every woman adores a fascist -- sylvia plath

Friday, January 27, 2012

An Immodest Proposal: Campbell-totle Part II

So, continuing along this playful line of thought, we can begin to see how Aristotle's theory of knowledge begins to shape our understanding of the Monomyth:

(1) The Monomyth's primary feature of the hero journeying "down-then-up" is an Epic journey. The first part of the hero's journey is tragic in nature (with conflicts, revelations, and potential or actual injury). The second part is comedic in nature. The hero now re-enters the world lower than he began, but with a new knowledge that will allow him to ascend either back to the heights he began, or even higher.

(1a) Here's the difference though. With the Monomyth, the hero must learn some supernatural / metaphysical / philosophical truth at the bottom of his journey (the height of his suffering) that he then brings back to the world. This is the key feature that unites the two parts of the story.

(2) The downward movement of the Monomyth (the tragedy), must excite in the audience wonder -- and this wonder is then answered by the knowledge learned by the hero. It is this new idea that not only unites the story, but also contextualizes (finally) the suffering the hero endured, and reshapes the world as he brings this idea to the world on his upward movement (the comedy).

(2a) For example, in The Odyssey, after his series of sufferings at the hands of nefarious hosts which causes him to yearn for home all the more, he learns in the underworld of Agamemnon's murder at the hands of his wife upon his homecoming. That knowledge puts into context Odysseus' sufferings: home, while yearned for to harbor him from his suffering, may very well be the place he suffers a horrible fate after 20 years of being away at war. The reality of home is different than the fantasy of it while suffering travails. Odysseus takes this new knowledge and applies it to his homecoming, killing the suitors instead of them killing him.

(3) This new knowledge is the driving force of the second part of the Monomyth. The comedy of a lowly man gaining great fortune is directly driven by his new knowledge and application of it to the world he has re-entered.

Next, we'll take a look at some of the problems of the Monomyth that Campbell points out and see how Aristotle would address them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

An Immodest Proposal: Campbell-totle Part I

So, after writing a brief note on the problem with Joseph Campbell which explained why his psychological explanation of the Monomyth doesn't really work, I decided to take a leap and see how the Monomyth might be explained through Aristotle's theory of knowledge. It was just a guess, but let's play it out and see how the Monomyth works under Aristotle's guidance from The Poetics.

Before we begin, a few things to consider about how Aristotle's theory of knowledge operates in The Poetics:
  • For Aristotle, knowledge is the cause of pleasure in art (i.e. recognizing an object of to be what it is). We want to know what something is and when we recognize it, we are pleased.
  • Art is thus constructed by the artist for the sake of conveying what a thing is to an audience so they will know it: a painting is painted in such a way to convey who or what the subject of the painting is to the audience; tragedies are enacted in such a way to convey the kind of character suffering a kind of downfall. Art is constructed with the audience in mind as the ones knowing the art.
  • Exciting wonder in the audience is the goal of tragedy, and is done so primarily by conveying an unexpected (if not paradoxical) outcome to a character's intentions and actions, but also, secondarily, through plausible impossibilities: chance coincidences, supernatural interactions, etc. This makes us wonder about how it all happened. And wonder, as we know, is the desire to understand. Tragedy, in that sense, is constructed by the artist so that we know what is being conveyed to us (and is thus pleasing), but leaves us in wonder (and thus excites in us the desire to understand -- on our own -- what happened).
  • For Aristotle, the Epic Poem has two parts: the first part is a tragedy, and second part is a comedy.
  • By Comedy, Aristotle means the opposite of tragedy. It is a story where a lowly man is made greater, instead of an admirable man paradoxically made lesser. The object of the comedy, unlike the tragedy, is not to excite wonder in the audience, but to affirm their beliefs by making them feel inspired and hopeful. No paradoxes, no wonder, just feeling good.

Next, with those five points in mind, we'll take a look at Joseph Campbell's description of the monomyth and understand how they apply.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

A Quick Note on Joseph Campbell

My recent summaries of art theory led me to write one on the very famous Joseph Campbell. Personally, I'm a fan of his work. Not only did he find a way to describe the concept of the "monomyth" in a substantial way, he also had a huge impact on the story of "Star Wars". Both are very important in the history of storytelling, as well as important to me.

However, after seriously considering what he had to say about the monomyth (instead of considering what he did with my childhood dreams), I have to say that I was a bit taken back by the weakness in his arguments about the monomyth. That's not to say that his concept of the monomyth is weak, but rather his understanding of the causes of the monomyth in human history. You see, it's one thing to say that the monomyth exists (which seems to be true), it's quite another to say why it exists. Professor Campbell places the cause of the monomyth squarely on the human psyche: it's our unconscious minds that generates the Power of Myth. The problem with his argument is his account of why the modern reader is almost completely protected from the Power of Myth. Campbell says that the modern reader is protected from the Power of Myth since the reader interprets myth in scientific ways -- we either read myths as history, anthropology, or pre-science -- and that's no good..

Here's the problem.

Unconscious psychological powers aren't deterred by conscious efforts. For example. the Jungian Archetype of "The Wise Old Man" exists in our unconscious minds. When we consciously attempt to understand "wise old man", we do it through science and experience. Geritarics, health sciences, philosophy, Thanksgiving meals, and general interaction are a part of that attempt. In no way, according to Jung, do these experiences and conscious efforts change the impact of the Jungian Archetype "The Wise Old Man" in our psyche. Thus, Campbell's theory that the modern reader is protected by "modern" readings (historical, anthropological, pre-science) from the unconscious power of myth, is pretty much impossible. For Jung, these Archetypes are immutable. Their power is a constant, which contradicts Campbell's assertion.

With all of that said, this should not challenge the theory of the monomyth itself. Even though Campbell's causal theory of it is problematic, the concept of the monomyth is still good. It just needs a different explanation. Since the unconscious mind is a problematic explanation, perhaps we should turn to Aristotle's theory of knowledge and understanding as a different way of explaing the monomyth. Instead of looking at the cause "below the surface" (so to speak), perhaps we should look at it "above the surface" -- as a thing of the conscious, deliberative mind subject to spacetime, understanding, revelation, surprise, and emotion.

More later.