Friday, July 25, 2014

Entering an unreal world

Let's ramble all over the place for a while considering Joseph Campbell's monomyth. Not all of it but mostly the notion that the hero must begin by being separated from his normal world and enter what I call an unreal world. Why? Because it's something I've been thinking about lately.

Campbell is a guy I usually have very little sympathy for. A lot of what he did seems like yet another reinvention of Plato. That said, every generation seems to reinvent Plato and perhaps that is because it is important to reinvent Plato. Another objection is that monomyths in general, never mind Campbell for a moment, tend to produce an empty formalism in story telling. The seemingly endless parade of superhero stories that Hollywood cranks out for children (think Pixar), single young men (think of any comic book made into a movie) and young women (think of any of those awful romantic comedies).

All of these movies begin with a character in a comfortable world and push him or her into a new, unreal world. Okay, that sounds just fine until you consider a movie like Return to Me. Here is the set up: a man's wife dies suddenly and she is an organ donor, man later meets another woman and falls in love with her, she is the recipient of a donor heart and ... please tell me you've already guessed the big "surprise". And the thing to get here is that this isn't a misapplication of a monomyth but rather a very slavish following of it.

Action changes your world and it changes you. I can easily come up with activities that I might be tempted to do and I bet you can too. But here's the thing, to take any activity is to live in a different world. Golf is a fun game; I've played it and enjoyed it. But to play golf regularly would be to become a golfer and there is a whole world that comes with that: clothing, attitudes, behaviours, and even beliefs. And that just might make you hesitate. As a kid I looked at my uncles who played golf and thought, "I don't want to be like them." It's odd because I liked them, one of them I liked a whole lot, but I didn't want to be like them.

That may have been a mistake. Golf is a male world and I cut myself off from a world of maleness that undoubtedly would have been very good for me by not playing. As an adolescent, I was driven by a desire to be different from other men and that definitely was a mistake. (The hows and whys of my having that drive are a subject for another day.) All I accomplished was to cut myself off from a male world that would have helped me in all sorts of ways.

The thing I want to emphasize now is that even something as simple as being a golfer requires us to change.

As does falling in love or, perhaps more challenging, falling in love again. The heart transplant story isn't completely crazy. If your first wife died and you met another woman, there would inevitably be similarities that would haunt you. Not at first. At first they would charm you. But then you'd make the connection and ... . And to love a new woman is to enter an unreal world.  All worlds have to have a whole lot in common with the world you already live in. Why do I say that? Because you couldn't recognize it as a new world if that weren't true. Dorothy knows she isn't in Kansas anymore but she knows she is somewhere. That "somewhere" actually has a lot more in commonalities with Kansas than it has differences from it. We tend to focus on the differences but the sameness is what matters.

Anyway, back to the heart transplant. Reverse the story and there is nothing to it; it isn't even a story anymore. A man's wife has an accident and nearly dies but is saved by a heart transplant. Would anyone watch a movie in which he now struggles to love his wife because she now has some stranger's heart? No they wouldn't because the heart is just a metaphor and the metaphor only works in the other story.

It seems to me that Return to Me is very much a movie of the divorce age. It's really for daughters getting used to the thought that there father is going to marry another woman. The ickiness factor that seems to go with the heart is perfect for the job because it helps the daughter of a divorced or widowed father face the ickiness of imagining her father with another woman without having to think of other body parts than the heart.

Don't believe me, then watch this painfully romantic girl who likes to imagine she's cynical try to convince herself that her mom would love Return to Me. If Hollywood could pack as much lack of self awareness into a romantic comedy plot as she gets into 13 minutes they'd make a gazillion dollars.

Notice also that Nostalgia Chick rails against a kind of monomyth in these movies. She sees that monomyth as originating in Pride and Prejudice but steadfastly refuses to see what P&P is really about. She thinks the problem is getting by the misunderstanding whereas the real problem is being unwilling to enter a new world that is going to make you a different person. The really odd thing about the story is that Lizzie, and it's mostly a story about Lizzie, has to leave behind her own prejudices and accept what might well be described as a different set of prejudices for the grim truth is that Darcy's doubts about her family are really quite justified as Lydia demonstrates. But to accept the Darcy's prejudices as sound judgments is to enter a new world. (As I've written elsewhere, Darcy's pride is singularly unconvincing and not very perceptively handled by Austen but that's okay because it really doesn't matter.)

Of course, the big difference between romantic comedies and the sort of male mythology that Campbell focuses on is that the heroine of a romantic comedy enters a new world in order to stay there whereas the male story trajectory is that a boy enters an unreal world where he learns to be a man and then returns to the old world where he applies the lessons he as learned.

Hmm. A girl leaves her fathers house to get married. She leaves her familiar world to enter a new world where she stays. A boy leaves his home, has adventures and then returns home by settling down and gets married. This is the sort of thing that drives feminists crazy.

And I'll just stop here. Yup, all I did today was wander around an idea and reach no conclusions. That's the way it is sometimes.

Bonus thought: I've never done it, but I bet you could apply Joseph Cambell's monomyth structure to Brideshead Revisited and get amusing results.

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