Saturday, April 2, 2011

Down the Trap Door

a contemplative series by Serhend Sirkecioglu

#3 Why I Avoid Joseph Campbell like the Plague... and You Should Too
 My fellow contemporaries, I have an odd feeling you will strongly disagree with me on this topic, but through conflict comes the splitting of the atom. With that said, let me explain why I avoid Joseph Campbell. This one was inspired by an unrealized debate with the wise and humble Ogun Afariogun, which I feel indebted to explain my stance to him.

If you had Madden, Abel, Hart, Bertozzi, Mayerson or in fact any professor in our dept they would have most likely explained (esp. Jessica during the first semester, great class!) narrative structure. Now in that explanation of narrative you might have heard the name Joseph Campbell or The Mono-myth or The Hero’s Journey. We were taught this structure as a means of constructing our stories and for good reason. It works, very well. The structure is like the Helvetica of narrative structure, in that it is applicable to almost any genre. In fact, the structure is a gold standard for shonen manga and Hollywood films (Star Wars being the most well known example).

Now let’s take a look at the mythic cycle:

It so simple and applicable I think it would be redundant to explain it! So with that aside let me get into why I choose not to use the mono-myth

1. It’s only one type of story. The mono-myth is quite simply a “chosen one” story. It’s about a nobody who becomes a somebody. Most young writers tend to lean towards this story since it was the most frequent and relatable story in their childhood.  It's natural to draw upon your past to develop a narrative style, but what fun is it if we recycle the same story structure? Sure, in our individualist society, it resonates with everyone.  But I’m one for critical analysis and creative diversity, and the mono-myth offers none of that to me and you.  There are plenty more narrative structures/movements to draw upon, like the 5 act play, Aarne and Thompson’s 33 types of folktales, or my personal favorites, postmodern or enlightenment lit.  To simply build mono-myths is like a writer saying I’m going to write stories using only three words.  Sure you could do it, but would it yield a interesting body of work?

2.  You're not the only one with a copy of Hero of a Thousand Faces.  The use of the mono-myth is an arms race.  Many are using it.  Those who are successful knock it out of the park, and often their success is always trying to be copied *cough* Star Wars*cough*Lord of the Rings*cough*Harry Potter*cough*.  If you do use the mono-myth you will end up in of two camps: the imitations of successful mono-myth inspired stories (Eragon) and those cut from the same cloth as the successful ones (Legend of the Guardians).  You're not the only one with a sprawling long form epic.  To quote Donald Trump (sigh), “when everyone else is selling, buy."  Give your self the overlooked edge, and you're more likely to float to the top than if you join the band wagon.

3.  If you use this structure you're secretly a Nazi (sort of).  What I mean by this is in the roots of the mono-myth.  The structure is based around a chosen one and his (no her, I‘ll explain this in #4) consolidation of a birthright and/or power.  It emphasizes the power of the individual and his ascension. In a way, this the core of The American Dream; where anybody can embark on their hero’s journey and become somebody. Now back to the whole Nazi accusation, the monomyth is a fascist because it consist of a good v. evil, reclamation of a birthright, justice and punishment, and ending with a golden age. Nazism consisted of the Aryan race versus the rest of the world, keeping Aryan blood pure and strong while purging the world of the impure, and end in a glorious 3000 year Reich. No, this does not make you a Nazi, but the point I wanted to get across is the tyrannical undertone of the structure and a simple-minded good bad perspective.

4.NO GIRLS ALLOWED!: The monomyth by nature is a patriarchal narrative, women in these stories are little more than set pieces and plot coupons ( The goddess, the virgin birth, and the boon at times) and simply swapping gender’s loses the full effect of the tale without some serious retooling and structuring(In fact there is a book called the Heroines Journey by which goes into that process, check it out.). This one I’ll admit is a muddy argument, but I still stand by my argument that there is a gender bias to the structure.

5.Monomyth=Money Grab: remember I mentioned Hollywood using the structure A LOT, cause everyone gets it and it screams PG-13 jackpot. Here are some recent films that used the structure

Star Wars

Lord of the Rings

Star Trek(2009)

Batman Begins

Tron: Legacy

X-Men(first film)


Harry Potter series




Now all except Eragon had great returns at the box office cause of the populist nature of the structure and simplicity to digest, in fact Eragon was criticized for being so derivative of the other films, namely LOD and SW that one critic even said you could find his ideas and writing style inside his DVD collection. It’s a highly impressionable style that most amateurs gravitate toward due to its success and mostly fill in blank structure. There’s a inherent cheapness and desperation for a quick buck to the structure which is hard to ignore.

6. Make it count for something: I’m a lover and semi-aficionado of fighting games and common sense in most games is don’t spam moves, you look like a amateur and douche at the same time. The monomyth is a good structure but a severely overused one, like a spammed Hadouken it became very predictable. The good ones are designed very conscientiously, with a incomprehensible drive and desire to make every choice count behind it. From going beyond the first layer of narrative, a unique premise, and daring visuals just to name a few, approaching the structure with great intent instead of defaulting on it is in my opinion how those stories resonate with the masses. It’s because they feel and experience the artist’s choices through their storytelling and aesthetic choices.

Now though I do not use the structure and in some cases hate it, I do none the less respect it. When I find that story I must tell through the mythic cycle I’ll make sure I approach it with care and go beyond the structure to honor it’s legacy. So are there any points you agree or disagree with? Am I too harsh on the mythic cycle?