Thursday, November 24, 2011

Another Monomythic Structure

I was reading the October issue of the Journal of Popular Culture (yes, a little behind on my reading), and I stumbled across this gem in a paper about the Omen trilogy.

Jewett and Lawrence have argued that the classical monomyth is not a common pattern in American popular culture. In the United States, mythic consciousness has evolved into a distinct form that highlights redemption rather than initiation. It dramatizes the Judeo-Christian redemption discourse that emerged early in American culture to produce a narrative in which "[a] community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil: normal institutions fail to contend with this threat: a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task: aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisal condition: the superhero then recedes into obscurity" (Jewett and Lawrence, American Monomyth xx). In this mythic narrative, helpless communities are redeemed by a Christ figure who is never integrated into the community, but leaves at the end, remaining a perpetual outsider. He or she has an unchanging moral perfection and a strong capability for action while the community is changeable and must be saved through the violent action of the hero.

The author is Neil Gerlach, and the paper is "Antichrist as Anti-Monomyth." As you might imagine, this paragraph has grabbed my interest. I'm deeply interested in the ways these various monomyths might be useful to writers. So I hopped onto my university's library site and ran a quick search, and from this preliminary scan, it seems Jewett and Lawrence were primarily concerned with comic book narratives and characters, though they did apply some of these concepts to news stories about modern warfare.

Before I pursue this line of inquiry further, I thought I would ask if any of you have looked at this American monomyth, and if so, did you find it useful?



David YB Kaufmann said...

It sounds like an excursion into both reductive theory and simplistic allegorization. Neither really pass muster; ketchup doesn't help either. The superhero comic book has too many mythic types to fit into such rigid stereotyping. (There's probably a "framing" pun in there.) Then too, many, if not most, of the innovators of the field were Jewish and would have a very different conception of the Redemption metaphor. Comics were created as Nazism was on the rise and entered their "Silver Age" during the time of the Red Scare and rising awareness of the Holocaust.
Just one quick critique of the reasoning: The secret identity is important to the super-hero genre. the superhero IS part of and integrated within society. One simply can't reduce Superman, Batman, Spiderman, X-Men, Green Lantern etc., etc. to a "monomythic structure" without violating several rules of common sense, decency and narrative.
That said, Booker's "Seven Basic Plots" does a better job of discussing mythic structure and narrative.
I don't know if the article would qualify as one of Orwell's examples, but from the description you gave it seems to be more "desperate to publish or perish" than good scholarship. Not an article I would read, anyway. (Full disclosure: I do have a Ph.D. in English.)

Alicia said...

I'm interested in "redemption," which I think means something rather specific in America-- "redemption by grace alone" in the Protestant sense.

Is this different-- "being redeemed" (presumably by above) than "redeeming yourself" through your actions?

I think redeeming yourself by your actions makes for better fiction, but it seems like many of our compatriots are more entranced by redemption without action, by grace alone, which I find sort of boring. It's like the concept of "destined love", where you don't have to work for it to get it. I can sort of get the appeal of it in life, but not in fiction.

Edittorrent said...

David, yes, I think monomythic structure is by nature both reductive and simplistic. I don't think it quite reaches the level of allegory until the structure is attached to a story, though. Excellent points. Thanks for raising them! When you say the superhero is part of society, you mean the superhero's alter identity, right? I mean, Superman doesn't stick around for a cup of coffee after he defeats the joker. But Clark Kent does. (The duality of these roles raises a whole different set of monomythic principles, the whole Levi-Strauss twins thing.)


Edittorrent said...

Alicia, then if you factor in the whole set of stories in which fated love leads to separation of the lovers -- the whole Bridges of Madison County thing, self-sacrifice as proof of love (utter nonsense, IMO, but it's a clear story type) -- the nature of redemption becomes even more muddy. I mean, think about how that applies to Bridges. They have an extramarital affair, naughty things, but it's twoo wuv so they should be forgiven. Or at least understood. Or sympathized with. Or something. And in the end, because they sacrifice this great love on the altar of their preexisting commitments, it's supposed to be somehow sanctified? As if the proof of the purity is in the denial? Almost the exact opposite of real life, where that kind of denial would prove the meaningful nature of the preexisting commitments, not the extramarital affairs. It's not a redemption cycle that appeals to me.