that that narrative is nearly universally adored; it plays on repeat throughout the culture, always to loud applause, my applause included.”

“Why, then,” adds the Narrator, “is there within Klein’s narrative this insistence that the story is neglected and isn’t getting its due? Its image of itself as victim is reminiscent of Christianity once the latter becomes the state religion of the empire: its priesthood amply compensated, able to walk proudly amid the halls of power. Christianity, in other words, when it is no longer the religion of the persecuted few, but still happy to paint itself as such, as it subjects others to its evangelical zeal.”

“And besides,” he adds. “The hero’s journey is of questionable worth anyway. In order for persons to write themselves as heroes, others must be written as villains.”

“And I am not a villain,” he insists. “Nor is anyone else in my narrative. If mine is to be construed as a hero’s journey, then the genre would have to behave other than it usually does. The tale’s villain, if it is to require one, would have to be something other than a person — not an agent so much as a structural flaw immanent to the system. A source of inner conflict.”

Friday March 6, 2020

We need to talk about Allegory, don’t we? I go for a walk, through cold and wind, birds above my head. Signs, symbols, myths, images, all arranged in synchrony. An elaborately constructed meaning-system — meaning not just in a structural but in a personal sense. Today, for instance, a student produced a Vietnam-themed reading of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” with the song’s writer Grace Slick finding in Lewis Carroll’s White Knight and Red Queen the superpower protagonists of the Cold War. And here I am this evening, reading Roger K. Green’s A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics. It’s messy stuff — but that’s what happens when one’s mind manifests. Books feed back upon their readers, each person’s expansion of consciousness contributing, in however mediated a fashion, to the education of all.

Saturday August 3, 2019

Time to read Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a work that seems to conjure in its poetic preface the Fates, the Weird sisters, and the Faerie Queene all at once. Carroll is like Odysseus surrendering to the Sirens, the kubernetes granting control of his oars to Gloriana or Titania, who steer the “merry crew” happily toward home. The story begins, of course, with the Fall — the tumble down the bardo-like in-between of the rabbit-hole replacing the far more tragic one imagined by Carroll’s high-minded religious precursors. What happens when the story of the married couple who disobeyed the Father gives way to the one about the girl who wanders off from her sisters in pursuit of a time-worried rabbit? Weird stuff, folks! Who is Carroll, after all? Why should he be the one telling the girl’s story? (And with so many patronizing narrative intrusions, no less!) Is Alice in Wonderland a shamanic journey of symbolic death and rebirth disguised as a children’s narrative? Trippy stuff, indeed. The book’s second chapter, “The Pool of Tears,” retells the story of the Flood, with Alice of course as Noah, arriving to shore with a bunch of animals by chapter’s end. The pleasure of Carroll’s tale, though, comes mainly from the fact that once Alice wanders off into the land of Maya, she discovers keys and teachers that, by way of many wondrous detours, eventually guide her home again.

Friday November 23, 2018

The world operates unpredictably but for the most part pleasurably when I smoke weed; some wonderful but as-yet-unnameable “sense” or awareness enters the equation, a buzz or vibration, a field of energy operating outside space-time, in some other dimension. I enter a state of rapt, bemused fascination as I wander this new “inner space,” floating free in a sea of untranslatable semiotic matter. Lewis Carroll captured or came nearest to approximating the sensation with his description of Alice’s tumble down the rabbit-hole. In so doing, his text provides an anchor, a constant amid the experience of changing worlds. It’s how we lead ourselves from one world to another. With the comfort as well that time’s passage feels slow and dreamy, until suddenly we land and follow the rabbits of our curiosity. Is fantasy a realm of the head, a mere idealism? Or is it instead (for who is to know otherwise?) a portal to a world as actual as any other? Subjects and objects are units of language. Carroll (AKA Charles Dodgson) doesn’t appear to have experimented with drugs recreationally; he arrived to altered states by way of linguistics and mathematics. But Disney embraced the psychedelic interpretation of Carroll’s work as part of its marketing strategy for a re-release of Alice in Wonderland in 1974, encouraging viewers of the film’s trailer to “Go Ask Alice.” The cause of Alice’s descent is her falling asleep — daydreaming instead of completing her lesson. Doors, rabbits, magic potions: these are all manifestations of her unconscious desires projected into dream. Drugs and dreams inspire similar lines of thought: they strip the ontological ground out from under us, suspending the normal rules of reality. Instantaneously — just like that — we become convinced emanationists. “Our normal waking consciousness,” as William James wrote following his experiments with nitrous oxide, “rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded” (The Varieties of Religious Experience). Addendum: The psychedelic interpretation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was propagated in a number of texts of the counterculture: Grace Slick’s lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” Go Ask Alice (1971), Thomas Fensch’s Alice in Acidland (1970), an anti-drug film of that name from 1969, and another called Curious Alice (1971). Mike Jay’s book Emperors of Dreams (2011) took up the question of Carroll’s relationship to drug experiences, suggesting that Carroll borrowed the psychedelic motif from Mordecai Cooke’s The Seven Sisters of Sleep (1860), a book describing use of fly agaric mushrooms among Siberian Shamans.