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.”

Severance

“If the texts that students and I have been studying this semester are best referred to as ‘portal fantasies,’” thinks the part of me that persists here in the future, “then that, too, is the term to use in discussing the new AppleTV+ television series Severance. Characters in the show pass quite literally through one or more doors between worlds, living two separate lives.”

The show’s title refers to an imagined corporate procedure of the near-future that severs personhood. Those who volunteer to undergo this procedure emerge from it transformed into split subjects, each with its own distinct stream of memory.

As unlikely as this dystopian premise may seem, we can’t fully distance ourselves from it as viewers, given our severed personhood here “IRL,” as the kids are fond of saying. “Others may not be quite as manifold as me,” admits the Narrator. “But each of us is Janus-faced. Each of us houses both a waking and a dreaming self, with each incapable of full memory of the other.”

And as the show advances, of course, we learn through a kind of detective work that the severance procedure isn’t in fact what it seems. The work-self (or “innie”) battles the home-self (or “outie”) — as do Superego and Id here at home.

Narrating an Act of Time Travel

How does one narrate an act of time travel? And who is one’s audience? In Wells’s The Time Machine, narration unfolds by way of a story within a story. There’s the narrator, a cautious-but-ultimately-optimistic attendee at a series of dinner parties, who speaks only in the book’s intro and conclusion; and then there’s the host of these parties, the Time Traveler. The core of the novel consists of the account given by this latter figure upon his return from the future.

Tuesday June 29, 2021

The time travel narrative presents itself as an opportunity waiting to be written. The narrator has been keeping an online blog: transcripts of daily or semi-daily marijuana trip reports. A lag has entered the cybernetic loop of life and text: the author has fallen behind in posting, publishing, beaming forward the message. He hasn’t stopped trance-scribing; he continues to write each day as he always has: longhand, in a series of notebooks. But analog jottings go digital a solstice apart from their occurrence. Thus it comes to happen that the author can edit or revise his account of January 6th. As he thumbs through the notebook and arrives to the day, he discovers a minor error, a curious slip of the pen. He’d dated the entry “Wednesday January 6, 2020“: a fictitious date. 2021 was at that point too fresh to have become a habit as a thing to write, causing the narrator to default unconsciously to the year prior.

Friday June 25, 2021

I’m about half a year behind in posting these trance-scripts. Arriving to summer solstice, I post trance-scripts about winter. I type up New Year’s Day as I sit in summer sun. And as I do so, the idea dawns upon me: I can edit. I can revise. Trance-scripts could become a time-travel narrative. Through the eerie psychedelic echo and delay of the trance-script, I can affect-effect the past. I’ve done this already in minor ways, adjusting a word or two here and there. Time travel is such a modernist conceit, though, is it not? It’s modernist when conceived as a power wielded by a scientist or some sort of Western rationalist subject, as in H.G. Wells’s genre-defining 1895 novel The Time Machine. But in fact, much of the genre troubles the agency of the traveler. Think of Marty McFly, forced to drive Doc Brown’s Delorean while fleeing a van of rocket-launcher-armed Libyan assassins in Back to the Future. Or think of Dana, the black female narrator-protagonist in Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred. For Dana, travel is a forced migration to the time and place of an ancestor’s enslavement. One moment, she’s in 1970s Los Angeles; the next moment, she’s trapped on a plantation in pre-Civil War Maryland. Be that as it may, there is still the matter of these trance-scripts. It all seems rather complicated, this idea of tinkering with texts post facto. Yet here I am doing it: editing as I write. What, then, of this mad-professorly talk of “time-travel”? What would change, under what circumstances, and why? Let us be brave in our fantasies, brave in our imaginings.

Tuesday May 25, 2021

While Joanna Lowell’s The Duke Undone works wonderfully on its own terms as an historical romance, it can also be read and enjoyed as a kind of postmodernist metafiction. In her role as artist, the book’s protagonist serves as an allegorical double or doppelgänger of sorts both for the author herself, and for all who take pleasure in the reading and writing of romance novels. For the ungenerous interpretation of the book’s protagonist is that her attempt to profit from her sexuality — by which I mean that which happens to her in response to the sight of the nude duke in the book’s opening pages — makes her a “pornographer.” The character stumbles upon the duke: quite literally steps upon him. “A kind of god,” she thinks, “passed out nude in an alleyway.” The divine enters our lives here, as Philip K. Dick said, “at the level of the trash stratum.” This flash of the spirit in the form of the male nude is then a thing the character paints, and the painting is then a thing that she sells. Hence the “pornography” complaint — a trumped-up charge that, to those who read romance novels, can only seem hypocritical and absurd, baldly demonstrating the Victorian era’s patriarchal double-standard. Pulpit-riders and other anti-sex moralists have been wielding such rhetoric to police women’s agency since day one. The charge itself is thus an easy one to dismiss, as the novel itself makes clear. In no way, it insists, should Eros be cause for shame. The sale of nude art matters in the novel — draws it up short for a time, places its characters in a bind — only in the sense that, given an unjust climate, such exchange places both the protagonist and the duke in danger. If word of the protagonist’s painting were to reach her superiors, for instance, she could be expelled from the Royal Academy. Much the same is true for the duke. If word of his scandalous behavior were made public, it would interfere with the terms of his inheritance. Both characters, in other words, stand for a time on the brink of ruin. Yet as stars in a romance, both are in luck. For romance interrupts realism’s tragic bent, its anti-utopian fixation on comeuppance, allowing love to enter life as a kind of grace.

Monday May 24, 2021

Historical romance means the book should be sexy, and it is. Sex is built toward, alluded to. Sex is a potential (however much it may seem “fated,” so to speak, by genre). It’s the desire the protagonists sense in each other’s presence, a longed-for intimacy made possible slowly through a series of encounters wherein first are established after negotiation, following correction of initial misunderstandings, the revelation of each character’s love for the other. Characters reveal themselves through charming gaffes and faux-pas. And what fun characters they are! Each has been wrong, and each has been wronged; each learns through experiment to forgive the other. So goes the first 150 pages. Sex is savored and prolonged through its postponement. The encounter with the other brings with it pain and hurt, but also a reawakening of the senses, allowing each to “think, see, feel, new things” (The Duke Undone, p. 159).

Sunday May 23, 2021

While in no way meant as a comment upon yesterday’s chapbooks, which were indeed a pleasure to read, horror nevertheless continues to trouble me, remaining for the most part a genre I hold in low regard. Horror disappoints — depresses and deflates the spirit, if such a thing can be said, i.e., assuming we have a theory of spirit. The conventionality of its unhappy endings reads like a failure of nerve. If one is to allow magic back into the cosmos, let it be a positive magic like the magic of love. So I think as I trade yesterday’s diet for today’s: Joanna Lowell’s The Duke Undone.

Sunday January 10, 2021

Are we genres of people, as Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter argues? Or do we contain multitudes, selves morphing and genre-shifting? Could capitalist realism reality-shift? It could become a romance: a “scientific romance” as per Wells, with a time machine. And it could do this with or without the horrors of weird fiction. It could be a detective comic. It could be a portal fantasy. It could be all of these. Even at times, under game-like conditions, a dungeon-crawl. Let us remake ourselves as magical realists. The story that contains is a story of love. It can get smutty, as Sarah says of Bridgerton. Persons in their many phases, including altered states of consciousness: some higher, some lower. Let us imagine time machines, war machines, starships. Revolution occurs, a revolution of consciousness. Heads awaken to higher states: romantic comedy, utopian fantasy. Genres combine, as do gods and archetypes in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Paradise is both the third book of the Divine Comedy and a novel by Toni Morrison. The latter begins with a call to sobriety.

Monday August 10, 2020

Magic is a narrative device deserving of reinvention. Realism may be capitalism’s reigning mode — but it, too, is no more than a genre, and like all genres, emerges embedded in a particular historical narrative. Realism, in other words, is not reality; it can be supplanted through reemergence of magic. This reemergence hinges upon invention of the future by way of remembrance of a forgotten past among oppressed and colonized peoples. But the potentials available in forms of magic other than technology frighten Westerners into disbelief. Is there a way for disbelievers to be healed of this disbelief?