The Great Story Wars

The Great Story Wars

Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, said that there was really just one story that repeated itself throughout mythology. He called it the “monomyth.” I personally would have gone for “megamyth,” but hey, maybe a life in academia makes you allergic to good-old-fashioned hyperbole.

Anyway, Campbell described the basic structure of the monomyth as this:

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.

You’ve already probably recognized one of the incarnations of this story: it’s the basis of dozens of religions (Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed and their respective times in the desert, Buddha and his return from enlightenment, etc.), pretty much every great 20th century epic (Star Wars, Lord of the RingsHarry Potter, etc.), and, you know, kinda every story ever.

Campbell believed that the reason we kept writing this story is because it is a fundamental human experience to struggle, overcome, and learn, but that we needed to explain it within the cloak of our own culture. Which is why every culture has their own iteration of this story. The culture uses the story to push its own morals: Star Wars is about the war between democracy and totalitarianism, while Lord of the Rings has a nature vs. industrialization theme. Harry Potter, at its most basic, is an anti-racist story. Islam focuses heavily on justice and society as a whole, while Christianity and Buddhism have a more individualistic focus.

But at its core, it’s all the same basic story dressed up for different times and places. Which makes ideological debates infinitely more frustrating: everyone is arguing over differing details of the same story. All of the world’s religious wars are basically just a variation on the argument over whether Star Wars or Lord of the Rings is better.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have these stories. But different stories are relevant at different times and in different places. Stories are just tools that help us understand our current situation. Consider, for example, a monomyth story that deals with privacy in the digital age (this story exists in at least one form, by the way, in Cory Doctorow’s book, Little Brother). That story would be incredibly interesting to a modern American, but it would be completely boring to a Papuan living in a remote jungle, or an Darfuri village with zero televisions. A resident of Darfur, however, might find a lot of comfort in a story that focuses on the battle between farmers and nomadic herders. So Darfuri residents would probably totally understand the American western movie, Shane, which is about the wars between farmers and herders. But Brave New World or Little Brother would probably not resonate with them.

This is frustrating, yes, but the current political divide in America follows the same pattern. This isn’t a war between left and right: it’s a war between city and countryside. Take, for example, the gun issue in the United States. As a resident of almost exclusively cities, I favor gun control laws. The fewer guns on the street, the better. But people in the countryside have a reasonable argument for owning guns: a) hunting is actually an option for them, and b) their local police station is probably more than 5 minutes away at any given moment, and their neighbors may be too far off to hear them if they scream for help. So they may want some means to protect themselves.

Neither side is wrong in what they want, they’re just living in totally different situations, so they have different stories.

The Great Story Wars are eternal and unchanging. The only way to gain any perspective on them is to figure out what your perspective is. You see from where you stand. If you don’t know where you’re standing, you can’t possibly begin to understand what you’re seeing.

Featured Photo: Andreas

The world doesn’t need any more American heroes

The world doesn’t need any more American heroes

Hey, remember when we overthrew a government because of bananas?

Hey, remember when we overthrew a government because of bananas?