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.”

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 June 24, 2021

What are we talking about when we talk about “political theology”? It’s a rejection of the secularization thesis. Religion never goes away; theological notions haunt the structures and discourses of capitalist modernity. I think of the lyrics to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot.” The song’s title is a line from a poem in Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers. “I propped two pages of his book up on a music stand,” she recalled when asked about the song in an interview, “and I just sang it out, ad-libbing the melody and guitar music together as I went along.” Who is it that tells us “mind itself is magic coursing through the flesh / And flesh itself is magic dancing on a clock / And time itself, the magic length of God”? Is it Sainte-Marie, or is it Catherine Tekakwitha, the 17th century Mohawk saint worshipped by the narrator of Cohen’s novel?

Wednesday June 23, 2021

As a thought experiment, let us take seriously a current of twentieth century thought that regarded Marxism and Utopianism as “political religions,” and more specifically as “Gnostic heresies.” This current arose in 1930s Germany among thinkers of the right like the philosopher Eric Voegelin. It also found articulation in the work of the Martinican surrealist sociologist Jules Monnerot. I write as a Marxist or some derivation therefrom — yet upon my first encounters with these writers, I admit recognizing something of myself in their accusation. “The shoe seems to fit,” I reasoned. “Perhaps I’m a Gnostic!” The term had been applied as a slur when used by Voegelin, but the qualities of thought that he linked to this alleged heresy against church orthodoxy were in my book virtues, not vices. What it comes down to, basically, is suspicion of the system. It’s a heresy that persists, says Voegelin, well after the suppression of the OG Gnostics of late antiquity. Gnosticism is perennial; it reawakens to haunt Christendom every few centuries. Movements that purport to be secular like Marxism and Nazism, argued Voegelin, are in fact upstirrings in the twentieth century of this same ghost, this same spectre, this same political-religious “archetype” or “mytheme.” For these movements all share the same goal, Voegelin warned: they want to “immanentize the Eschaton.” What happens, however, when we read Voegelin’s hypothesis in concert with Black and Indigenous authors: figures like Leslie Marmon Silko, Russell Means, and Ishmael Reed? Each of these authors narrates a secret, “occult” history of the West similar to Voegelin’s. Yet unlike Voegelin, the writers of the left recognize that capitalism, too, is part of the Gnostic current — as is Western science.

Monday December 21, 2020

What happens to those initiated into a world of magic, made to embark upon a path or journey by way of psychedelics? More specifically, what happens when this process begins in absence of teachers and institutional containers — when shamans and rituals, in other words, are not part of the initiate’s lifeworld, the initiate stripped of these on account of having rejected the religion of his ancestors in his youth? The search for a new framework becomes part of the initiate’s quest, does it not? One doesn’t even know at first that the process has begun. Advice arrives, though, as one asks around. One learns from fellow heads. Elders pass along teachings by book, by song, by word of mouth. Writings appear on walls, counseling one to pray and meditate. Days fill with makeshift, self-invented rituals — practices adapted to local conditions in the course of one’s travels. We become weird ones — lonely experimentalists sitting Indian-style in the dark. Are our adaptations legitimate ones, or are they products, as René Guénon warns, “of a merely individual caprice” (Perspectives on Initiation, p. 4)? Guénon would call those about whom I speak “mystics” rather than “initiates.” “In the case of mysticism,” he writes, “one never knows just where one is headed” (8). For Guénon, “the mystical path differs from the initiatic path in all its essential characteristics, which difference is such as to render the two truly incompatible” (9). Given subsequent right-wing uses of Guénon’s philosophy by monsters like Steve Bannon, however, we must take care not to place too much stock in this distinction.

Sunday November 29, 2020

Let us study Lauren’s Earthseed verses. They’re slim, featuring between one and five (occasionally seven) words per line. There are a lot of declarative statements. Also commands, imperatives like “Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed” (196). No questions. Frequent use of second-person — references to “You” the reader. “You with whom I speak.” Meaning all of us. Many of the verses insist on Earthseed’s central claim: “God is Change” (270). Lauren avoids all mention of herself. There is no “I” in these verses, but there is a collective “We” — members of Earthseed communicating with each other across time. Her journal entries narrate the creation of this community. We see a spontaneous, non-coerced collectivity arise in search of land where the group hopes to establish an armed commune, like David Koresh’s in Waco or John Africa’s MOVE community in Philadelphia. Unlike those other groups, though, Earthseed is matriarchal, multicultural, and democratic. Those of you who wish to learn more about MOVE, I recommend the 2013 documentary Let the Fire Burn, about the city of Philadelphia’s bombing of the group’s headquarters in 1985. Filmmaker Jason Osder incorporates an impressive array of found footage: TV news reports, live coverage of the bombing, press conferences, interviews, testimonies before an investigation commission, the works. The movie is heartbreaking, shocking: a story about “failure to resolve ‘conflicting lifestyles’ in a peaceful way,” as Commission Chairman William H. Brown III notes in an opening testimony at the start of the film. It fills one with anger and outrage and sorrow, so be warned. MOVE, after all, was a revolutionary organization. Members lived their lives in revolutionary opposition to the System. For this they were punished by the city’s ruling elites. But MOVE was also more than just a revolutionary organization; it was a religion. Its members lived their lives as part of a cosmic drama — spiritual warfare between the forces of good (or what MOVE members called “The Law of Mama”) and the forces of evil (i.e. “The System”). This is what grants the MOVE narrative its power. It teaches that this is what the Empire does: it prevents the formation of new religions and new religious movements. We see it meting out the same punishment in Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents, where a group of Christofascists invade Acorn, the first Earthseed community. Buildings are torched. Several people die; others are enslaved. And a similar story is told in Parable of the Sower — only the characters have switched parts. Reverend Olamina’s Baptist congregation is the religious community, and drug users and the poor are the ones who invade. Somewhere in this is a lesson about discernment. The name to say loudly now is “Breonna Taylor.”

Sunday November 22, 2020

Earthseed is a religion that worships “change,” figures “God” as a force or a process rather than a person. Change is a condition of being, in a sense — but not just a fixed fate. It can be “shaped.” Lauren Oya Olamina’s journal entries act as living testimony. Hers is a life of massive change, much of it painful. But Lauren plots and wishes and writes the story of her survival. She acquires followers through the sharing of her teachings while fleeing north following the destruction of her neighborhood. Is Earthseed political? Can we interpret it in light of political theology? As answer to these questions, consider the following. Butler’s novel was published in 1993. The following year, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, an act signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It’s also known as the Biden Crime Law. Current president-elect Joe Biden, serving at the time as Senator of Delaware, drafted the Senate version of the legislation. In a 1993 speech promoting the crime bill, Biden warned of “predators on our streets” who were “beyond the pale.” “We have no choice,” he said, “but to take them out of society.” Biden’s 1993 “predator” remarks are remarkably similar to comments made by then-first lady Hillary Clinton in 1996 warning of “superpredators” who had “no conscience, no empathy” and who needed to be “brought to heel.” Lauren, the inventor of Earthseed in Butler’s novel, uses this same language, imagining dangerous “predators” lurking near commercial water stations during her journey north (202). Lauren’s Earthseed religion encourages her to think this way. “Hyperempathy” makes one wary of “predators.” Lauren’s saving grace, though, is her distrust of police. That’s what distinguishes her from, say, Watchmen‘s Angela Abar.

Monday September 28, 2020

Drafting a series of notes on Julius Lester’s telling of the “Stagolee” narrative, I ask myself: What can we say of the tale’s protagonist? Is Stagolee a hero, a superhero, a deity, an antihero, a villain? In what way is he a “rebel”? He’s not just a murderer. He’s a community hero. He cares for his victim’s wife and kids. Others love him and celebrate him at his funeral. He is what I think Ishmael Reed would call an “Osiris” figure, given his magical capacity for self-resurrection. Osiris both is and is not the same as Christ. He likes to party and dance and have a good time. He shares his love with others. Cecil Brown, however, recognizes in Stagolee Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder (Brown 3). He claims that there were field hollers and field blues that predate the 1895 shooting of William Lyons by Lee Shelton. The songs precede, foretell — prophetically conjure into being, we might say — the characters in the newspapers. The vibrational form of the song dreams the world into being. Religion is once again the site of battle. It is against one religion, a certain kind of Christianity, and in practice of another that Stagolee’s rebellion is staged. He rejects all higher authority, including that of the Lord of what Frederick Douglass called “the slaveholder’s religion.” Stagolee is a man who can say, as Douglass did, that he is his own master.

Friday September 25, 2020

Students in my classes produced presentations on Beats, Hippies, and Millbrook. The third class was more comprehensive in its coverage — though none of the groups mentioned the new religions and religious organizations formed at Millbrook: the Neo-American Church, for instance, and the League for Spiritual Discovery. Practitioners of religion were targeted by government. These were utopian communities of love and peace: open, welcoming communities founded not through settlement but through sacramental use of psychoactive substances. They modeled for the civilization the Alternative, the solution to the economic and environmental crises. They also modeled, however imperfectly, an attempt at alliance with anti-racist, anti-colonial groups like the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement — a point neglected in the histories presented by my students. Is there more I could say to help them vote? Or is the action we must take vaster than that? Let us trust that the texts will lead the way, permitting us to say what needs saying.

Wednesday August 12, 2020

In fugitive slave narratives of the nineteenth century, and continuing in neo-fugitive works like Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, freedom requires migration north on foot, master and his minions often in hot pursuit, as in the story of Harriet Tubman. It also involves extrication out from under the master’s religion, imposed over the course of the slave’s upbringing. Divinity has to be understood and believed in by the slave as something other than the wretched white tyrant who runs the farm. This understanding emerges surreptitiously, through what Fred Moten calls “fugitive study.”