Monday, July 22, 2019

The Odyssey


- We're not meeting as often as we used to. Is something happening with you?
- What would you like to talk about?
- Stories.
- You think my problem, if I have a problem, is that I'm in the wrong kind of story?
- I'm not accusing you of anything. I know you've given some thought to stories, we've gone into it together, and I want to tell you what I think now.
- I'll tell you what's going on in my life: a bad example of a good story.
- What makes a story bad?
- It doesn't mean enough.
- Of Christopher Booker's seven basic plots - rebirth, tragedy, comedy, voyage and return, the quest, rags to riches, the monster - which would your story be?
- Voyage and Return, but the long drawn out type, as in the ten year journey of return home in the Odyssey, stuck in the middle with many episodes of capture and escape, over and over again, capture and escape; I'm equally far now from memories of being at home and from hopes of return.
- And that is a bad story to live through. Though departure and return is good?
- Not exactly bad, say rather a hard story to live through. 
- And a hard story does not necessarily mean more meaningful.
- Correct. Are we done?
- We've just begun, be patient. You don't see any value in the numerous episodes of capture and escape? Is it that you want to get back home, for you value is in being home, you don't care at all about the stories themselves of you attempting to get there, you don't pride yourself on the ordeals passed through.
- No, I don't. 
- There are others who place value in stories exactly opposite to the way you do, others who value the stories of departure and return more than the life left behind and returned to.
- Who, for example?
- Joseph Campbell. I'm sure you know him and his theory of one basic form to all the world's myths. His books have sold more than a million copies.
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day to a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. In laying out the monomyth, Campbell describes a number of stages or steps along this journey. 'The hero's journey' begins in the ordinary world. He must depart from the ordinary world, when he receives a call to adventure. With the help of a mentor, the hero will cross a guarded threshold, leading him to a supernatural world, where familiar laws and order do not apply. There, the hero will embark on a road of trials, where he is tested along the way. The archetypal hero is sometimes assisted by allies. As the hero faces the ordeal, he encounters the greatest challenge of the journey. Upon rising to the challenge, the hero will receive a reward, or boon. Campbell's theory of the monomyth continues with the inclusion of a metaphorical death and resurrection. The hero must then decide to return with this boon to the ordinary world. The hero then faces more trials on the road back. Upon the hero's return, the boon or gift may be used to improve the hero's ordinary world, in what Campbell calls, the application of the boon.*
What you find hard to take, the repeated episodes of capture and escape all while far from home, for Campbell is one heroic journey after another, is the life story of a hero repeatedly daring to seek his bliss. In Campbell's words:
Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives. [...] The artist is meant to put the objects of this world together in such a way that through them you will experience that light, that radiance which is the light of our consciousness and which all things both hide and, when properly looked upon, reveal. The hero's journey is one of the universal patterns through which that radiance shows brightly. What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss.
Why do you think what depresses you is for Campbell an ideal life? He talks of daring, a  strong will to pass through ordeals, to test oneself. He talks of ordinary life voluntarily left behind to seek one's bliss, he talks of gaining power. Whereas you see yourself as having involuntarily been ejected from, not ordinary life, but a life of love, of having been betrayed and having no choice but to go through your Odyssey-like repeated captures and escapes. Is that a correct summary?
- Yes.
- I'll tell you about my intellectual journey in the last weeks I've been deprived of your company. I'd been thinking about what kind of life would teach one to be willing to admit one's mistakes, and make one prefer to be corrected than be left uncorrected and wrong about the world. Was there, I wondered, one kind of life story that would have that result?
- And?
- And this was in the back of my mind as I came across on YouTube the six hours of TV interviews Campbell gave near the end of his life. Strangely, he reminded me of our president, Donald Trump. 
- Stunned by my betrayal, you spent that time in the strange world, mythic world of a Trump-like Joseph Campbell.
- Like you're something of a joker, Campbell's something of a bully, an authoritarian. I checked the Internet for articles about him. Indeed, there were accusations of antisemitism, of his being in sympathy with Fascists and Nazis during the war.
- And what did you make of that?
- It raises the question whether Campbell's monomyth, the one basic story to life which gives structure to life, had the same kind of story that Fascism had, and of which you have given a definition: individuals who each separately feel weak join together in a group to follow a leader who tells them of the necessary task: expel the enemy hidden within responsible for all their troubles and be then strong again.
- Campbell would say that his hero was not today's isolated man, overspecialized by his work and distracted by his entertainments, but a strong and independent hero.
- But consider the form of the story: from ordinary life, to strange supernatural, back to a more powerful ordinary life. Campbell's hero begins isolated, ends with the power to be even more isolated, but passes through an unfamiliar world in which he loses himself and his independence, is forced to undergo what all must undergo or lose self respect. Whereas in the kind of story you advocate we start in the social world of love, pass through a strange world in which we individually, experimentally disguise ourselves, with no commitment to following any one path or to being one sort of person or another - which lack of commitment includes being or not being the kind of person who is right all the time. In Campbell's story the self is not much. It is not free to duck out of supposedly universal ordeals; the self is a thing to be seen through to reach a higher consciousness, gained by force of will passing through ordeals and achieving new power. Which of the two kinds of story can we imagine a fascist leader tells to assemble a mass of followers around him? Obviously he tells Campbell's, where uniformity in following the same story comes easy to people who believe they are compelled to participate in ritual, who are interested not in facts, in things themselves, but seeing through them to attain power, higher consciousness, and bliss.
- And all of whom must follow the same script, stick to the same story, any story, if they are to achieve the security that group ritual practice provides.
- Hannah Arendt wrote: 'What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.'
- The truth of the story doesn't matter, because truth and falsity are extraneous to what is wanted and delivered by participation in the ritual performing crowd. And so you have an answer to your question, what kind of story teaches people to be willing to admit to being wrong, and what kind teaches not to admit to being in the wrong.
- Those who won't admit to being wrong are those who must follow the ritual script, be in agreement with the others doing so, who start from isolation and weakness, achieve a higher consciousness in seeing through the things of life that is the hero's journey, and who end back in isolation but newly strengthened. 
- Yes.
- And now too is your own intellectual journey over without even having to admit you've been wrong, the practice you claim to have discovered the training for.
- Almost over. I found this just published study about the effects of divergent political views upon the group editing of Wikipedia:
As political polarization in the United States continues to rise, the question of whether polarized individuals can fruitfully cooperate becomes pressing. Although diverse perspectives typically lead to superior team performance on complex tasks, strong political perspectives have been associated with conflict, misinformation and a reluctance to engage with people and ideas beyond one’s echo chamber. Here, we explore the effect of ideological composition on team performance by analyzing millions of edits to Wikipedia’s political, social issues and science articles. We measure editors’ online ideological preferences by how much they contribute to conservative versus liberal articles. Editor surveys suggest that online contributions associate with offline political party affiliation and ideological self-identity. Our analysis reveals that polarized teams consisting of a balanced set of ideologically diverse editors produce articles of a higher quality than homogeneous teams. The effect is most clearly seen in Wikipedia’s political articles, but also in social issues and even science articles. Analysis of article ‘talk pages’ reveals that ideologically polarized teams engage in longer, more constructive, competitive and substantively focused but linguistically diverse debates than teams of ideological moderates. More intense use of Wikipedia policies by ideologically diverse teams suggests institutional design principles to help unleash the power of polarization.**
Look at the journey of the group editing like this: In the beginning, the community of editors are at home with each other, proud of their group undertaking. Then, especially in political articles, they fall out with each other. But in the give and take of the supernatural would of disagreement they in the end reach homecoming in the production of a superior article all can be proud of participating in the making of, some giving up part of their positions, some not, but this of no importance compared to a peaceful homecoming. Ok, that's all. Have I cheered you up any by my storytelling?
- I think you have. And what about you? Have you been following your bliss, have you caught up to it in the art-work like beauty of the story of your search, the story bringing you to a heightened consciousness, which you've been kind enough to put on display to me? Or is that not you?
- It's not me. Maybe I'd say, if I didn't think you'd make a joke of it, how relieved I am to be able to leave that whole story behind and simply be happy we're talking again.

Further Reading:
Noam Chomsky & Mental Things
MyWife Who Throws Me Out
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* Wikipedia