Coming to Terms With Campbell, or a Case Against the Hero’s Journey

By Kaveh Nasseri

When Joseph Campbell, writing in the late 1940s, coined the term “monomyth” to describe a particular kind of structure for a particular kind of story, particularities were the furthest thing from his mind; instead, the learned mythologist was on the hunt for universality, for archetypal themes with the potential to unite stories from around the globe. 

In constructing a broadly applicable template for what he called the hero’s journey, Campbell set a wildly influential precedent for narrative storytelling, drawing from Jungian psychology and religious esotericism to inspire countless works of contemporary literature, cinema, and television. What Campbell could not have predicted was the impact his work would have on the conduct of everyday people, the way the Hero’s Journey has come to be interpreted not just as a means of understanding fiction but as a means of understanding life. Herein lies the issue: your life is not a hero’s journey.

I remember being six years old and hearing from my father the story of his life: from an itinerant childhood in the mountains of Turkey to a turbulent adolescence in the midst of revolutionary Iran, soon to find himself at home in Western Europe, where he witnessed firsthand the fall of the iron curtain and walked barefoot through what remained of the Berlin Wall. I remember hearing this story and others: the stories of my mother’s immigration and my grandfather’s travels told in turn with the stories of Harry Potter and Anakin Skywalker, fact and fiction mixing together in an interminable pot of narrative stew. I remember this now because I just turned 21, and with the knowledge of aging comes the awareness of your own narrative, a vague and emergent understanding that soon it will be your turn to tell your story. 

But what story to tell? What journey am I on? Take note: the hero’s journey is one of self-discovery disguised as voyage into the great unknown. It begins and ends in the familiar haven of the ordinary world, but what happens in between is flagged by the air of extraordinary spectacle, the same air we breathe when we take in or tell of a new story for the first time. 

The elements of said journey proceed as follows: the hero receives a call to adventure and leaves the known world in search of the unmapped. Upon passing into the threshold of this brave new world, they’re faced with a series of trials, culminating in a decisive crisis that leaves them permanently altered. Having experienced profound change, the hero comes to some sort of revelation, achieves the goal of the quest, and returns home a soul transformed, endowed with the ability to spread their newfound knowledge to the world at large.

Growing up with a sizable catalog of grand and quest-like stories–each of them reflective of the monomyth in one way or another–it was never difficult to identify with the Hero’s Journey. In Campbell’s theory I had found a framework for heroic living, a narrative key graced with the potential to unlock the doors of the world and illuminate the path to higher truths.

But Campbell’s monomyth will never map directly or even tangentially onto something so categorically complex as a human life on planet Earth. Try as one might to take the most dynamic thing any of us have and reduce it to a literary formula, reality is unwavering in its refusal to be simplified. In taking Campbell’s model and applying it to our lives, are we to deny the diversity of character and complexity of plot that serve to distinguish one person from another? Are we to limit ourselves to one theory for all people, the whole of humanity boxed up and locked into a monomythic contract as absolute in conviction as it is unfeasible in practice?

“These will be the best years of your life.” That’s what my father said about college and that’s what I believed about UCLA. It’s a quote you might expect to find on the opening page of a coming-of-age novel, the first step in a narrative staircase before it spirals into a literary corkscrew of Campbellian origin. These kinds of stories have always been popular. I suspect they always will be. They operate on the same principle as a promise: namely, that reality will eventually conform to expectation. 

Today, I’m much more concerned with what happens when that promise is broken, when your expectations veer off course and crash headfirst into the steel bastions of reality. A collision is most fatal precisely when it’s least expected. To arrive in a new place full of hope and expectation, to then stand helpless as hope is shattered before your eyes–it’s a terrifying thought. The moment of truth: the instant where, frozen in time, freed of protective illusions and illusory protections, reality and expectation violently converge. What happens then is anybody’s guess; the only real certainty is that things won’t go the way you planned. A shame, really. You planned things so well.

People can’t help but feel things when they come to Los Angeles. No city, save perhaps New York (see EB White’s seminal essay on the Big Apple and everything it means to everyone it touches) lends itself more favorably to that same brand of narrative romanticism so integral to the Hero’s Journey. No need to do the heavy lifting: LA romanticizes itself. And UCLA! Here, palm trees and green leaves peaceably coexist with towering castles of Romanesque revivalism, the aesthetics of antiquity basking in the light of a California sun. Yes, Royce and Powell seem to say. These will be the good times you’ve heard so much about. 

And it must be so damn tempting to read in every tree and every flower the seed of a story, to seek in every crevice of the campus a clue to guide your path. Tempting, yes, but also unsurprising, that in the irreligious age of this 21st century we should reach out and cling to anyone or anything that carries in its satchel the promise of a purpose. In making that same promise, the Hero’s Journey knows no rival.

For narratives of the Campbellian model are each step of the way endowed with some kind of meaning. The raven perched atop your windowsill is no mere raven, it is an omen. The first thing you see when you open your eyes and the last thing you see when you close them for rest: these things are visions, telling both of what has happened and of what has yet to come. I wonder what it does to someone, what it does to the world: the need to find meaning in a place where nothing grows.

So you arrive at university fresh-faced and eager, not a person so much as a strange brew of impossible expectations. Your entire life has been a rehearsal for the theater: college, the first great milestone on the heralded path to competent adulthood, marks your onstage debut. Everyone is waiting; the air, once stagnant, has come alive with anticipation. You feel it, too. Maybe you come to school fully prepared to believe that despair has become a thing of the past, that you’ve done away with generalized sadness and existential ennui, done away with exhaustion and irritability and everything else which threatens to upset your precious balance.

Maybe you think the good times are here to stay, but life is so much more than just good times. You achieve one quest and come home to find that you still know nothing at all, that the revelation you thought you’d come to only opens the door to more questions, the big questions, questions which for want of answer penetrate the heart and paralyze the mind and leave you behind in a terrible wake of more terrible thoughts, thoughts which chew you just to spit you out, a shell of a person in a hell of a world. With each new question the cycle repeats and the nightmare recurs, fueled by the coals of an existential angst. 

The experience calls to mind not Campbell but Camus, that rare interpreter of human despair who sought to embrace the absurdity of existence instead of trying to explain it. Life for the vast majority of human beings more closely resembles the uphill battle of a Sisyphus than the hero’s journey of a Heracles, and no analysis could capture the pain – mental, physical, spiritual, emotional – of seeing the boulder you just pushed up a hill come rolling down again.

Instead of conforming to the narrow lane of the Hero’s Journey, then, reality forces itself upon your narrative and forces you – the reader, the individual, the hero – to accept some unkind truths. Not everything fits inside the monomyth. Not everything is imbued with narrative meaning. Not everything exists as a part of your story. It’s a grownup way of saying that the world does not revolve around you.

It was at the bottom of a digital rabbit hole (one of the many I frequented at pandemic’s peak) that I first encountered the word “sonder.” The aptly named Dictionary Of Obscure Sorrows defines it as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” Sonder means a lot to me. It provides a much-needed antidote, not just to what I call monomythism and not just to what the world calls narcissism, but to a particularly pervasive brand of hyper-individualism native to the USA. 

That’s a lot of “isms”, but they’re all implying the same thing: that the individual, standing robust at the center of the world, is a hero, and that everyone else must be something less. Remember, then, that everyone you see and soon forget has an inner world as rich and real and altogether heroic as your own, that each face found and then lost does carry in its pores the story of a life. In the absence of greater meaning, maybe that’s our fate: not to carry on as individuals, looking down upon a fearsome landscape, but as social animals, each of us aware of the other’s role to play. There’s something to be said for a collective approach to finding a purpose, something that the Hero’s Journey overlooks in its myopic study of the human experience.

A storybook ending is a beautiful thing, but so much of what is beautiful is never really there. There’s a part of me that can’t help but love the Hero’s Journey, the same part of me that secretly rejoices at a rom-com meet-cute and brings a box of tissues to a Pixar movie. It’s the part of me that’s most susceptible to emotional manipulation of every kind, and it’s the part of me that responds with such overwhelming feeling to something so simple as a story. This part of me limits its interaction with reality, choosing instead to make its home in the safe abode of literature, of music, of cinema, of art. I love this part of me, but it’s a complex love. I can’t let it out for fear of letting it free, because to make it free would be to make it real, to release a thing so warm and pure into a world so dark and freezing cold.

This part of me has spent so long wrapped in the kind embrace of the monomyth that it can’t fathom a world without it, can’t survive a world like ours. It’s taught me something, something I want desperately to impart: that while the expectations associated with a Hero’s Journey can do wonders for a story, they’re ripe with the potential to disrupt a life. The truth so often runs counter to what we want to hear, but rarely does it run from what we need to hear, and what we need to hear can hurt. Your life is not a journey, and heroes aren’t real.

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