“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” All of us are heroes, operating each of our own vessels made of mind and body (boats) in this journey we call life (stream). It takes a certain amount of effort and patience to develop the skills to be able to “row” one’s boat (gently), but regardless of the torturing demands of samsaric existence, one should always keep a happy face because one will eventually realize that, truly, one’s life is just a myth (a dream) of one’s own creation.
Such insightful metaphors for life from such an ostensibly innocent and commonplace nursery rhyme, don’t you say?
Apparently, all of us are in the business of rowing boats; we learn from others in the formative years of childhood and adolescence, we apply what we learn during adulthood, and we teach others as we approach old age. The sad thing is that many of us view the last line “life is but a dream” simply as an overused stock phrase that carries with it nothing of great use and significance. Why is it that majority of the people in society never, if not rarely, even reflect upon the notion that perhaps life ― with the limits it imposes on our ability to control our surroundings, the transitory nature of everything it contains, and the appearances it uses to intentionally deceive the senses ― really is a dream?
|T. C. Steele, The Boatman, 1884|
Maybe the reason is that being able to realize the dreamlike nature of life is not easy; the truth is hard to swallow. Other than that, as soon as one gains this insight, what follows is the more difficult task of finding out what the dream or myth is all about. Even one of the great thinkers of this century, the German psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, considered this his ultimate objective as we can see when he wrote:
I was driven to ask myself in all seriousness: "what is the myth you are living?" I found no answer to this question, and had to admit that I was not living with a myth, or even in a myth, but rather in an uncertain cloud of theoretical possibilities which I was beginning to regard with increasing distrust ... So in the most natural way, I took it upon myself to get to know "my" myth, and I regarded this as the task of tasks - for - so I told myself - how could I, when treating my patients, make due allowance for the personal factor, for my personal equation, which is yet so necessary for a knowledge of the other person, if I was unconscious of it?
(Symbols of Transformation of the Libido, Collected Works vol5, p.29)
Carl Gustav Jung was one of the great doctors of all time. His life’s work involved helping people know about themselves better, and this he did by analyzing their dreams (and their lives) with the aid of his knowledge of ancient symbolism, religion, mythology, mystical traditions, philosophy, and psychology. He pointed out that the unconscious speaks to us directly through the archetypes and symbols found in our dreams and that each one of our dreams can give us a great deal of information about ourselves.
|"Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart ... Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens." - Carl Gustav Jung (July 26, 1875 - June 6, 1961)|
Now if success in finding your myth corresponds to having a greater sense of awareness and knowing the direction towards which you can focus all of your life’s energy, whereas failure to accomplish this task is equivalent to spending a purposeless lifetime in a universe of infinite probabilities and everlasting uncertainty, then isn’t it a good idea for each and all of us to ask ourselves, “What is the myth that we are living?”
Myth in Films
A myth can be told through various forms of mass media, and we all know that one of the most effective of these is film (visual and auditory projections of our collective dreams, fantasies, and aspirations). When motion picture was invented, it started to evolve from being a tool for artistic expression to a medium for cultural change. If prehistoric humans and people in early societies used oral storytelling to share their myths and pass cultural values and beliefs to each member of the group, we use motion picture to do the same in our own societies.
|"...and when Edward saw the shapeshifter he was like..."|
|He believes he can fly.|
Despite the obvious fact that the information or events contained in many of the films produced today are fictitious and every so often used for propaganda, some movies still do reflect the basic elements of the myths of our past and that the stories they tell still have a significant purpose for people of various cultures; they serve as practical guides for understanding ourselves, the way we live, and the world that surrounds us.
The achievement of Carl Jung is definitely something I could reach only in my dreams, but because I was inspired by his work, I am now taking it upon myself the less difficult task of getting to know our shared myths; the stories that millions of people fall in line to see in movie theaters.
Jung often emphasized how important it is for us to establish a dialogue with the fantasy figures or contents of the psyche ― the "collective unconscious" in his term ― so that we could integrate them into our consciousness and, therefore, improve the quality of our lives. When we watch a movie, the first thing we do is to search for that central character with whom we can identify. It is with this person that we establish a deeper connection and through his or her eyes that we see how we fit into the overall scheme of things regardless of the journey’s physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, social, or spiritual significance. Accordingly, the focus of this project should be upon the life of this character, i.e., the hero.
Archetypes and Symbols
As mentioned earlier, the unconscious speaks to us through the archetypes and symbols found in our dreams and myths. In Jung’s theory, all of us are born with the collective unconscious aside from the ego and personal unconscious. The contents of the collective unconscious are what he called archetypes.
Archetypes are the structural components of the collective unconscious which are inherited and have developed through the consistent experiences of previous generations and seek expression in individual lives (The Cambridge Dictionary of Psychology, p 50). Archetypes can take on countless forms although Jung outlined five main archetypes:
- Self - the unified consciousness and unconscious of a person or 'the totality of the psyche'.
- Shadow - the part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed desires, impulses, instincts, and other qualities which the ego does not identify with.
- Anima - the feminine principle as present in the male unconscious.
- Animus - the male principle as present in the female unconscious.
- Persona - the social face or image we present to the world, which sometimes acts as a kind of mask that hides the true self.
|Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung in the film A Dangerous Method (2011)|
In film, there are also many archetypes that are symbolized by the characters in the story as well as the actors and actresses who play their roles. In his book called The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers, Christopher Vogler (author and Hollywood screenwriter) identified some of the major archetypes that we usually see in films.
- Hero- central figure in a story. Everyone is the hero of his or her own myth.
- Shadows - Villains, antagonist or enemies, perhaps the enemy within. The dark side of the Force, the repressed possibilities of the hero, his or her potential for evil. Can be other kinds of repression, such as repressed grief, anger, frustration or creativity that is dangerous if it does not have an outlet.
- Mentor - The hero’s guide or guiding principles, for example Yoda, Merlin, Gandalf, a great coach or teacher.
- Herald - One who brings the Call to Adventure. Could be a person or an event.
- Threshold Guardians - The forces that stand in the way at important turning points, including jealous enemies, professional gatekeepers, or your own fears and doubts.
- Shapeshifters - In stories, creatures like vampires or werewolves who change shape. In life, the shapeshifter represents change or ambiguity. The way other people (or our perceptions of them) keep changing. The opposite sex, the way people can be two-faced.
- Tricksters - Clowns and mischief-makers, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. Our own mischievous subconscious, urging us to change.
- Allies - Characters who help the hero through the change. Sidekicks, buddies, girlfriends who advise the hero through the transitions of life.
Of course, the archetypes are not limited to people; they can also take the form of things, places, and events. In explaining how the archetypes affect us on the psychic level through the form of symbols, Carl Jung wrote:
They are, at the same time, both images and emotions. One can speak of an archetype only when these two aspects are simultaneous. When there is merely the image, then there is simply a word-picture of little consequence. But by being charged with emotion, the image gains numinosity (or psychic energy); it becomes dynamic, and consequences of some kind must flow from it.
(Man and his Symbols p.96)
Jung added that the energy of archetypes can be focused to move people to collective action through the use of symbolic rituals and other appeals to mass emotion. Indeed, symbols have been used by people to communicate meaning, to change public opinion, and to control minds since time immemorial and, apparently, there are many sectors of society that are still extremely dedicated to this kind of activity. But what exactly are symbols? Jung described it by stating the difference between a symbol and a sign.
The sign is always less than the concept it represents, while a symbol stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. Symbols, moreover, are natural and spontaneous products. No genius has ever sat down with a pen or a brush in his hand and said: "Now I am going to invent a symbol." No one can take a more or less rational thought, reached as a logical conclusion or by deliberate intent, and then give it "symbolic" form. No matter what fantastic trappings one may put upon an idea of this kind, it will still remain a sign, linked to the conscious thought behind it, not a symbol that hints at something not yet known. In dreams, symbols occur spontaneously, for dreams happen and are not invented; they are, therefore, the main source of all our knowledge about symbolism.
It is important note that the meaning of a particular symbol varies from one culture (or even person) to another. Take for example the swastika which is associated with Nazism in the West even though it is regarded as a religious symbol in the East. In interpreting dreams, Jung stated that “no dream symbol can be separated from the individual who dreams it, and there is no definite or straightforward interpretation of any dream.” Following this line of thought, perhaps we could also say that no symbol in film can be separated from the person who interprets it; the meaning of the symbols you see depends on your own state of mind.
For those who are worried about the entities out there that carry out their evil machinations and sinister plans by manipulating the symbols we find in popular culture, be not afraid. Only those who allow themselves to be strongly conditioned by their society and the ideologies they are subscribed to extract meaning from a symbol that corresponds to the set of terror inflicted beliefs that they carry. Remember that other people are just living in their own myths. Your purpose is to find your own.
Monomyth: The Hero's Journey
Of course, one does not talk about myths without mentioning the work of the mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell was an American mythologist who became famous for identifying the basic pattern found in many narratives around the world. This pattern, he said, is found in myths, storytelling, songs, religious rituals, and even in the psychological development of individuals. He described this pattern in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and called it the monomyth or the hero's journey.
In the Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell wrote:
The standard path of the mythological adventure of a hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation—initiation—return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.
Separation: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Initiation: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. Return: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
This formula that Campbell spoke of is further divided into seventeen causally related stages that show the hero’s progressive transformation from being a “nobody” to being a “somebody” in life. To be able to understand the hero’s journey, however, allow me to give a simplified description of each stage.
|The Stages of the Monomyth|
1. The Call to Adventure – The hero receives an invitation to leave his ordinary world and head off to an unknown realm.
2. Refusal of the Call – Due to fear, uncertainty, feelings of inadequacy, or some other reason, the hero first refuses to take heed, but soon comes to his senses and leaves his known world.
3. Supernatural Aid – A guide or helper (usually a mentor) appears to help the hero during the early stages of the journey.
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold – The stage in which the hero actually steps across the line dividing the ordinary world and the realm of the unknown.
5. Belly of The Whale – The hero, now completely separated from his known world, undergoes a process involving a relatively abrupt change.
6. The Road of Trials – The hero encounters challenges and tests. Here he starts to learn the rules of the new world while he meets allies and enemies along the way.
7. The Meeting With the Goddess – The “mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World” (Campbell), which represents the experience of “divine love.”
8. Woman as Temptress – The hero encounters temptations in one form or another to test his strength in overcoming his sensual desires.
9. Atonement with the Father – The encounter with someone or something that holds the ultimate power over the hero's life as when Neo enters "The Source" and meets "The Architect" (The Matrix) or when Luke Skywalker faces Darth Vader who tells him "I am your father" (Star Wars).
10. Apotheosis – This stage is where the hero experiences a symbolic or literal death and moves beyond the dualistic world into the world of divine unity. After this stage, the hero begins his journey back to the known world.
11. The Ultimate Boon – The hero accomplishes his goal and discovers whatever it is that he seeks (the holy grail, elixir of life, enlightenment, supernormal powers, etc.).
12. Refusal of the Return – The hero hesitates to return and impart his attainment or discovery to his fellow men since he doesn't want to leave this wonderful place.
13. The Magic Flight – After receiving the blessing, the hero is given the task to return. Conversely, if the guardian of the treasure is opposed to the idea of the hero taking the treasure or even leaving this world, he will have to escape with it, and naturally, shall be pursued.
14. Rescue from Without – The hero sometimes need to be assisted by guides or rescuers in his escape or departure from this other world.
15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold – The hero must, once again, step across the line dividing the two worlds. Another symbolic death is imminent since he has to face his last and final challenge to be reborn to the ordinary world.
16. Master of Two Worlds – From a spiritual and psychological perspective, the hero becomes a master of both the inner and outer realities. He is, in a sense, “resurrected.”
17. Freedom to Live – Having extinguished fear, greed, hatred, and delusion, the hero now possesses genuine free will. He abides in the present moment and is free from the bondage of the material world.
The work of Joseph Campbell has been an influence for many people engaged in the creation of stories, and there is no doubt that many screenwriters and filmmakers make use the pattern he laid out in the monomyth to tell their tale, whether or not their masterpieces strictly follow the arrangement given above. The Terminator, The Lord of the Rings, Batman, The Matrix, Harry Potter, Spiderman, and, yes, even Twilight are just a few examples of box office hits produced within the last two decades that borrowed ideas from the hero’s journey.
Campbell’s ideas about the monomyth is akin to that of Carl G. Jung’s philosophy in life, which for the most part highlights the importance of the process of individuation (psychological integration): “Man becomes whole, integrated, calm, fertile, and happy when (and only when) the process of individuation is complete, when the conscious and the unconscious have learned to live at peace and to complement one another.” Both of them also agreed that the archetypes found in our myths and dreams reflect different aspects of the human psyche and that a better understanding of them leads to a better understanding of ourselves.
Now join me as I examine the life and journey of each of the heroes we see on the big screen. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Vanilla Sky: The Journey of David Aames (Tom Cruise) ― A science-fiction thriller film that reveals the mentally, emotionally, and physically challenging process of psychological integration. David, a young owner of a publishing company is forced to confront the contents of his own mind to achieve self-realization.