THREE DECADES

Posted in Uncategorized on October 30th, 2008 by Ed

Well, goodbye to the twenties. I feel about having lived for 30 years the way Mark Twain described a trip to the falls in "Niagara":

You can descend a staircase here a hundred and fifty feet down, and stand at the edge of the water. After you have done it, you will wonder why you did it; but you will then be too late.

Given my epic fail on the academic job market I am starting to wonder what, exactly, I have to show for the twenties. I mean, other than a profane blog.

THE HERO'S TALE

Posted in Election 2008 on October 30th, 2008 by Ed

(This is going to get a little weird)

Had George Lucas followed through with his initial script and storyline for the Star Wars trilogy, it is unlikely that they would be among the most famous films in existence. I will not regale you with the laundry list of flaws inherent in his original story, but they were numerous and would have produced a forgettable piece of C-minus science fiction. Lucas owes his fame, fortune, and success to the fact that, at some point between the first draft and the day filming began, he discovered Joseph Campbell.**

Campbell, of course, is famous for having introduced to a wide audience the concept of a "Monomyth" (The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949), a theory that culture-defining myths and stories that originated independently (although that claim is contentious) in different societies are remarkably similar. In other words, there are not stories originating from different cultures, there are different cultures telling interpretations of the same story. While Campbell can hardly claim that he invented this idea, he did successfully apply it to a broad range of classical mythology. In the introduction to his seminal work, Campbell describes the tale as:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

That tremendous oversimplification describes a tale we have heard many times, a tale that Lucas chose to tell almost verbatim in Star Wars. Humble birth. Mystical calling. Refusal of said calling followed by selfless acceptance. A quest defined. Trials endured and temptations resisted. Evil vanquished. The Hero enters a second, higher plane of existence and refuses return. The Hero bestows the benefits of knowledge and experience from The Journey on his fellow men. Death is followed by resurrection and/or eternal life on a higher plane.

Sound familiar? It should. It's The Lord of the Rings. Star Wars. The New Testament. The life of the Buddha. The Matrix. The Lion King. Led Zeppelin's concept album phase. The stories of Moses, Osiris, Mohammed, or Abraham. Homer's Odyssey. Ender's Game. Harry Potter. Anything by James Joyce. We could list examples for days. Campbell would argue that these works of literature and film are almost universally loved because they tell a tale with which we innately and subconsciously identify.

So, you say, great. Who cares. Well, the power of this narrative is not lost on political campaigns. If you think I am about to make a leap too far, consider the official biography videos (10 minutes each) produced by the McCain and Obama campaigns. Obviously they have to steer clear of the spiritual/supernatural dimensions of the Monomyth, but the effort to structure the candidates' biographies around the classic story are unmistakable. They rose from humble beginnings and received a call to service – to be exceptional – at a young age. They faced great challenges, sought the guidance of their wisened elders (not to mention God), and returned from the top of the mountain to bestow what they've learned on their fellow man. They are reluctant leaders, not power-hungry tyrants. Whatever temptations have crossed their paths were resisted.

The Hero/Savior also exists as a Jungian archetype, proving that Mr. Campbell was not the first person to grasp the universality of the imagery. Obama's campaign has been masterful at evoking the desired psychological responses from voters, projecting the calm and poise of natural leader. McCain, on the other hand, has been less successful at selling the Hero archetype. Instead*** he has been cast as the Wise Old Man, an archetype which garners respect but fails to excite. Biden was chosen to deflate McCain's claim to experience and wisdom. Jung or Campbell, in fact, would point out that the Hero-Wise Old Man combination of Obama-Biden (or Skywalker-ObiWan, Neo-Morpheus, Frodo-Gandalf, Daniel San/Mr. Myagi) speaks directly to our innate desires. Unfortunately for McCain, I'm not sure that the Wise Old Man/Village Idiot combo does so as successfully.****

Nothing in politics is left to chance. Whether or not they have read Joseph Campbell, both campaigns are depicting their man as the star of the Monomyth. And while the Bush-Cheney campaign probably didn't know who Carl Jung is, they absolutely nailed the Hero/Wise Old Man dynamic that people find so innately appealing. It would be too controversial to say that this explanation is a complete one for 2008 or any other election, but I strongly believe that what we usually call "character" or "charisma" – the non-issue-related portion of a candidate's appeal – is in reality a predictable set of responses to archetypes ingrained in the human psyche, hiding in the background and guiding our emotional responses.

**Lucas became such a fan that Campbell's famous Power of Myth miniseries with Bill Moyers was actually filmed at Skywalker Ranch.

***I've lost you at this point, haven't I? Unfortunately for you, I could talk about Jungian imagery and mass responses to political cues and phenomena all day. It's my birthday, so I'm going to talk about it all damn day if I want to.

****Kidding aside, Palin is intended to appeal to the classic Jungian 'MILF' archetype. OK, no, seriously, all kidding aside, Palin is supposed to fill an Everyman (common sense aplenty, dontchaknow!) or Rebel/Rugged Individualist archetype.