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.”

Precipitations

More must be said, too, of Devin’s book, Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice. ‘Tis a book of criticism prepared by Devin based on a dissertation he wrote under the supervision of Robert von Hallberg and Saree Makdisi at the University of Chicago. I am grateful Devin wrote it — for with its overview of prior acts of trance-scription by the likes of poets Robert Duncan, James Merrill, and H.D. comes the potential to retell the backstory of what I’ve done. It sits with me here as I write.

The Needs of Ghosts

There’s more to it, though; this vein of coincidence runs deep.

For Devin, too, has a place in this story.

I reach out to my colleague C., a poet-friend who studied under Dillon, and ask if he knows, too, of Devin. C. confirms that Dillon and Devin are indeed father and son.

Devin wrote an essay called “The Needs of Ghosts: On Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn’s ‘Moly.’” The start of that title hits home, of course — startles me, lands with me now as I recollect my time on Shady Blvd. Having taught poems from Moly in my course on Hippie Modernism, I relish the opportunity to read Devin’s commentary. Not yet having familiarized myself with the other text about which he writes, however, I set to work doing so. I track down and read Robert Duncan’s Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn’s “Moly,” a serial poem that Duncan published as a pamphlet in 1972, later reprinted in his 1984 collection Ground Work: Before the War.

For Duncan, writes Devin, crafting poems in the margins of Gunn’s book was a form of collaboration. The collaborator, he explains, is for Duncan “an inspiration from outside.”

And like that, it happens. The idea grows legs as I read. For I, too, wish to craft a text in the margins of another’s book. Mine will be a story crafted, in a sense, in the margins of Devin’s.

The Johnstons

I admire a small stone and a pair of clam shells: mementos from last weekend’s party on the beach. In thinking about bathing the stone in salt water, an occult practice suggested in Aidan Wachter’s book Weaving Fate, I’m reminded of Devin Johnston’s Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice (Wesleyan University Press, 2002), a book I read last fall. Although most of Devin’s books are collections of poetry, the above book is a work of criticism — as were the books on Irish poetry published by Devin’s father Dillon Johnston, who Devin thanks in the above book’s acknowledgements.

I introduce each figure here, as each plays a part in my tale.

Dillon taught in my department, his time overlapping that of his more famous colleague, the poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. Dillon is the one who founded the press here at my university. His name now graces our reading series.

And oddly enough, Dillon lived for a time here on Shady Blvd, this street about which I’ve been writing — his home Mitch Easter’s home, two doors down from my own. He settled there in the wake of a divorce, and stayed there for several years.

Indeed, in all respects, he seems like an interesting character — someone I would have liked to have known. By the time of my own tenancy on Shady, however, Dillon had moved on to Wash U., where he trained several of my friends and colleagues. Our times thus never aligned in our respective homes — though I suspect Dillon’s stint overlapped that of the Gay Wizard.

For hyperstition’s sake, let us assume the two to have been friends and neighbors. The story of their friendship is one I venture to tell in what follows.

Friday May 28, 2021

A flute is blown, a tone sustained, strung like a bridge of sound across an otherwise silent expanse. By flute I mean the shakuhachi, the most important of traditional Japanese wind instruments. “Certain special effects such as flutter-tonguing and distinctly audible breathing, which in Western music are associated with 20th-century avant-garde flute repertory,” writes David Loeb in the Kōhachirō Miyata album’s liner notes, “were a standard part of traditional shakuhachi technique by the 18th century.” The sounds are ones I reimagine come evening as I listen to birdsong. As May concludes, it’s time to plant. ‘Tis summer–nearly so. If not for rain, I’d have been at the pool reading Reclaiming Art, a book by Weird Studies podcaster J.F. Martel. Or perhaps I’d have finished Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. I find the latter troubling in its traditionalism. Japanese communists of the 1930s regarded Tanizaki as a reactionary in the years prior to the Second World War. His writings failed to adopt a recognizable ideological “stance.” He was a foot fetishist; a masochist; his writings explore the erotic and the grotesque. To the ideologues of his day, this made him “decadent,” his worldview colored by nostalgia for premodernity and by an embrace of fantasy and the unconscious. The elements I admire in Tanizaki, however, are his visceral aversion to capitalist modernity, his respect for embodied being, and his desire to live well.