gestalt • myths • vitality-------

The hero's journey

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“Live your own myth”… “Rewrite your bio as that of a hero”… “Create your heroic future”…

Even though they may be presented under the label of "the hero's journey" such promises have nothing to do with how Joseph Campbell conceived of it and what Paul Rebillot made out of it.

Such expectations are based on two major misconceptions. Two clarifications are required.

Your life is not a myth and you are not a hero.

The hero's journey is not the invitation to view your daily lives as a series of intrepid adventures with you as a radiant hero, attracting the generous support of nice allies and confronting evil opponents.

Of course, our daily lives are filled with objectives and difficulties. But this is not what the hero's journey is about. And considering the object, the protagonists and the challenges of the quest as daily, external factors is an impasse.

However, we often tend to locate what impedes our inner progress in the external world. John Berger explains this very clearly in an essay on the experience of passion. His account applies as well to the experience of the authentic self, which is the true quest of the hero — just read the lines below, replacing the words 'passion' by 'experience of authenticity' and 'lover' by 'authentic self'…

“What makes a person refuse passion — or be incapable of pursuing a passion which has already been born, thus transforming it into a mere obsession — is his or her refusal of totality. Within the lover's totality — as within any — there is the unknown: the unknown which is also conjured up by death, chaos, extremity. Those who are conditioned to treat the unknown as something exterior to themselves against which they must continually take measures and be on guard, may refuse passion. This is not a question of fearing the unknown. Everyone fears it. It is a question of where the unknown is located. Our culture encourages us to locate it outside ourselves. Always. Even disease is thought of as coming from outside. To locate the unknown as being out there is incompatible with passion.”

We could as well read: “To locate the unknown as being out there is incompatible with the experience of the authentic self.” Indeed, let's face it; as much as we are potential heroes, we also are potential monsters, i.e., humans filled with contradictions, torn between yearnings and fears, vulnerability and courage. And it is well and truly within us that this tension is located.

Rather than taking responsibility for these inner dynamics, we're often tempted to export them in the outside world. Nothing is easier! Just think of yourself as a hero… Now, you need to create external proof that you are one, i.e., kill some monsters but, first, you must find them… And how do you find them? Easily! Nothing is as simple, as Rebillot used to point out, as “creating monsters outside of you”.

Locating the battlefield outside of oneself is a very convenient option to avoid facing the unknown within oneself. Renouncing any hope of being true to oneself is the other option. Fernando Pessoa describes this process vividly:

“The feelings that hurt most, the emotions that sting most, are those that are absurd —The longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was; the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world's existence. All these half-tones of the soul's consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are.”

This tension between yearning and defeat, vulnerability and courage is what myths are all about. Their stories tell us of the ever-renewed inner conflicts that gnaw at us, humans, since the beginning of times. Such is the meaning of 'the call to adventure' that the true experience of The hero's journey starts with — the call to leave behind the fear of the unknown as well as the sadness of renunciation and self-delusion; the call to start looking for one's own inner truth. As Carl Jung points out:

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”

This is precisely what Joseph Campbell means when he emphasizes the inner, and solely inner, nature of the hero's journey:

“The passage of the mythological hero may be overgrown; fundamentally it is inward – into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world.”

It is therefore a mistake to conceive the experience of The hero's journey as an invitation to puff out one's chest. It is first and foremost an inner adventure to be experienced within oneself, and its self-transformative effect is deeply felt within before it eventually is perceived from outside.


Time in the hero's journey, is not time in your personal life.

Just as the experience of The hero's journey is not located in the external world, it doesn't belong to the linear temporality of your own personal biography. It has nothing to do with rewriting the story of your personal life while taking centre stage and leaving others at the fringe of action. It is not either about renaming the objective events that took place in your life to force them into such or such pseudo step of the journey. The journey is neither the narration of renamed, reorganised past events, nor the narration of some awesome future.

Indeed, time in the The hero's journey such as conceived by Paul Rebillot is neither personal, nor horizontal, nor linear. It is impersonal, vertical and it unfolds in loops. It is, in fact, experienced just as Simon McBurney describes the experience of time in theatre:

“It's an art of the immediate present that summons the temporality of imagination. This means that it can leave the horizontal development of the narration to enter the vertical dimension of inner temporality. In Hamlet, Shakespeare's famous 'To be or not to be' suspends the continuity of the play to engage the audience in a debate about suicide. Music too, through which it is possible to publicly express the most intimate experience, gives priority to this vertical temporality. Just like theatre, it defeats the tyranny of narration which has invaded our daily lives and TV films.”

An inner, deep experience of the imaginative temporality, radically away from any externalizing or narrative posture: this is precisely what can be accessed through The hero's journey such as Campbell conceived of it and what Rebillot made of it.

Tony Khabaz and Catherine Lagarde

Illustration: Mesnager, 2011



The Hero's Journey is not…

by Tony Khabaz and Catherine Lagarde

February 2016


Star Wars, Rise of Skywalker