Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Strands of Fate That Bind Us: (The Death of Joseph Campbell)

“But now I find myself in need of something new which, for lack of a better word, we shall call… MAGIC!”
-Mark Frost, Harley Peyton, and Robert Engels
A crank at work.
So Joseph Campbell died in the literal middle of the comic. As in “literally at the half-way mark of the comic.” Spider-Man comes back from the dead, hand climbing out of the grave, and then Joseph Campbell dies. Kraven’s Last Hunt, a comic indebted to the work of William Blake, in terms of its’ original title being “Fearful Symmetry,” quoting The Tyger, and an ambiguity in regards to the nature of spiritual visions (be they ghosts or hallucinations), was released at a time where Joseph Campbell died.

Ok, this is going to require some explanation. Let’s start with the two players: William Blake was a romantic era poet and painter, though not himself a romantic on account of him being, among other things, working class. His visionary poetry (both in terms of the imagery within each poem and the fact that Blake was inspired by, for lack of a better term, visions of Angels, Fae, and Undead Fleas) ran the gambit of themes from “EVEN THOUGH YOU WON THE WAR, THE REVOLUTION STILL FAILED UTTERLY ON ACCOUNT OF YOUR FAILURE TO END SLAVERY, AMERICA” to “HOLY FUCK, THERE’S A FUCKING TIGER IN THE WOODS! AND IT’S ON FIRE! WHAT KIND OF FUCKED UP GOD WOULD LET SUCH A THING HAPPEN?” to “Fuck you Milton. Fuck you.”

But at the core of his themes was the rejection of the fixed nature of the universe, represented by two forces. First was that of noted Mason Sir Isaac Newton, for whom Blake notably said “May God us keep/ From Single vision & Newtons Sleep.” As Alan Moore once wrote, “For Blake, the boundaries of Newton’s thought were the cold, stone parameters of an internal dungeon to which all humanity had been condemned without its comprehension or its knowledge.” However, Newton himself is not the focal point of Blake’s horror at a fixed nature for reality, merely a major force pushing such a defined view onto the world. No, the villain (if such a singular term could be used) of Blake’s mythology would be Urizen.

Named after a pun, Urizen is the dream that comes from Newtons sleep: a bearded old man who needs everything defined, all the mysteries solved, and all things bend to his will. However, even defining Urizen by these terms was far too singular a vision for Blake, and so he spent a large portion of his career attempting to “redeem” Urizen while not going the route of many a redemption arc (the baddie falls in love with the female goodie and all is forgiven). Rather, he invents a new character called Ahania to represent the pleasurable aspects of discovery and understanding while accepting that there is so much going on in the depths of the unknown that it can never be fully quantified. Blake being Blake, Ahania is a tragic figure, never quite being the hero of her own story (which perhaps brings up a flaw in Kraven’s Last Hunt, though we’ll get to that in two entries).

The second player, and more famous of the two, is Joseph Campbell. Known throughout the humanities circles as a hack (at best), Campbell was a scholar most notable for The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a text that argues that all myths, and indeed all stories, can be boiled down into a monomyth:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into 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.
Putting aside the Blakean implications of this, the theory is far too simplistic, even in a more detailed form. It views storytelling as a mere formula of actions that can be replicated en masse to replicate a good story. Indeed, it’s so generic that there is essentially no meaning to the structure itself to the point where one can apply it to both Star Wars and (500) Days of Summer. One could argue that’s the point of the monomyth, but that just seems like it’s twisting the nature of fiction to fit a worldview rather than have what you see before you shaping the worldview. Furthermore, the “monomyth” that supposedly sums the story humanity has been telling itself over and over again is extremely Eurocentric, ignoring the stories of Asia, Africa, and other non-white cultures (for more on why this is terrible, watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The danger of a single story). It even ignores European stories such as The Pilgrim’s Progress and Frankenstein, which blatantly don’t fit the narrative. And, of course, this is an extremely masculine vision of how fiction ought to work (Campbell’s defense amounts to “Men go to war, women wait”).

So it should come as no surprise that Campbell’s work has been embraced by the wider culture and used as a cudgel against anyone interested in the humanities. Because, why study the art of fiction and how it impacts the world when it all boils down to one story about the awesomeness of straight white men? Who cares about “intersectionality” or “queer theory” when we have a formula? Can’t you just get a real job like studying how the universe isn’t actually a thing?

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, how does all of this relate to Kraven’s Last Hunt? Well consider the narrative: aside from being heavily indebted to Blake (both in terms of its visionary lead, quoting one of his more famous works, and rejecting the fixed interpretation of the lead made by the villain in favor of something more fluid), the comic rejects the principles held by the monomyth. When Peter Parker ventures forth from the common day, he gets shot in the face, stone dead. Kraven, the baddie, takes over the plot. There’s no decisive victory over Kraven as a physical threat (thematically, the text sides with Peter and gives him a decisive victory, but the monomyth cares not for mere theme). And the boon Peter “bestows” upon Kraven is essentially the same thing as going to the basement to fight the monster of your childhood, only to discover it was a rubbish mask all along. And that’s not even getting into the more detailed aspects of the “Hero’s Journey” that the text doesn’t neatly fit within.

So given all of this, and the major influence on the blog, I am reaching the conclusion that Kraven’s Last Hunt was a magical ritual to kill Joseph Campbell. Now, this isn’t to suggest that J.M. DeMatteis is yet another comic book writer who is also a magician (I refuse to make such judgments until I’ve read Moonshadow and Seekers into the Mystery and actually asked him [though, accounts show the answer is probably no]). Actual Comic Book Writing Magicians like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore tend to lean toward the concept of magic being akin to the act of creation in such a way as to make magicians out of every single artist who ever lived (Crowley, meanwhile, went even further via his suggestion that existence itself is a magical act [Do What Thou Wilt and all]). Nor is this to suggest intentionality on the parts of anyone involved in the comic (if you could intentionally kill someone with a magical ritual, then every single magician would be dead). Rather, to invoke Kieron Gillen’s magical ritual to kill David Bowie, the relationship between Kraven’s Last Hunt and the Death of Joseph Campbell is synchronicity and coincidence and poetry.

It’s not so much that one caused the other, but instead that the events work thematically together. Much in the same way Mary Whitehouse taking Doctor Who a peg down at a time where the writing staff was interested in telling stories of monstrous fools in power whose monstrosity comes from their foolishness, so to is this fitting: a story about human frailty, the failures of the heroic ideal, and other themes that I want to save talking about for when I actually get to the comic is the perfect tale to encapsulate the death of the man who popularized that ideal in the first place.

(Given this, you might suspect that I’m trying to cite an author for our existence, penning each coincidence into a coherent novel. Well, no. The question “Is there a god and do they dictate our will” is not one I think has an answer that can be found or, for that matter, one that would be satisfactory enough for us to accept. We’d keep trying to dig deeper and deeper for the answer. It’s our Ahaniatic nature that pushes us to discover the implications of our actions. For all our reason, the best of us tend to find more questions than answers. Those like Dawkins and Campbell and Phelps who claim to have found the answer to all our questions, end up feeling flat and off. There’s some aspect of their response that’s wrong, and not just because two of the ones mentioned are definitely reactionary figures [Campbell, I’m not sure about as him being a hack ended up not putting him within my field of study, though given which cultures he focused on in his Hero’s Journey theory…].
One of the points of existence isn’t the answer to the mystery, but rather the act of trying to understand that mystery from the perspective of one of the threads. Our deductions are through our interactions with the rest of humanity and solutions can only be found in messy, stupid emotions that don’t fit within the singular vision of Your Reason.
[Then again, this could all be out of spite. A lot of this talk of God was probably going to be in an entry on Gödell’s Ontological Proof I spiked due to both lacking a copy of the proof and lacking any actual connection to Kraven’s Last Hunt. At most, all that post had going for it was essentially rehashing ideas from 30-year-old Grant Morrison comics [which is only slightly better than rehashing ideas from 30-year-old Alan Moore comics]. I freely admit to not being a Mathematician, so the language of Gödel’s work was going over my head, making my case essentially “It’s the job of the humanities to explore the nature of God, not the mathematician’s”. Again, spite.])

At the same time though, it seems a bit of a cruel thing to put around the neck of a comic about the necessity of empathy. Surely there’s more the story did other than kill a scholar. Well, in truth, I don’t know. It’s easier to discover a magical ritual to kill a person than one to create a person, as the former is at the end whereas the latter is the context (From Hell, for example, argues close to 100 years after the fact that the Jack the Ripper killings were a magical ritual to bring about Adolf Hitler and sustain the patriarchy [the latter, due to the intentionality of that aspect, was a mixed bag at best]).

In the end, we cannot know for certain the effects such a work will have on the future, be they inspirations for newer works of art, fond memories that help one push forward through the dark, cruel night we call the 21st century, or merely a blog about the world that created such tales they wove. We cannot know for certain, nor do I think we’ll ever find out the full consequences of any of our answers. To do that would require ignoring stories that can no longer be told; the stories people refuse to find because they’re from sources we’d rather ignore than listen to; the stories that have yet to be told. Who knows what the future may hold for those of us invested in writing about the past. Who knows what stories we’ll find, and how many of them will be like nothing we’ve ever read before.

(Next Time: I Died For Your Sins.)

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[Photo: The Ancient of Days by William Blake]

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