Tag Archives: American Myth

We are living with half a religion.

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Last night I had a dream in which a dear friend of mine went on an uncharacteristic rent about the soullessness of Walt Disney World. In this dream, I responded. We were at WDW, a place I long to visit (having never been), and our public debate was making cast members uncomfortable. Here is what I realized in my dream:

I maintain that there are two myths at the core of the American cultural psyche: Utopia and Manifest Destiny. Tucked under Manifest Destiny lies our relationship to consumption. For the American, there are three modes of consumption:

  1. Survival—well, duh.
  2. Power—By consuming the resources, none of the other kids can have them, making us king of the playground.
  3. Unquenhable Hunger—Our consumption is also a need to satiate a hunger, to fill some kind of spiritual hole.

I am an apologist for consumption. I don’t believe that the solution to number three is to reinfuse myth into our culture. If there is any single characteristic inherent in Americans, it’s our resourcefulness. We have been writing our own myths for centuries, albeit in nontraditional forms. I do believe, however, that the solution to number three is to rewrite the consumption myth altogether, but I’m digressing from my original intended topic.

It occurs to me that number three exists because our country was founded by Protestants. Sure, Protestants brought a strong work-ethic to this country. But Protestants also brought half a religion with them. Protestantism is Catholicism without the mystery and mysticism. I’m not sure why anyone would want to take the mystery and mysticism out of Christianity, but there you have it.

My flavor of Protestantism is Episcopalian. “The Thinking Man’s Religion.” The lineage of the Episcopal Church can be traced to Henry VIII and the establishment of the Anglican Church. Henry wasn’t trying to take the mystery out of Christianity; he just wanted power and control over the church. Oh yeah, and a divorce. As such, I grok the mystery of Christianity, but not the mysticism.

Let me also take a moment to point out that today’s Catholicism is not Christopher Columbus’ Catholicism. The Catholic Church has had to change dramatically over the centuries to fight against the allure of the Protestant Churches and, increasingly, other religions altogether. This, and the ease of establishing Protestant denominations/churches, is why Christianity is such a mess.

I’m not suggesting that America would have been “better off” if it had been founded by Catholics. Look at the history of Meso- and South America. At least the Catholic conquistadors were consciously searching for modes of consumption, but they still slaughtered anyone in their path who wasn’t cooperating. There’s that annoying relationship between consumption and power again.

I am suggesting, however, that Americans need to relearn the mystery and mysticism of SOMETHING. Perhaps “traditional” or “organized” religions is not the answer (I’m including Native American traditions here). Perhaps, instead, the secret is to disconnect from the Information Superhighway. I have to give kudos to Henry David Thoreau. While his abandonment of civilization isn’t for everyone (assuming there are still remote parts of America left), his attention to the little things is. How easy it would be to embrace the mystery the Romantic poets saw, and find even a little solace in our Soulless? world.

Myth Collection as Consumption

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A recent bee started buzzing in my bonnet. Something about people who just collect myths and spit them out to prove a point has gotten under my skin, and this has been festering for awhile and it’s part of my current disillusionment with Joseph Campbell. On one hand, it’s a very superficial way to win an argument. But on the other, it does a disservice to the myth. Each myth has a context, and it’s important to recognize this context. I sort of addressed this in a previous post. What was once a learning tool for young Greek boys is probably not a learning tool for young American women. Sure, it can work if you force it into a new context, even revising the story to fit. But have you ever tried forcing a puzzle piece into a place where it doesn’t go? It’s the same with a myth. If you pound it enough, it’ll fit wherever you want it to, but that doesn’t mean it belongs there.

In my dissertation research, I’ve been recently captivated by the idea of consumption as an inherent part of the American psyche. In fact, I have boldly come to the decision that consumption is the driving force behind Manifest Destiny, which itself is the core of the American psyche. We have been consumers since the pilgrims came to this country; since the Revolution made it our own; since the Frontiersmen, women, and settlers claimed the land; and since we started mass producing “stuff.” Unlike our Old World forefathers, it’s not enough for us to consume food, shelter, clothing and other basic necessities. It’s not enough to consume art, religion or ideas. We want to consume everything and in increasing amounts. George Ritzer terms this “hyperconsumption.”

Since consumption is the core of our psyche and since I’m a self-declared cultural relativist (a remnant of my early Anthropology training), I don’t find fault with the fact that we consume. But we’ve made consumption an addiction. We don’t just consume for the sake of consuming, but somewhere along the way we started forming the core of our identity with the things we consume: by the clothes we wear, or the brands we choose to advertise, the car we drive, etc. We consciously project to the world what we want the world to think of us based on the items we are consuming.

But there’s a neurosis in hyperconsumption. We call them “collectors,” “hoarders,” or even “pack rats.” Chances are we all either know a number of friends who we would tag with those descriptions, or maybe we have certain aspects in our own lives that others would label as such. At various stages of my life, I’ve had things I’ve consciously collected, and I’ve held onto them in the classic pack-rat mentality until one move too many and they lost any and all meaning. As of right now, if I had to claim any conscious act of collecting and/or hoarding, it would be books. But the danger to collecting depends on what you do with it.

And this is where myth collecting comes into play. It’s good to know the various myths of the world. I say it many times that myths are some of the best artifacts we have from all times and cultures. They reveal so much about a culture’s beliefs, behaviors and psychology more so than many of the artifacts that do survive the times. This is one reason why I hold a very broad definition of what constitutes a “myth.” But so what? So what if you can recite a passage from Homer for me to prove a point in an argument? Or so what, Professor Campbell, that you can find three examples from world myth that supports your claim? What do you want me to do with it?

The academic realm of mythological studies threatens to become a myth collection. More importantly, choose a few mythologists, follow their work, and regurgitate their findings and sound very smart at a cocktail party.  People turn to myth when they are seeking answers. I’ve heard many people tell me that they found the answers they were looking for to a particular crisis in the works of Joseph Campbell. But while they may find the answers, do they actually put them to action? This is isn’t easy.

This is where  my dissertation has taken me. It’s become important to me to be able to read a myth and cull from it not only a culture-specific understanding of the myth’s context but also gain an understanding of the tools of mythology so that they can be applied to the current myth spectrum. It is only through this that we can begin to unlock the hidden mysteries of American mythology, long ignored as “too popular for serious scholarship.” It is through this that we can begin to understand the phenomenon of fanatic behavior that has helped define so many modes in the past 50 years. And I firmly believe that this will help us gain a better framework to create those myths that might actually initiate the healing process this country so desperately needs.

Towards a New Mythology

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When the sun has set over Disneyland, Anaheim, California, and the lights are turned down, one can see the expectation for something about to happen on the face of every person looking at Sleeping Beauty’s castle as the nightly, seasonal fireworks begin. The day has been long. Everyone is tired, children and adults alike. Many are grumpy because of the various annoyances and complications that are involved in securing the best possible vantage point for watching the show. Music plays, gunpowder explodes, and people are quickly caught in the spectacle of the twenty-minute show. Near the end, an old, yet somehow familiar, voice welcomes us, reminding us that Disneyland belongs to us and that this is where dreams and memories come alive.[1] Many children have never seen the old television shows and may not recognize the voice as belonging to Walt Disney, but they nonetheless recognize the shift in awe and respect when he speaks. It is as though God is talking, and those bursts of colors are divine, angelic figures. By the end of the show, the mythic experience that Disneyland has to offer is punctuated, secured, and cemented on the memory.

For the American, raised in a century founded upon the rugged individualism of pilgrims, Disneyland is one of the most genuine of mythic spaces. When we imported our myths from Europe, our founding parents emphasized the simplicity of life, the need for hard work, rooting ritual to the family living room. Local church congregations served more as a place for social gathering. The notion of the church as the ritualistic place was left in Europe. As the country grew, local myths and spaces cropped up, but not a single, unifying locale, brought together all things American until Disneyland.

For the younger generations of the modern USA, many of whom are now having their own children, this is the mythos we[2] have to work with. We do not question the validity of “God” or question the archetype, but, rather, question where the ecstatic feeling can be found. For some of us, that feeling is the most potent in popular culture, which is often discounted as “profane” art; however, these images are more potent and resonate more loudly to our imaginations in large part because they are the most familiar images of our childhoods. With everything else being constantly debunked, these are the only images that remain constant, which offers security, and a good place for projection the notion of religiosity, bring with it the God archetype.

In order to have a new mythology, we must first have a poet to express it. By the guidelines laid out by Roberts Avens in his book, The New Gnosis: Heidegger, Hillman and Angels, as inspired by Heidegger and Hillman, Walt Disney is such a poet: “A poet, in his capacity of the mediator (messenger) between sky and earth, between Gods and men, is continually bringing things into the open, showing them in their imaginal essence” (55). Further, “images acquire the characteristic of autonomy, self-referentiality, and simultaneity only when they are watched in a detached way…” (Avens 98). The imaginal space constructed by Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers is one full of images of fantasy constructed in an unnatural way. The unnaturalness detaches the images from the everyday experience while simultaneously drawing the Guests’ attentions to them, bringing them into the open, or conscious realm. These images are those of the American cultural unconscious that have become deeply rooted, in part, because of Disney’s films: images of beloved fairy tales, idealized images of the frontier or small town USA, or romanticized images of the future. Disneyland allows us to experience all of those images. When coupled with the thrill aspect of some of the rides, it brings about catharsis, and the anxieties and tensions of a world confused about its own mythologies are released by the drops and twists of roller coasters or in the story rides that insist that there is a better tomorrow on its way.

One counterpoint to the Disney qua new mythos assertion is stated by Avens: “We prefer to busy ourselves in asserting our identity against the world without realizing that this self-assertion, this search for identity, is nothing more glorious than a futile attempt to remain the same from moment to moment…” (19). Disneyland seems to control every aspect of the experience, so our poesis is limited to how we interact in this controlled environment. In truth, there is evidence all over the park where people attempt to assert their identity. One example of such can be seen in the queue for the Indiana Jones attraction. The first half of the queue is situated outside the attraction entrance, which is decorated to look like the jungle surrounding a ruined temple. All along this stretch of the queue, people have carved various messages, mostly their initials, into the trunks of the bamboo trees growing there. For some of these trees, this has resulted in entire patches of missing bark. Clearly, people are attempted to assert their identity and define their independence on the controlled aspect of the environment. Avens suggests that this is done only to remind ourselves that we are the same form moment to moment – but how can we actually be the same in light of a mythic experience?

In a similar counterpoint, Avens describes how archetypal psychology “supplements this insight [that an image is not what one sees but the way in which one sees] by using the criterion of response: metaphorical and imaginative response to images is better than fanciful or literal because the former deepens and complicates the image instead of dissipating or eventually freezing it into an object that can be manipulated by ratio” (25). Disney and Disneyland have literalized images, and that cannot be denied. When hearing a fairy tale, many imagine the story using the same visualization as the Disney film, and are often surprised to find that the stories are not the same. How can literalized images how any mythic power? This generation is one raised on static, literalized images, and those are the ones transmitting the myths. The imagination is discouraged in all educational sectors from running free on the basis that an imaginative person cannot find a well-paying job. All that is made available are the images someone else thought up, but each person is allowed to do with those images – especially through the toy tie-ins – as he or she desires, even if that means rewriting the story. However, this play is restricted to playtime. Avens reminds us that “the mystery of play is akin to that highest and most absorbing play of which Heraclitus speaks, the play of aion, i.e., of the world as the dispensation of Being” (73). The need for Play emerges from a necessity, which forms an “essential component of the imaginal psyche itself” (Avens 79). This necessity, inherent in the images we play with, is tied to their essential nature. They emerge to fill an archetypal void created by suppressing play. But with enough suppression, literalized images are necessary to remind us how to play and dream.

It is an error of archetypal psychology to suggest that the only way to restore this stagnation is to return to old images in order to unlock the Truth of the Divine Being or Dasein.

Humans are unable to fully unlock this divinity, and it can only be understood through human images, or archetypes that point humanity in that direction. There are no rules as to how the archetypes manifest; Hillman suggests that the most potent archetypes in the West are those shaped by the Greek gods and goddesses. But, just like the Christian system both Hillman and Heidegger write against, this is outmoded and out of date. The archetypes need new faces in order to breathe new life – relying on the same faces that are 3000 years old is what lead us to the existential crisis of the twentieth century in the first place, and we would not be discussing the image of the archetypal God if the archetypes still had relevance.

Mickey Mouse and friends do not possess religiosity in the traditional sense, but they nonetheless fulfill the need for some sort of figure to be in their place. Archaeologists could dig up artifacts from this culture, thousands of years from now after our documents and records are long gone, and will encounter toys and figurines of Mickey Mouse, or even Barbie or Star Wars toys, and what will they think? The only logical conclusion is that there are objects of divinity and they were probably worshipped as some kind of god. It is for this reason that it is important to embrace new mythologies of all categories, since they are the ones that will be remembered.

Works cited

  • Avens, Roberts. The New Gnosis: Heidegger, Hillman, and Angels. Putnam: Spring Publications, 2003. Print.

[1] This refers to a recording played during the fireworks soundtrack of Walt Disney’s dedication of Disneyland in 1955: “To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land. … Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”

[2] I am being purposefully inclusive.

The Genres of the Monomyth: Beloved, Moby-Dick and the American Epics of Transformation

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Just as there are different types of literature, there are also different approaches to understanding and interpreting them. One method is the Monomyth as outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which has become a dominant model in recent years. A possible reason for this lies in the importance of the hero in social mythology: during the current major paradigm shift in the Western world. Many of these heroes are on an individual quest, paralleling the Jungian process of individuation, rather than a journey to save the civilization of a society. The relevance of this model suggests that the hero’s journey has become the central theme in Western epic. Another method is found in Louise Cowan’s introduction to The Terrain of Comedy in which she models another approach to literature, identified as the Genre Wheel. She uses this wheel to outline a theory of genre, inspired by Aristotle, as applied to literature. The four categories of genre – lyric, tragedy, comedy, and epic – and their subcategories are convenient categories for cataloguing entire works. This wheel can be further applied to individual works, thus creating a system akin to the Monomyth, except that it captures the sensibility, or phenomenon, of each realm of the journey, making it about the experience of being a hero, as opposed to a stair-step process of literary criticism.

To elucidate this claim, I will look at two social epics, tightly linked to the psyche of America: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, published in 1851 during the height of Romanticism in American literature, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, published in 1987 as a response to the lack of adequate narrative literature detailing the difficulties of African Americans faced while adjusting to a life after slavery. Though written in different centuries, both epics are nonetheless set during the same time of American history (1851-1873). Their respective sensitivities to all of the related issues have endeared them to the literary canon.

Joseph Campbell outlines eight steps to the hero’s journey (with embellishments): 1) the call to adventure, 2) the threshold guardian, 3) the threshold crossing, 4) magical helpers, 5) trials and ordeals, 6) confrontation with the boon guardian, 7) the return threshold, and 8) reintegration and sharing the boon. These steps he very nicely diagrams into a circular image, to stress the continuity of the journey (see Figure 1 in Appendix). In the myths that employ this model, they end once the hero has accomplished his or her task, but for the readers life continues. Our own hero’s journeys are on-going and are likely to continue as long as we are living.

This disconnect between literature and reality is brought to a compromise in Cowan’s Genre Wheel (see Figure 2), which also takes the hero on a similar cycle. The lyric realm is the hero’s point of origin. It is a period of implied innocence when the psyche of the hero is untarnished and relatively pure, “the place of origins and sources, the land of heart’s desire, symbolized by the garden” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 10). The only way the hero gets to return to this realm is by transcending to a state of bliss, the foundation of which are the life experiences built from passing through the other three realms, akin to the Jungian process of individuation, or the Buddhist experience of Nirvana. Only after he or she has found peace, can the hero return to the lyric. From lyric, the hero can proceed to either the tragic or epic realms; however, modern Western literature favors sending the hero through tragedy to experience a cataclysmic event that initiates the journey as though it is essential for the hero to forcefully leave his or her old myth behind in order to embrace the epic myth of society and civilization. Indeed, this reflects the very nature of the United States – and entire country built by immigrants who have to, often, sever ties with the Old World to forge ahead and forage for the American Dream of wealth and prosperity. In contrast, if the hero ventures from lyric to epic, then he or she is willingly undergoing a quest for a something. Presumably, based on the configuration of the wheel, the hero then ends in tragedy. Tragedy is understood to be “marked by the sudden catastrophe of the loss of a garden state” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 10), and is associated with the death of the hero. Yet tragedy can also be recognized as the inability to return to the lyric state, because something is left incomplete in the hero’s mission, and the narrative concludes before we get to its resolution. Joseph Campbell would recognize this state as belonging to one who does not follow their bliss, and undergoes the epic self-journey for success only to reach a profound state of unhappiness in mid-life or beyond.

Regardless of the direction a hero takes, he or she must inevitably pass through the comic realm, “the realm of faith, hope and love in a fallen world: endurance, regeneration – the community within the city” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 9). This is the alchemical vessel that prepares, percolates, and performs the hero’s transformation. Every action of the hero affects the community, and in the comic realm, the hero relies on the community for support: they form the helpers who train, arm, and prepare the hero for the Battle of the Boon that stands at the threshold of return and the next realm.

The narrative story of Beloved moves Sethe from lyric through tragedy, comedy, and epic, before attempting to return to lyric. Moby-Dick, however, recounts Ishmael’s journey, inextricably linked to those of Queequeg and Ahab, from lyric, through epic, comedy and into tragedy, and concludes before attempting to return to lyric. The terrain of comedy is diagramed as the underworld, which it indeed is. It can be viewed as a Jungian unconscious underworld where transformation and individuation. It can similarly be viewed as the realm of imagination – the cesspool where all the shit is stirred with the nutrients of life.

The time period that birthed the mythic reality of Moby-Dick and the historical reality of Beloved was one of major transition for the United States. The honeymoon phase of the colonial idealism was ending, and the United States had not yet emerged as a super-power. The issue of slavery very nearly tore the nation in two, while the Romantics and Transcendentalists concurrently wrote of the inherent beauty of the land. No one was keen on addressing the tensions of the cultural shadow. In literature, only the Gothic Romantics, which include Melville, were writing about the shadow, without necessarily writing about the shadow. Melville was writing as the Industrial Revolution took over the nation, and Moby-Dick is not a salute to the beauty of nature, but more of a criticism of human’s attempt to own and manipulate nature. When Toni Morrison wrote Beloved, it was after the post-slavery dust had settled with the collective efforts of all the participants of the Civil Rights era. Beloved recounts the struggle of slavery, as epitomized in the trinity of Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. Sethe is the tragic hero who suppressed and bore the burden, Denver is the voice of progress and healing, and Beloved is the shadow itself that links the two. As long as Beloved is around, healing cannot begin.

It is irrelevant that these two novels are separated by a century. Both are written in the spirit of mythopoesis, which divorces their plots and settings from the actuality of time and history. Furthermore, that Morrison was able to write Beloved when she did suggests that the issues manifest in both novels of the cultural shadow carried through the turn of the century.

Ron Schenk, in his recent article in Spring Journal, identifies Captain Ahab as “American personified,” who, quoting from a different edition of Moby-Dick, piles “’upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it’” (Schenk 12-13). In this way, Ahab is the Anti-Captain America, after the comic book superhero, because he goes after the whale to destroy, not to rescue and restore. This destructive nature is inherent in the American psyche, Schenk further argues, relating to the founding of the nation by Puritans who equated themselves to “God’s Chosen People” in the Old Testament (8). Similarly, Morrison recognizes slavery as akin to this behavior. To the Colonial and Post-Colonial Americans, slavery was quite literally the recipient of the dark shadow projections of the American psyche: “There is no romance free of what Herman Melville called ‘the power of blackness,’ especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play; through which historical, moral, metaphysical, and social fears, problems, and dichotomies could be articulated” (Morrison, “Playing” 37).

For Melville, it is a great, white whale. For Morrison, it is the ghost of the crawling-already? baby. Both of the heroes are haunted by this shadow and either have to conquer or be engulfed. Neither Ishmael nor Sethe is able to conquer their shadow, although Ishmael nearly died trying, and Sethe feel into a lethargic apathy, unable to shoulder the burden any longer. Both offer an image of what can happen if the cultural shadow goes ignored: Ishmael is sucked into and becomes a part of Ahab’s vengeful pursuit of his shadow projected onto the whale, allowing the obsession to overtake him. A modern manifestation of this image is the United States’ “War on Terror,” an obsessive revenge mission to find a figurative White Whale in the desert ocean of ideology. As the years following 9/11 and the quest of the Pequod demonstrate, it really is a futile mission that does more harm to the crew than to the actual whale. There is only one survivor, Ishmael, who is rescued by the wooden coffin inscribed with the life-force of Queequeg, his spiritual brother and protector. Sethe, on the other hand, avoids the shadow until it literally stares her in the face, begging for attention. Even then, she still does not confront it, only spoils it out of guilt and perceived affection. It requires the entire community unified under Denver to exorcise the shadow leaving Sethe without energy to continue. I would offer that this is exactly the environment in which Melville found himself writing, a sort of cultural “Now what?” – “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (Morrison, Beloved 322). But the shadow is elusive to time. While both epics attempt “to look away from the past and to see the American future as either a new beginning or a new synthesis” (B. Cowan 227-8), in the end they wind up right back at yesterday, but are hopeful for change.

Turning now to the Monomyth/Genre Wheel journey, the call to adventure comes in the lyric state. For both the journeys of Ishmael and Sethe, we join them in media res, having already accepted their respective calls. Their lyric state is far from being “a realm of love (not law), wholeness, consummation, joy – the right order of being…” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 9). This state is associated with Edenic qualities, meant to characterize love with the divine and an innocence of the hardships in life. Yet, to an extent for our heroes this is true. Both behave as if they have already seen the worst of the worst, and neither believes that the journey confined within the novel will be in actuality the worst they have experienced yet. Ishmael’s call is driven by his own melancholy and a sense of adventure. He knows that it is time for a change:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses … and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street … then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. (Melville 18)

For Sethe, on the other hand, her call begins when she sees schoolteacher walking down the drive. One could say that her call comes when she escapes, when schoolteacher’s nephews abuse her, when she hears herself compared to animals, or even as early as the death of Mr. Garner. Rather, Sethe’s time at Sweet Home is what she brings into this new adventure, convinced that nothing she could be worse. In fact, however, it is schoolteacher coming to the house on 124 Bluestone to collect her family that defines, ultimately, the journey of Sethe in Morrison’s novel. She believes 124 is an Edenic paradise and falls into a very lyric state until schoolteacher comes, pushing her across the threshold.

Tragic Threshold Sethe’s journey diverges from Ishmael’s in that she leaves the idealism and hope of the lyric state and enters into the tragic state. When she kills the crawling-already? Baby and nearly kills the other three. She is convinced that killing them is the only way to protect them from the same fate that happened to her. For her, Schoolteacher and his nephews are “the lowest yet” in her life, and no one – especially her children – should have to endure that. Tragedy is understood to be the “realm of suffering – loss, fragmentation, pain…” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 9). Before schoolteacher’s visit, Sethe bears the marks of a slave, and she is no different than the rest of the community; however, afterwards she is marked as a prideful murderer. She puts up the walls to hide her pain and loss, which only invites the ghost to visit. But like her dress at the hands of Paul D, her walls tumble down and the pain threatens to engulf her. She ignores it, favoring the company of Paul D, forcing it to come back to her. Fortunately, “[d]eep within the wound is the power of healing; the wound is then a paradox because it contains within it the impulse to bring the parts back together – to rememory them” (Slattery 215). “What we see through the body marked and violated is that memory itself is deeply wounded, scarred, and in need of a counternarrative that heals” (Slattery 209).

Epic Threshold Ishmael, in contrast, when he leaves his melancholic state of Eden travels through the epic threshold, aspiring to undergo an voyage such that “the great flood-gates of this wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my innermost soul, endless processions of the whale, and midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air” (Melville 22). He arrives into New Bedford in preparation for his voyage to Nantucket, where he will embark on a voyage. Cowan defines the epic realm as “taking place in some sort of natural surrounding, struggles to build or cleanse or govern this larger order, the just city. Hence, the epic goal … is no longer Eden but the New Jerusalem, the major human enterprise redeemed and made new” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 10). This is the terrain of civilization as a whole. On the Wheel, it is opposite tragedy, which is the terrain of the individual. Because Ishmael wants to leave the land in pursuit of one of the largest creatures on earth, it can be suggested that Ishmael desires an attack against humanity itself, but, as he lacks the prowess, he goes after leviathans instead, which is ultimately more humane. Clearly, he is unhappy about some aspect of civilization, as he is driven by melancholy to remedy whatever it is within himself that manifests as the conquest: “And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (Melville 20). That his path should converge with Queequeg and Ahab reflects the complexity of his epic undertaking. Queequeg is a savage, but “just enough civilized to show off his outlandishness in the strangest possible manner. His education was not yet completed. He was an undergraduate” (Melville 38). But he is “a human being just as I am: he has just enough reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him” (Melville 36). They meet in New Bedford and share a bed together in a symbolic spiritual marriage. Ishmael cannot do this journey alone. Ahab represents the fire within Ishmael for this epic undertaking. His obsession with Moby Dick reflects the conquest of humanity versus nature; he is “the ‘Apollonian’ destructive character undoing the old social contract” (B. Cowan 239). It is his failure that brings Ishmael to a tragic return.

The Comic Underworld Cowan observes that comedy “endures and perseveres in a fallen world … making its way by mutual helpfulness toward a community of love within the larger order of society” (10). Acknowledging the comic underworld as an alchemical vessel, love becomes the catalyst of transformation, represented by the coniunctio. During this cycle of Genre Wheel qua Monomyth, this catalyst represents the development of a new kind of love, as seen in Beloved, or a loss of love, as seen in Moby-Dick and the loss of Queequeg. Following Dante, Cowan divides comedy into three spectra: inferno, purgatorio, and paradiso. If the Genre Wheel is in fact another outline of the Monomyth, then it follows that all heroes must pass through these three spectra before completing the journey. It also stands to reason that if one proceeds through the tragic threshold, then one will pass inferno to paradiso, and vice versa if coming through the epic threshold.

Captain Ahab takes Ishmael on his voyage of vengeance, driven by an unparalleled madness that Ishmael associates with madness fueled from his injury (Melville 156). The journey of the Pequod is, from the outset, one long allegory of the defeat of humanity’s hubris. In the Paradise stage, Ishmael is idealistic and ready to go along with Ahab’s mission – he eyes the doubloon nailed to the mast as a marker of the challenge of the hunt (Melville 138). But the sighting of the squid soon turns Ishmael into a purgatorial state, such that he grows melancholy about his chances of surviving the voyage and rewrites his will with Queequeg (Melville 189). Gradually, he realizes that the sea is more than he had imagined, that to go after the leviathan, specifically this whale, is more than a typical whaling voyage. Like the American movement towards spreading Democracy all over the world, Moby Dick will not be easily converted, and his resistance shakes the foundation of Ahab’s (and Ishmael’s) mission, moving the story into the inferno state, as the legends of the whale actualize in Ishmael’s reality.

Sethe’s story moves in the other direction. Her inferno begins with a devilish red flash as the baby-ghost resists the entrance of Paul D into 124. Though she feels love for the first time in years, she is still tormented by her past. She daily tackles the Sisyphean task of escaping it, only to be shoved right back into the re-memory of it. The reappearance of Paul D after eighteen long years is the most catastrophic reminder she could receive, second to the reappearance of schoolteacher. Morrison’s narration makes it clear that Sethe’s view of the world is skewed, if not a little naive, but driven solely by her pride. Because she had good experiences working for the Garners and was not mistreated by the Sweet Home men, she grew into believing she was entitled to her different treatment, so when the nephews mistreat her, she believes that running away is her only option. When schoolteacher arrives to bring her back, she believes that killing her children is her only option, which it is within the context of Morrison’s narrative. But she never takes the time to work through her experience – she puts on a metaphorical tough skin similar to the scar tissue on her back and thinks no more of it – until Paul D touches her, and the emotions and re-memories of a life she thought was behind her comes back again. Beloved’s appearance marks her entrée into purgatorio, for this “girl” is Sethe’s chance at redemption, to make up for her actions. Is she making amends to Beloved or to herself? Morrison’s narrative is vague on this issue, but through the eyes of Denver, it seems to be a little of both. Paradiso occurs after Beloved is gone and Sethe retires into the Keeping Room. There is not anything left for her, nothing else to run away from, and nothing else to fight. Sethe finds a state of “bliss” while Denver takes her place in the outside world, embarking to complete the journey Sethe cannot.

Epic Return Sethe’s contribution to the community is tied to her legacy in Denver. If the Epic terrain is the mythology of civilization, then Denver’s entering the world marks a “successful” passing/transition from slavery to freedom with the new generation – the first generation born into freedom. This has many American parallels outside the context of slavery, notably the first generation born after the American Revolution, the first generation born after World War II, affectionately dubbed the Baby Boomers, and this novel among the first generation of African American literature post-Civil Rights. This epic transition is at the core of the American mythos: the illusion of freedom and the newness of a new state of consciousness, contrasted only by the realistic hardships and actualities of the past.

Tragic Return Tragedy begins on the Pequod with the near death of Queequeg and the building of his coffin, culminating in the confrontation with Moby Dick. The tragic realm is the realm of the individual, and, as is so often the case, the demise of all the people he or she brings along for the adventure. This is the reality of the American mythos. The illusion of freedom has created a society of individuals, each acting in their own best interest. Ahab tries to conquer the world through Moby Dick, only to realize too late that he cannot. Could Melville have been foreshadowing the failure of the Democratic Gospel?

Both books leave us hanging. Ishmael recounts his story as he remembers it, but we do not know what happens to him next and thus do not know if he made it home to lyric Paradise. Sethe and Denver are starting a new life of hope, but still, there is no assurance they have returned to the lyric domain. Sethe’s retirement suggests that she found some lyric peace, but Denver is just establishing herself in the outer world, and the novel ends with the hope and a sense of redemption for the African American people as a whole, not just the triad of characters. The American civilization needs to recognize its parallels in these novels: we are a country founded on an endless journey, but surely somewhere they have to end, or are we, collectively, destined to walk in the previous generations’ footsteps? Beloved seems to loop right back into Moby Dick, and Moby Dick back into Beloved (like Sethe, Ishmael has a heavy burden to escape from). Is this the ever, never-complete cycle? Louise Cowan comments, epics appear when society is in a transition (L. Cowan, “Epic” 22-3); however, these two epics themselves one hundred years apart, reflect a transition into constant flux, as though our civilization is trapped on a Möbius strip and cannot get off.

Appendix

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Figure 1 – Monomyth

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Figure 2 – Genre Wheel

Works cited

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd Ed. Princeton: Bollingen, 1968. 245. Print.
  • Cowan, Bainard. "America Between Two Myths: Moby-Dick as Epic." The Epic Cosmos. Eds. Larry Allums and Louise Cowan. Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1992. 217-46. Print.
  • Cowan, Louise. "Introduction: The Comic Terrain." The Terrain of Comdy. Ed. Louise Cowan. Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1984. 1-18. Print.
  • —. "Introduction: Epic as Cosmopoesis." The Epic Cosmos. Eds. Larry Allums and Louise Cowan. Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1992. 1-26. Print.
  • Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002. Print.
  • Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.
  • —. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1992. 36-55. Print
  • Schenk, Ron. "Captain American and His Zealous Blast." Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture 81 (Spring 2009): 1-21. Print.
  • Slattery, Dennis Patrick. The Wounded Body: Remembering the Markings of the Flesh. Albany: SUNY P, 2000. Print.

Psyche, Nature and the Magic Kingdom

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There is nothing natural about Disneyland. In fact, I would say that it is one of the most unnatural places in the United States. From the second one drives onto the Resort or steps off the tram, one is inundated with images, music, and a highly controlled environment designed for the purpose of eliciting a good time. Granted, it can be observed that several people, especially parents and their children, look unhappy, but this is more due to exhaustion and sensory overload than actual unhappiness, which is not allowed by design. Disneyland is not simply a popular place for family vacations, but it is the one place, a kind of Mecca, for people to engage with the imaginal worlds of their childhood. In short, it is the hot spot for the projections of the American imagination. Of the five Disney parks, I will concentrate on only the park in Anaheim, California, because it is the one with which I am most familiar. What it is about the park that tickles our collective imagination is a vast topic, but I will explore it with concentration on a few key aspects of the park – those that relate to nature and the ecology of the psyche. In being such an unnatural environment, it becomes the most natural for psyche’s playground.

Tamara Andrews suggests a new perspective of  nature mythology that is especially apropos to a discussion of psyche and nature as they play out at Disneyland: “Most people are familiar with the phenomenon of the mirage, an illusion that appears where images are displaced or distorted under specific atmospheric conditions. The mind’s eye takes over. Perhaps such vision is what is necessary to understand nature mythology from a modern perspective” (xiii). The Disney park is not itself an illusion, but that design of the park at play with the senses is. Through the efforts of the Imagineers, Disney’s design engineers, it sometimes appears as though magic really does happen, that birds can talk and sing, or that a little fairy dust can make one fly to Never Land. It is, thus, necessary to read Disneyland as a fairy tale, with all of its psychological implications, not just as an abomination of nature, as critics are wont to proclaim. Disneyland may embody capitalism, but the park is a playground for the imagination. It allows people to interact with the stories and characters they love, and thus embody the closest thing to a mythological canon American has to offer, á la fairy tales and the Western frontier.

Walt Disney envisioned Disneyland while taking his young children to the park. The legendary story is that he wanted to create a place where the adults could share the activity with the children and have just as much fun. His thoughts on the subject “meandered along many paths before arriving at a park with the types of activities families could share in the location that we know today. His plans started out relatively small, but like all of Walt’s ideas, they grew and grew and grew…” (Imagineers 16). He set out to create an experience; one that he believed would never be finished as long as “there is imagination left in the world” (qtd. in Imagineers 20).

Perhaps one of the most essential aspects of Disneyland is that it allows a person to fully embody and be submerged into fantasy fairy tale such that the stories not only become a three-dimensional reality, but the Guest actually becomes a part of the story. This experience of embodiment is what David Abram claims as a missing element in modern American society (8-10). We have culturally become so removed from nature that our behaviors do not readily support any degree of return. We recognize the body as a well-oiled machine and technology as a means of enhancing that machine. As we become more and more reliant upon technology in the modern era, we value nature less and less. Similarly, fairy tale has been likewise distanced from us. As J.R.R. Tolkien describes it, fairy tale has been “relegated to the ‘nursery’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room … adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused” (34). In a similar vein, depth psychologists, such as Marie-Louise von Franz, recognize that fairy tale is essential to connect with the collective unconscious, because it is the most fundamental manifestation of unconscious material, even over mythology. While the face of fairy tale has changed since von Franz began lecturing on it, bridging the gap between anonymous short story and epic-proportioned mythology, it nonetheless continues to bear the essential element Tolkien describes as the Faërie, a magical “other world” where animals talk, magicians roam, and the laws of natural science are ignored, which is precisely what Disneyland tries to achieve. If fairy tale is fundamental to the unconscious and nature is an essential part of the human experience, it stands to reason that by revisioning the natural experience, Disneyland is essentially feeding a myth-hungry unconscious.

Each land is designed to accomplish a specific atmosphere that conveys the stories in an environment closely related to their themes. Disney’s vision was that each Guest could step into another time or place during their visit to the park. He charged the Imagineers with creating each of these lands to each be an imaginal microcosm. Guests are supposed to be unaware of the other lands while being fully focused on the one they are in, while also not feeling too cramped, crowded, and, ideally, overwhelmed by the experience. Looking at each of the lands, we can place them into three categories:

  • Imaginary Ecosystem: Adventureland
  • American Mythos: Main Street USA, Frontierland, and New Orleans Square
  • Imaginary Times: Fantasyland and Tomorrowland

I am overlooking two lands, Critter Country and Mickey’s Toon Town, because they are designed more as merchandising tie-ins to Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse, and hold little genuine psychological connection with Guests beyond getting to meet one’s favorite character.

Imaginary Ecosystem

“Adventureland re-creates the eras and locales of great adventure stories. To Walt, it was a ‘wonder land of nature’s own design.’ Here you’ll navigate the tropical rivers of the world, explore Indian temple ruins, and climb into the tree canopy in the deepest jungles of Africa. Adventureland is for the young at heart and brave of spirit.” (Imagineers 33)

The rides in Adventureland were inspired by a series of adventure-themed films produced by Disney during the 1950s, and they represent a conscious opposition to what Theodore Roszak calls “urban-industrialism,” or “the willful withdrawal of our species from the natural habitat in which it evolved” (307). Assuming that archaeological theories are true, and humans evolved in the African savannah, then Adventureland takes us back to that environment, protected by a large landscaping budget from the horrors of global warming. The major point of criticism on this point is that hardly anything in Adventureland is, in fact, real. All of the animals are audio-animatronic, or computer-controlled robots that can mimic actions and mannerisms of humans and animals, because that would ensure the same performance for every Guest. Many of the plants are imported, but are balanced with domestic Southern California foliage, rooting the experience into familiarity, some of which are completely artificial and designed to look real. None of the stone is real, and can never erode. To fully embrace Adventureland, and this is also true of the entire park, one has to look at it through an aesthetic eye: look “at the whole appreciatively, historically, synthetically … as a spectator watches a drama” (Royce qtd. in Roszak 133). Overlooking the unnaturalness, we see in Adventureland a jungle microcosm not found elsewhere in the United States, at the heart of which stands a Disneydendron semperflorens grandis,[1]an anima mundi, one of several throughout the park that connect the park’s environment with the “soul of the sky” (Cobb 124).

American Mythos

“Civilized man … is in danger of losing all contact with the world of instinct – a danger that is still further increased by his living an urban existence in what seems to be a purely manmade environment. This loss of instinct is largely responsible for the pathological condition of contemporary culture.” (Jung qtd. in Sabini 15)

This is precisely what the three lands of the American mythos attempt to remedy. By recreating the frontiers of the American psyche, these three lands remove us from our urban existence and transport us into the psyche. That all three lands are manmade is a testament to how far American culture has evolved from the environments at the foundation of the culture’s collective unconscious in that we have to consciously reconstruct them because the environment no longer exists.

  • Main Street USA – “Main Street, U.S.A., takes you back to a turn-of-the-century small town modeled on Walt’s own memories from his boyhood. It’s a world at the dawn of the age of electricity, but still firmly rooted in a simpler time. Anything can be accomplished, and soon will be. It’s a time and place of boundless possibilities.” (Imagineers 23)

This land is designed to reflect an idealized image of Small Town, USA, modeled on Disney’s childhood home in Marceline, Missouri. This area is forever locked in that transition between a pioneer town and a more industrialized city, and is the first all Guests pass through upon entering the park.

Main Street USA is Walt’s equivalent to Jung’s Bollengen Tower. He built it to reflect something he remembered fondly from his childhood, much like Jung and his building blocks. That he had to build an entire street, excluding the rest of the park, reflects Walt’s and America’s drive for grandiosity that emerged after World War II and has become the mythic stereotype of the 1950s, one that entitles all families to own a house, have at least one car, abundant toys at Christmas, and everyone could get an education. At least, that was the projected ideal, and far from the actuality. This degree of grandiosity emerges as the unconscious works to offset the conscious prospective realities. As the world was recovering from the war and the Great Depression, it became more important for the collective unconscious to compensate for all of the hardships experienced during those events. Disneyland was built during this collective compensation, opening in the summer of 1955.

  • Frontierland – “Frontierland celebrates the American pioneer spirit. It has always been the perfect embodiment of the wonder of – and quest to discover – the unknown, whether it be by land, water, or rail. It’s also a time of endless summers and lazy rivers. Stay awhile, and you’ll see why so many folks choose to call Frontierland ‘home.’” (Imagineers 45)

Frontierland harkens to a mythologized time in American history – the movement west. It glorifies mining towns and the Romantic view of an America only slightly touched by technology and unaffected by the Civil War and tensions with Native Americans and Mexico. The land is in response to the popular culture of the 1940s-1970s of Westerns on television, weekend games of Cowboys and Indians, and the idolization of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. The search for gold and other ores taint the otherwise unbroken expansiveness of the Western frontier. By projecting its ideal onto empty terrain, the American psyche sees possibility for development of itself through the development of the land, to the point of a “negative interiorization of nature” to the point that nature “becomes sublated in soul, the space of interiority opened up through the application of domination of itself” (Barreto 269). Furthermore, the mines are images of going into the depths of the Earth and extracting pieces of her soul for our own benefit. It is important to note that the human body possesses as “irrevocable kinship to nature” (Barreto 262), and it can be alluded that by mining the earth, we are desperately trying to mine ourselves, and this is more the reason why glorification in Disneyland of the frontier serves as a reminder of the buried treasure within the psyche.

  • New Orleans Square – “New Orleans Square is a captivating ode to the charms of the Crescent City. Here we set sail for parts unknown – on the open seas or in the hereafter. Sit for a spell and sip a sweet, minty cooler as you watch the world go by. The sights and sounds of this remarkable place leave an indelible impression.” (Imagineers 57)

New Orleans Square imagines a more gothic side of the American mythos – the collective shadow as projected onto the port city, New Orleans, Louisiana. Since nature encompasses all archetypes (Sabini 14), then it also encompasses negative archetypes, including the shadow. New Orleans is a good setting for this because the port city brought together traders from the Mississippi, the Caribbean, and Mexico. It has never had a reputation for being a “clean” city. The primary attractions of New Orleans Square feature pirates and Grim-Grinning Ghosts, Disneyfied so as to not frighten younger Guests. Nonetheless, these reflect America’s shadow. The greed and conquest of pirates are a driving force behind capitalism and globalization, and the ghosts represent the fear of death and quest for immortality. The fear of death reflects a psyche “trapped in the desolation of an infinity where it finds no consolation, no remorse, no response to its need for warmth, love, and acceptance” (Roszak 58). The attractions in New Orleans Square place the desolate, trapped psyche into a warmer context, especially when done in conjunction to Fantasyland, which, through its immersion into fairy tale, satisfies psyche’s need for pure imaginal experiences.

Imaginary Times

The Universe “has been reaching forward toward finer orders of complexity, toward realms so subtle and complex that they can be fabricated only out of the delicate dynamics of the human imagination. … It embodies the full potentiality of all that has gone before, realizing it, expressing it. It occupies the frontier of the cosmos.” (Roszak 185)

Fantasyland and Tomorrowland reflect time out of time. Fantasyland is not tied to any particular era, but the façades suggest imaginary pre-industrial European villages that have become the iconic settings for fairy tales: an imaginary past. Tomorrowland, conversely, imagines the technology of the future.

  • Fantasyland – “Fantasyland is a gateway to the world of make-believe. Faraway kingdoms and adventures in imaginary realms lie around every corner. You can live out your daydreams and look into the windows of your childhood. It’s a place where you can dream like a child no matter your age.” (Imagineers 78)

This land is most designed with children in mind and has more attractions than any other land. Visiting Fantasyland is about having an experience, rather than just a thrill. This experience helps people feel happiness and is identified with the essential experience that makes us human. The land offers a stronger flow experience, to use Csikezentmihaly’s phrase, creating an exceptional moment in life in which what Guests feel, wish and think are in harmony. One can do a literary analysis of each of the rides, breaking them down into their fundamental elements, but this would detract from the experience of the land. This experience is indicative of the life-world described by David Abram as “the world of our immediately lived experience, as we live it, prior to all our thoughts about it” (40). Guests do not necessarily pay detailed attention to the details of the rides – there is a lot to take in during a short period – but they all recognize that an experience nonetheless occurs. Because of the nature of Disneyland, Guests are permitted the inability to coherently describe the attraction. This is especially strong in the Fantasyland dark rides, which are gentle rides (i.e. not roller coasters) that transport the Guest in a ride-themed car through the story. There are five of these rides in Fantasyland: Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, Peter Pan’s Flight, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Alice in Wonderland. All but Pinocchio have been open since the early days of the park.

Focusing on Peter Pan’s Flight, by way of example, the car is a pirate ship suspended from a track in the ceiling meant to stimulate flight. The ride starts when Peter Pan is taking Wendy Darling and her brothers to Never Land. The first couple rooms show London getting progressively smaller. Then, in Never Land, the ride takes us through Peter’s adventures: rescuing Tigerlilly from the cave and battling Captain Hook. The Guest is given a simulation of what the Darling children experienced in the story, and from this build their own phenomenological experience derived from the sensory stimulation of the entire ride – a total subjective experience that keeps Guests coming back to ride it again.

  • Tomorrowland – “Tomorrowland is your glimpse into the Future. Or at least the Future as we’d like to believe it will turn out to be. Catch a passing rocket ship to the next galaxy over or grab a bite to eat with your favorite alien friends. It’s your best chance to have tomorrow’s fun … today!” (Imagineers 109)

Tomorrowland has always showcased possible technologies of the future, and is constantly updated to reflect technological trends. One of the lasting trends is the possibilities of Outer Space, the new frontier now that the West has, essentially, been fully claimed. One possible future in store of us shows more reliance on machines than not. Carl Jung prophesied that modern, Western civilization will either destroy itself or be destroyed by its over-reliance on machines (Sabini 11). Indeed, Glen Slater supports this claim in his article, “Cyborgian Drift: Resistance is Not Futile,” in which he describes the growing (and problematic) trend of the West’s gradual overreliance on machines, and how this further and further removes us from nature. It would seem from both of these that there is little positive about machinery. Walt Disney, like Carl Jung, was a visionary, but one who embraced technology rather than feared it. He envisioned Tomorrowland to be at the top of attraction technology, including advances in three-dimensional video incorporated with ride-vehicles, the first indoor roller coaster, which stimulates flying through Outer Space, and the first fully-operational monorail. The park shows the positive use of technology for the purposes of having a powerful experience.

In his Disney-published series of young adult novels, Kingdom Keepers, Ridley Pearson describes what happens when one spends too much time in one aspect of the psyche qua magic: If one believes in something strong enough, then it can come to life through fantasy and fairy tale, and sometimes in reality. In those fairy tales Disney brings to life, what happens to the evil characters after the protagonists live happily ever after? Pearson speculates that they roman the park after hours, and calls them Overtakers. The Overtakers threaten to engulf the park in their dark magic. The shadow side of Disney’s magic. This demonstrates that for every positive thing, there must be some negative aspect, and the two must be kept in balance otherwise the outcome will not be good. In the situation of psyche and nature, the fear is that we, as a society, have already crossed a sort of tipping point that has severed us from nature. Global warming, cyborgs, urban communities. In Disneyland, one can escape from these issues and spend some time in psyche’s playground. In order to create this experience, Walt Disney fabricated an environment completely removed from pure nature, but one built to satisfy the needs of the entire country. If Jung built his Bollengen Tower to return to his conception of nature, then it can be argued that Walt built the Bollengen Tower of the entire American collective unconscious in Sleeping Beauty Castle and the park as a whole.

Works Cited

  • Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. Print.
  • Andrews, Tamra. A Dictionary of Nature Myths. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1998. Print.
  • Barreto, Marco Heleno. "On the Death of Nature." Spring, A Journal of Archetype and Culture 75 (2006): 257-273. Print.
  • Birnbaum, Stephen, ed. Birnbaum’s Disneyland Resort: Expert Advice from the Inside Source. New York: Disney Editions, 2005. Print.
  • Cobb, Noel. "The Soul of the Sky." Spring, A Journal of Archetype and Culture 75 (2006): 121-138. Print.
  • Imagineers, The. The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland: An Imagineer’s-Eye Tour. New York: Disney Editions, 2008. Print.
  • Pearson, Ridley. The Kingdom Keepers. New York: Disney Editions, 2005. Print.
  • Roszak, Theodore. The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Phanes P, 2001. Print.
  • Sabini, Meredith, ed. The Earth Has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology, and Modern Life. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2002. Print.
  • Slater, Glen. "Cyborgian Drift: Resistance is Not Futile." Spring, A Journal of Archetype and Culture 75 (2006): 171-195. Print.
  • Strodder, Chris. The Disneyland Encyclopedia: The Unofficial, Unauthorized, and Unprecedented History of Every Land, Attraction, restaurant, Shop, and Event in the Original Magic Kingdom. Santa Monica: Santa Monica P, 2008. Print.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy-Stories." The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1996. 3-84. Print.
  • von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala, 1996. Print.

[1] A “large, ever-blooming Disney tree” (Birnbaum 65).

Some Thoughts about Modern Mythology

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A question was posed over at mythicmusings.com that came to me via Twitter: Are we missing a modern mythology? My initial answer, which should come as no surprise to anyone who either knows me or has been reading this blog for awhile, is an emphatic NO! that is quickly followed with a series of examples (Disney, Harry Potter, Buffy, etc.). Gut reactions aside, this is a question worth considering a bit further.

Reading Joseph Campbell and the other modernist mythologists, it’s easy to conclude that myth in the modern world is dead. Campbell et al mourn for a romanticized era “long ago” when myth was a daily fixture and people ran with the gods. In the middle of Campbell’s research, though, is a very telling phrase: “What is mythology? Other people’s religion. What is religion? A misunderstanding of other people’s mythology.” Many times I have read this phrase, and many times I have underlined it, but I’ve never really mulled this one over properly. The first error of this statement is to assume that mythology is *only* other people’s religion, but it wasn’t very fashionable until recently to reflect inward and look at one’s own culture, which leads us to the second half of the phrase: to consider religion as simply a misunderstanding of other people’s mythology suggests a systematizing of a mythos that essentially takes the magic out of the gods. Campbell is highly critical of Christianity, and this particular phrase, though general, seems to be coming from his own Catholic wounding, which is a dangerous place to write from without some kind of acknowledgement.

So let’s ponder this further. Campbell goes on to give us four functions of mythology: cosmogonic (creation myth), religious (belief system), social/cultural (behavior system), and psychological (individual context). He tells us that true myths necessarily have all four components. But where this idea falls apart is when it comes to the American mythos. America was founded on Enlightenment ideals (the same ideals Campbell blames for the death of myth) of individuality, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideals have shaken the Western world for the last 200+ years, but especially so in the aftermath of World War II, a war that brought the world together in a way human history has never known and from which America emerged a victor. And of course, who writes the history and myths of a given “empire?” Always the one who wins the war. So these fundamentally American Enlightenment ideals have shaped the modern world, for better or for worse. American myth in the context of Campbell’s four functions looks like this: 1. Cosmogonic = the founding of the country by pilgrims and colonialists, the Revolution, and Manifest Destiny/Westward expansion; 2. Religious = the idea of the nation as unifying factor, a concept that gives a god-like identity to this pervasive unifying factor; 3. Social/Cultural = the Bill of Rights and the boundaries of our individuality; 4. Psychological = the Missionary’s Call to tame the West and our entitlement to our inalienable rights. The mythology is already built into the culture, but to fully grasp it, we have to redefine what we consider “god.”

Turning to another aspect of modern mythology – and one of my favorite topics – popular culture. In considering ancient mythological systems, I’ve often taken for granted that the gods were a daily fixture, just as Campbell suggests. One factor that tends to be overlooked, however, is that there was no separation between church and state in these systems. What we call their religious stories could just as likely have been their popular culture at the time, because the truly religious aspects were known only to the priests (which would not have been told to the Roman historians during the spread of the empire). Look at Greece as an excellent example (and since Greece is the foundation for Western civilization today, it’s the essential example). In Greece, there were festivals that included public displays of myth, notably the Dionysia, during which people would gather at the theater, worship Dionysos and watch a lot of plays. These plays, Aristotle notes, were meant to bring the Greek community together, to build communitas and to move us toward a communial catharsis. Plays to the ancient Greeks were like going to the movies today. Similarly, the poet Homer would have told his story on a smaller scale, sitting on the street corner and reciting to whomever would listen. Homer was like watching television. Then there were the initiation cults, and there are many modern parallels to those, from Boy Scouts to Freemasons, to college fraternities/sororities, to fan clubs. And it is from the plays, the poems of Homer and some of the leaked stories from the initiation cults that we have any idea what Greek mythology looked like. So the long-winded answer to the question about modern myth is to look at the movies, television, social organizations, and other literary media to find modern myths.

Our notion of God has changed, because we are a world in which there is now separation between church and state. In the Western World, we don’t believe that good government should be run by the deity, because we make a clear distinction between god as our spiritual leader versus the very-human leader who runs a country. Indeed, Western history is riddled with examples of how a king who rules with Divine Right can pose a major problem for a kingdom and some examples of those that succeed. Note that the successful god-kings were the ones whose country was completely isolated from the rest of the world, namely Egypt. The more contact Egypt had with the Greco-Roman world, the harder it was to maintain its Divine Right.

So then, what is mythology? Campbell gives us a good starter definition and some tools to work with. I use the working definition that mythology is comprised of the stories that shape the human experience with distinct flavorings of culture and time. To understand one’s mythology is to understand one’s experience in the cosmos, and vise versa.

The difficulty with the current state of the world is that there is not and cannot be a single unifying cultural mythos. Even the imposition of the American Enlightenment ideals is a dangerous game. Campbell had the forethought to recognize this when he told us that it was time to work on the myth of the planet. The planet is made up of diverse individuals, each of whom operate under their own mythological system. The one thing we do share in common is the planet and the limited resources she has to offer. When Campbell tells us to write the stories for the next generation, I believe he is wanting us to write the stories that encourage the next generations to work together to help the planet. This particular mythology, unfortunately, is a direct counter to the apocalyptic mythologies that the Western world has adhered to for so long.

Teen Lit Pre-Potter

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For some reason, when I was at the used bookstore at Halloween, I had an overwhelming urge to re-read one of my favorite trilogies from Junior High. So I tracked down R.L. Stine’s Fear Street Saga trilogy. They only had the first book at the time, The Betrayal, so I took that one home. It’s set in Colonial New England and is about an ongoing family battle between the Goode family and the Fier (Fear, get it?) family. Anyway, what really stood out for me was the difference between this series and many of the ones written post-Potter. So I got to thinking about those books I read when I was in Junior High – the Babysitters Club, R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike (though I preferred R.L.), some Mercedes Lackey and the occasional Stephen King and Anne Rice, but of course, those aren’t considered teen lit. I’m not sure what else I read. But all of those books are really silly. True, the Fear Street Saga is well written and descriptive, but it’ is only 161 pages. Tiny pages. Small potatoes compared to the epics that are being published these days.

I’m curious why the change. I’ve read that publishers really just underestimated the attention spans of young readers, but I suspect that it’s more than that. I suspect it has something to do with authors finally writing something interesting, books relevant to the actual teenage experience, not the idealized fiction of John whatshisface movies. But, here’s the rub: they accomplish this without directly addressing these issues. The fictionalized realms and heroic journeys are exactly what the young reader needs. Not further reminders that being a teenager really sucks.

What is additionally interesting is how attractive these stories are to older readers. I’ve been suspecting that for awhile, American society is prolonging adolescence intentionally because something isn’t being fulfilled during the usual time. I’m not sure exactly what that something is. It’s not enough to say that we are a society without cultural mythologies and rites of passage. I think there’s something actually not fulfilling. I don’t think that this can be easily blamed on our social materialism, or on the failings of our educational program, or on various diseases and such. Maybe the problem is inherent in just being American. Maybe the problem is our culture and the cultural psychology. Maybe because the country was founded on ideals, and ideals built upon ideals, and Xerox copies of ideals drastically faded from the originals.

I’m not sure what happens next, but I am certain that we can’t keep up the current M.O. As a culture, it is making us cranky, aggressive and rude. And suppressing it with a lolly doesn’t seem to be working.

Have It Your Way Mythologies

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I’ve been reading Jean Baudrillard’s America lately. It’s my first encounter with Baudrillard’s work and I sort of wish I’d started reading him sooner. His observations about American culture are clear and, to an extent, spot on, because he makes them as an outsider who wants to have a romance with America, but finds that that romance isn’t quite what he hoped. Somewhere in there, he made a connection between anorexic and obese cultures. Of course, as I sat here to write about it, I can’t find the quote, so it’s possible that I’m remembering it incorrectly, but the gist is that anorexic cultures consciously exclude and push things away, whereas an obese culture has to inject and absorb all they can. I don’t think anyone could refute the fact that America is an obese culture – our weight epidemic is famous around the world (perhaps more as a joke than as a serious medical concern), but it’s not just our material gluttony that is making us obese. It is also our mythological gluttony.

When I started writing my Master’s thesis a billion years ago – okay, maybe a million – I compiled a list of children’s/young adult literature that stood out at the time as prominent myths in literature and cinema – Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, His Dark Materials, Eragon/Inheritance. Some of these you can see on my Essays page. But, as I was nearing my due date and graduation deadline, it finally dawned on me that all of these stories, save one, are not American. Big oops, especially since I was trying to write about American myth.

But what I’ve since come to realize is that we are living in a culture of too many myths to choose from. Those from the other side of the pond are just as potent for us as those we create for ourselves (and in some cases, more potent). Lately, I’ve been distracting myself from the inevitable research by watching TV shows on Netflix Instant: Avatar: The Last Airbender, Heroes, Dr. Who.. All of these tap into something in the cultural unconscious that needs expressing. Of those three, only one is profoundly American.

With the global market being what it is, we have the opportunity to chose whatever we want – we can have our myths in any media, at any time, and we can change our mind about them on whim. But for myths to really work, can the Have It Your Way model really work? Or are we just overloading our circuits?

Disneyland and dissertating

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October 1 is right around the corner. That means hardly anything for you, except maybe a paycheck and a season change, but for me, October 1 marks the beginning of the most difficult project I have ever endeavored: the Dissertation. While I’m confident that my dissertation-writing process won’t be nearly as painful as the fabled stereotypical experience, I am nonetheless intimidated by the process. The original reason this blog exists was to have a place to document RoundTable business for my Joseph Campbell Foundation RoundTable. I’m in the process of passing that hat to someone else, leaving me with a blog with a paid domain name without an otherwise specific purpose. I thought I would attempt to blog about the process with some sort of daily (or at least weekly) check-in, and maybe someone out there in Cyberland will read it, making the process a little less lonely.

My dissertation topic is fun—Disneyland and American myth. While that could be a huge endeavor, there’s no way possible to make Disneyland not fun. Sure, there are many out there who don’t care for it. To those people, I offer a Mickey Mouse Balloon and a lolly. The real challenge is writing about American myth. It’s easy to identify the stories in the culture that comprise the mythos, but to get at the real heart of the mythic symbolism—now that’s a challenge and a half. I’m not sure Americans as a whole are even aware what their myths. I don’t mean Paul Bunyan and George Washington’s Cherry Tree, but, rather, the archetypal images behind those stories.

Where does Disneyland come in? Since 1955, Disneyland has served as both a sort of museum of these cultural myths AND creates – imagineers – how we perceive/interpret/understand/relate to these myths. While each land in the park captures the essence of each myth, we now define these myths by the Disney version. I don’t suggest that that’s a bad thing. I happen to like the Disney version a lot. But it has caused an interesting tension in our culture between Disneyphiles and Disneyphobics.