[This essay was originally published in a longer form in May of 2012.]
I’ve never had any real control over, and will almost certainly never master, the raw materials of storytelling. Does anyone? It’s worth asking.
As an unproduced screenwriter and self-styled media observer, I have a terrible habit of criticizing whatever everyone else likes. The more popular a movie is, the more I hate it. This drives my wife crazy.
When we’re watching the crap spewed out by political campaigns, however, my wife and I outdo each other in our criticism and mockery. We know we’re hardly alone in loathing Trump’s grand misadventure and its ridiculous savior narrative. But we also know that many people view The Mawnald as a master showman. They see him as a “great storyteller” who has “disrupted” the media status quo.
Maybe he is and maybe he has. Then again, maybe he’s just really, really unoriginal, a goldplated trope so comically familiar that his followers are tasting him again for the first time.
Donald Trope—hm. I like that.
While I still find meaning in the ideas of Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist who over a half-century ago helped identify the shape and substance of the “hero’s journey,” I also believe that today’s screenwriting orthodoxy has borrowed and bowdlerized Campbell’s work into fool’s gold. Which is another reason why I’m now reluctant to discuss screenplay structure—the conversation can get very boring.
What does fascinate me is the exploitation of Campbell’s ethos in political arenas, especially presidential races. Examples of this are fairly easy to spot, even if candidates don’t actually invoke Campbell’s name, even if the term “hero” simmers in the background while the protagonist in question, forced to adopt an average-citizen persona, hungers for warrior-king recognition. On rare occasions the hijacking of epic narratives may be intuitive, even a subconscious maneuver. After all, you can’t blame someone who chases power and a place in history for instinctively feeling worthy of those distinctions, for feeling ill-suited to anything but a hero’s costume. Or can you?
Despite my regret at ladling unsolicited myth-gravy all over other people’s story pitches (see this essay’s original version), I must admit that I hanker for an Obama biopic steeped in Campbell’s soup. I’ll even go in the opposite direction—we should give conservative politicians equal license to aspire to the mythic. But in all cases, whether the story is crafted by Hollywood or concocted by campaign strategists, we must take care to observe parameters. Too much generosity results in a misapplication of the aesthetics of heroism.
As Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazine articles on Newt Gingrich made clear, Gingrich feels an attachment to historian Arnold J. Toynbee’s notion of “departure and return.” Toynbee identified a pattern in the lives of heroic leaders, noting that they often endured long periods of isolation, exile, or even shame before finding a way back to power. In one of Bai’s superb pieces, Gingrich, based on his own temporary removal from politics, likens himself to the postwar Charles de Gaulle, while Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill are other frequently-cited case studies. The maturation of such leaders involves a withdrawal from public life, followed by a period of what some would characterize as soul-searching. This “wandering in the wilderness,” so to speak, not only gives way to major accomplishments but shapes and colors them.
Just as the Campbellian formula and Hollywood storylines are closely related, the kinship between Toynbee’s idea and Campbell’s myth-centered prescription for heroism is like that of dog and wolf. I had hoped, perhaps self-indulgently, that Bai would highlight this parallel in his articles, because “departure and return” is far more than a scholar’s concept—it runs through countless narratives, ancient and modern, from the Moses and Jesus stories (the burning bush, temptation in the wilderness) to the early stages of organized Christianity (the Egyptian Desert Fathers) to the Star Wars saga (Ben Kenobi’s “desert rat” years). In fact, Campbell’s most famous book cites Toynbee more than once, albeit reactively at times, while chapters One and Three of that work are titled, respectively, “Departure” and “Return.”
One has to believe that an erudite figure like Newt Gingrich (not to mention your average prep-schooled political animal) would be aware of this literary overlap. With even more certainty we can say that Cambell’s basic ideas have, due to their cinematic street cred, achieved mega-meme status. Ergo, the rear-view musings from Gingrich—his humble embrace of ostracism, his philosophical tolerance of perceived wrongs—conceal something far more self-congratulatory. He may come across as a well-fed poodle sunning himself in the garden of intellectualism, but I sense in his remarks a Fauvist self-portrait, a secret autobiography gnawed from the pages of The Hero with A Thousand Faces and howled across the tundra of his moonlit dreams.
Looking over the painful arc of the former Speaker’s presidential bid, it’s easy to sum him up as a man who takes himself too seriously. But that misses the point—we should take ourselves, our humanity, seriously. It is our public regalia, our accumulations of badges and trophies, that warrant comic downsizing. Despite his amphibious first name, his Seussian last one, or his many foibles seemingly created for late-night satire, Gingrich has as much right as anyone to play the undaunted night-sea voyager—if we’re talking about the painting of a personal portrait, the writing of a human drama. When folks start overreaching—when they want to blend their personal departures and returns with their institutional meanderings—is when I get uncomfortable with the hero talk. I don’t think that dog should be allowed to hunt, and I’m pretty sure Campbell would feel the same way.
He spoke directly to this point in The Power of Myth, his series of conversations with Bill Moyers, referring to “political intentions” that shrivel one’s humanity rather than develop it. Over and over again Campbell emphasized transformation of the self, of the soul, and politicians searching for a context in which departure-and-return actually resonates should look in that direction. In other words, not in the corridors of power or even in the remote sanctuaries where the recovery of power is plotted, but rather in the nearly unfathomable psychic seas of fear, hatred, lust, and loss.
What else does the HBO documentary title The Nine Lives of Marion Barry imply? Its reincarnation imagery offers everything you need to know about a cat who hit bottom and scratched his way back up. Of course, for a less feline metaphor, one that more succinctly imbues a stint in prison with spiritual renewal, we might consider Jonah’s quasi-death inside the whale. Barry “went away,” disappearing into the belly of the beast, to be regurgitated as a new man who deserved a second chance. That’s the kind of departure-and-return that builds character—or at least a character.
Other options exist, of course. Gingrich could have easily reframed his story to emulate Obama’s, the “emergence from lowly origins” rooted in Biblical narratives (the births of Moses, Jesus) and many other myths and folktales (the ascent of King Arthur). He might even have one-upped Obama, depicting himself quite accurately as the product of a short-lived teenage marriage, as a boy adopted by an itinerant, military-minded father. Why wasn’t Gingrich more open, following the Clinton tradition, about experiencing his own set of youthful challenges?
I’m kicking around an answer, which is that the conservative mindset meshes too neatly with the romance of departure-and-return. After all, that’s the Reagan story. It is also the story of many a burned-out CEO—those midlife-crisis sufferers who hire “vision quest” consultants, subsequently withdrawing to remote canyon ridges and sweating out their corporate anguish in nudist solitude. It’s the story of beleaguered fund managers and white-collar jailbirds as much as the warriors and kings of blood-drenched epics who must regroup and reenergize before they triumph.
But a belly accustomed to hunger holds more fire. The original outlier, the usurper from the margins, must first “arrive” before the prospect of departing and returning can make any sense. I think Campbell would tolerate, and possibly even esteem, the politicization of that kind of heroic journey—the one about the man or woman who makes an epic life out of nothing. Why? Because that is what we’re supposed to do as human beings. We all come from the same river, the same reed basket of nothingness. But the hands that lift us up aren’t always gentle, and some of us must lift ourselves.
Plenty of hands rise to block us, of course. They outnumber those trying to help, and their bullhorn-calls for us to cease and desist are just the beginning. They intend for us to fade away, slip back into the mire of the river, no matter how visionary we know ourselves to be, no matter how urgent and important a story we’re trying to tell. It could be the story of a great prophet or a great president or a great world-saving protagonist of any kind, but the gatekeepers hold fast, barring us from the pillared studios in which society’s master plotlines are written, directed, and performed. The peasant who dares to strike at these citadels knows far more about heroism than the king scheming to regain his castle.
Whenever we’re presented with would-be saviors who entered life with every advantage, perhaps that scrap of insight will come in handy.