Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

The Myth of Pure Experience

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.

Joseph Campbell

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.

John Locke

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.

Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love (2010)

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.

Mt Everest


  Patricia Erikson wrote @

I agree that the hero’s journey is as close to a monomyth as we might come. You ask “can we strip away our culture?” As an anthropologist, I think no, never. To do so would be to strip away the humanity we have cultivated and have had cultivated for us since birth. Can we suppress or deny some of it? Yes. Can we layer anew? Absolutely. There are those blinding moments when the paradigm within which we are raised gets busted open and we suddenly see something in a way that we could never imagine previously. If a rectangular window frame is a metaphor for the worldview through which I perceive the world, but then I have meaningful experiences in another culture that “give me new sight,” the shape of my window can change entirely; my worldview has been reshaped and what I see through that window has changed. This, I believe, is possible.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

@Patricia: I like the window metaphor. You can’t get rid of it or make a new one, but you can change its shape. Well put.

  Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock wrote @

[…] The Myth of Pure Experience […]

  Eric wrote @

This is a great post. I figure that selective corralling and ignoring of rationalism is what has propagated both the hero tale and the extreme adventurer. It’s really a highly productive ignus fatuus.
You’ve started a cool line of thought regarding the limits of the individual and culture. Here’s what I was thinking while reading. When someone attempts to achieve pure experience, culture is always already (excuse the hackneyed phrase) inscribed on that decision and action. But if we read the journey as the intentional rejection of the established bounds of culture, it sort of relates to the Freudian moment when the child recognizes that it’s an identity apart from the mother. The child still needs the mother and its personality is largely defined by who the mother is and what the mother does, but the child sees its own otherness. Maybe, if we see culture as the mother and the adventurer as the child, the moment of self recognition is what someone experiences as “true self” in a storm near Everest’s summit.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

I’m glad you liked it Eric. The analogy that you make between Freud’s mother:child :: individual:civilization is really interesting. I am agnostic about Freud and Jung, not out of pique but because I feel I’m not grounded enough in the literature (theirs or their critics) to make an informed decision. (I accept the general idea of the unconscious though). The parallel you suggest makes sense though – something that defines you but that you still seek to define yourself up against. Maybe I need to read more Freud! Thanks for the great comment.

  Online Exploration resources « Mountain Nerd wrote @

[…] you don’t get the reference). There’s lots of mountaineering history (check out “The Myth of Pure Experience” “Routes Up the Mountain” and “Mountains of the Moon“) mixed in […]

  Academics vs. Explorers « Time to Eat the Dogs wrote @

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  Damien Gildea wrote @

Excellent piece. I’d like to see more of this type of writing permeate the egotistical mumbo-jumbo of the ‘adventure’ world.

I agree with Bloom’s points, as far as they go. It leads us to admit that adventure is relative, what is extreme for one is mundane for another, but what that first person feels is real to them. Putting it into a hierarchy of extremity is for others, and if the person does not invite attention or scrutiny, they should not be demeaned for whatever level they are at.

I would suggest though that those buying adventure through guided packages are not gaining a similar, or even equal, experience that those who imagine, create and see through an ‘adventure’ by their own hand do reach. There is a depth of engagement and understanding that is (almost always) lacking in commercially guided adventure clients and that usually results in an experience that, by the participants’ own terms, is less than what they may have been hoping for.


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