The Mythology of Exceptionalism
Okay, nerds, get ready to be offended. Ready? Go read this post by David P. Goldman. Deep breaths, folks.
Let’s skip past the bit about “obese, pimply-faced losers” and the fairly childish vitriol that accompanies it. The guy doesn’t like Harry Potter – fine. It doesn’t make him Hitler. I’ve ranted at length about such snobs and their churlish insistence upon their flavor of storytelling’s superiority over some other version, and I’ve no need to do so again. What I want to focus on here is the inherent hypocrisy and ignorance of Goldman’s central thesis.
Goldman takes aim specifically at Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth as espoused by his classic work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Goldman dislikes it, and in his article he claims the following:
Skywalker/Potter/Siegfried are a carryover of the pagan idea of heroes, which is simply the pagan idea of a god: a being who is like us, but better. Campbell claimed that the “hero” of this ilk is a universal myth, but that is plainly false.
He then goes on to claim that both the Bible and Chinese narrative lack heroes in this sense – in that latter instance, they are instead “a humble lad who works harder than anyone else, and isn’t too proud to start by carrying slop buckets in the kitchen of the martial arts school.” Goldman seems to insist that China, rather than being ruled by a hereditary aristocracy, was instead ruled by mandarins (bureaucrats) and compares it to being ruled by the equivalent of the Havard faculty. This dovetails nicely with his opinion of the Biblical “hero”, who is not god-like, but rather earnest and hardworking and hardly qualifying as heroic.
Okay, so first off, this entire premise of the argument is bunk, pure and simple. The supposition that Campbell’s thesis is plainly incorrect and that his heroic mythology
isn’t found in the Bible or in Chinese folklore is patently false, demonstrating both a misunderstanding of Campbell and betraying a blind prejudice on Goldman’s part. Not only is the Campbellian monomyth entirely supported by both the Bible and Chinese folklore, the latter is directly cited in Campbell’s work on many occasions (it seems as though the depth of Goldman’s knowledge of Chinese myth is limited to kung fu movies). In the Bible’s case, the monomyth is repeated time and time again. Take the story of Moses: Moses is called to adventure when he flees into the wasteland. He crosses into the magical world at the foot of the burning bush, and he returns later to Pharaoh’s court bearing knowledge and power. This happens to Jonah, to Abraham, to Job, to Paul, and to countless other prophets and heroes that fill the Bible through both testaments. To say Campbell was antisemitic is fine (he was disdainful of the Jewish religion, certainly), but he did insist upon the power of their folklore, which is in large part what the Bible is made up of.
Goldman, here, is quibbling over the details and missing the larger narrative. Yes, Moses doesn’t have god-like power himself – he is granted it by God. That, however, isn’t substantially different from the power granted to King Arthur when he draws the sword in the stone or to Theseus when he takes Ariadne’s string into the labyrinth. In all monomyths, the power granted to the heroes does not originate in themselves, per se, but rather are rewards granted to them for their behavior and, frequently also, their lineage. The fact that Moses is a descendant of Abraham, though, and therefore special by blood (and this is of significant import in Exodus) seems to elude Goldman. We could play the same game with Chinese folklore and myth (fact: the Chinese maintained a hereditary aristocracy from about 1000 BC until 1911), but I feel I’ve made my point here.
The underlying reason for Goldman’s distaste for Campbell and, by extension, modern fantasy literature has less to do with Campbell’s work and more to do with Goldman’s willful blindness to the clear and apparent similarities Christianity has with other stories. Goldman wishes Christianity to be special and unique and, while it certainly has unique qualities, it is structurally similar enough to all other mythology to make it part of the broad tapestry that makes up Campbell’s theory. Heroes are us, only better. Period. The only thing that changes is what constitutes “better.” For the ancient Greeks, they wanted heroes of strength and cleverness who were willing to stand up to the tyranny of their capricious gods. For the Chinese, they want humility and filial piety, which means their heroes follow slightly different paths, but all well within the bounds of the monomyth. In the Bible, the Christian hero is selfless and faithful, obeying their God and sacrificing their well-being for the well-being of their people. It’s the same sales pitch, just with a different product to sell.
That, though, is upsetting to guys like Goldman – real America’s Americans who believe in Jesus and Built the Railroads (on Irish and Chinese backs). The theory that their deeply-held stories are, in actuality, just another version of a story as old as humanity itself and in no way exceptional, is hard to swallow. Why, then he’d be no better than we “obese, pimply-faced losers,” clinging just as tightly to his own personal fairy stories to make him feel better about himself. We can’t have that, now can we?
Posted on December 3, 2014, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged Bible, Campbell's Monomyth, David P. Goldman, fantasy, Harry Potter, hero, Star Wars. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.