The Hero’s Journey
The hero’s journey is a story common to all human cultures. While this story varies from from place to place and era to era, there are deep structural similarities among its forms. So common were these basic structural elements that comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell called the hero story a “monomyth.”
The story has a structure that we recognize in Bible stories and big-screen films alike: a hero departs the comforts of the known world on a quest. She endures physical and emotional trials, gains wisdom, and returns home to impart lessons learned on the journey.
Campbell’s eagerness (following Jung’s) to reduce all stories to basic structures makes me a little uneasy. (Can we really blueprint all human art forms?) But in the case of the hero story, I think he was on to something. The power of the journey story does appear to have almost universal expression and a common lesson also: that we gain knowledge by our encounter with the unknown and its perils.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the monomyth is monolithic. I see two important variants: some heroes gain knowledge in their quest that adds to things they already know (e.g. Moses and Jesus). Others discard their possessions and beliefs in order to find the truth (e.g. Plato’s prisoner of the cave, Siddhārtha Gautama, and St Francis of Assisi).
Since the late 1700s, the latter variant of the hero monomyth — that one must escape civilization in order to find oneself — has gained a strong foothold in the West. Although the idea that civilization corrupts is an old one, it has blossomed with the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others.
In its most extreme form, the escape-civilization-to-find-enlightenment myth suggests that the traveler or explorer gains wisdom only when civilization is burned away by extreme experience. As climber Robert Dunn put it in 1907: explorers were “men with the masks of civilization torn off.”
Or as climber David Breashears expressed it a century later:
The idea is that all the artifice that we carry with us in life, the persona that we project—all that’s stripped away at altitude. Thin air, hypoxia—people are tremendously sleep-deprived on Everest, they’re incredibly exhausted, and they’re hungry and dehydrated. They are in a very altered state. And then at a moment of great vulnerability a storm hits. At that moment you become the person you are. You are no longer capable of mustering all this artifice. The way I characterize it, you either offer help or you cry for help.
But if the journey does its wisdom-building work by tearing off the mask of civilization, by stripping away artifice, we are left with this question:
What’s underneath the mask?
Dunn and Breashears imply that the true self is revealed: the intense experiences of the journey shear the subject of culture and its trappings. This is a comforting idea at first glance because it presumes that
1) you can find yourself by setting out on an exceptionally difficult adventure.
2) your problems are the result of your culture rather than your essential nature.
This reminds me a lot of John Locke who also believed that you could neatly separate the original self from one imprinted by civilization. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke argued that human beings begin their journey tabula rasa — as blank slates — waiting to be shaped by experience. The Lockian newborn was a human TiVo pulled from its styrofoam packing, waiting to be filled by sounds and images that would give it its special identity.
I doubt that Dunn or Breashears believe the journey can return the explorer to the perfect self of the infant. I expect they see the perilous journey as a way of re-booting the TiVo rather than wiping it clean, clear out old programming to make space for new material.
The Cult of New Experience
The important point here is this: those who think of the self as something that can be purged of culture, like a psychological master cleanse, tend to weight the power of new experience over the power of reason or ideas, to prefer the bungee jump over the writer’s retreat. In their view, traditional ideas impede our understanding rather than advance it. To access the new, we need to leave our old selves — like a pair of flip-flops — at the door.
Perhaps this obsession with the power of experience explains why so many travelers and explorer seem concerned with having “authentic” experience rather than ones they see as packaged, hybrid, or touristy. In the traveler’s search for the truly different, she must avoid experiences that carry the whiff of world left behind. She avoids the McDonalds in Karachi. She turns down the tour bus to the pyramids. She resists the urge to text-message home from the summit of Everest.
But is our faith in the uber-experience wise? Can we peel away our culture like the rind off an orange? Closer inspection shows how much culture enters the flesh, shapes us, makes us. Humans have an innate form, of course, but its a form that cannot function without an environment. So speaking about one without the other is like asking “Which do plants need more: water or light?”
Before we make pure experience the holy grail of the self-knowledge, then, we need to pay closer attention to the way humans think about these experiences.
First, authentic is a rather squishy concept. Cultures routinely borrow and import what they need from other cultures. For example, in Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert discovers herself in part through her ecstatic encounter with Italy. Italy’s authenticity is expressed through its foods: it is a place of fried zucchini blossoms and sizzling Margarita pizza. Yet the core ingredients of these foods — zucchini and tomatoes — are foreign to Italy. They are both New World species, brought back to Europe and incorporated into Italian cooking in the 19th century. What is authentically Italian experience for Gilbert was, two centuries earlier, suspiciously foreign and non-Italian.
Second, experience itself is never pure, never unmediated (as I wrote about in my recent post about Moscow). Even those experiences which seen so expressly sensory — the joy of food, sex, art — feel different according to our beliefs about them. In his book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, Paul Bloom explodes the myth of pure experience:
What matters most is not the world as it appears according to our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is. This is true of intellectual pleasures, such as the appreciation of paintings and stories, and also for pleasures that seem simpler, such as the satisfaction of hunger and lust. For a painting, it matters who the artist was; for a story whether it is truth or fiction; for a steak we care about what sort of animal it came from; for sex, we care about who we think our sexual partner really is [xii]
Can we apply Bloom’s analysis of pleasure to the explorer’s experience of pain? Does the ascent up Everest gain meaning because of the pure experience of frostbite and hypoxia? Or does it matter more that the climber is enduring such pain on the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain? The mask of civilization is not something that the climber rips away. It’s the reason the climber is there in the first place.