Category Archives: Myth religion literature

Myth and ‘Victimage’

Myth and ‘Victimage’

An Extract from

Kenneth Burke: From Myth to Ecology

(Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press, 2013), pp 128-138


Please note:

(1) No references are provided in this extract. See the book for full documentation.

(2) Where a book by Burke is quoted, abbreviated titles are given: eg, LSA = Language as Symbolic Action. Again, see the book for full documentation.



Burke’s chapter on Genesis [in The Rhetoric of Religion] confirms our intuition that his attitude to religious myth is consistently respectful, even if not always reverential. He is genuinely interested in what we may learn from it: “The Bible, with its profound and beautiful exemplifying of the sacrificial principle, teaches us that tragedy is ever in the offing. Let us, in the spirit of solemn comedy, listen to its lesson. Let us be on guard ever, as regards the subtleties of sacrifice, in their fundamental relationship to governance” (RR 235).

This vow to refuse the excesses of victimage, informed by respect for the most influential narration of the sacrificial motive, that of the Judaeo-Christian Bible, makes full sense only if we already know Burke’s previous thinking. If we have to confront a “tragic” situation, then our best device is the “comic” frame or perspective. The epithet “solemn” reminds us that comedy is not the same as mere humor: it comprehends the full range of human emotions, while committing itself to an outcome favorable to human well being. It is tolerant, eager not “to waste the world’s rich store of error” (ATH 172). As such, of course, it has much in common with the message of the New Testament: it is a secular equivalent of the symbolic act of redemption.

But if the comic vision is the promise held out by Burke, it is a perspective which permits few illusions. In a later volume, Language as Symbolic Action (1966), he offers a sobering “Definition of Man” which sums up many of those aspects of humanity which he has been documenting. Indeed, four of these aspects are listed in the first chapter of The Rhetoric of Religion, though without elaboration (RR 40). Here each “clause” is expanded, a “final codicil” added and the whole definition placed in italics to emphasize its importance for Burke:

Man is

the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal

inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)

separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making

goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)

and rotten with perfection.(LSA 16)

The first four clauses confirm what we have understood from Burke’s earlier speculations on dramatism and his more recent speculations on logology. What distinguishes the human being from the world of mere motion is symbolicity. Human symbols inevitably build up into more and more complex systems, predicated upon notions of order, dominion, obedience, and so forth –   culminating in the idea of an absolute symbol, or “Word.” Burke here justifies his addition of the last clause, or codicil, in two stages, one which endorses the word “perfection” and one which explains why he has had, regretfully, to include the word “rotten.”

First, he affirms that the “principle of perfection” is “central to the nature of language as motive.” For the very desire to “name something by its ‘proper’ name, or to state one’s needs so that one in effect “defines” the situation one is in, is “intrinsically ‘perfectionist’.” Here he invokes again the Aristotelian principle of “entelechy,” the notion that “each being aims at the perfection natural to its kind (or, etymologically, is marked by a ‘possession of telos within’).” Burke’s  only divergence from Aristotle is that he confines the term to the realm of “action” (the human tendency towards perfection by virtue of the nature of symbolicity) rather than “motion” (the tendency of non-human entities, such as trees, to grow and so fufill their potential) (LSA 16-17).

Second, with regard to the word “rotten,” Burke refers to the dangers of perfectionism, as derived from the culminative nature of symbol-making:

Thus, the principle of drama is implicit in the idea of action, and the principle of victimage is implicit in the nature of drama. The negative helps radically to define the elements to be victimized. And inasmuch as substitution is a prime resource of symbol systems, the conditions are set for catharsis by scapegoat (including the “natural” invitation to “project” upon the enemy any troublesome traits of our own that we would negate). And the unresolved problems of “pride” that are intrinsic to privilege also bring the motive of hierarchy to bear here; for many kinds of guilt, resentment, and fear tend to cluster about the hierarchical psychosis, with its corresponding search for a sacrificial principle such as can become embodied in a political scapegoat. (LSA 18-19)

Given that the cultural perils of perfectionism would seem to outweigh the natural pleasures of fulfillment, it is imperative that the symbol-making animal learns how to prevent symbolic thoroughness manifesting itself in social persecution. The scapegoat ritual must be acknowledged as a process implicit in language itself, but it must also be watched, checked, and corrected. Once again, the choice of paradigm comes down to a literary genre: should one live life as a tragedy or as a comedy? In a footnote included almost casually at the end of the essay, Burke gives his answer. His reflections on “victimage” have led him to think of global catastrophes such as the Nazi attempt at genocide, and also of the growth of weapons of mass destruction. These would seem to confirm a tragic view of human existence, but Burke declares his own choice of paradigm. As so often in his writings, it is the parenthetical remark which carries the weight of his thought:

In his Parts of Animals, Chapter X, Aristotle mentions the definition of man as the “laughing animal,” but he does not consider it adequate. Though I would hasten to agree, I obviously have a big investment in it, owing to my conviction that mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy. (The cult of tragedy is too eager to help out with the holocaust. And in the last analysis, it is too pretentious to allow for the proper recognition of our animality.) Also, I’d file “risibility” under “symbolicity.” Insofar as man’s laughter is to be distinguished from that of the Hyena, the difference derives from ideas of incongruity that are in turn derived from principles of congruity necessarily implicit in any given symbol system. (LSA 20)

We are back once again with the need for “perspective by incongruity,” by which we are saved from the excesses of our own “piety.” But now it is clear that the overriding direction is that of the “comic corrective.” A cult of tragedy may have the advantage of having “victimage” as its focus, but the danger is that the expectation of tragic violence may turn into the encouragement of tragic violence. In perpetrating the scapegoat ritual, one would, after all, simply be confirming one’s own worst suspicions. Hence the gloomy self-importance of those who act on the dubious imperatives of the “final solution.” By contrast, a cult of comedy, while shrewdly realistic, would prevent such excesses by being more humane in acknowledging one’s own folly and in forgiving that of others. The comic vision is, in short, integral, where the tragic vision is divisive. Ideally, the one contains and corrects the other.




We may have noted the phrase “catharsis by scapegoat,” used above by Burke in his elaboration upon the final codicil of his “Definition of Man.” Again, it would seem to be Aristotle he has in mind, for it was he who famously defended tragic drama because of its beneficial effects: “Tragedy is the representation of an action that is worthy of serious attention … portraying incidents which arouse pity and fear, so that such emotions are purged by the performance.” Burke is fascinated by this contract of catharsis, by which the audience of tragedy agrees to acknowledge its hidden instincts, only to have them purified. Elsewhere in Language as Symbolic Action, he uses the Aristotelian principle of purgation in his account of Aeschylus’ trilogy, the Oresteia. He is concerned with how the three plays work on the level of formal “entelechy” by drawing on religious rites in order to resolve civic tensions. Here Burke’s work follows on, wittingly or unwittingly,  from that of the “Cambridge Ritualists” on myth and ritual.  True, his insights are less  historically specific, but they are also less burdened by the influence of Frazer.

To appreciate his analysis of the trilogy, we will need to remind ourselves of the plot. The first play, Agamemnon, shows us Agamemnon returning victoriously to Argos after the Trojan War, only to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. The second play, The Libation Bearers, centers on the act of revenge carried out by his son and daughter, Orestes and Elektra: they murder Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. In the third play, The Eumenides, we see the Furies in pursuit of Orestes, who is eventually put on trial; he is freed, however, when Athena, goddess of wisdom, casts her vote in his favor. Moreover, he is no longer pursued, once Athena has reconciled the Furies to the new law of forgiveness and reconciliation. They themselves assume a new identity, that of the Kindly Ones, who bless the land and its inhabitants.

Burke’s “Form and Persecution in the Oresteia” is a piece of work written in rather odd, strained language, consisting mainly of a report upon what he wrote on the Oresteia in a now abandoned book. Nevertheless, the essay seems to make sufficient sense as an independent speculation.  Regarding the use of myth, Burke writes:

We were here generally concerned with stylistic resources whereby the important social relations involving superiority and inferiority could be translated into a set of “mythic” equivalents. Disorders within the polis could automatically attain tragic scope and dignity by translation into a corresponding “supernatural” terminology of motives. Hence, any civic issue could be reflected in a mythic idiom that transcended the political or social order, even if it did not have reference to the political or social order (and to the corresponding disorders). (LSA 126)

This is an insight which very much anticipates the “structural” reading of Greek mythology developed by Vernant, whereby the “cunning intelligence” of the myth is seen at work on certain contradictions within Greek society.

But what precisely is it that is being resolved? Burke next explains the form of the trilogy as being “persecutional” in direction: “a network of expectancies and fulfillments” which “can be summed up dramatically in such terms as Law, Right, Fate, Justice, Necessity” (LSA 127). These “Great Persecutional Words” provide the clue to the formal resolution. The process is analogous to that of the use of myth:

Whatever the social origins of such motives may be, once they are converted into the fullness of tragedy they have become cosmologized. Whereupon an almost terrifying thoroughness of human honesty is demanded of us, as audience. For now we are in our very essence persecuted, and there can be no comfort until we have disclosed and appropriately transfigured every important motive still unresolved within us. That is, one the irresolutions of the body, of personal relations, and of social relations have been heroically transmogrified by identification with the Great Persecutional Words, which are in turn identified with the vastness of Nature and the mystery of Super-Nature, no pleasantly pluralistic dissipation of outlook is any longer tolerable. (LSA 127)

The formal and the mythic aspects are brought together in the conclusion to the essay, where we read:

Incidentally, we have elsewhere in our text observed how well the use of the traditional “myth” in tragedy contributed to simplicity of design. For whatever the complexities of a unique situation may be, the myth reduces these to a few basic relationships. In this sense, the tragic playwright’s use of myth enabled him to get, in his medium, the kind of functional simplifications that we have learnt to associate with Greek sculpture at its best. (LSA 137).

All told, the perfection of form, derived from myth, effects a catharsis of the sacrificial motive. The audience feels that the correct ritual has been enacted, that the gods have been given their due, and that humanity has been purged of its violent tendencies. Burke approves, as is evident from the epigraph to his Grammar of Motives (1945): “Ad bellum purificandum” (“towards the purification of war”). Aeschylus’ tragedy manages, as it were, the scapegoating impulse: it purifies it by giving it complete dramatic expression. As Burke explains toward the end of that substantial volume, the need for war might be purged by encouraging “tolerance by speculation” or “Neo-Stoic resignation,” which is by no means akin to a “cult of tragedy.” Avoiding fatality and fanaticism alike, human beings would learn to acknowledge victimage, as a first step to coming to terms with it: “To an extent, perhaps, it will be like an attitude of hypochondriasis: the attitude of a patient who makes peace with his symptoms by becoming interested in them” (GM 442-3). The desire to sacrifice others will not go away, but the fact it will not go away makes it worthy of interest, if confined to the sphere of symbolicity. As William Rueckert puts it: “Purification by victimage is … best effected … in symbolic action generally, and poetic symbolic action specifically, for there actual victims can be replaced by symbolic ones, and actual physical violence can be replaced by verbal violence.  This idea is the basis of Burke’s theory of art as catharsis.”

But the tragic form, no matter how effective, still does not take us beyond  the “persecutional” logic mentioned above. Hence, Burke concludes his essay on Aeschylus by reminding us what normally follows a tragic trilogy, namely the “satyr” play:

The satyr play that rounded out this particular trilogy is missing. From our point of view, the loss to those who would systematically lurk, and would piously spy on great texts, is perhaps the greatest in all human history. For though we do know that the satyr plays were burlesques of the very characters who were treated solemnly in the tragedies, we would like to think that, in the great days, the same characters were finally burlesqued who had been treated heroically in the tragic trilogy. Such an arrangement would be very civilized. It would complete the completing. (LSA 137-8)

For no matter what benefits may be derived from the catharsis of tragedy, Burke remains convinced that only “mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy.” Such a cult is surely implicit in his advocacy of “tolerance by speculation” in the Grammar.

Perhaps we might let C. Allen Carter sum up the Burkean case for comedy as the preferred paradigm:

Comedy, according to Burke, encourages us to reassess our notions of infallibility. Given the dialectical permutations of language, culture, and personality, Burke recommends that we hold our beliefs tentatively and that we consider those who hold other views, not as irredemiably evil or malicious, but as misguided souls who are actually our partners in the building of knowledge. … He finds the most dangerous temptation of language to be a temptation towards victimage. The comic approach deflects overly passionate linguistic dynamics, specifically the tendency to deify allies and demonize opponents … Specializing in incongruity is offered by Burke as an antidote to the desire to adopt a final attitude towards self and society.

Timothy Curtius would seem to agree, but for him Burke goes so far as to identify tragedy with victimage and to see comedy as the cure for both. While this might seem to contradict Burke’s own praise for the catharsis effected by the Oresteia, Curtius is no doubt correct to see the comic frame as intrinsic to the art of living that Burke espouses:

Burke advocates comedy because he believes he has good reason to fear that history has a tragic denouement, a “repetition compulsion” requiring an endless line of victims that, short of eliminating the symbol-using animal entirely, can never absolve or cleanse. We begin to understand why comedy was necessary for Burke’s praxis, why he insists that “criticism had best be comic.” His valuing of comedy over tragedy, which inverts the traditional genre hierarchy, is neither perverse nor quixotic: Rather the comic perspective and much of Burke’s praxis as a whole is designed to do one thing primarily, break the spell tragedy has over human motivation and create a comic persuasion as powerfully appealing as the mimesis of sacrifice itself.

There is, of course, a biblical case for seeing the comic perspective as the resolution of tragic contradictions. True, the Greek tragedians managed to find the perfect form, derived from myth and presented as ritual, by which to achieve the necessary catharsis. Moreover, the culture was sophisticated enough to see the necessity for the tragic trilogy to be rounded out by the satyr play. But in the biblical, specifically Christian, tradition, comedy is more than humor: indeed, it is the divine answer to the riddle of history. The tragedy of sin and suffering culminates in a comic vision of the “good news” of the Messiah and of “a new heaven and a new earth” issued in with the apocalypse. To be more accurate, two tragedies are contained by a comedy. The fall of Adam and Eve, which we may see as a tragedy, necessitates the crucifixion of God’s son, Jesus, which is yet another tragedy; but this terrible event in turn allows for the resurrection of the one true Christ and the salvation of all humanity, which we may see, strictly speaking, as a comedy. Of course, the inference need not be drawn that Burke’s comedy is Christian in character. However, his repeated declarations of respect for religious myth and ritual should remind us that his whole philosophy of logology is founded on the theological dialectic of words and Word. Certainly, his fascination with “the Logos” is a constant trait in his later work.

When Permanence and Change was reprinted in 1954, Burke used the occasion to write an appendix which was largely devoted to distinguishing between the sacred and the secular aspects of victimage. Quoting from Coleridge’s Aids to Reflexion —  “The two great moments of the Christian Religion are, Original Sin and Redemption; that the ground, this the superstructure of our faith” – Burke elaborates as follows:

Basically, the pattern proclaims a principle of absolute “guilt,” matched by a principle that is designed for the corresponding absolute cancellation of such guilt. And this cancellation is contrived by victimage, by the choice of a sacrificial offering that is correspondingly absolute in the perfection of its fitness. We assume that, insofar as the “guilt” were but “fragmentary,” a victim correspondingly “fragmentary” would be adequate for the redeeming of such a debt, except insofar as “fragmentation” itself becomes an “absolute” condition. (PC 284).

The problem of modern, secular society is that it favors “fragmentation.” This condition can itself become so pervasive as to demand purgation: “Fragmentation makes for triviality. And though there are curative aspects in triviality … they can add up to a kind of organized inanity that is socially morbid.” Burke reflects that “if people were truly devout in the full religious sense of the term, there would be no difficulty here. For in the pious contemplation of a perfect sacrificial universal god, there might be elements of wholeness needed to correct the morbidities of fragmentation” (PC 287). Hence the advantage of Christianity, where the scapegoat is the son of an all-encompassing deity.

Burke’s position here is pragmatic: he is concerned with what works. Religion has the advantage in this respect. Yet, as we read on, we realize that there is something about the Christian myth which he finds deeply inspiring. Typically, he makes this admission indirectly, in parenthesis, in the course of declaring that he is not “pleading for religion.” He is making a distinction between the kind of victimage appropriate to the century in which he writes, where hostility has become global, and where two world wars have been witnessed, and the sacrificial motive which is symbolically perfected in the realm of Christian myth: “In referring to the curative totality of the perfect sacrifice, as modified by the predominantly secular nature of modern civilization, we would suggest that the kind of victimage most ‘natural’ to such a situation would be some variant of the Hitlerite emphasis (which puts the stress upon the idea of a total cathartic enemy rather than upon the idea of a total cathartic friend)” (PC 288). One who willingly lays down one’s life for others represents a more complete scale of values than the nation which seeks out a people to blame and persecute as an “enemy.” The motive of the Christian myth transcends the divisions which fuel the continuation of victimage. Moreover, the healing, inclusive power of the story remains as an inspiration to resist the material manifestations of the scapegoat mechanism, such as Nazi genocide.

Burke’s approach to Christianity, to myth, and to sacrifice in many ways anticipates that of the French theorist Rene Girard. In his Violence and the Sacred (1972) Girard argues that religion arises from the repression of violence. Its chief impulse is the sacrifice of a human scapegoat, which allows the community to achieve unity by attributing the violence to the victim. Violence is thus at once denied and affirmed in a ritual act. Violence originates in “mimetic desire”, the drive to imitate the model that one both admires and fears. It is the basis of a dilemma. The model seemingly exists to be imitated; but to imitate the model completely would be to have and be what the model has and is, and so to displace one’s rival entirely. Mimetic desire would, if fulfilled, result in the collapse of the social order, with chronic aggression being the norm. Again, that is where the scapegoat figure serves its central purpose: the sacrifice of the scapegoat restores order and unity. The “impure” violence of resentment is purged by the “pure” violence of ritual. Myth is the narrative arising from the ritual, its function being to camouflage what is really going on, to lie about the violent basis of society.

In Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1978) and in The Scapegoat (1982, translated 1986), Girard refines this argument that “Mimetic violence is at the heart of the system.”  Myths are disguised texts of persecution. What in the ritual is the arbitrary persecution of a victim becomes in the myth the just punishment of a crime. This pattern of crime and punishment is the basis for social order. As for religion: the victim having been chosen at random and slain, is deified and is thought to have been resurrected. In worshiping the god, one is worshiping the power, or rationalized violence, of the establishment. However, there is a scapegoat narrative which does not function in this way: that of Christianity. For what Christ represents is the repudiation of violent myth. As the willing victim who sacrifices himself for all humanity, he puts an end to the scapegoat mechanism. The Gospels proclaim love and demonstrate the futility of hatred. Christianity is a “revelation” rather than a religion, given that religion is tainted by violence: it opens our eyes to the “foolish genesis of bloodstained idols and the false gods of religion.” That is, it raises awareness rather than encouraging blind hatred.

The continuities between Burke and Girard should be obvious, but it is worth comparing and contrasting them in order to make sure we have understood Burke correctly. We may grant that both seek to explain the connection between religion and violence; both refer myth back to ritual; both see the scapegoat ritual as the most important; and both are interested in how Jesus Christ’s crucifixion illuminates the nature of sacrificial suffering. But note the following:

1.Burke starts from the “symbol-using animal”; Girard starts from “mimetic desire.”

2.Burke sees “guilt” as arising from “order”; Girard sees “mimetic violence,” the result of “mimetic desire,” as leading to social disturbance.

3.Burke understands the law – the “thou-shalt-not” – to be primary; Girard sees the scapegoat as primary.

4.Burke stresses the power of language to affect our attitudes to others and ourselves; Girard stresses the power of imitative behavior to affect language.

5.Burke sees victimage as inescapable, given the capacity of human language for negation; Girard sees language as a mere medium through which violence is expressed.

6.Burke sees Christianity as mythic but gives it a special place as a symbolic narrative which demonstrates how the impulse toward victimage might be contained or corrected; Girard sees Christianity as signifying the end of myth and of the scapegoating mechanism alike.

7.Burke advocates the restricting of victimage to the realm of symbolic action, rather than letting it spill over into society; Girard sees persecution as pervasive, but trusts that it may be overcome by means of religious faith.

The contrast may outweigh the comparison, but the influence is indubitable. Indeed, Girard has explicitly acknowledged his debt in an interview included at the end of his volume of essays, To Double Business Bound (1978):

Kenneth Burke acknowledges a “principle of victimage” that is at work in human culture and, to me at least, this is an extraordinary achievement. … [But] Burke sees victimage as a product of language rather than language as a product of victimage (indirectly at least, through the medium of ritual and prohibitions). He shares to some extent in what I would call the linguistic idealism of much recent French theory, but he does not push this idealism to some heights of absurdity.

This is qualified praise, but it is obviously given by someone who knows that his own work would not have developed without such an ambitious theoretical example. This is clear when Girard concludes his acknowledgment by regretting that Burke has never been translated into French and that he remains marginal in Europe, then looks forward to the day when “Kenneth Burke will be acknowledged as the great man he really is.”

Perhaps the charge of “linguistic idealism” will be seen to be less illuminating than Girard’s statement of indebtedness. We have already quoted Robert Wess, who speaks of Burke’s “rhetorical realism,” radically opposed to the “rhetorical idealism” of the deconstructionists. And it is this notion of language’s reference to something outside itself that will prove important, as we come to consider Burke’s views on nature, and to consider how he relates myth to ecology.



Freud’s THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS and Modern Hermeneutics

Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams
and Modern Hermeneutics

Laurence Coupe

Originally published in Sigmund Freud: Critical Approaches, ed. Laurie Spurling (London & New York: Routledge, 1989), Vol III, pp. 340-353.



The word ‘hermeneutics’ may be defined as ‘theory of interpretation’; it is usually complemented by the word ‘exegesis’, which denotes the application of that theory. Hermeneutics is at least as old as scriptural scholar¬ship: the post-exilic rabbis and the early church fathers sought to systematize their reading of the Torah and the Judaeo-Christian Bible respectively. But it was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that ‘hermeneutic’ signified a problematic. At that stage the other etymological elements in the term came to the fore: for the ancient Greek word from which it derived (the texts of Homer themselves had merited a systematic reading) had not one but three orientations of meaning. Apart from ‘interpretation’, hermenuein carried the suggestions of ‘expression’ and ‘translation’; and it was the questions raised by these — on the one hand authorial intentionality and on the other the later reader’s cultural distance from that moment — which came to embarrass the interpretative procedure.

The hermeneutical tension has been summarized by E.D. Hirsch as that between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’. He formulates his distinction as follows:

Meaning is that which is represented by a text; it is what the author meant by his use of a particular sign sequence; it is what the signs repre¬sent. Significance, on the other hand, names a relationship between that meaning and a person, or a conception, or a situation, or indeed anything else imaginable.(1)

For Hirsch a proper hermeneutics is that which does not confuse the one with the other. True interpretation always returns to the possible intention of the author, within which resides the meaning; mere evaluation tends to subsume the intended sign sequence under the critic’s own preoccupations, responses and conjectures.
In what follows I shall have occasion to draw on Hirsch’s distinction as a useful framework for outlining the development of modern hermeneutics. However, his own interest — in prioritizing ‘meaning’ over ‘significance’ — will itself be thrown into question as we come to consider the contribution of Freud to that history.

Hermeneutics before Freud

Before coming to Freud, we need a short overview of the theory of interpretation, as understood before his intervention.(2)

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), as a professional apologist for Christianity, was prompted to make, in response to the Enlightenment’s spirit of critique, a crucial distinction. He acknowledged that science was indeed a legitimate attempt to describe the external world; but he argued that it was a mistake for science to encroach upon the area of human feeling, that inner realm from which religious faith proceeded. In other words, objectivity could only take one so far; it could not account for the subjective state of, first, self-consciousness and second, following from that, dependence on God.

However, Schleiermacher’s was no simple rearguard action. He was quite prepared to open up the Bible to analysis of a scientific disposition: indeed, he was himself a major exponent of historical and critical scholarship within theology. Only, he wished to guide analysis by synthetic intuition, or what he called ‘divination’. ‘Grammatical’ interpretation — philology, textual study, comparative method — was a necessary rehearsal for faith; but faith itself was ultimately a matter of ‘psychological’ interpretation.

It is necessary to understand that Schleiermacher’s distinction is essentially continuous with that made by the early church fathers. They had assumed that the ‘literal’ meaning of the Judaeo-Christian Bible was trans¬parent in the same way as the ‘law’ had appeared to the scribes of Jesus’ day: the word of God had found perfect expression in the words of men. Where difficulties arose, and a particular text seemed inaccessible, it was to be recuperated by way of a ‘figurative’ reading. For example, the curious episode in the Book of Genesis, in which Jacob wrestles until daybreak with an unidentified opponent, was interpreted allegorically by Origen and St Jerome as an image of the need for the Christian to persevere in prayer.(3)

Within medieval Catholicism this distinction held good, now elaborated (in the light of the fathers’ hints) into a systematic exegesis authorized by ecclesiastical doctrine. Thus, though the scriptures were proclaimed to be thoroughly accessible, all interpretation was subject to the supervision of an increasingly authoritarian church. It was precisely such dogmatism that the reformers Luther and Calvin sought to resist, by returning abruptly to the ‘literal’ meaning of the sacred texts: far from needing definition by the episcopal hierarchy, the Bible interpreted itself freely to all those who had the faith.

However, once that step had been taken, and the divine word made entirely manifest once more, the scriptures became extremely vulnerable. As the historical and critical methods of the later seventeenth century were consolidated by the rational scepticism of the Enlightenment, theologians such as Schleiermacher had to defend Christianity itself from the apparently reductive drive of objective scholarship. In doing so, he could not fall back upon the kind of figurative recuperation sanctioned by the church fathers; but he effectively produced an enlightened variant upon it.

Thus we may see his ‘grammatical’ as a logical extension of the earlier ‘literal’ interpretation: indeed, both usages were known to Origen; Schleiermacher simply extended the definition of ‘grammar’. More importantly, ‘psychological’, with its Kantian acknowledgement of the role of the perceiver in constructing the world, revised ‘figurative’ interpretation. Nor should we ignore how this latter move simultaneously complied with Romantic interest in the mysteries of genius and in organic form. Thus the end of interpretation was the ‘divination’ of the author’s world, thought to inform the text at every point. Such an emphasis was certainly new in theology: previously the evangelists had been considered important chiefly in so far as their texts bore witness to the truth of the Messiah. It was not that biographical conjecture was being commended: rather, the specific gospel yielded hint after hint as to the authorial ‘psychology’, or spirit. The interpreter’s task was to perform a full ‘grammatical’ analysis and, as he proceeded, to infer from the parts examined — the words, the sentences, the chapters — the totality of the evangelist’s inspiration. Schleiermacher recognized the dialectical nature of this process, but went little further than to name it: ‘the hermeneutic circle’.(4)

It was left to Wilhelm Dilthey (1883-1911) to explore this whole problematic in philosophical — more specifically, epistemological — terms. For him hermeneutics was a ‘philosophy of life’ and the interpretation of texts a model of human understanding as such. Thus in the Diltheyan perspective Schleiermacher’s ‘circle’ applied not only to the scriptures but to all cultural expressions of the past: indeed these might not be texts at all (though literature, including the Bible was expression par excellence), but might take the form of rituals, institutions, laws.

To clarify Dilthey’s advance, we need to remind ourselves of the spirit of critique which we associate with the Enlightenment and which culminated in the figure of Kant. Schleiermacher felt it necessary to placate that spirit and acknowledge that figure by addressing the claims of science and by using a Kantian strategy to defend piety (religious feeling, like perception, being creative and autonomous). But Dilthey no longer felt that critical metaphysics offered any serious challenge to the interests he had inherited from Schleiermacher. On the contrary, he set out to restore Kant’s transcendental self to the ‘lived experience’ of history. For his enemy was not the metaphysical but the merely physical, as privileged by positivism; and he felt free to draw on Kant where necessary in his own critique, quite other than Kantian, of the new orthodoxy.

Hence in response to claims that the ‘natural sciences’ were sufficient basis for describing the world, he posited the need for ‘human sciences’ which might do justice to the subtleties of mental experience. Inert ‘explanation’ was not enough: active ‘understanding’ was called for. His ‘hermeneutic circle’ was a matter of tracing connections, subtly and progressively. This, he felt, was possible because the ‘psychological’ was not merely (as with his mentor) an individual category, but collective, cultural and historical.

Dilthey deemed humanity to be characterized by its capacity to express, and so to understand, experience. Human beings inevitably sought connections, within the world and with other human beings, in the present and with the past. In this last instance, involvement in the hermeneutic circle arose as the process of empathy, or understanding, began. For in pondering any cultural object of the past – notably, a literary text — one was seeking to bridge a huge gap of cultural difference. The author may have had an individual experience which he wished to express in the objective form of the text; but informing the author’s experience was a whole culture, which also sanctioned the textual form. Thus the interpreter was seeking to infer, not only an individual author’s ‘world’, but a whole ‘life unity’. The hermeneutic circle was not a textual dialectic, or even a text¬-author dialectic, but an emergent recognition of the ‘commonality’ of life unities within and beyond the cultural and temporal discrepancies. For what linked all cultural objects was the very fact of expressivity: that human need which, having found form, demanded the human response of interpretation.

We may judge Dilthey’s importance in extending Schleiermacher’s insights by juxtaposing their respective summations of the hermeneutic enterprise. For the earlier thinker, ‘Strict interpretation begins with misunderstanding and searches out a precise meaning.’ It was left to Dilthey to demonstrate systematically the impossibility of final understanding, and to make of cultural relativism a complete epistemology:

Our understanding of life is only a constant approximation; that life reveals quite different sides to us according to the point of view from which we consider its course in time is due to the nature of both understanding and life.(5)

Thus, where Schleiermacher worked on the premise that the individual author’s intention might ultimately be inferred and ‘meaning’ (in Hirsch’s usage) known, hermeneutics was now an account of historical humanity as constantly engaged in the creative tension between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’.

It may still be possible, however, to deny Dilthey the role of guiding spirit within twentieth-century interpretation. Two reservations are worth mentioning here.

One concerns his assumption of identity. Though Dilthey emphasized the temporal point of view, he did not go so far as to advocate an affective critical position: relativism did not permit a hermeneutics of pure response. The interpreter was, he argued, constrained by the original historical moment of the author’s experience as objectified in cultural expression. ‘Significance’ was not possible without ‘meaning’, and ‘meaning’ was inseparable from expressivity; the author’s cultural identity was at one with his textual identity.

The second reservation, which follows from the first, is that Dilthey’s extension of Schleiermacher’s ‘psychological’ interest, though it evaded the problematic of direct encounter (one to one, between writer and reader), was yet informed by an assumption of integrity. In the act of textual expression, the person of the author was conceived of as a psychic unity. Just as author coincided with his text, so he coincided, as it were, with himself. No contradictions were involved.

In both these related areas — identity and integrity — Freud’s unwitting contribution to modem hermeneutics was to prove decisive.


Freud’s hermeneutics

In traditional hermeneutics, as we have seen, the fundamental distinction was between the ‘literal’ and the ‘figurative’. Schleiermacher, extending the former concern by use of historical and critical scholarship, revised the latter as ‘divination’. Though this intuitive interest was parallel to the Romantic emphasis on imaginative individuality, he himself did not go so far as to explore the mysterious activities of genius. Nor indeed did his successor Dilthey, whose distinction between ‘explanation’ and ‘understanding’, though derived from that of Schleiermacher between the ‘grammatical’ and the ‘psychological’ dimensions, was meant to justify an emphasis on cultural experience and expression rather than on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s individual ‘shaping spirit of imagination’. His ‘human sciences’ privileged communication above psychic exploration; for him artefacts were signs rather than symbols, indicative rather than polysemous.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) published Die Traumdeutung, subsequently translated as The Interpretation of Dreams, in 1899 (though it was actually dated 1900). By then he had already begun to demonstrate the inadequacy of a communication model of epistemology. With his colleague Breuer he had outlined four years earlier a sketch of the human ‘unconscious’, difficult of access due to the necessary mechanism of ‘repression’. The symptoms of hysterical patients, it seemed, resulted from the over-zealous repression of a ‘traumatic’ memory. Such a symptom would involve the patient in a long, tortuous process of therapy before the moment of ‘abreaction’, when the repressed memory would be released and a cure would be possible. This was because it was in the nature of hysterical symptoms to be ‘over-determined’, to arise from more than one event (the memory being in fact many memories).(6)

Granted that the hysteric was an extreme representative of dissociation, the very psychic model Freud had employed — memory, repression, unconscious — was enough to throw into question the expressive, integrated subject which Dilthey’s hermeneutics had assumed. Freud was discovering a humanity at odds with itself, a victim of the contradictory structure of its own psyche.

In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud turned from symptoms to symbols, from hysterical deviation to the universal activity of sleep narrative, thus compounding the earlier challenge to assumptions of identity and integrity. Early on in the work, he explicitly rejects any kind of analysis which takes symbols to be signs, which expects a unitary meaning to be deciphered by reference to a handbook of unvarying symbolic properties. Freud seeks, as a psychoanalyst, to go beyond mere transcoding to a delicate articulation of the psychic production of images discernible in the patient’s ‘free association’ in therapy. Thus Dilthey’s cultural relativism becomes oneiric pluralism, that is, the acknowledgement of varying dream motives: ‘I … am prepared to find that the same piece of content may conceal a different meaning when it occurs in various people or in various contexts’.(7) Though in any culture there will be a body of fixed symbols — in his own Freud discovers parents frequently represented by kings and queens, the penis by a tower or umbrella, the womb by a box or ship — what is important is the use to which these are put, the way they are structured in dream form by the particular patient. Interpretation, he claims, is not an empty repetition of the universal insight that the dream represents a ‘wish-fulfilment’. Rather, it has to negotiate the implications of the complete formula — ‘a (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish’ — in case after case which resists the analytical aspiration to typicality.(8) Moreover, even when the dream has been revealed as embodying a repressed wish, one is still left with the distance between the fulfilling dream and the unfulfilled dreamer.

In the context of hermeneutics The Interpretation of Dreams might be regarded as the systematic acknowledgement of a split within interpretation. On the one hand, there persists the socially-oriented aim of mediating understanding, of clarifying that which has been obscure, and giving it discursive form. Indeed, Freud himself has to assume a unity of some kind in order to articulate the mystery: thus he refers to the process of ‘secondary revision’ by which most dreams attain their narrative shape, making them in effect dreams which have been ‘already interpreted once, before being submitted to waking interpretation’. On the other hand, the ‘dream-thoughts’ which he is seeking to elucidate do themselves bear witness to an anti-social, non-discursive realm of desire, conflict and angry frustration. The epigraph for the book from Virgil is thus well-chosen: ‘If I cannot move heaven, I will stir up the underworld.’ The repressed dream-wish ‘stirs up’ the ‘underworld’ of the unconscious and casts a shadow over the rational order of ‘heaven’.(9)

Here it may be objected that Freud was hardly the first western thinker to recognize the barbaric impulses within the apparently civilized mind. Schopenhauer had already depicted the world as ruled by a blind, insurgent ‘will’, and had advocated (with a new desperation) the traditional ideal of salvation through contemplation and art.(10) Nietzsche, resisting the hope of transcendence, had insisted that the ‘Dionysian’ remains a constant in our thinking even, or especially, when we presume to attain ‘Apollonian’ clarity and order.(11) However, Freud in the Interpretation goes further than either of these in setting out to demonstrate the workings of psychic contradiction or non-coincidence within a series of specific textual studies, and to use a specialised vocabulary to describe the textual organization.

The texts (which include not only patients’ dreams but also Freud’s own, together with works of literature), I shall consider briefly in the next section. Here it will be appropriate to explain some of the vocabulary. Most important to grasp is the distinction between the ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ contents of the dream. The wish-fulfilment, emerging or ascending into dream consciousness when the activity of sleep has weakened the forces of repression, is in the process given the surface interest of imagery, or plastic representation. The two main imaginative devices are ‘condensation’ and ‘displacement’.

In the first instance, elements normally kept apart in waking life are fused in the dream: Freud cites the example of the ‘botanical monograph’ which in one of his own dreams represented many ideas, experiences and obsessions in one ‘manifest’ image. Like the symptom of the hysteric, condensation is made possible by the psychic arrangement of ‘over-determination’: the dream thereby fulfils several wishes, not just one. ‘If a dream is written out it may perhaps fill half a page. The analysis setting out the dream-thoughts underlying it may occupy six, eight or a dozen times as much space.’(12)

‘Displacement’ too is illustrative of over-determination: one dream phenomenon may appear central to the narrative, to the manifest content, but on closer inspection turns out to represent a transference from the complex of dream-thoughts onto an incidental detail. Freud cites his own dream of his uncle’s ‘fair beard’, which distracts attention from the underlying passion for promotion and status.(13) (See below.)

The account of such devices as condensation and displacement, with recurrent reference to specific dream narratives, fulfils and systematizes the interpretative promise of a Schopenhauer and a Nietzsche; it is the first attempt to spell out the consequences of the discovery of what we might call the contrary self. With Freud, notions such as identity and integrity appear to lose their force; and with them the Diltheyan sequence of expression, objective form and empathy. If the self is permanently divided between the claims of the manifest and latent contents, then hermeneutics cannot rest content with a model of communication and comprehension, but has to engage with the inaccessibly regressive drive of humanity to blind will, to the relentless energy of primitive desire. Freud’s demonstration through dream analysis that narratives do not simply say what the narrator means, but emerge from a conflict of forces, signifies a major shift in exegetical procedure.

Paul Ricouer has summarized the transition as that from ‘interpretation as recollection of meaning’ to ‘interpretation as exercise of suspicion’.(14) In terms of the tradition, it is as if the ‘literal’ or ‘grammatical’ level of meaning has been reduced to the matter of biological drives; and the ‘figurative’ has been released from the restraints of orthodox recuperation. In the terms of post-Enlightenment hermeneutics, it is as if individual ‘divination’ or the inference of ‘life unities’ is exposed as an empty rationalization of the nostalgia for integrity and identity. In Hirsch’s terms, ‘meaning’ can no longer be explained as intention; nor need ‘significance’ be constrained by the ideal of ‘what the author meant’.


Freud’s exegesis

Freud tells us in the Interpretation that his patients often resisted the idea that dreams could ultimately be seen as wish-fulfilments, but that he usually managed to persuade them that there were no simple dreams. He gives the example of the young aunt of two small boys, the elder of whom had died at the time when she was being courted by a young academic whom she very much desired to marry. Subsequently the man had broken off relations with her, however. In her dream she saw the younger boy too now lying in a coffin, his hands folded: the atmosphere and images of the dream narrative were reminiscent of the actual death of the elder brother. Freud was able to interpret the apparently straightforward anxiety dream as a disguised wish-fulfilment, in which the death of the younger boy was associated with the return of the suitor. He had been there at the time of the previous death (actually coming to pay his condolences) and so might well be there should another occur. The desire for the lover had been repressed, but the dream gave vent to the underlying wish in disguised form.(15)

Freud also recounts many of his own dreams, and interprets them similarly as resulting from the mechanism of repression. Prior to one such, he had been pleased to learn that he had been nominated for the position of assistant professor at his university. However, one evening soon after a friend had called to say that, though he too had aspirations to that rank, he had been unofficially advised that anti-semitism would ensure he, being a Jew, would not gain promotion. Freud, also a Jew, had therefore resigned himself to the failure of his own ambition. However, that night he had the following dream, in the form of a thought followed by an image:

1. My friend R. was my uncle – I had a great feeling of affection for him.

2. I saw before me his face, somewhat changed. It was as though it had been drawn out lengthways. A yellow beard that surrounded it, stood out especially clearly.(16)

Freud’s only uncle had in fact been a petty criminal at one time. If the friend was associated with the figure of the uncle by way of displacement (‘R.’ had a greying black beard, not a yellow one) then Freud is able to interpret the dream as a vindication of his own wish to be the legitimate candidate for assistant professorship: crime, not race, is now the issue. Moreover, the ‘affection’ he felt in the dream is seen to contribute to the psychic distortion: belonging to the surface narrative but not to the underlying dream-thoughts, it is designed to conceal the reality which interpretation will have to seek in retrospect. It is, in short, a means of disguise: the dream substitutes affection for contempt and so deceives the dreamer. Again, the mechanism of repression has to be uncovered, and the discrepancy between manifest and latent demonstrated.(17)

There are perhaps two ways of describing Freud’s exegesis in the above instances. On the one hand, we might say that it illustrates perfectly the hermeneutical transition which I have sketched in the last section: whatever the dream appears to be saying, analysis reveals distortion and censorship — the consequence of repression — to be at work. Division of the self is assumed, and the text of the dream is read accordingly. Freud thereby releases hermeneutics from the traditional constraints of transparency and recuperation, and in so doing renders exegesis dizzyingly open to infinite textual possibility. He himself spells out the implications for literature:

Just as all neurotic symptoms, and, for that matter, dreams, are capable of being over-interpreted and indeed need to be, if they are to be fully understood, so all genuinely creative writings are the product of more than a single impulse in the poet’s mind, and are open to more than a single interpretation.(18)

On the other hand, in his very expectation of full understanding, he is perfectly capable of making claims for his analysis which simply reproduce the excessive arrogance of positivism: ‘The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’.(19) Thus the Interpretation might itself be seen as a divided text: on the one hand, immanent exegesis; on the other, despite the protestations in the earlier part of the book, the transcendent perspective of a master-code.

In order to test this tension further, we must examine — in the light of the above pronouncement on ‘creative writings’ — Freud’s account of a specific literary text: namely, Hamlet. Having found in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex evidence that the majority of male children feel desire for the mother and antagonism towards the father, he argues that Shakespeare’s treatment of the Oedipal theme is less direct:

In the Oedipus the child’s wishful phantasy that underlies it is brought into the open and realized as it would be in a dream. In Hamlet it remains repressed; and – just as in the case of a neurosis – we only learn of its existence from its inhibiting consequences.(20)

The reason for this indirectness is given as ‘the secular advance of repression in the emotional life of mankind’.(21) Thus Hamlet, unlike Sophocles’ tragedy, is a play about hesitation, about the arrest of vital impulses through extreme repression of terrifying truths:

Hamlet is able to do anything — except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father’s place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized. Thus the loathing which should drive him on to revenge is replaced in him by self-reproaches, by scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish.(22)

The inner workings of the narrative are now revealed: the play is structured on the premise of an unrecognized Oedipal impulse or wish. The manifest content of the text may concern the morality of the revenge imperative, but the latent is quite other.

However, Freud does not rest content with the function of the protagonist within the plot, but moves further back to the authorial presence behind the textual form:

… it can of course only be the poet’s mind which confronts us in Hamlet. I observe in a book on Shakespeare by Georg Brandes (1896) a statement that Hamlet was written immediately after the death of Shakespeare’s father (in 1601), that is, under the immediate impact of his bereavement and, as we may well assume, while his childhood feelings about his father had been freshly revived.(23)

It may be that we are once again confronting a division within Freud’s hermeneutical practice. It is one thing to open up a text to new possibilities of significance; it is another to fit the text, in Procrustean manner, into the confines of theory.

The new possibilities discovered by Freud have been challenged by E.D. Hirsch Jr. According to him, the meaning of Hamlet remains what it always was, that is, what the author intended by the sign sequence produced. What is demanded is not biographical conjecture: Hirsch would not, for example, accept the use of dubious information from ‘a book on Shakespeare by Georg Brandes’. Rather, we are to engage with the ‘intrinsic genre’ which defined and facilitated the authorial intention. Thus if Hamlet belongs to the category of Renaissance revenge tragedy, then its meaning is inextricably bound up with generic expectations arising from Shakespeare’s decision to produce that kind of text. It is not valid, Hirsch asserts, to read the plot as if it were about an Oedipus complex, since Oedipal implications do not belong to ‘the type of meaning Shakespeare willed’. ‘He may have willed very broad implications,’ Hirsch concedes — a revenge tragedy will be about more things than revenge – ‘but he did not necessarily will all possible ones’; and we cannot interpret the text indefinitely. To do so is to subordinate ‘meaning’ to ‘significance’.(24)

The confines of Freudian theory have also been challenged, more recently, by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. According to them, the very systematic nature of the ‘complex’ reading (consolidated five years after the Interpretation in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality), inevitably reduces the rich variety of not only the literary text but also the psychic life of the putative patient. Freud’s reading of Hamlet would then be as tyrranous as his analysis of dreams: in both cases, the infinite potential of narrative is translated into an entirely repressive master-code.(25) In Hirsch’s terms, if not in his strict usage, the ‘meaning’ of the Oedipus complex, deemed by Freud to be universal, gathers whatever varieties of ‘significance’ the text possesses into its omnivorous maw.

The above opposed views of Freudian exegesis do not, of course, exhaust the issue. We have still to engage with, for example, Freud’s curious use of biography. I have already indicated that this kind of procedure is proscribed in the hermeneutics of a Schleiermacher, a Dilthey or a Hirsch: the authorial presence is to be located within the text or not at all. But in his interpretation of Hamlet Freud feels no qualms about referring the play back directly to the individual subject and circumstance: it is Shakespeare, after all, to whom is attributed the Oedipal burden. Far less subtle in his handling of the generic work in Shakespeare’s art than in handling the dream-work in the patient’s psyche, he here simply repeats the language of Romantic expressivity, as articulated defiantly by Thomas Carlyle:

How could a man travel forward from rustic deer-poaching to such tragedy-writing, and not fall-in with sorrows by the way? Or, still better, how could a man delineate a Hamlet, a Coriolanus, a Macbeth, so many suffering heroic hearts, if his own heroic heart had never suffered?(26)

In the instance of the Oedipal reading, then, Freudian hermeneutics would take us little further than nineteenth-century biographical criticism. ‘It is known, too, that Shakespeare’s own son who died at an early age bore the name of “Hamnet”, which is identical with “Hamlet”,’ Freud asserts. ‘Just as Hamlet deals with the relation of a son to his parents, so Macbeth [written at approximately the same period] is concerned with the subject of childlessness.'(27)

However, it is in the very next sentence that we are advised of the necessity to ‘over-interpret’ literary texts, since they are ‘the product of more than a single motive and more than a single impulse in the poet’s mind’. Having reduced Hamlet to autobiography, and ratified such a reduction by his own master-code, Freud once more insists on the infinite potential of ‘meaning’, to be complemented on the interpreter’s part by an infinite potential for ‘significance’. Moreover, here in one sentence the author of the Interpretation acknowledges the divided interest of his own text. On the one hand we have the ideal of full understanding, the attempt to discover ‘the poet’s mind’ — what Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of ‘recollection’; on the other we have the capacity of texts to be ‘over-interpreted’, to attract ‘more than a single interpretation’ — what Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of ‘suspicion’.

We will look in vain through Freud’s book for a thorough dialectic of ‘recollection’ and  ‘suspicion’, or of ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’. This is because Freud cannot at this stage articulate the full hermeneutical implications of his discoveries, being himself locked into the ‘problematic of the individual subject’.(28) But his symptomatic reading of Hamlet remains crucial for literary criticism in the twentieth century, not because of what it surmises about Shakespeare but because of its readiness to disrupt the text’s reception. ‘Here I have translated into conscious terms what was bound to remain unconscious in Hamlet’s mind; and if anyone is inclined to call him a hysteric, I can only accept the fact as one that is implied by my interpretation.’(29) Crudely mimetic in itself, this revision of critical opinion yet opens up infinite possibilities, not necessarily to be confined by the individual problematic. Six years after the Interpretation, it is Freud himself who gestures towards a truly radical exegesis: in Psychopathic Characters on the Stage he includes Hamlet in that group of plays which rely for their effect on the neurotic in the spectator.(30) The play can then be seen as inducing in the audience the neurosis watched on stage and so, according to a recent account of Freud’s reading, ‘crossing over the boundaries between onstage and offstage and breaking down the habitual barriers of the mind. A particular type of drama, this form is none the less effective only through its capacity to implicate us all …'(31) In his essay Freud quotes Lessing: ‘A person who does not lose his reason under certain conditions can have no reason to lose’.(32) The literary text thus ceases to be an individual case-study and becomes a trans-individual, a cultural, challenge; it does not simply reveal its author but interrogates its readership.

It may be, paradoxically, that a thoroughly Freudian hermeneutics would be one that regained the Diltheyan sense of collective experience, expression and empathy: conscious, of course, that a ‘life unity’ is never stable; nor is it ever what it seems.



1. E.D. Hirsch Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967) p. 8.

2. The following account partly derives from these secondary sources: Roy J. Howard, Three Faces of Hermeneutics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); Rene Marle, Introduction to Hermeneutics (London: Burnes Bates, 1967); Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969).

3. See The Jerusalem Bible (London: Dayton, Longman and Todd, 1966) p. 53, note d.

4. Fr. D.E. Schleiermacher, ‘The Hermeneutics: Outline of the 1819 Lectures’, trans. Jan Wojcik and Roland Haas, New Literary History X, 1 (Autumn 1978) p. 8.

5. Meaning in History: W. Dilthey’s Thoughts on History and Society, ed. H.P. Rickman (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1961) p. 109.

6. See Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria (1893-95): as in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. II (London: Hogarth Press, 1955). Subsequent references will be abbreviated as SE.

7. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900): as in SE, Vol. IV, p. 105.

8. SE IV, p. 160.

9. SE V, p. 490. (The Interpretation of Dreams takes up one and a half volumes in the Standard Edition.)

10. See Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E.J. Payne (New York: Dover Press, 1967).

11. See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1967).

12. SE, IV, p. 279.

13. SE, IV, p. 305.

14. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970) pp. 28, 36.

15. SE IV, pp. 152-4.

16. SE IV, p. 137.

17. SE IV, pp. 191-3.

18. SE IV, p. 266. 19. SE V, p. 608. 20. SE IV, p. 264. 21. SE IV, p. 264. 22. SE IV, p. 265. 23. SE IV, p. 265.

24. E.D. Hirsch Jr, op. cit., pp. 78-126.

25. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, The Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert
Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York: Viking, 1977).

26. Thomas Carlyle, ‘The Hero as Poet’, Heroes and Hero-Worship, 1841: as in Christopher Butler and Alistair Fowler (ed.), Topics in Criticism (London: Longman, 1971), quotation 521.

27. SE IV, pp. 265-6.

28. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (London: Methuen, 1981)
p. 66.

29. SE IV, p. 265.

30. SE VI, pp. 303-10.

31. Jacqueline Rose, ‘Hamlet — the Mona Lisa of Literature’, Critical Quarterly Vol. 28, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Summer 1986) p. 43.

32. SE VII, p. 309.

See also …

#’Green Studies’ page: ‘Genesis and the Nature of Myth’

#’The Beats’ page: ‘A Quest for Place: Gary Snyder’s Search for a Living Myth’

‘Kenneth Burke’ page: Words and the Word: Kenneth Burke’s Logology and T. S. Eliot’s Mythology’


Myth: A Very Short Introduction

A useful guide to the interpretation of myth

Religion 38 (2008), pp 77-78

Robert A. Segal, Myth: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004)


Robert Segal is a world authority on the theory of myth, having written several scholarly treatises on the subject, and having launched and maintained a series of studies of particular theorists (his own study of Joseph Campbell forming the first volume). Though his reputation has been largely academic, his clarity of style and his capacity for summary make him particularly appropriate as a guide to the world of myth for the non-academic reader as well as the undergraduate student. He refuses to mystify a subject which seems to invite mystification.

In this accessible volume in a useful series of ‘short introductions’ (ranging from Aristotle to Derrida, from ancient philosophy to postmodernism), Segal begins by stating his case as simply as possible. He tells us that there are three basic questions to be asked concerning myth: what is its origin? what is its function? what is its subject-matter? He suggests that, in practice, most theorists fail to answer all three questions. For example, Rudolf Bultmann concentrates on subject-matter (the place of human beings in the world), while Bronislaw Malinowski concentrates on function (the sanctioning of customs). Segal further argues that theories of myth are theories of some category wider than myth — society, nature, and so on. This being the case, we had best be on our guard against theorists who purport to provide a ‘key to all mythologies’ (George Eliot’s phrase, not Segal’s): whatever that theorist claims, s/he will inevitably have assembled the evidence to suit the theory; the interpretation of the myth will be some to extent partisan. Segal’s scepticism towards theories of myth makes him a dispassionate guide to myth itself, particularly as he abstains from offering any meta-theory himself – though he does end by endorsing the ideas of D. W. Winnicott as offering a firm basis for future study.

The structure of the book makes it accessible in two main ways. First, the use of one myth – that of Adonis – as a focus for all the theories discussed is helpful to readers who might otherwise feel bewildered and overawed by the sheer diversity of mythic narratives. People who are likely to read this book will have some familiarity with this popular tale, and will find the exposition of the variety of possible readings to be fascinating.

Second, starting off the survey of theories with the category of ‘Myth and Science’ allows for a logical progression of topics. For Segal’s claim is that most twentieth-century views of myth are responses to the nineteenth-century challenge that myth has been superseded by science and is no longer relevant. Hence we are guided through the various attempts to justify myth in modernity – for example, by identifying it with religious wisdom (Mircea Eliade) or by celebrating it as the source of literature (Northrop Frye). Most audacious of all these attempts is that which focuses on what a given story might reveal about the human mind itself: myth, that is, is seen as expressive of the unconscious (Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell). But Segal takes us further, covering other, less well-known justifications of myth: in relation to linguistic structure (Claude Levi-Strauss, Georges Dumezil) and also in relation to social order (George Sorel, Rene Girard).

By virtue of both these devices – that is, taking the same myth and giving it different readings, and charting the way a theoretical challenge has been met – Segal ensures that the book covers a great deal of ground without wandering off down too many byways.

Specific criticisms might be made, of course. For example, Chapter 5, ‘Myth and literature’, correctly foregrounds Frye’s seminal work, but perhaps forces Girard into the picture, particularly as his theory has by Segal’s admission limited applicability to the Adonis myth, and is also discussed separately in Chapter 8, ‘Myth and society’. For me, the name of Girard is inseparable from that of Kenneth Burke, who influenced his view of the relationship between myth and violence. But Segal makes only one reference to Burke, and then merely to suggest an affinity with Levi-Strauss. For me, Burke is far more important than Segal allows: I would even go so far as to say that his theory of myth as strategic, symbolic action contains much potential for the future of myth study – perhaps even more than that of Winnicott. All in all, though, this is probably the most comprehensive introduction to myth that there is.

Finally, it is worth emphasising the virtues of Segal’s manner of writing. Having read more or less everything else he has written, I can vouch for the fact that clear, short sentences are typical — which must endear him to many students, who are so often greeted by obfuscation when they seek clarification. At the same time, this book is no ‘bluffer’s guide’: it is a genuine attempt to clarify an area of knowledge that has suffered from vagueness of expression. Non-academic readers will benefit, as will those studying sociology, anthropology, literature, psychology and, of course, religion.

Laurence Coupe


Theorizing Myth

Making sense of mythology

Religion 31(2001), pp 164-5

Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology and Scholarship (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1999)


Is the word ‘myth’ a synonym for the word ‘ideology’? Lecturers in cultural studies, influenced by Roland Barthes, generally think so. More traditional teachers of literature, influenced by Northrop Frye, wish to honour myth as the sacred paradigm from which all subsequent stories derive; as such, it transcends ideology. Barthes’s interest is in images which endorse the status quo, the most famous being the black soldier saluting the French flag on the cover of Paris Match. Frye’s assumption is that, while there is a body of symbols on which writers draw, the starting point for tracing the influence of myth on literature must be the notion of a certain restricted number of ‘narrative modes’. In this perspective, Barthes is hardly talking about myth at all. Not only does he confine his attention entirely to the modern world, but he has nothing to say about myth as story. In short, he is only talking about ideology, however he tries to complicate his argument.

Though Bruce Lincoln curiously omits Barthes and Frye from this comprehensive study, his position is nicely mediatory. He defines myth as ‘ideology in narrative form’. In the field of the history of religion, this ranks him with the social-scientific approach, since his assumption is that myths have always been instruments of cultural construction. Yet he retains the distinction between myth and ideology by emphasising the crucial differentiating factor, namely narrative. Thus, while he is not inclined to validate myth as a revelation of eternal truth, he goes to considerable pains to avoid appearing to reduce the status of the material he considers. Indeed, when he comes to assess the conventional scholarly account of the ‘Greek miracle’ by which mythos was supposedly superseded by logos, in or around the fifth century BC, he deconstructs the rhetorical manoeuvre that was involved in the discrediting of mere ‘fantasy’ by a supposedly superior ‘reason’. He refers us back to the narratives associated with Hesiod: there mythos was the form of speech appropriate to a noble warrior, while logos was the form of speech associated with those weaklings who wished to undermine the ethics of war and courage. Plato’s victory, in this light, should be seen as a strategic reversal of received values rather than a decisive emancipation of humankind from the naivety of narrative. (Lincoln leaves aside Plato’s own deployment of myth, which might have helped his case by illustrating its indispensability.) This strategy was historically specific, we are told, and must be understood in the context of ‘the consolidation (and contestation) of Athenian democracy, the spread of literacy, and the eclipse of poetry by prose’.

This kind of placing is typical of Lincoln’s strategy in this book. The point is not to establish a case for or against myth, but to demonstrate how and why myth has been understood in particular ways. Thus, as the title suggests, it is about mythography itself as much as it is about mythology. But as the title also indicates, that does not mean that it concerns the nature of theory at the expense of the nature of narrative. Rather, Lincoln is alert to the connection between the two spheres. Thus, he defines myth scholarship itself as ‘myth with footnotes’. By that, he means that, though mythographers can always claim the advantage of hindsight, exemplified in their meticulous research skills, this should be treated with as much caution as they themselves claim to exercise with regard to the primary material. Myth scholarship is ideological; myth scholarship is narrative in form. Therefore we should approach it carefully.

According to Lincoln, there are two main traditions of theorizing myth. The first runs from Plato. As might be expected, this tends to treat myth negatively, regarding it as juvenile and irrational. The legacy of Plato’s condescension is felt in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which proclaims the power of reason and assesses the ignorance of ‘savages’ in the light of that proclamation. The Platonic line is still active in the twentieth century. With Frazer, for example, magic and religion are subsumed and explained by the ideal of scientific rationalism. Lincoln even detects the legacy in Levi-Strauss, given that structuralist anthropology privileges a universal logic or grammar over the peculiarities of narrative. But of course, as he hints, the Platonism gets turned on its head, with the ‘savage mind’ being honoured rather than humbled.

The synchronic model that Levi-Strauss represents has the advantage of proving resistant to the excesses of the second tradition which Lincoln’s book traces. Stemming from Herder, the Romantic line, by contrast with the Platonic, treats myth positively, regarding it as primordial and authentic. But an important lesson which Lincoln wants us to learn is that the friends of myth have all too often proved the enemies of other people. Thus, the cult of the Volk, the endorsement of nationalism in the name of a ‘pure’ Aryan legacy, was the impetus behind the anti-semitism of Wagner. We must not forget what disastrous consequences this ideology had when put to political work in the twentieth century. Plato and his heirs may have denied myth its full narrative power; but Herder and his heirs used narratives for dubious ends.

So who shall escape whipping? Modern mythography seems to have learnt little from the perils which Lincoln documents. For example, Eliade’s claim to study myth in its own right, exempt from any agenda, turns out to be far more ideologically dangerous than most others. It allows him to perpetuate the idea of a sacred, Indo-European, mythic past which is in effect another expression of his extreme right-wing politics. On the other hand, as we have seen, Levi-Strauss, whatever his Platonic tendencies, at least knows how to approach primitive thought with neither condescension nor sentimentality. However, one weakness of this book is that its historical overview has some curious omissions, particularly from the later twentieth century. The presence of Ricoeur, Vernant, Geertz – and, come to think of it, Barthes and Frye – would have allowed Lincoln to test his two traditions, with the possibility of enrichment rather than confusion.

As things stand, we are left with one figure emerging from Lincoln’s book with (shall we say?) the least qualified praise. This is Malinowski. While carefully placing him within the context of Herder’s romanticism, and acknowledging a tendency to glorify tribal integrity in the face of modern atomisation, Lincoln implies that the lesson of ethnography, as evident in Malinowski’s work, was that myth serves present needs even or especially when it narrates a distant past. This kind of functionalist approach would seem to be quite close to Lincoln’s own, unless I am wilfully misreading this book. But then, as he himself proposes, theorizing myth is always partial, interested and ideological. Learning to take that into account is one of the many benefits conferred by reading this complex, provocative work.

Laurence Coupe


A brilliant overview of mythology

Religion 32 (2002), pp 166-8


William G. Doty, Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals, 2nd ed. (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2000)


For fifteen years William Doty’s masterly synthesis of perspectives on mythology has been proving itself indispensable. If one wanted to remind oneself of the various ways theorists have found to relate myth and ritual, narrative and ceremony, form and function, there was no more instructive or delightful way than to take Mythography off the shelf and browse through its contents. The pleasure gained was intrinsic to the information conveyed: one was responding to Doty’s informal but erudite manner, his willingness to make audacious connections, his fondness for the representative anecdote, his relish for the sheer fascination of research.

Now an already impressive volume has been revised and extended. The existing chapters have been reorganised and embellished. Further chapters have been written: there were eight, now there are fourteen. The connecting commentary has been updated to take account of the expansion of higher education, with students needing brief accessible pointers to the current state of mythographic play. A new appendix guides us through the massive contribution to myth studies made by the internet. There are several other pedagogically useful appendices (and by that I mean they will be used by the teacher as well as the student, the scholar and the ‘common reader’). The sheer size of the volume says a good deal: we have jumped from just over 300 pages to nearly 600. Doty could hardly have done much more for us.

The essence of the book’s documentation is done in parts two and three.
Here we are guided effortlessly though differing interpretations of the myth-ritual connection which were influential in the early twentieth century: in particular, Frazer’s comparativism is contrasted with Malinoswki’s functionalism. This might have been an opportunity to patronize the former, but Doty is scrupulously fair, conjecturing that The Golden Bough may have fostered cultural relativism rather than positivist individualism, despite its reputation for being magisterially condescending to the material it documented. Again, while the notion of social function was clearly an advance in understanding, Malinowski and his followers paid too much attention to society and not enough to symbols.

Moving beyond the parameters of ritualism (though still keeping the ritual dimension of behaviour clearly in mind) Doty proceeds to an assessment of psychological theories, with which he displays again his capacity for even-handedness. He gives credit to both Freud and Jung for opening up the mythic dimension of the psyche, but he is obliged to indicate the perils of both psychoanalysis and analytical psychology. If Freud was too fond of etiology (explanation of religion in terms of originary guilt), Jung was too inclined to essentialism (appeal to the Platonic archetype). While conceding the radical insights afforded by such extreme modes of closure, Doty looks to the neo-Jungian James Hillman for a more varied, less restrictive view of mythology: his ‘polytheistic psychology’ is all about finding significance in the myths without distorting them or misrepresenting ourselves, without imposing one dominant model. If this is the ideal, then Joseph Campbell is acknowledged for his attempt to articulate different ‘levels’ of mythic meaning even while his urge to relate them to one fundamental narrative structure, ie, the quest pattern of the ‘monomyth’, is criticised. Similarly, Northrop Frye’s application of Frazer’s seasonal model to the modes of literature is admired, but ultimately Doty withholds his assent from Frye’s mythic totalization of history.

Of the contemporary theorists assessed in the first edition, the two who have survived with least reservation are Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner. Again and again, Doty endorses the former’s reminder that myths not only offer a ‘model of’ reality but also a ‘model for’. And with Turner’s stress on the ritual process as a social drama, involving a ‘liminal’ crisis of disintegration and reintegration, a move from the given ‘structure’ to a new order of ‘communitas’, we get a clear sense of how the ‘model for’ model might be extended beyond the normative to the imaginative dimension.

Of the theorists who feature at length in the second edition for the first time, it is perhaps Pierre Vernant who receives the most unequivocal commendation. A structuralist who has moved beyond the abstract grammar of Levi-Strauss, he demonstrates what can be done when an ability to detect formal contradictions in a narrative is informed by the sense of a particular historical context and a particular semantic crisis. Vernant can tell us a great deal about myth as such because he is so good at articulating the workings of Greek myth at one crucial moment when its meanings were being transformed by way of dramatic performance and intellectual scepticism.

By contrast, another comparative newcomer, Rene Girard, is less interested in local culture than in universal human nature. Doty makes sure the various cases against the scapegoat theory are heard, but he himself seems more concerned with the advances in mythography it has made possible. Girard merits a whole chapter, because he more than anyone has demonstrated in the past two decades the necessity of relating myth to ritual. Even though his formulaic equation of the latter with violence and of the former with the disguising of violence is open to question from many fronts, and even though his answer to both is a rather partial reading of Christianity, Doty clearly values his contribution to the ongoing mythographic dialogue.

We can get a sense of how that dialogue progresses by reflecting that in 1986, when the first edition of Mythography appeared, the theory of ritual seemed to be in decline. Thus, there might have seemed something foolhardy about Doty’s subtitle. Would he not have been better concentrating on mythos, on myth as pure narrative? Now, with a major revival in ‘ritology’, we can see that he was looking forward rather than backwards. The association of mythos with cultus did not betoken nostalgia for the apparent certainties of Frazer-inspired ritualism. Doty was insisting on the need to understand myth as not only a tale told and received but also a mode of being in the world. For if mythos was inseparable from cultus, both were inseparable from ethos. Even in this second edition, in the theoretical reflections in the first and fourth parts, we do not get this triad affirmed unequivocally. But a book that ends with a section called ‘Mythographic Moralities’ has, one hopes, made its point.

For Doty, it matters enormously how a society receives and renews its myths, because otherwise it will conduct itself according to their repressed and misrecognized assumptions. This is not the same as naively equating mythology and ideology, but it is certainly quite distinct from any sentiment for a lost golden age of myth. The point for Doty is not the reassertion of origins but the projection of possibilities. Hence ‘ethos’ extends in meaning beyond any apparent consensus, Geertz’s ritual expression of a ‘world view’, to comprehend the imagining of possible ways of being in the world. (Geertz himself, of course, allows for this: disparity between world view and ethos can always trigger change.) According to the literary critic Eric Gould, cited frequently by Doty, what matters is ‘mythicity’. That is, we have to realize that even in traditional myth, the meaning, the ideal, the absolute, was always absent, having to be imagined and desired across an ontological gap. Modern, mythopoeic literature has made us exceptionally conscious of that gap. Learning to live without finality, without closure, may be the most important task we face, given that the presumption of finality has wreaked so much havoc within culture and nature alike. Indeed, Doty refers frequently to the environmental crisis of our time, and hints that mythography makes little sense without an awareness of human limits. Thus, I would infer from my reading of the closing pages that mythos implies cultus implies ethos implies oikos. Learning to live as modestly as possible within our earthly household may be the ultimate lesson of studying myth.

I wish Doty had been more explicit about this dimension of his argument, but perhaps that is asking too much from an exhaustive and exemplary work of scholarship. Again, his point is that mythography comprehends a number of possibilities, and to stress one at the expense of others would contradict the spirit of pluralism which pervades the book. Doty reminds us frequently that his own understanding of myth is ‘polyesmous’, ‘polyfunctional’, ‘multisemiotic’, etc. Complementing this understanding, he proposes a mythography that is ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘polyphasic’. The polysyllables should not detract us from the essential merit of his ambitious survey: ‘We are what we myth’. If we confine ourselves to one dominant paradigm as scholars then we are perhaps as guilty as those fundamentalists and ideologues who perpetuate what Blake called ‘the mind-forg’d manacles’.

Having defended Doty from my own objection, I am perhaps entitled to make one final quibble, in accordance with reviewing convention. It is this. Why is Barthes given detailed attention while Buber and Burke are ignored entirely? Barthes is, to my mind, something of a charlatan in the area of mythography; the others really matter. Having got that out of the way, it only remains to say that this second edition of Mythography will be welcomed by students of cultural studies, critical theory, literary studies, history of religion, comparative religion and philosophy, as well as by readers who are intrigued by myth. None of these groups of people will go away unenlightened.


Laurence Coupe


The Rites of Identity

Religion 34 (2004), pp 363-4


Beth Eddy, The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003)


To many of us, Kenneth Burke’s most important book is The Rhetoric of Religion (1961); but in a sense all his previous work, from the early Thirties onwards, is implicitly about the relationship between language and the idea of the ‘supernatural’ — between words and the Word. For Beth Eddy, Burke’s emphasis is consistently on the first term in these pairings: that is, his field is religion as a human construct, as a cultural creation. Further, if using words in order to sanctify the ideals which consolidate their communities is what human beings inevitably do, then the phrase ‘religious naturalism’ becomes appropriate.

However, Eddy emphasises that by ‘religious naturalism’ she does not mean ‘reductive materialism’. It is significant that the legacy from which she sees Burke benefiting is not that of Marxism but rather that represented by figures such as Emerson and Santayana. For Burke does not set out to explain away spirituality, tradition and received wisdom; indeed, he is especially interested in the benefits of ‘piety’, as are his mentors. What he wants is not that society should abandon religion but that it should allow for its continual critique, adjustment and refinement in a humane spirit of dialogue. Ultimately, his rationale is pragmatic; and Eddy’s subtle defence of Burke as one of the most articulate spokespersons for American pragmatism is a chief pleasure of her book. She demonstrates that his debt is not only to Emerson (though we are left in no doubt of Emerson’s influence on pragmatic thought) but also to William James.

An interesting sideline of her discussion is a careful differentiation of Burke’s Emersonian fascination with the ‘bridging’ power of language, by which he means its capacity to speak of the farther shore of spirit in terms of the mundane ground of experience, from Harold Bloom’s Gnostic interpretation of American pragmatism. In other words, if Bloom’s invocation of the supernatural involves the refusal of the created world, Burke’s involves its realisation. When he defines ‘man’ as ‘the symbol-using animal’, he means to suggest a full range of possibilities. If the human being is a creature with close affinities to other primates, who also have language, what ‘man’ possesses beyond that is the capacity to reflect on his/her own words and, ultimately, to imagine the perfection of the absolute Word.

That said, ‘perfection’ is, for Burke, a deeply ambiguous term. Thus, Eddy has to devote a good deal of space to his reflections on how a society, while finding order and meaning through its ideals, may also define itself through the exclusion, punishment or sacrifice of a ‘scapegoat’. If ideals fail, those dedicated to them may well seek an appropriate ‘other’ to bear the burden of their sins. Eddy argues that for Burke the sacrificial or scapegoating impulse is unlikely to disappear, so he commends its expression in wholly symbolic terms. It is better to achieve catharsis through the intensity of a tragic drama, in which a representative individual appears to suffer and die, than to carry out programmes of social ‘purification’ by which whole groups of people actually suffer and die. But the argument necessarily becomes complicated when Eddy also has to acknowledge the fact that Burke’s own saving mechanism is comedy rather than tragedy. He believes that we may save ourselves from the urge for bloody resolution of the social drama by laughing at our own absurdity. Burke commends the ‘comic’ or ‘charitable’ attitude, by which we forgive ourselves even while we forgive others. This is how ‘piety’ is redeemed from an excess of perfectionism and restored to the pragmatic business of learning to live in community. To put this in other terms, if for Burke rhetoric is primarily a matter of ‘identification’, then the aim of all his work is to encourage  ‘congregation’ that does not involve violent ‘segregation’. Religious custom all too often relies on the language of sacrifice when it should be engaged in a constant debate between ‘piety’ and ‘impiety’ –- the latter being a useful means of ‘comic corrective’.

The influence of Burke on thinkers as diverse as Girard and Geertz may be taken for granted, given such tenets. More surprising is Eddy’s claim that the novelist Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, was indebted to Burke in his depiction of the troubles of a young black man in New York City, and in his own cultural criticism. Yet about a third of Rites of Identity is taken up with situating Ellison in the context of Burke’s religious naturalism. An interesting aspect of the discussion is Ellison’s ambivalence towards the ‘comic’ mode of redemption. Where Burke distinguishes tragedy and comedy quite sharply, Ellison tends to merge them: his sphere is ‘tragicomedy’, which he sees as being articulated by black Americans most expressively in the musical form known as the blues. Eddy proposes that, in his defence of this genre, Ellison is acknowledging his debt to the ‘piety’ of his own tradition. Moreover, if the blues is a ‘rite of identity’, then it is one that does full justice to suffering even while it offers a ‘comic’ critique of the scapegoating of blacks by whites.

Such an insight into the thinking behind Invisible Man, a hugely resonant work of our era, is Eddy’s way of both confirming and revising Burke’s influence. For, if comedy is a mode of transcendence, both Burke and Ellison remind us that this genuinely religious impulse may be celebrated in a manner that is provisional, symbolic and circumspect. For my own part, I believe that Burke is far more fascinated by transcendence in the theological sense than his preoccupation with rhetorical identification might suggest; nor do I consider that such a fascination is incompatible with his relish for what he once called ‘the world’s rich store of error’. But that is an argument for another day, and meanwhile we may be grateful to Beth Eddy for this challenging case for Burke’s ‘religious naturalism’ and its influence.

Laurence Coupe

Jung as a Writer

An important case for Jung

Religion 37 (2007), pp 243-56

Susan Rowland, Jung as a Writer (London and New York: Routledge, 2005)


As someone working in the field of literary studies, I get used to reading critics who espouse a broad acceptance of the Freudian approach to literature, albeit one suitably mediated by later, more semiotically inclined theorists such as Lacan. Thus, if an article or book refers to Shakespeare, it comes as no surprise to see Hamlet being read exclusively in terms of the Oedipus complex. These days, of course, with the idea of an author being long-since declared dead, any suggestion that the text is symptomatic of Shakespeare’s own relationship with his father (Freud’s own claim, in The Interpretation of Dreams) is likely to be underplayed. But the point is that, no sooner has the word ‘textuality’ appeared than, as night follows day. we can expect the complementary rhyme ‘sexuality’. Perhaps this is a caricature, but my point is that Freud still rules, as far as literary theory is concerned. Seldom does one hear mention of Jung, except in the most dismissive terms.

Obviously, this is less likely to be the case in religious studies, but I think it is important to reflect on the probability that, if one were to convene a seminar on Jung which consisted of a broad spectrum of academics working in the humanities, certain fallacies about his work would find expression sooner rather than later. These would include the following: (1) Jung has little interest in history, since he is concerned chiefly with the idea of a collective unconscious which is atemporal. (2) Jung has little interest in culture, since he believes archetypes to be wholly ‘natural’. (3) Jung has, despite (2), little interest in nature in the sense of the material environment, since for him the term ‘natural’ refers exclusively to human nature. (4) Jung has little interest in the external world generally, since his focus is consistently on the internal world of the psyche. (5) Jung has little interest in the way mythology is extended through literature, since for him a myth only has meaning in so far as it can convey a message which will aid the process of psychic individuation. (6) Jung has little interest in gender, despite his recognition of the importance of the anima: like Freud, only more so, his interest in the female is tokenistic. (7) Jung has little interest in his own style: unlike Freud, he shows scant regard for the problem of expression, concentrating on getting his ideas onto the page, no matter how prosaically and clumsily.

Again, I might be guilty of caricature; but I sense that the above catalogue of complaints sums up the consensus amongst those academics who know of his work but have not felt obliged to read very much of it. Thus, it is to the lasting credit of Susan Rowland, a scholar who has already begun the process of re-reading Jung — in C. G. Jung and Literary Theory (Palgrave, 1999) and in Jung: A Feminist Revision (Polity Press, 2002) — that she dispels all of the above fallacies and more besides. Above all, her very title, Jung as a Writer, alerts us to the possibility that not only have we read Jung all too seldom, but that when we have done so we have largely missed the point – that the way he writes is inseparable from what he has to say, that the content of his writing cannot be understood without paying attention to the form. If Jung’s ‘project’ (to use Rowland’s term) is the revitalisation of Western consciousness by opening it up to the challenge of the ‘other’, then we should be prepared to find possibilities expressed in the very act of writing. It would not be enough for Jung simply to state the need to acknowledge and incorporate the power of marginal, frequently feminine, voices within Western discourse: the point, Rowland affirms, is that his own demonstration of creativity enacts the process of opening up.

At the same time, it would be naive to see Jung simply as a practitioner of that play of the signifier which will be associated with post-structuralism: what we find, rather, is a tension – contradiction, even — between his characteristically modern assumption that the masculine, rational worldview is important enough to merit revitalisation and his incipiently postmodern fascination with the infinite potential of the liminal feminine which borders and defines it. Rowland elegantly demonstrates how Jung’s writing works within the tension. Moreover, if it is to be conceived as a contradiction, she shows again and again how Jung’s texts work by moving between the claims of a magisterial dialectic — which would posit the question of gender in terms of a polarity — and an urge to a more ambiguous, androgynous, elusive process.

Having read this book, I am persuaded that Jung really did find a way of letting the ‘other’ have its being. It is hard to convey the way Rowland effects such persuasion: that would involve me in a detailed commentary on her own circumspect, speculative kind of writing. Suffice it to say that I think she is justified in speaking of her approach to Jung as that of ‘a certain friendly fidelity’ to the spirit of his words; certainly, she avoids that plodding literalism which would reduce his rich, varied discourse to an arid scheme.

Having testified to the effect that this book has had on me, I feel obliged to declare an interest. Rowland’s way of reading Jung is partially indebted to ideas that I developed in Myth (Routledge, 1997) and The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (Routledge, 2000). However, I do not feel that such a declaration necessarily disqualifies me from assessing Jung as a Writer. Rather, I might consider myself uniquely placed to see what Rowland has done with those ideas. I had better state immediately that I not only approve of her argument, but that I am impressed by the sure and subtle way she has developed an approach to Jung that, while broadly confirming some modest insights of my own, extends them considerably by applying them in ways I had not envisaged to a body of work to which their relevance is not immediately apparent.

When I coined the term ‘radical typology’, I wished to offer a corrective to what I called, by way of shorthand, ‘allegory’ — the reading of mythology in terms of extrenal, independent concepts. Instead of translating narrative into idea – mythos into logos — one would do better to see myths as forming a series characterised by foreshadowing and fulfilment, as in biblical exegesis. The difference would be that the process would not involve any closure, so that the potential of the narrative would never finally be realised: the end would always be ‘not yet’. I must admit that when I formulated this idea, I did not have Carl Jung’s theory of myth in mind; but reading Rowland’s book, I realise now that I should have done, and that I should have made a lot more of the sheer exuberance and creativity of his formulations. Jung as a Writer has taught me to see ‘radical typology’ at work in the way his own creativity of expression furthers the cause of reading myth as a means of exploring borderlines and glimpsing horizons.

In particular, by comparing his work with Mikhail Bakhtin’s, she shows that Jung, while always mindful of the need for a received, unifying vision, knows full well that it is in diversity and marginality that the future lies. His thinking is not so much dialectical as ‘dialogical’. Hence his fascination with crossing boundaries: culture/ nature, male/female, eternity/time, sacred/profane. Moreover, his distinction between the ‘psychological’ and the ‘visionary’ dimensions of narrative allows for a much richer reading of both mythic and literary material than Freud’s. Confining himself largely to causal explanation, biographical information and the individual case study, it is Freud who now appears to lack a cultural, collective, historical sense – without which we lose the dimension of the ‘not yet’. It is Carl Jung who, on the evidence of Rowland’s skilful exposition, shows himself capable of that: his approach is more ‘visionary’ than ‘psychological’.

Looking for the key moment in Rowland’s book where she conveys the gist of her argument most succinctly, I settled on this:

Jung understood that this culture was built on structures of exclusion, and that this was a sickness. He tried to put back together the rational science derived from religious premises with ethical relating to the (unconscious) other. Mythically, these are represented by the transcendent Father-God of monotheism and in the relational web of the Earth mother-goddess. While Jung’s texts are limited by his own prejudices, his writing is yet to be fully appreciated as an experiential process of cultural healing. In the urgent task of addressing the world still haunted by apocalyptic narrative, now in the form of environmental crisis and global terror, Jung’s aesthetic-science is a resource in the writing. (p. 195)

That summation comes at the end of the penultimate chapter. I can honestly say that getting there, and being able to see Jung in a wholly new light, has been a rewarding experience for this particular reader. To those who are instinctively sceptical about Rowland’s assertion, I can only advise them strongly to make the effort to progress attentively through the substantial thesis set out in these pages, and to suspend their disbelief so that they might have a revelation as rich as mine.

In my case, an added bonus is offered by seeing how the ecological approach to culture – what I call ‘green studies’ in general, and which is known as ‘ecocriticism’ in particular — may acquire new significance once we allow Jung to speak to our age: one of environmental crisis, as Rowland reminds us above. If we are prepared to recognise his engagement with history and culture, we should also be prepared to learn how he enriches our concept of nature. Despite appearing to share in the masculine bias of monotheism and modernity, Jung effectively deconstructs the male ego and patriarchal law, releasing alternative possibilities which he finds to reside in the idea of the natural world as sacred. The ‘web’ of the goddess will always exceed the scope of the male-centred hero myth, just as she stands as a perpetual challenge to the male-centred creation myth. Yet Jung may teach us also to avoid the error of post-structuralism, namely its bias towards language at the expense of environment, towards the word at the expense of the world. Jung shows how the two realms may be brought back together, just as the inner life finds symbolic expression in the outer by way of such phenomena as ‘synchronicity’.

Significantly, he does so by reviving discourses that have been repressed by the Western mind, from animism to alchemy, all of which have something to say about the way humanity relates to nature, and how the male relates to the female. It is not that each of them simply anticipates ecocriticism, but that ecocriticism realises their potential in new and unexpected ways. If we forget how to read such discourses, then our alienation may culminate in a literal apocalypse, as we destroy everything that is ‘other’ in the name of ‘man’. Thanks to Rowland’s exposition of Jung’s thought, we can not only see where we may have got him wrong, but we can also see where our civilisation is going disastrously wrong insofar as it does not know how to attend to such creative, exploratory, audacious writing as his.

I began this review by musing on the dominance of Freudian thought in literary studies, so it seems appropriate to end where this book ends, with Hamlet. For, as if this major revaluation of Jung were not sufficient unto itself, we get by way of bonus an ‘epilogue’ on Shakespeare’s most enigmatic tragedy. Judiciously conceding the force of Freud’s Oedipal reading, Rowland proceeds in no more than twelve pages to sketch the blueprint for an alternative, Jungian reading of the play that relates it to the following topics, amongst others: the myth of the goddess; the transition between Catholic feudalism and Protestant capitalism (a brief allusion to Ted Hughes’s remarkable study of Shakespeare proving useful here); the move within patriarchy from sacred to political ritual; the birth of modernity and of the alienated consciousness; the death-awareness that grew in the early modern era, defining the individual in new ways, given the demise of an organic sense of belonging; the emergence of republicanism in the wake of the demise of sacred kingship. Not only are such complex issues addressed clearly and cogently, but the whole account of the play forms a coherent coda to Rowland’s case for Jung’s ‘visionary’ way of reading – and of writing.


Laurence Coupe

Reading for the Myth


Reading for the Myth

Laurence Coupe

The English Review, 4, 4 (April 1994), pp. 6-9

What do we understand by ‘myth’? Laurence Coupe answers by showing how mythic patterns lie behind works as different as T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, and Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now.

Note: This is a slightly revised version.



Being told you may have to find out about ancient mythology while working on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, say, or Milton’s Lycidas, may be initially annoying, but it would be misguided to deny the relevance of the exercise. Indeed, reading for the myth — looking at particular works for their underlying, primitive pattern — need not be considered a painful duty at all. If you think about it, it is something we do automatically, even when we are not consciously studying for literary examinations. We ‘read’ film and popular music whenever we stop to think about their hidden design.

Myth and ritual

Let us first recognise that it will not be much use if we start out, as many people do, by using the word ‘myth’ to mean ‘false account of things’, as in ‘It’s a myth that we are live in a free society.’ But rather than run through the many, various definitions which are rather more helpful than that, we will base our discussion on one massively influential theory concerning the very origin of myth, that of Sir James Frazer.

Frazer was the author of the twelve volumes of interpretation known collectively as The Golden Bough (completed 1915). Here, he argued that we could not understand myth separately from ritual. His focus was on that early form of myth which concerned fertility, and would have been the story accompanying some form of vegetation ceremony, or nature cult. The tale it told would have been that of ‘the dying and reviving god’. Why did the god have to die? Precisely because his business was fertility. The community depended on him (or so it believed) for its own survival. If the god did not die he could not be reborn, and so there would be no new crops.

Near a sacred lake in ancient Italy, in the days of imperial Rome, there stood a sacred grove, at the centre of which was a sacred oak. The place was called Nemi, and it was there, according to Frazer, that there persisted a custom which had its roots in the primitive magic of the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age. The ‘King of the Wood’ was annually replaced by ritual slaughter. The contender for the title had to pluck ‘the golden bough’, or mistletoe, from the oak in order to prove he had taken over the power of the god. Only through this violent succession could the fertility of the land be ensured. There was a magical connection between the drama of the dying and reviving god on the one hand, and the seasonal cycle on the other. The king is dead: long live the king.

If Frazer’s account of the ritual origin of myth was confined to the original ceremony, his approach inspired others to trace its influence. As the title of Jessie L. Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance (1920), suggests, it was possible to discover the outline of the primitive drama of the slain god in later literary forms. In particular she was interested in the medieval story of the search for the Holy Grail, the cup containing the blood of the crucified Christ. She was sure the legend had its basis in the nature cults documented in The Golden Bough.

Essentially she argued that, just as there was no question that the existing god of the year had to be replaced by a stronger successor (in order that autumn and winter should lead to spring and summer), so the questing knight had to prove himself via a definite series of tasks. He had to undergo terrible ordeals, such as that of the Perilous Chapel. He had to find the Grail Castle. He had to ask the ritual question of the chalice: ‘Whom does it serve?’ He had to understand the answer: that the wounded Fisher King and the Waste Land were one. Only then would the healing powers of the Grail be effective: the waters freed, the monarch healed and fertility restored. Finally, with the Waste Land redeemed, its ruler would be able to die, and the quester would replace him as the new Fisher King. We have here glimpsed a mysterious initiation, founded in vegetation ceremony and embellished both by ‘folk’ imagination and Christian doctrine: a complex development of ‘ritual’ into ‘romance’.

The modern wilderness: The Waste Land

Frazer and Weston were important figures in what became known as ‘the myth-and-ritual’ school of interpretation. Myth derived from ritual, and literature from myth. This theory had a tremendous influence on the early 20th-century movement known as ‘modernism’, and modernist writers were particularly keen to draw on ancient myth to give added depth to their own work. The novelists D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were typical in their obsession with primitive patterns, as were the poets W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. But perhaps the most thorough exponent of what he himself called ‘the mythical method’ was T. S. Eliot, author of the long, multi-layered poem, The Waste Land (1922).

This work is a deliberate updating of two stories: that of the dying and reviving god, and that of the questing knight and the Fisher King. In our era, the poet seems to say, the god has died but the community is not ready for his revival. Spring brings only anxiety not rejoicing: ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land.’ The inhabitants of this land may well be asked: ‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?’ But the question cannot yet be answered, because these ‘crowds of people, walking round in a ring’ are oblivious to the need for true ceremony. Theirs is an empty ritual. A corpse is buried in a garden, suggesting a link with the ancient Egyptian cult of the god Osiris, but there is no mention of any rebirth. A sailor drowns, suggesting a link with the ancient Syrian/Greek god Adonis, but the waters of death are not transformed into the waters of life. Even when the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are alluded to, the inhabitants of the modern metropolis, ‘Unreal city’, can only reflect: ‘He who is living is now dead / We who were living are now dying / With a little patience…’

Thus the nameless narrator of the poem, who serves as witness to its various episodes – we can hardly call him hero – is on a quest whose purpose seems to have been forgotten. This is a Waste Land which scarcely deserves to be redeemed, since the role of the Fisher King has been denied and degraded. Where once the fish symbolised fertility — abundant life brought out of the waters — it is now associated chiefly with desolation: ‘A rat crept softly through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank / While I was fishing in the dull canal / On a winter evening round behind the gashouse / Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck / And on the king my father’s death before him.’ (References here to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play categorised as a ‘romance’, concerning the triumph of love and life over hatred and death, are as ironic as those to the Grail legend itself.) The questing knight may have to undergo ordeals — there are allusions to the episode of the Perilous Chapel, where ‘bats with baby faces in the violet light / …crawled head downward down a blackened wall’ — but there is no sense of an initiation leading to the healing knowledge of the Grail.

Significantly, as the poem draws to its close, the narrator assumes the guise of the Fisher King, still waiting to be healed: ‘I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me….’ This moment is immediately followed by the final (unanswered) question: ‘Shall I at least set my lands in order?’ — words adapted from the Biblical prophet Isaiah’s warning to a sick ruler whose kingdom lies desolate.

Entering the ‘heart of darkness’

Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its comprehensive and ironic use of the insights of Frazer and Weston, is one of the highest achievements of modernist literature. Anyone who failed to read it for the myth would be missing most of its significance. But the power of the primitive pattern is not confined to ‘the great tradition’ of set books. Popular cinema and music often gain their effects in similar ways. Consider Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now (1979), with its intermittent use of a song by the 1960s band, The Doors.

Coppola was inspired initially by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). The film follows the novella in having the narrator (then Marlow, now Willard) take a terrifying river-journey (then through the Congo in the days of Empire, now through Vietnam to Cambodia during the American war against the Vietcong). He is trying to locate a mysterious figure (in both cases called Kurtz) whose mind has apparently been deranged by his years in the wilderness. Kurtz has become the object of native worship, and has encouraged the most barbaric practices.

The film goes beyond Conrad’s story in that Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) of the US Army has received instructions to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ — i.e. kill — Colonel Kurtz (Marion Brando) because his ‘methods are unsound’. In other words, his mission is the murder of a man who has set himself up as a god.

In case we fail to note the mythic theme, the film gives us all sorts of clues. When Willard finally encounters his victim, he finds him reading aloud from the poetry of T. S. Eliot. On his table lie copies of Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. On his way there, Willard has experienced all manner of ordeals, culminating in a nightmare imprisonment in a cage. Shortly after the meeting he will carry out the murder simultaneously with the natives’ ritual sacrifice of a buffalo. No sooner is the deed performed, and the body of the ‘god’ left bleeding, than Kurtz’s followers bow down and worship his killer, whom they assume to be his replacement.

The fact that Willard refuses to take over from Kurtz — that the dying god is not replaced by the reviving god, that the questing knight does not succeed the Fisher King — is consistent with the ironic use of myth in Eliot’s modernist poetry. Apocalypse Now is what you might call a ‘literary’ film. But the point is that its massive appeal — it is after all a ‘cult’ work among countless young adults — suggests a fundamental need for mythic meaning. Even those who do not spot the references — Frazer, Weston, Eliot — are aware that they are witnessing something at once very complex and very simple, sophisticated and primitive, modern and archaic.

This is borne out by the even greater appeal of the Doors’ music, shrewdly used by Coppola at key points in the film. The lengthy song, ‘The End’ (1966), which accompanies the opening and closing sequences, is as mythic in its own way as is Eliot’s poem. We enter ‘a Roman wilderness of pain’: that is, ‘a desperate land’ where ‘All the children are insane.’ Nor is that all. ‘Waiting for the summer rain’, the people are ‘desperately in need of some stranger’s hand’, some ritual guidance. The singer seems to know the answer, but he expresses it cryptically, so that only those aware of myth and myth theory can understand. His solution, then, is twofold: ‘Ride the king’s highway’ (follow the way of the god) and ‘Ride the snake’ to ‘the ancient lake’ of Nemi (trust to fertility, mystery). As if to confirm the implicit pattern (though Morrison is clearly thinking also of Freud and the Oedipus legend), the song includes an account of ritual murder: that of the father (dying god) by the son (reviving god). Once again, however, the meaning is ambiguous. Hope may be implied by the lines inviting us to ‘picture what will be, / So limitless and free…’. But both the first and the final declaration is stark and clear: ‘This is the end.’ Whether the end leads to a new beginning is left uncertain.

There is a lot more to say about how such archaic material actually functions in particular texts, and about how various critics disagree over its interpretation. But at least we can acknowledge here that recognising the fundamental narrative pattern — that is, reading for the myth — is  necessary for the full appreciation of the work being considered. It may be a film or a song which we happen to find intriguing; it may be a difficult, modernist poem which has been set for examination. In each case, the pleasure and satisfaction can only be increased.


Further reading:

Laurence Coupe, Myth, 2nd edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)

The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey

Laurence Coupe

The English Review 10, 3 (February 2000), pp. 14-16


People have always been fascinated by the similarities between different stories. From The Fairie Queene to The Pilgrim’s Progress, from Jane Eyre to Star Wars, Laurence Coupe explores the idea that there is one central story which keeps being retold.


On board the Death Star, a battle station of the evil Empire, Luke Skywalker is attempting to rescue Princess Leia from the clutches of Darth Vader. Pursued by imperial troops, he and his companions plunge into a garbage compactor, where they find themselves floundering in a foul swamp inhabited by monstrous creatures. Suddenly, Luke is dragged down into the depths. For what seems like an eternity he disappears, while his companions look on helplessly, fearing that he might have died. Then, just as suddenly, he reappears: he is alive and well, and is ready to resume the struggle against evil.

Does this sound familiar? Even if you have not seen the original Star Wars film (1977), you will probably have watched other cinematic scenes like this. It is so familiar that we might want to identify it as a motif, or recurrent symbol. We might call it the ‘supreme ordeal’, or perhaps even the ‘victory over death’. It is the kind of scene we come across not only in film but also in literary narrative. For example, Book I of Spenser’s verse romance The Fairie Queene (1590), tells the story of the Red Cross Knight and his quest to save a kingdom from an evil dragon. In the penultimate episode, the knight does battle with the dragon, and at one point he seems to have been overcome. The force of the monster’s fiery breath causes him to stumble and almost sink in the mire nearby a large tree. However, this is the tree of life, and as he rests in its roots he is restored to health by the stream of balm which flows from it. Thereafter, he has the strength to defeat the dragon and redeem the land.

Was George Lucas, the director of the film, imitating Edmund Spenser? This need not be the case if we accept the idea that ‘the hero’s journey’ is a universal narrative structure, with incidents and images which keep reappearing. Thus, what looks like a matter of specific influence turns out to have a deeper and wider perspective: a collective, unconscious expectation which a shrewd film director will not disappoint.

The monomyth

In 1949, a relatively unknown college lecturer, Joseph Campbell, wrote a book which is still hugely influential. The thesis of The Hero with a Thousand Faces is that there is one central story which has haunted the human imagination, even though it has many versions — and there is only one hero, even though he has ‘a thousand faces’. Campbell calls this story the ‘monomyth’. It makes itself known in a variety of ways from age to age and from place to place. Its roots lie in the most archaic human experiences.

In his book, Campbell expresses interest in the rite of passage of the earliest, hunter-gathering cultures. In its broadest sense, this involved a young male being initiated into the mysteries of the tribe by being made to undertake a challenging task in isolation, which would signify his transition from boyhood to manhood. In a more specialised sense, it involved the ‘shaman’ or ‘holy man’ of the community going off into the forest in order to experience a sacred vision, whose benefits he would convey to the community as a whole. In both cases, the pattern it bequeathed to storytelling was threefold: departure, struggle and return – or, to use Campell’s terms, ‘call to adventure’, ‘crossing the threshold of adventure’ and ‘return with elixir’, or ‘bringing back the boon’.

Luke learns to trust the Force

The Hero with a Thousand Faces inspired George Lucas to write and direct Star Wars. He set out to make a film that did not so much imitate particular versions of the monomyth as follow the fundamental pattern as strictly as possible. We can see how deliberately this exercise was undertaken if we apply some of the subdivisions of the scheme set out by Campbell to the film itself. For example, within the ‘call to adventure’, we are told, there are usually the following secondary stages: first, we have the hero in his ‘ordinary world’; secondly, the call itself; thirdly, his initial ‘refusal of the call’; fourthly, after his ‘meeting with the mentor’, his commitment to undertake the journey.

In Star Wars we see Luke Skywalker, bored with life on the farm where he lives with his uncle and aunt. Then he finds Princess Leia’s message, stored in the droid R2-D2 and addressed to Obi-Wan Kenobi, who was once a celebrated Jedi Knight within the old Republic. Not immediately prepared to do very much about this, Luke nevertheless seeks out Obi-Wan who, having persuaded him to take up the challenge of helping the princess and supporting the rebellion against the Empire, instructs him in the ways of the Force.

We could go on, mapping every main incident in the film to an episode already described, situated and explained by Campbell. We have already noted the crucial moment of ‘the supreme ordeal’ (the garbage compactor), which usually comes after the crossing of the threshold. We might also note the important presence of allies along the way: here they are Han Solo, and the droids C-3P0 and R2-D2. Let us take just one more example. Late on in the journey, we have the moment Campbell calls ‘resurrection’ – the religious language indicating that the heroic quest is not for material gain. Just as Spenser’s Red Cross Knight can only restore a ravaged land to life by virtue of being spiritually renewed himself, so Luke Skywalker can only overcome the evil Empire by trusting to a higher power. Launching his final assault on the Death Star, he is inspired by the spirit of Obi- Wan Kenobi to let go of his old self and to trust the Force. Luke’s earlier, specifically physical near-death experience has anticipated the final moment of victory, when he knows the ‘boon’ to be inner as well as outer. Evidently, earlier audiences cheered at the moment when Luke succeeds in destroying the Death Star; according to Campbell’s theory, they were unconsciously responding to the archaic power of the completed ‘rite of passage’.

‘Eternal Life!’

For another celebrated ‘rite of passage’, let us turn again to a literary source. Part I of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progess (1679) is regarded by many critics as one of the earliest English novels, but it is perhaps better appreciated in our context as a traditional prose romance, taking the form of a quest. It illustrates Campbell’s pattern perfectly, but with an interesting variation. The hero, Christian, is dissatisfied with the sinful world in which he lives and, reading his Bible, decides to leave it for ever and find the Celestial City, or heavenly kingdom. As he sets off he cries, ‘Life! Life! Eternal life!’ Here, then, there is no ‘refusal of the call’ as such; but what we do have is an attempt by several false friends (Mr Worldly Wiseman, Pliable and others) to dissuade the hero from his quest. This variation is especially effective in a Christian story which emphasises the need to hold on to one’s faith.

The rest of the tale conforms more clearly to the pattern. We have a mentor in the shape of Evangelist, who shows Christian how to understand God’s message and how to avoid the temptations of sin and error on the way. Moreover, as might be expected, Christian has allies, such as Faithful, and he has enemies, such as Giant Despair. Again, he must make his way through many dreadful places, such as the Slough of Despond, a deep bog in which he nearly drowns, and a demonic market place called Vanity Fair, in which he and his ally are put on trial by followers of the Devil, who execute Faithful. Finally, he and his new companion, Hopeful, swim across the River of Death and reach their heavenly destination.

It is worth mentioning that, though Bunyan’s religious allegory focuses on Christian, who seems to have deserted his wife and family in his quest for salvation, Part II of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1684) recounts the successful attempt of his wife Christiana and their children to follow in his footsteps. The devotion of a whole narrative to Christian’s wife reminds us that, when we are looking for literary variations on the monomyth, we need not expect the protagonist to be male. Indeed, as the novel developed as a literary form, it increasingly related the inner aspect of the hero’s journey to the desire of women to establish an identity in what seemed to be a man’s world. They wanted, as it were, to tell their own story. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) is illuminating here: while deeply rooted in traditional, male-centred narrative, it is strongly informed by a sense of female needs and rights.

A woman’s quest

Jane Eyre is perhaps a more complicated example than The Pilgrim’s Progress, particularly as it is set in the ‘real world’ and it seems to lack a mythic dimension. However, bearing in mind the thesis of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we should expect it (like all stories) to draw much of its power from the ‘monomyth’, no matter how realistic this first-person account of Jane’s life might seem to be.

For instance, the novel is narrated in the form of a journey, and it is worthwhile considering the main stages of Jane’s travels, as suggested by the symbolic names of her dwelling places. The orphaned Jane has to pass through the ‘gate’s head’ (Gateshead Hall, home of her uncle) in order to undertake her adventure. In the course of her struggle, she feels herself overwhelmed by the darkness of a ‘low wood’ (Lowood Orphans Asylum). Indeed, her misery must further deepen, as she encounters hostility in a ‘field of thorns’ (Thornfield Hall, owned by Mr Rochester, where Jane is employed as a governess). However the ‘field of thorns’ becomes in time a ‘dene’, or vale, of ‘ferns’ (Ferndean, the house where Jane and Rochester finally live as man and wife), a pleasant valley full of beautiful plants. Thus, she has travelled a path as symbolically important as Christian’s. She has made her way through the waste land of despair to her own kind of paradise.

Now, If we have read the whole novel, we may look back over it and see the plot includes an initial ‘call to adventure’ (the ghostly apparition in the red room), a ‘refusal of the call’ (Jane’s self-doubts and awareness of her own plain appearance), a mentor (Mr Reed, possibly, or Miss Temple), various allies (Helen, Mary, Diana), enemies (Mrs Reed, Mr Brocklehurst, Mrs Rochester), a ‘resurrection’ (Jane’s death to her old doubts and her new sense of identity in love) and a ‘return with the elixir’ (Rochester’s restoration of sight through the healing power of Jane’s love).

More than a formula?

I have set out to show that different stories may share a common structure, whether we come across them in classic literature or popular film. But in a sense, that is only the beginning of the discussion. For, once we have detected a hidden pattern, we still have to decide how we evaluate the various versions that we come across. For example, though The Pilgrim’s Progress seems to have been written to justify a distinctly individualistic version of Christianity, what lingers in the mind is the rich depiction of a social world. This is seen to be full of divisions and injustices, as represented by the patronising Worldly Wiseman and by the cruel judge and jury of Vanity Fair. But it is also a place where the poor and oppressed continually find opportunities to help one another, as seen in the relationship of Christian with Faithful and with Hopeful. This latter interest takes us beyond the simple formulaic expectation that the ‘monomyth’ will include allies as well as enemies: it is an extremely moving element in the experience of reading the text. Again, Jane Eyre is a radical adaptation of the traditional quest romance. Bronte not only substitutes a female hero for a male, but also uses her story to explore the struggle a woman has to engage in if she is to affirm and assert her rights in a society organised for the benefit of men. Indeed, perhaps the ‘boon’ which Jane brings back is, ultimately, the example she sets to her female readers of the possibility of finding respect and responsibility.

What, then, of George Lucas’s films? Are they restricted to the bare bones of a formula? I think it would be unfair to conclude so. One point of interest is that the first of the Star Wars films does not reveal that the evil Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father; this information is held back until the third film, Return of the Jedi (1983). The early trilogy thereby gains in tension and psychological subtlety; moreover, it encourages us to reflect on the relationship between good and evil, between the light and dark sides of the Force. The recently released ‘prequel’, The Phantom Menace (1999), delves further into such matters by tracing the early years of Luke’s father, Anakin, as he undergoes his own rite of passage. On the other hand, I would not want to encourage the notion that a film deserves celebration simply because it keeps reworking one variation of what has become a formula. One should, perhaps, pause to regret Lucas’s increasing interest in special effects at the expense of extending narrative possibilities, and the increasing ability of Hollywood to turn everything, including the ‘monomyth’, into a commercial enterprise. But that, as they say, is another story.

Laurence Coupe

See also: Avatar review

Further reading:
Laurence Coupe, Myth , 2nd edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)