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.”

The Experiment

“I look forward to next week’s experiment in sobriety,” announces the Wizard, “required for 4-5 days after wisdom-tooth extraction.”

“Do you, though?” wonders the Traveler. “Is this ‘experiment,’ as you say, truly a thing you look forward to? Or do you dread it?”

“Part of me is apprehensive,” admits the Wizard. “I have but one such tooth. Parting with it feels like a big deal, though of course it needn’t be.”

Having come from the future, the Traveler replies, “No worries. You and I know full well that, despite its fondness for rhyme, history refuses to repeat itself.”

As Narrator, I interject here to add, “Both characters are acquainted with science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s infamous VALIS experience. 2-3-74. That, too, occurs after a wisdom-tooth extraction.”

The characters relive the event for a moment as if it were a flashback. They see before them the young delivery woman, bearing pain meds from the local pharmacy, arriving at Dick’s door. Sun glints off an ichthys hanging from a band ‘round the woman’s neck. The ichthys is the Greek fish symbol that was worn by the early Christians. Dick, blinded momentarily by a pink beam of light, receives in that moment a rapid download of gnosis directly into his consciousness.

Imagine, says the Narrator, something like what Lagunitas suggests on cans of their Hazy Wonder IPA, like the one from which I sip here as I write: “It always starts nebulous. A reflection of a refraction in the back of your frontal cortex. Then before you know it, you just know it…”

Overheard scraps of language. “Natty progress.” “Ferrari, Ferrari, daddy gets me minutes.”

“Imagine all of that happening,” says a girl, “in a bird’s tummy. Or a bear’s. Or the tummy of a fish. Or something with eight tentacles. A spider, an octopus: take your pick. A kind of spider-verse. The one who spins it occupying a space in the middle. The Laguna Pueblo people call this being Spiderwoman.”

The characters pause in their dialogue-via-montage and ponder this for a moment.

“No one need tell Spiderwoman, ‘Off the ropes! Off the wall!’,” adds the Traveler. “Life for her is like ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song.’ All is groovy.”

“Indeed,” concludes the Wizard, in transit now with the Traveler. “‘Groovy’ means knowing how to hang, how to float, how to surf. ‘Float free, in a meditative trance,’ the emblem teaches, ‘and all is well.’”

Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole

That song keeps resounding in my head: “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole,” the one a friend posted the other day. Is mine a whoring heart, too giving in its longings, too unheeding of its misgivings, too promiscuous in its affections? Now that the song has happened to me, various forces drawing it to me at this point in my narrative, I must attend to it. The song interpellates, hails its listener. One finds oneself drawn into a situation as one identifies temporarily with its “you.” And of course this stings. One doesn’t want to be a bloody mother fucking asshole. And we know ourselves to be more than that, as we identify equally with Martha: we, too, have been wronged. We, too, wanted to be good: “To do everything in truth.” For Martha is also the other Martha, the one in Luke 10:38-42, said to be distracted by all the preparations that she thought had to be made upon arrival at her home of Jesus and his disciples. The Martha in the parable, incensed by the sight of her sister Mary “sitting at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said,” complains “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Lord replies not unlike a bloody mother fucking asshole, gaslighting her, treating her like an hysteric, trying to hail her as one “worried and upset about many things” which, to the Lord, are of no importance, no concern, no consequence. “Mary has chosen what is better,” says the Lord, “and it will not be taken away from her.” Martha is wronged in this parable, and the Wainwright song can be heard as a kind of rejoinder. Wainwright said she wrote the song in reply to her father, fellow singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. Hear Martha’s song alongside Loudon’s “Daughter,” a song he released two years after Martha’s, and one achieves momentary apprehension of the Rashomon-like nature of the totality: each of us a face of the one true thing. In a 2005 article in The Guardian, Martha wrote, “For most of my childhood Loudon talked to me in song, which is a bit of a shitty thing to do […]. Especially as he always makes himself come across as funny and charming while the rest of us seem like whining victims, and we can’t tell our side of the story. As a result he has a daughter who smokes and drinks too much and writes songs with titles like Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole.” One could imagine the Biblical Martha responding similarly to Christ’s fondness for speech through parable. Martha’s isolation and uncertainty are conditions she thinks are hers alone, things about which others of us cannot know — those of us in particular who, in our act of fantasizing, occupy temporarily the position of the asshole father character: Loudon, Christ, and yes, we ourselves, to the extent that we have ears that can hear. “You have no idea,” sings Wainwright in a wonderful riff on Dylan: “No idea how it feels to be on your own / In your own home / With the fucking phone / And the mother of gloom / In your bedroom / Standing over your head / With her hand in your head / With her hand in your head.” That “mother of gloom” line haunts me each time I hear it. For I, too, feel in my more wretched moments this figure’s presence. The feeling is one I know to be false and ungenerous in its appraisal of reality (the mother, after all, is as deserving of forgiveness as the rest of us) — yet I feel it nonetheless. Thinking analogically, we might read this mother figure in the Wainwright song as a variant of the Mary character from the parable.

Thursday May 13, 2021

Secret history: like the one Greil Marcus tracks in Lipstick Traces. That’s what a friend sees me working toward in these trance-scripts. The “Gnostic” in me is drawn to the detective role entailed by such a tale: the “postmodern sleuth” who explores the maze of the contemporary, ever-skeptical of the machinations of the simulation, the Spectacle, the construct. The Gnostic responds to History with cosmic paranoia. History is a Text upon which one exercises an hermeneutic of suspicion. Or in the best versions of Gnosticism, as in the work of philosopher Ernst Bloch, an hermeneutic of hope, with dream or Imagination the absent Messiah deconcealing itself across time. The conservative philosopher Eric Voegelin warns that hope of this sort prompts a reckless utopianism, a desire to “immanentize the eschaton.” For a Christian like Voegelin, the eschaton is a day of judgment, whereas for the Gnostic, it’s the resurrection into joy and the dawn of a New Age. The Catholic trembles while the Gnostic revolts. I think of Allen Ginsberg on the back cover of his book Kaddish, asserting the “triumphancy of Self over the mind-illusion mechano-universe of un-feeling Time.” By “Self,” Ginsberg means the defenseless, open, original self we all share in common, not the mere individual of liberal ideology, the monad disaggregated from the whole. Time is revealed as mind-illusion as we conduct our secret history. Events share affinities and those affinities arrange themselves into stories. The best Gnostics are the ones who become bricoleurs.

Tuesday June 30, 2020

As I reflect upon Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents, I think first of the cruelty of the parable itself. It’s a parable that presages evolutionism, is it not? The ones rewarded by its god are those who go forth and multiply. It appears in two synoptic gospels: Matthew 25: 14-30 and Luke 19: 11-27. In each of its versions, the parable features a relationship between a master and his servants. The servants are placed in charge of the master’s goods while he’s away. Upon his return he “assesses” their stewardship. Measures, quantifies, ranks some numerical output or product. And then punishes the one who had the least talent and saved it — the one who produced no surplus. The one who profiteth not. The master, meanwhile, is a slave-master, described by the servant as “an hard man”: one who reaps where he has not sown, gathers where he has not strawed. By parable’s end, the “unprofitable servant” has been cast into “outer darkness.” The master promises, “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So how does Butler, whose ancestors were slaves, respond to this parable? She tells the story of a different god: the god of Earthseed, the god of change. Yet change is a hard master too, is it not? Look at how the god manifests in the lives of Butler’s characters! Comparing Butler’s reply to the parable with the one given by John Milton, I prefer Milton’s: “God doth not need / either man’s work or his own gifts; who best / Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” Milton’s god is the more merciful of the two. Other famous authors have critiqued the parable as well. In his Threepenny Novel (1934), Bertolt Brecht presents it as a component of capitalist ideology. “And…all who relate such things, I condemn!” he writes. “And I’ll go further: whoever listens to it and dares to refrain from taking immediate steps against it, him I also condemn!” Perhaps Butler’s great genius, however, was to place this parable in dialogue with another: the Parable of the Sower. Sower precedes Talents in Matthew and Luke, as it does in Butler.

Monday June 29, 2020

How might we characterize Frederick Douglass’s views regarding religion? Douglass tries to forestall misunderstanding about his views in the appendix to his autobiography. He doesn’t want his readers to suppose him “an opponent of all religion” (107). “What I have said respecting and against religion,” he writes, “I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. […]. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (107). Why is religion the terrain of appeal here at book’s end? Religion has been a tool of indoctrination, a violently imposed ideology, a “crown of thorns”-style cognitive map and/or map of the cosmos imposed upon slaves. Douglass shows that the crown can be seized and repurposed. The slave arrives into Logos, reclaims “Scripture,” and sits in judgment upon the master. Douglass’s religious views also manifest in his several attestations about “divine providence,” and his claims regarding the latter’s influence over key events in the course of his narrative.

Friday June 26, 2020

Lo Lobey, the hero of Samuel R. Delany’s novel The Einstein Intersection, does something radical. Through him, Delany gets readers to enter imaginatively into a cosmos where an Orpheus archetype overtakes and renders as a minor subplot the story of “Green-Eye,” the book’s Christ figure. For many other black authors, however, including nineteenth-century fugitive slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass as well as black feminist science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, Christianity occupies a position of importance as bearer of myth. But in every case, it’s a Christianity “heard” and interpreted — Christianity turned into dialogue. Call and response. The Bible is rewritten from the perspective of the slave rather than from the perspective of those loyal to a lord or master. Douglass identifies a “divine Providence” acting upon his life, guiding him toward freedom. Butler, writing a century later in the America of the post-‘Civil Rights’ era, speaks not of Providence but of “change” — strongly distinguishing this god from the one worshipped by Christian American Crusaders. Which side are you on, y’all? Which side are you on?

Thursday June 18, 2020

Butler’s version of Afrofuturism is far more pessimistic than the versions crafted by immediate precursors like Sun Ra and Samuel R. Delany. Christianity appears prominently in her work as both early influence and adversary. Think, for instance, of her use of gospel parables as structuring principles. Her narratives are “true” to the parables — grant the parables a kind of truth — even as they formulate Earthseed, a new religious movement discovered by Butler’s heroine and put into practice as Christianity’s replacement and successor.