the monomyth of objectivity

D. Paul Angel and Sonia Lal invited me to read up on mythology theory with them, and although it's been a frustrating trip (reading the book, not reading it with them in particular), I'm glad I did.

It's not too often I consider abandoning a book after the first sentence, especially if it's a book on mythology and story theory, but I wasn't quite expecting this:

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinae, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale; it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously[sic] constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

That's the start of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it was at that point that I had to remind myself it was written in 1949, although that only partially excuses it. Consider that the above quote appears under the main title of "The Monomyth." Isn't it a little weird to be actively othering people at the very moment you are stating a thesis that all of humanity's mythology boils down to a small set of super-stories?

I got the impression that this was an academic book written to be read by other academics, which in the America of 1949 would have meant white, Western, and male. It's easy to say that Campbell was simply writing for his intended audience, and for that audience, the notion that they could have anything in common with non-Westerners was radical. And yes, I concede the book was published only four years after the close of World War Two, when there was an immense amount of anti-Asian propaganda (and sanctions) to recover from.

But something nagged at me when I read the prologue, and continues to nag now that I've read Chapter One and am reading Chapter Two. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was also published in 1949. Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems was less than ten years away. Hitchcock's Rope, featuring a gay couple as the two main characters, was released in 1948. The idea that even Western culture was multi-faceted, albeit in a lopsided, one-aspect-dominating, sort of way was around. There's only so many times one can dismiss a different point of view as an aberration.

I've also found myself comparing The Hero with a Thousand Faces to CP Snow's The Two Cultures. Although Snow didn't publish his Two Cultures lecture in book form until 1959, he formulated the observations and ideas for it in the 1930s. Snow discusses the two cultures of science and the humanities as realms populated entirely by men, since that was (mostly) the reality of the university population at the time. The difference is that it doesn't matter. Snow's very thesis argues that the differences between the cultures of science and the humanities aren't bridgeable by more diverse demographics in either discipline, because they are endemic to the sub-cultures of the disciplines themselves. He argues scientists need to learn to respect the humanities, and the humanists better appreciate science. There may not be any non-white, non-male, non-Western people in the academic world Snow describes, but there is room for them.

I just don't see how there is room for other voices in the "monomyth" Campbell describes. Instead, it seems like he's appropriating from the other and claiming that really they're just like white, Western, male, (presumably straight) him. Abrahamic religions are accorded the distinction of being "higher mythologies" than pagan religions; Campbell even blithely announces that the goddess "is incarnate in every woman." The notion that the goddess may also be present in every man, or that the god may be present in every woman, is (as of halfway through Chapter 2) absent — curious when stories of gender-shifting entities appear in myths from all over the world, including the story of Tiresias from Greek mythology. Curiouser still given how many Greek myths Campbell has already used to illustrate his points even in these early parts of the book.

Instead, Campbell's monomyth theory is reminding me of two things. One is of nushu script from China, a form of writing only practised by women, from when women were barred from traditional education. How many stories were written down in nushu, or told between other peoples not allowed to express themselves through official channels, and which therefore never got considered by Western academics such as Campbell?

The other thing The Hero with a Thousand Faces reminds me of is a brilliant, and funny, essay written by Donna Haraway: "A Political Physiology of Dominance," which is included in her book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. In it, she traces the history of our understanding of primate social structures, showing that many aspects of the way apes organise themselves were not discovered until women like Jane Goodall became primatologists. Before then, researchers were overly focused on proving human patriarchal society was both natural and normal. They were literally blind to all but a fraction of the actual primate power structure, because the remainder didn't serve their ends. Note: It wasn't that they were wrong about the part they observed; it's just that they assumed it was the whole, instead of a portion of the whole.

And, finally, that's my thing about Campbell's book. It's brilliant as far as it goes, but it only goes as far as 1949 Western academia. de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is now read in the context of having been written by a Frenchwoman in the 1940s — it's understood that while a lot of it still holds true, and a lot of it is important for an historical perspective on feminism, there are portions which are out-of-date, or have simply been proven wrong since. Howl is still a well-regarded poem, but it's important now to know it was written in the 1950s. Snow's two cultures are still visible throughout academia, but when reading his book, it is necessary to bear in mind he developed his ideas in the 1930s and chose his language for an academic lecture audience in the 1950s.

But Campbell's work seems to live on context-free, as if it's absolute truth, as if the Freudian theories it depends upon so heavily haven't been debunked or updated in the decades since. On the copy I got from my community library (third edition, New World Library, published 2008), there's a quote from George Lucas of Star Wars fame:

In the three decades since I discovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it has continued to fascinate and inspire me. Joseph Campbell peers through centuries and shows us that we are all connected by a basic need to hear stories and understand ourselves. As a book, it is wonderful to read; as illumination into the human condition, it is a revelation.

That may well shine some light on the ongoing diversity problems in Hollywood films, but it doesn't say much for our critical understanding of mythology. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying Campbell doesn't deserve his accolades. What I am saying is we need to acknowledge that even he was constrained by the mores of his times. Better to declare the direction and flavour of one's subjectivity than to lie and claim objectivity when one has none.

So: that's the context in which I'm reading the book. Next blog post (when I get a chapter or two along) will look at what aspects of the book can be of use to fiction writers.