Books Jun 29, 2011 at 4:00 am

Congress of the Animals Comes from Where Stories Are Born


Campbell was a scholar that created an approach to literature that was used to find meaning in life, which was his goal. Yes, Hollywood aped his approach, but not in a way to find meaning, but to make money. Placing Campbell's (& Jung's) ideas as a counterpoint to an artist who operates on an "unconscious level" is, quite simply, ludicrous. You write as someone who has only read criticisms of Citizen Kane but has never seen the film itself. I think, judging from my own readings of both Campbell & Jung, that they'd really enjoy his work and be able to find meaning in it. I know I do.

And really, calling 'beats' a "wretched Hollywood term" is like dismissing a songwriter who uses the term "chord progression." It's a basic technical term used in the industry, and existed long before Hollywood ever showed up. That sort of snarking is beneath you, Paul.
I think I'd meet you halfway with the idea of artists working on "an unconscious level." The unconscious as a source of artistic ideas has a long history and has been called many names before "unconscious." Robert Louis Stevenson called it "the little people" who created his stories, the Greeks called it "the muses," and David Lynch, tipping his hat to physics, calls it "the unified field." A mistake is to think of it as a realm of pure chaos; the subconscious appreciates structures, but just may be hesitant to reveal them all at once, which is where subtext comes from. And the conscious mind, that great organizer, works best in creating art when it works in cooperation with the subconscious. And i believe the unconscious, when it's healthy, respects and wants to please the conscious mind. The Oulipians were a great example of how consciously predicated forms resulted in surprising works that were, it could be argued, examples of the subconscious working within the confines created by the conscious mind. The point isn't to avoid "beats" and the heroic journey altogether, but to see if one might innovate within such constraints. And that, my friend, is what I call artistic freedom.
"The point" *can* be to avoid the heroic journey altogether. Why not? Even JK Rowling lamented that, as a writer, she will be forever stuck with the miasma of "bloody Harry Potter." The word "subconscious" is not synonymous with "unconscious." Either way, Jungians and others describe it not as pure chaos, but as a symbolic language for the human experience. This can be overtly tempered or not with the conventions of storytelling. Jim Woodring does an amazing job of leaving vis. narratives more open-ended.
"The problem is that when you accept Campbell's ideas as concrete truth, you are adopting a flawed premise as the platform for your story.
Not every story needs to be a hero's journey. Not every quest needs to mimic a learning process."
This is the flawed premise of your post. A generalization that explains the tendency of successful storytelling doesn't necessitate that all storytelling has to be such. Conversely, just because people tend to follow the generalization that Campbell lays out doesn't mean they are slavish followers of his thought, or even that they read him at all.
Woodring's wordless stuff is weird and idiosyncratic, all risky qualities in storytelling, but Congress Of The Animals is engaging anyway. I read it yesterday, now I'm going to read it again.

Has anyone seen the huge pen? Is it beautiful?
@5 The huge pen (aka Nibbus Maximus) in action:…
I find Woodring's art and story-telling unremarkable in the realm of underground/punk/indie/mini/alt comix. His layouts would fit a newspaper, and offer nothing to a fan of the medium as its own form. Though I know it's not always true, I feel like most Woodring fans lack exposure to the full potential of comics. Thus, it's funny, reading a piece which proclaims the man to be something of a beacon in creative storytelling.
@7 with the obvious caveat that I haven't read everything he's done for lack of interest.
Paul. It looks like your readers are not quite on the same page with you and I have to agree. Campbell didn't come up with the idea of the hero story and it was popularized as a theme long before him (as I'm sure you know). Stories of course can be told in less conventional ways but often still have an underlying journey and hero - whether that be anti-hero or obtuse journey. You should check out Vladimir Propp 1921 Russian Folktale structures for a pre-Campbell model.

I think Star Wars was the cause of the hero story success in Hollywood. It was a poorly acted movie with no star talent (at the time) that was a legendary success. Hollywood rarely tries to do anything new and so they have been trying to remake Star Wars ever since. Campbell was often mentioned in the same sentence as Star Wars by the critics.
@3: Ah yes, the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad life of rags-to-disgustingly-rich.

If she laments the 'Harry Potter', then why doesn't she just stop owning any part of the property altogether and divorce herself from the billions it rakes in?
Thank you, Paul. I've been carrying this torch for a very long time. Even more than Campbell, though, a fella named Christopher Vogler reduced Campbell to a formula for Hollywood (Cambell's life work in 300 pages!). Lucas didn't do us or Campbell any favors, either, waving Campbell around to sell "Star Wars" as a universal myth, rather than mere contrived sci fi.

It's comforting to know there are others who recognize the folly of the hero's journey. I walk out of too many movies because of what Vogler has done to them.
@9, Hell, you can go back another few decades to Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough (first published in 1890), and look to that as a sort of model for Propp and Campbell, as well as Jung.
It should be noted that George Lucas discovered Campbell AFTER the success of the first Star Wars and used it as a justification for the adult fandom of what was really a Flash Gordon remake. The story of him using Campbell as a template for A New Hope is a lie spread by Lucas that has been debunked.
Actually Campbell repeatedly said that we need modern myths to replace the old, worn-out ones.

The film industry can't be expected to fill that gap. Capitalism is the myth they're into. You feed the industry with your dollars, the industry will keep feeding you with scheiss.

The industry has made it really, really easy to just keep doing their thing. But lOTs of people nowadays have been enabled to do different things. They are seeking your funding. You can keep choosing to do the easy thing, or seek them out. Your call.
Christ, Paul, what an asshole you're being here.

You say, "Just about every best-selling author you can name has probably been influenced by Campbell".

Let me re-format that statement for you:

Just about every best-fucking-selling author you can name has probably been influenced by Campbell...

Jesus fucking christ, Paul, Joe wasn't scribbling about the edgy, alternative storytelling that was wiped out under two millenia of populist consumption. He wrote about the stuff that's still in print. The stuff everyone likes. The blockbusters. The bestsellers.

It's not Campbell's fault that the things people like in their fictions aren't the off-center weirdo crap that you like. No, that's your fault, as a critic, for failing to make the unconventional popular.

I mean, that is what you're bitching about here, isn't it? That the stuff only a few people like isn't what most people like?

Do you honestly fail to see how that makes you an asshole?
@7: Yeah, yeah. You liked indie comics before it was cool. I bet you have all of their comics on vinyl.
@16: I agree that it really is shitty to argue comics using stuff that no-one will ever read again, but I'm pretty sure that Cerebus, Zot!, Love and Rockets, etc, THB, Dishman, Maus, and so on, Concrete, and even Ed the Happy Clown all managed to at least outline most of the tropes Joe Campbell spelled out.

Woodring is bloody amazing, but he's the kind of comics artist you hang on your wall, not the kind you read with your kids.
footnote: your fairly mature and very well-raised kids, of course.
@16 actually, all my records melted in a fire, and I gave the majority of my comics collection away so other people would read it. Anyway, while there's no reason to avoid comparing Woodring to his contemporaries across his career, we're not exactly starving for innovative material in comics today. Nevermind there's more to the craft than innovation.

@15 survival (and success) of literary work is more capricious than all that.

@Paul, you wrote, "Stories should be experiments that challenge all assumptions—even assumptions of stories," but I missed the justification for this bold and interesting claim. You must have an argument for it. If you don't want to share it now, perhaps in another slog entry somewhere down the line.
@19: I am not suggesting that there is a formula that Campbell discovered that predicts the survival of narrative work.

I am instead suggesting that he described elements common to the majority of narrative work that didn't perish.

I'd weigh in with my opinion of those described elements, but that would just grant a diversion to those who would prefer not to focus on why Paul is being an asshole.
@ 1, since knowing nothing about campbell from your post i gather its something like blaming stanislavski for method-acting?

also, what i gather from paul constant piece campbells work is more or less an expansion on aristotles dramatica?
@9 & @11 You're right that Lucas glommed onto Campbell's "Hero Narrative" theme because Star Wars was so simplistic that adding a high-brow element to it added some adult appeal. The true philosophical inspiration, if any, came from early Carlos Castaneda "Don Juan" writings. There you will find Yoda & the Force.

Too many people take a method of analysis, like Campbell's hero stuff or even Marxism, and use it as a prescription for creation. True art isn't derived from analysis but from inspiration.
"Joseph Campbell ruined storytelling for a generation. It's not his fault...but the crimes that have been committed in his name are unforgivable."

Campbell: literature's Sublime.
Paul, I generally agree with you. However ultimately I agree with @15 more.

Campbell didn't "reduce it to a science". He merely pointed out that story popularity IS a science, just as others have pointed out that picking up chicks is a science, and designing clothes that sell is a science.

If you dislike these conclusions, fine, I dislike them too--but they are facts of the universe and they will not be changed. Humans are humans. Our brains do not automatically reinvent themselves. And if everyone loved your hipster comic book, then it would be so hipster anymore would it?

Bah, I'm off to
No offense, Paul, but you obviously don't know a thing about Joseph Campbell. Of his dozens of books, I get the sense you've maybe skimmed one. The idea the Campbell believed that all stories do, should, or can conform to a single basic structure is ridiculous. I'll go no farther than to point out his first published work is a commentary on Finnegans Wake - the first such commentary to be written, incedentally - and that is a book that not only lacks a beginning, middle, and end, it has no characters.

Campbell was a great scholar and a brilliant thinker, and it's very annoying to see him criticized as simplistic by people who don't know his ideas in the least. Most Campbell fans seem to base their opinions on his work on Follow Your Bliss bumper stickers.
@25, granted it seems unfair to criticize Campbell's own view as 'narrow', but if Paul's criticism is of those fans who are only vaguely familiar with the academic's work, is it not fair to call them to task? If one is attacking their understanding of or approach to storytelling rather than their understanding of Campbell's work, how well acquainted with his oeuvre should one be?
Because the opening sentence blames Campbell, not the people who used his work.

It's like saying that Shakespeare ruined storytelling because so much of his work has been stolen and dumbed down to make other works. Or that Shakespeare is to blame for boy-meets-girl happy ending love stories - it reduces Shakespeare and ignores a significant amount of his work (the parts that don't conveniently fit the rant.)

If Campbell had set out to create a formula for writing best-selling fiction that had been adopted and changed the whole field, maybe you could blame him. But it's bizarre to blame him for noticing trends and commenting on them.
I recently finished "Hero With a Thousand Faces," the only Campbell I've read and (I think) the work being referenced here. It does not outline a prescription for storytelling. It identifies archetypes and themes that cross cultures and epochs in a search for something essentially human. It's much closer to a unified theory of religions than a "how-to" writer's guide.

I see a lot of sense in Constant's first paragraph, but he loses me in the second. There is no "Campbell's Formula," there is only the formula that has been superficially derived from his writing.

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