Creative Heroism I

~ I recently {finally} read The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. It is a seminal work of comparative mythology, in which Campbell asserts that a singular ‘monomyth’ underlies the structure of ancient storytelling across the world. Simply put, within our primordial state as a species, in our myth-making and tales of heroes and gods, we unconsciously structured such narratives within this common framework, and for good reason. It occurred independent of any form of mass communication between nations, and oft pre-dated even the written word. This phenomenon is posited to be due to both nature {biology} and nurture {culture}, all of which is rooted within the duality of our conscious and unconscious human mind. The rationale for this cross-cultural development is based within our complex psychology in this way, and the resulting stories we have crafted for millennia represent the compulsion of Mankind to make sense of the inherent chaos of the world around him.

The overall concept is fascinating, and I recommend the book to anyone. And in a grand way, I wish to discuss it here, among other things, within this essay. What started as a riff on many different but related ideas running around within my mind, became a kind of manifesto concerning why I think creating is the most important and imperative thing there is, and for good reasons. The resulting work is my attempt to coalesce all this together into something {semi-}coherent, even resembling a narrative itself. It is written as a stream of my own consciousness {not unlike a Dream}. In my readings and contemplations heretofore, I believe I have ascertained and documented a kind of natural connective structure to understanding the mental and emotional blending of such integral concepts familiar to us all: myth, storytelling, psychology, philosophy, creativity, life-meaning, heroism. At least for me personally, this understanding sets itself into place, all coming together in a progression, like a puzzle.

As in an abstract, I won’t tell you here where this ends up, or why I chose the title ‘Creative Heroism.’ You will have to read everything here to get there, same as I did. I know this is all ground tread upon before, namely by Campbell and Jung. But interpreting it all, and writing it out myself, crystallizes it into the psyche in ways that reading about it never can. I hope you find value in these words as well.

PART I: SINGULAR DREAMS & COLLECTIVE MYTHS

“Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche. But in the dream the forms are quirked by the peculiar troubles of the dreamer, whereas in myth the problems and solutions shown are directly valid for all mankind.

~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

Everyone dreams. I speak of ‘dreams’ of both the conscious, wakeful, grand kind {i.e. the Dream of becoming an astronaut, an author, an actress} and the unconscious, somnolent, odd kind {i.e. the dreams at night when we are asleep, of friends, foes and monsters acting out absurdities upon impossible settings within our subconscious mind}.

Dreams and dreams are both universal. Dreams of the day are desire; Dreams are a reflection of our minds’ vision for us, and thus, who we are inside. Or who we might wish to become. The dreams of the night are strange and inescapable, just like the body’s many unseen and constant processes necessary to keep us upright. This strangely powerful canvas of nocturnal experience specifically {pre-dating even our consciousness} speaks to us. We may not listen or understand, in sleeping or waking, but dreams do speak. And oddly enough, when we talk about our Dreams, everyone listens. In conversing of them, we always hold one of our own we can relate with. I think we listen because we intuitively understand that Dreams are Truth for a person, one way or another. We want to know how someone plans to achieve their Dreams, and we yearn to see it play out. We do this to share in their glory and perhaps to aid in our own quest.

Why do we dream? Within our dreams, both literal and figurative, we hash out our vast subconsciousness. This can happen with or without efficacy. Sometimes our dreams {during sleep} make no sense to us, they are an unrecognizable mess of sights and sensations with no apparent meaning unto us. These kinds of reveried misadventures we forget about, easily and without a fuss. {Or so we believe}. Alternatively, the Dreams {during waking} we have about the life we wish to lead, can go for season after season without any steps toward realization, becoming increasingly untethered from the reality we find ourselves in. {A Dream, such as becoming a noteworthy person, is never fully consummated, to our eyes.} These Dreams, broken upon the shores of our conscious realm, cause us great suffering and we cannot forget them, or even move on with our life course before reconciling ourselves with their deconstruction. And it is because in bypassing that imagined world we’ve constructed within our Dream, we have failed to self-actualize. {Or so we believe}.

There are opposing parallels to both kinds of experiences:

In our subconscious dreams, we place ourselves elsewhere, in a mix of the familiar and fantastic, to unknown ends. {I am naked in a strangely familiar place and unprepared for an unfamiliar examination and everyone is looking at me, laughing. Why?}

In our conscious Dreams, we envision ourselves ascended, idealized, and working towards a known end we yearn for. {I am a well-respected artist, admired by my peers and loved by my fans. This is my summit.}

Obviously, this second instance — the Dream — is of much greater concern to us. We all seek to self-actualize. {i.e. become our very best self.} Achieving our lifelong Dreams has everything to do with this. In comparison, our nightly escapades within the world of the sandman are relatively meaningless to us, if only peculiarly striking for a moment or two. This is, of course, different for every person and the amount of intellectual and emotional investment they put into the potential significance of the symbols within their dreams. However, it is true that both of these types of ‘dreams’ deal upon a common canvas, as if in a duet of meaningful dance. To my eye, both kinds of dreams are working with the same material. I speak of a pair of innate phenomena defining both experiences, and known to us human beings:

1) the unconscious, {unknown, chaotic} mind, and

2) storytelling

Joseph Campbell’s thinking, and many of the ideas making up the thesis within his works, such as The Hero With A Thousand Faces, were influenced by Dr. Carl Jung. A 20th century psychiatrist and psychoanalyst of great renown, Jung’s own life’s work dealt primarily within the area of the unconscious mind of Man, and its vast psychological causes and effects. Similar to Campbell, Jung’s own thinking and research within the realm of psychology was also influenced by ancestral cultures and myths and their methodic commonalities across time and place. The concept of Campbell’s monomyth, and of Jung’s collective unconscious, are certainly a synchronous cooperation of concepts, if not one and the same on many levels.

Jung’s brand of psychoanalysis dealt primarily with the subconscious and the chaos of everything existing within one’s mind beyond direct introspection or experience. People repress memories. We forget about the things that happen to us in childhood. We take in stimuli from the world around us all the time and fail to notice its import. All of these things still play into our individual personality and inner psyche, and we are not conscious of it. Thus, the existence of this unconscious element of our mind.

For Jung, often the best way to access and gather information about this realm was through the interpretations of the dreams of his patients. He believed via a recounting and analysis of one’s dreams, one could {theoretically} gather imperative data for the pursuit of self-understanding, “individuation” and the comprehension of one’s particular psyche and its current state.

Essentially, Jung said that dreams are objective signifiers for psychic truths about us. ‘Objective’ meaning unabashedly unbiased. This is because dreams spawn from the real, if chaotic, contents of our unconscious. And our unconscious realm is defined by a profound lack of personal, or subjective, control. We do not dictate the process of its induction; we have little choice in what exactly enters the hold of our subconscious layers, when or why certain events or notions are repressed or forgotten, or how it all might release itself later in sleeping or waking. Thusly, our dreams, sourcing from this personalized chaos, do not come from nowhere, even if it sometimes feels like it.

{note: The true efficacy of dream analysis to the eyes of modern psychology is debatable; Jung’s theories are not without fair criticism. But it is nevertheless true that: 1) we all dream {even other animals do}, 2) it’s a universal experience with both known and unknown functions, and 3) we all try, on some level, to understand our dreams’ events or origins. Unto the human condition and our psychology, I think it’s clear the seminal value of dreams is secured in these ways.}

So for a general person, what is the unconscious, this phenomenal clearinghouse for dreams, comprised of? The unconscious is made up of a jumble of automatic sensations, instincts and unnoticed, forgotten or repressed stimuli that we have experienced at some point in our past. Our massive, inarticulate unconsciousness, wielding its strangely near-perfect memory, keeps all of this in mind {or un-mind}. If we were to know it’s contents — whether we found them good or bad, interesting or boring, causing suffering or resulting from it — it’d all be there, whether we wanted it or not. And every night these bits of ourselves escaping conscious experience come together upon our trip into unconsciousness. To do what? What is dreaming? It is none other than our subconscious mind’s attempt at creating a narrative from this chaotic canvas. It is our unconscious self trying its hand at telling a story, with characters, setting and conflict from within everything that is not presently conscious for us, but can be. These narratives and their underlying structure come naturally to us in our dreams {even if they are totally whack}.

So in sum: The deepest, most primal, part of ourselves induces us into sleep, these repetitive bouts of prolonged unconsciousness absolutely necessary for us to not die {or if deprived of its consistency, to simply be at all a productive being making its way in the world. Good. sleeping. habits. are. imperative.} It all happens out of instinct, it’s involuntary. And thus, we spend a considerable portion of our lives {about 1/3rd of it} in a state where our subconscious self can just … play around within the whole of our unremembered livelihood.

Wild.

To what end? Biologically, the inactivity of sleep allows our body to rest and repair itself. It’s no different for our psyche. It just requires a different kind of rest — paradoxically, this free playing— and a certain component structure to work within, in order to maintain and reconcile itself for us at the end of each day.

In the process of sleep {and sometimes in introspection}, we gather up the all-powerful contents of consciousness {people, emotions, events, experiences, memories, and everything else we are learning about surviving and thriving in waking life within our special sentience, which separate us from beasts} to be organized and put to work. Then, we combine it with the freely or forcefully forgotten aspects of our prior experiences {our unconsciousness}, so we can attempt to create something out of it all — a dream. In REM {rapid eye movement} sleep, a dream is produced. Consistently, something sensory is created for us in the theater of our dreams. Something strange, yet bounded, and with a chronology, and a movement through time and space, and with oppositions and outcomes, terrors and triumphs. Something relevant, and meaningful to us in ways our consciousness may understand. Something like a narrative, a story. In our unconsciousness’ communication to our consciousness, we try to turn our personal chaos into order.

I say ‘attempt’ and ‘try’ because often it fails. {Or so we believe.} The absurd embarrassment of the naked dream self galavanting through a place unknown to us, misses all the marks of any kind of positive wish fulfillment, carries no semblance of apparent cogency, and has no impressive effect upon us beyond revulsion or confusion or disappointment. This effect might very well be the subconscious’ intention, to spur us towards some kind of conscious change in our behavior or thinking. Or it might just be at play, with no heed to our reaction. We don’t know, do we? There may or may not be an intention, or any hint of desire within these nocturnal creations. Despite that, one might still find it worth exploring, or at least worthy of a charitable understanding of the forces in play — the origins of the dream contents much more of our concern than the content itself. But ultimately, our unconscious self remains unknown. This is its nature.

In the end, I think {nocturnal} dreams are what we make of them. This does not lessen their power. A genuine commitment to dream interpretation holds singular value. Our perceptive interpretations of what we think our unconscious is trying to tell us is the whole game. In trying to come to an understanding of our true self, and of the minutia of our unconscious’ truest desires or causes or effects, as displayed in dreams and their strange motifs, themes and symbols — I suspect it is indeed turtles all the way down. We can’t ever really get to the bottom of it {us}, because that very investigation is part of the process and also is further influencing the end conclusion all the time; within our self-discovering reveries, we deign to seek out Schrödinger’s soul. It’s a Sisyphusean effort. Our dreams may or may not have objective meaning. We cannot really know for certain.

I believe what matters most in this regard {of understanding dreams, and understanding our unconsciousness therein} is our exploration, our intent, and our own conscious judgments of what we see within  —  whatever it may be. The way we try to make sense of our dreams is revealing in its own right, subjectively speaking. These kinds of judgments are the ones that matter. No matter how much we may try, we cannot rid ourselves of our judgments, even and especially concerning ourselves. And these judgments hold incredible opportunities of self-discovery for us when observed and inspected.

For what is consciousness other than an attitude, or more to my point —a story our body and mind’s faculties are telling us about what it conceives within our chosen reality, navigated via a mosaic of perceptions and judgments.

Consider that this unconscious process of dreaming, despite all its oddities and logical loose ends, should not be foreign to us in its structure and ending purpose. It is a narrative. In this respect, our unconscious time in sleeping is not so different than our conscious time in waking — in both instances, it is absolutely necessary that we use the salient materials from both realms to tell ourselves stories.

~

Remember that Dream, about becoming a noteworthy person — an astronaut, an author, or an artist, or an actress, or an entrepreneur, a creator, a changer of the world. This is none other than a story {Let’s call it Story 1}. And when one believes it to be unachievable for whatever reason, and every day is passing them by without movement towards its actualization, due to their own fallibility, that is another story, or a collection of stories in of themselves. {Let’s call this alternative, Story 2}. The story {or stories} is our consciousness’ singular and dynamic way of making its way in the world, and of understanding reality in an effective and affective way. Effective in that it makes perfect sense to our sense of self to be the protagonist at the heart of a compelling story; and affective in that the stories work upon our emotions, our consciousness’ strongest resource.

Each story is built out of the components of our life: events and environment, our beliefs and knowledge, our hopes and our despairs, all built up over time. They are the results or sources of our most serious conflicts. Initially, each story presents itself unconsciously. The one we play out within is up to our consciousness, and where we may direct it with our choices in life. In thoughts, words, and actions over time, we try to consciously turn that story into our life. “I am going to work towards my Dream by taking these actions, having these thoughts, and putting myself into these positions.”

Elements of Story 1 — {I can achieve my Dream, and I will. I know it will take hard work and a certain amount of risk. I must embrace this uncertainty, and be diligent with my time, if I wish to achieve it. And I will. My Dream is well within my grasp; my Dream is my fate.}

Elements of Story 2 — {I cannot achieve my Dream, and I am at fault: I am not good enough; I screw everything up, it’s my fate / The world is at fault: I was born into unfortunate circumstance; Other people are holding me back and I cannot escape them. I cannot escape my lesser fate. My Dream is broken.}

These stories are ones we have consciously created over our life course and are telling to ourselves. And either way, we need them. Like dreams in sleep, they are just as necessary for us. One story or another, or many, are experienced internally, to ourselves, one way — and — externally, to others, another way. This gap between the two versions — what we think about our own story versus how we tell others about it — has consequences of its own and might even become a third story. And if one loses ground, another takes its place. These stories do not always need to be at cross-purposes. But they always exist. They are always there, being regularly crafted by us and expressed and revised and revealed.

So it can be said that stories fill up both our conscious and unconscious mind. And that is just concerning ourselves. Our dreams are singular, in both senses of the word.

The question inevitably comes: Why? Why do we need to tell ourselves stories, consciously and unconsciously? And why is it so intuitive and imperative, for us ultimately achieving something like self-actualization, that we try to tell ourselves good stories, or at least, continuously better ones?

We come to find that stories are a medium of not only self-discovery, but of relationship-building.

When one looks at history, at our own evolution, at the steady formation of ancient and modern culture across the globe, or within oneself via serious reflection, it’s self-evident: We tell stories, and share them, so that we may better understand ourselves and one another.

And we as a people do this all at scale in the form of myth-making.

~

The monomyth and the collective unconscious are the grandest kinds of stories we have, the grandest dreams of culture. As Joseph Campbell lays it out within his work, it is featured as a kind of inherent substructure within culture {and thus, within human consciousness}. The tenets of the monomyth, and its embedded symbols, archetypes, and conflicts, are impactful to our sense of self-discovery, featuring both causes and effects unto those singular self-stories we deal in as individuals.

Consciously, the common components of the monomyth cause us to dream up and live out stories resembling the dragon slayer’s journey into the mountain — because it’s a good {badass and operable} way of looking at the course of our existence; Unconsciously, the monomyth is also the effective, abstract lense through which we can view life, always full of broken dreams, crosses into underworlds, loss, suffering, triumphs, trials, and elixirs — because it’s all True. There is an unconscious signature upon us, an effect of our culture. Those things happen to us too, thus, they touch us.

Based upon long-standing historical observation and a study in comparative mythology, the usage of the monomyth is generated from this inherent call within us to create emotional and effective stories. We as a society have been making these grand stories all the time — about ourselves and our lives and experiences, and of the known and unknown forces shaping us. And we do it {or it’s done for us} because we wish to understand and love ourselves, and others. In this way, the monomyth and its hero is a relatable dream we have all been sharing since the dawn of our consciousness.

~

A myth is none other than a concerted storm of symbols, generalized across a society’s populace and foundational to its understanding of the phenomena local to its own circumstance in time and place. It’s a story Man creates to explain or glorify, or deify, some aspect of his experiential reality. {And you may notice through the course of this writing I use “myth” and “story” interchangeably. It is purposefully.} They are often linked to spirituality and religion, the most transcendent form of an understanding we can wield about ourselves, personally and within the larger community.

Myths relate the origin stories of every single thing we experience in the world around us, including our own creation and that of the cosmos we inhabit {The Sun is God. The stars: Gods. Those trees? Gods. This rock? You better believe it. That guy? Hrm…} They are brought forth with discernible, relevant symbols in tow and patterns baked with some kind of synthesis of the vital forms of pathos, ethos, and logos. At their heart, myths are stories possessing innate and absolute meaning to us.

There is an entire art dedicated to doing what Campbell concisely tries to gather together in a single text {known as comparative mythology}. Such systematic comparisons illuminate the simple fact that there are profound parallels and elemental recurrences within the words of ancient storytellers. There are as many mythologies as cultures. In all the ways a gathering of people might manage it, myths convey the conditions of what it means to be human.

Mythic characters, both mortal and divinely composed, exemplify the good and evil we see within our world, and their mighty, inevitable clashes. Their stories relate the significance within suffering and death, as well as the triumphs and glories of heroism and the fight for something greater than oneself. Just as in living, we are innately tasked with negotiating the finite {our singular, mortal life, our time and space and circumstance} with the infinite {the cosmos, our choices and possibilities}, there is a common metaphorical thread in myths of the interplay between Mankind and God(s) to try and reflect this struggle.

I would go as far as to say a myth’s job, if such terminology can be used, is to bring together the opposites, the contradictions, and the ambiguities of our inner and outer worlds, towards a more enlightened and meaningful perspective for our time here. Life and death, good and evil, order and chaos, progression and regression, consciousness and unconsciousness. These are the very things which make us restless, and that we struggle to reconcile ourselves with. This is why we like myths, and why we are drawn to consuming and creating them. In the exact same way, and serving the same ends I think, this is why we like art as a whole. And why we work so hard to create it.

Each myth carries a moral {take care in flying afore the sun / expect consequences when you try to play god / progress always demands sacrifice / in one way or another, hubris is Man’s inevitable downfall}. There is something learned from the story that we can take with us as we move forward in our life. Morals inform our personal philosophies and collective systems of lawmaking and ruling. Perhaps most importantly, they serve to grow our self-awareness. Myths are carried with us in this way; we have carried them for all time.

Humanity autonomously engendered myths everywhere in the world, across all cultural contexts, at all times and within all kinds of conditions, with a latent, universalized endgame {i.e. the monomyth}. We are creating myths even now into modernity, just in different ways. {Books and films, all kinds of fictions play in the arena, yes — but also think a) widespread conspiracy theories, b) the advancement of the sciences and the impending conceptions of a true Artificial Intelligence as a kind of definitional God, c) all the ubiquitous paradoxes of modern life for human beings {so far outside of nature now, yet still an innate member of it}, and d) our sense of self, as a species, within The Universe and its apparent void of any other intelligent life that we can perceive {see: Fermi Paradox}. This is the stuff of our modern mythos, primarily driven by our meteoric expansion of knowledge.}

And yet, much like everyone experiences dreams of a similar mold {naked before friends, unprepared for an examination, chased by shadowy monsters, conversing or love-making with a desired companion, etc.}, many of Man’s myths, past, present and future, when stripped of their specific imagery or their locale, carry the same structures, the same progressions and lessons learned and, most importantly, meanings. This is what Campbell and Jung both illustrate in their research and writings. This is the inherent substructure of the monomyth.

~

“To grasp the full value of the mythological figures that have come down to us, we must understand that they are not only symptoms of the unconscious (as indeed are all human thoughts and acts) but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles, which have remained as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself.”

~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

Myths deal in archetypes— Heroes and Tyrants, monsters and slayers, rites of passage, journeys into dark caves, and many other traditional motifs and phenoms common across cultures, universal to our lived experience in an orderly society existing within a chaotic world. Whether or not one truly believes within the supernatural characteristics of the myth, and the religious deities making their proclamations and playing their endless games with the lives of mortals, it does not discount the effectiveness of myths in communicating their meaning through their story.

In the same way that a singular person’s dreaming is an attempt to create meaning for themselves, through the familiar structure of a narrative, a myth does the same for a group of persons on a collective, and more long-lasting, basis. The effect is all-important and it has to do with the context in which the stories are told over time. Clearly, when looking at history, and the foundational expressions of myths through time immemorial, these stories were imperative for our rich cultural tapestries to develop, as well as for our enduring survival into modernity. Myths help us navigate our collective understanding of the world. They also let us place our personalized dreams within some kind of wider framework of coherent establishment, formulated and agreed upon by the collective culture we reside within.

{{One primary point of contention I want to mention, concerning myths in the context of religion, lies with their sometimes inextricably enmeshed nature with the supernaturally transcendent as the real, as in faith-based worldviews — namely, the Messianic stories ruling the two big ones, Christianity and Islam. {i.e. there is a man in the sky and he is talking to me, this book was written by the creator of the universe, these myths indicate God wants me to eliminate non-believers, one way or another}. This kind of literalist thinking changes the nature of the myth, and thus changes the nature of the believer’s reality. My primary point with myths in this essay deals in their metaphorical, and subjective, Truths to persons and to culture — which I think is their primary value to the world — and not their literal or objective truths as physical law or real historical fact, and all of the dogmas therein associated. I believe an atheist or agnostic can draw just as much value from Jesus’ or Mohammed’s hero’s journey, as the practitioners of those religions can. Just like a Christian, Jew, or Muslim can read Greco-Roman mythologies and draw life-changing meaning from them without believing in the literal existence of Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon. All in all, I think it is possible to take all of ‘the good’ of mythology and ancient cultural storytelling, without any further transgressions caused by such beliefs in these named Messiah’s real steps upon the grounds at the cradle.}}

A single ancient myth might distill ten thousand disparate Dreams {meaning: ideals, personal goals, associated myths} within the hearts and minds of its readers, each inspired by a different, specific component within its myriad of moments and messages. In these ways, myth-making, or simply —storytelling— provides a methodology of continuous operation, ultimately for culture and meaning to be effectively and artfully transmitted across time and space to future generations.

Via a run through of comparative mythology, as Campbell performs, and a conscious comprehension of people and persons and their singular and collective dreams, we understand these stories can be told through all possible lenses of cultural and historical perspective. In all these ways, mythology is not unlike philosophy itself. The two are certainly intertwined, both cooperative and conflicted at different joints within their schemas. A certain philosophy can inspire a myth, and myths can exemplify philosophies.

Campbell ends up positing, in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, for the modern man, the mythic hero’s journey, or monomyth, is more than just an overarching metaphor to describe the structure of the old world’s mythic stories. It is alsothe foundational nature of our reality as conscious beings making our way in the world.

Just as the dreamer returns again and again to the unconscious realm, to physically recover and to mentally reunite themselves with their essential untraveled existentia :: So too do the people {i.e. a society} unceasingly dream up gods and daemons and faeries and dragons — and the hero set to face them all — in order to conduct their understanding of the world as of their mortal, historical moment, melding their known and unknown world, the conscious and unconscious, together in an endeavored synthesis.

One might put it this way:

~ The group creates a story — a myth —and god(s), to make meaning out of their life and death’s inevitability and to explore a limited understanding of the cosmos, while carrying an essay of the myth’s and the god’s transcendent interpretation;

~ The person creates a story — a Dream — tying together their life choices, their successes, and their failures, in a relevant and meaningful way, so they can assimilate and communicate their self with efficacy, to themselves and to others.

Thusly, there is this universal connecting microcosm and macrocosm of dreams and myth, respectively, in that they are the loci through which Man tells his stories; both of which are inextricably tied our consciousness’ deep-seated tendency to make meaning from our experience.

But all this leaves us with a question: Why are we so damn obsessed with meaning? And why do we need stories to communicate it for us?

~ Continued in Creative Heroism II: CONSCIOUSNESS, MEANINGFUL SUFFERING, & THE STRIVE FOR ENLIGHTENMENT