The Hero’s Inner Journey

This morning I belatedly saw a connection between two ideas I’m interested in: the hero’s journey and attachment theory.

The hero’s journey is a fundamental narrative that’s claimed to be at the root of all stories. It was proposed by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in books such as The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The theory goes that in every quest the hero progresses, or fails to progress, through a series of common stages: the call to adventure, initiation, mentoring, journeying beyond the bounds of their world, trials and tests, ordeals, defeats and victories, and a final return to the world with a boon. Campbell and others have proposed various heroic archetypes who undertake this journey. Campbell noted that these heroes are frequently orphans or those whose parents are conspicuously absent. For modern reference points, think of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins.

Attachment theory is a widely accepted psychological model of human development. Developed by John Bowlby and others, it emphasises the importance of parental, particularly maternal, love and connection for the healthy development of identity. This connection should be neither abandoning or engulfing: ‘good enough’ is best. Bowlby was sent to boarding school aged seven during the bombing raids of the Second World War. It was a terrible time for him and he would later investigate the psychological effects of separation on infants and young children. Bowlby found that children with unmet emotional needs carried them into adulthood. As adults we then try to satisfy these needs through certain behaviours and strategies – some healthier than others.

Could it be that the hero’s journey is fundamentally a quest to resolve a deeply rooted childhood fear of abandonment? Do our mythical heroes respond to the call to adventure because of the desire to resolve an unmet need for connection? Notice that nearly always, the hero undertakes a project for the good of society and returns to society – if he or she can – at least briefly to bestow boons. Similarly, the quest nearly always involves mentoring, a kind of reparenting, in which the hero participates in a special bond with a teacher who initiates (or births) them more fully into previously hidden ways of the world. I was encouraged to make this connection by hearing therapist Mark Epstein talk about his book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, in which he reinterprets the Buddha’s journey in light of his mother’s death one week after his birth – Epstein describes this as almost a passing detail in the canon, but perhaps a crucial one.

Perhaps these stories resonate with us so deeply because – regardless of how well we were parented, and how fully our emotional need for secure connection has been met – we all carry unresolved needs. Life, then, is the enactment of the hero’s journey as we find a mode of living, connecting, being in the world that enables us and those around us to identify and meet those needs in mutually constructive ways. This is indeed a heroic quest requiring much courage and fortitude.

Takagi Masakatsu, Akira Kosemura and the beauty

I love Takagi Masakatsu’s music. I don’t know much about him but, as far as I can tell, he travelled the world asking people to sing or play one melody, ‘The Light Song’. Hopeful piano riffs mix with childrens’ choirs, found sounds and scratchy processes. If I could sum up what I know of his music in one word, that word would be ‘playful’.

Sometimes Masakatsu’s music seems too straightforwardly happy, sentimental, simple in tone and texture. But there’s a sadness in the happiness, and vice versa. One new year’s eve I remember listening to a Dntel record in a backroom of a party. An acquantaince entered the room and said “I don’t know whether this music makes me feel happy or sad.” Wild times! A lot of the music I like has that kind of ambivalence. It’s a trait Masakatsu shares with Akira Kosemura. Their music can be uncomfortably direct in its evocation of beauty. Kosemura’s Twitter bio describes him as a “composer for capturing the beauty”. No need to say of what, I suppose. That simple ambition leaves traces of its hidden depth everywhere. Ambiguity arises. As the notes decay they leave an impenetrable silence and simplicity becomes the most unfathomable thing of all.

In any case, Takagi Masakatsu’s music isn’t always easy to listen to. It’s filled with ideas and sometimes weird cacophony, like breathing sounds or semi-musical noise. This is pretty strange, for example. Who has the right to say whether such choices are the result of a composer adding texture, trying to be ‘experimental’, or satisfying an unknowable itch of self-expression? The same is true of Kosemura’s Polaroid Piano. A sound like tree branches clawing the roof of a cabin persists throughout the entire record. It’s a unifying effect, as if you really were in that cabin while the piano played start to finish in one take.

Whether intended or not, the use of sound effects has a particular purpose and effect. It makes a recording definitive, specific, beyond the reach of notation. And when sound effects become part of the music, music itself becomes a sound effect. All that mesmeric tinkling is suddenly specific and incidental. Like everything else, it’s a ‘one off’ captured in a world which, as one of Masakatsu’s album titles tells us, is so beautiful.

Takagi Masakatsu links

Takagi Masakatsu’s Soundcloud.

Takagi Masakatsu on Spotify.

Takagi Masakatsu - Niyodo

Akira Kosemura links

Akira Kosemura’s Soundcloud.

Akira Kosemura’s Polaroid Piano on Spotify.

Akira Kosemura - Polaroid Piano

The meaning of Tolkien’s one ring

Possessiveness is a recurring theme in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. At the beginning, Bilbo is attached to his quiet way of life. His daily trials are no more strenuous than avoiding the Sackville-Bagginses and no more rewarding than a pint of ale and a hearty repast. He has a quotidian existence and Gandalf’s invitation to re-order his life in the shape of a quest is a troubling challenge.

We learn that this bother with Smaug is the upshot of greed: the greed of Thorin Oakenshield’s father and grandfather, and their coveting of the arkenstone. Later, when they seize Smaug’s stronghold, their lust for gold has the potential to bring all to ruin were it not for a clever burglar. A burglar is someone who relieves the burden of possession. Bilbo relieved Gollum of the ring, though after too many years for the darkness-dweller to adjust to the burden of not having it. Gollum might not possess the ring, but the ring still possesses him. In Jungian terms, Gollum is Bilbo’s shadow: the repressed part of himself that he cannot consciously acknowledge but will come face to face with through his quest. Gollum is wild and violent; he also takes Bilbo’s anti-social, obsessive tendencies to an extreme. Like Bilbo, he enjoys small comforts and games – but of a darker shade. Smaug, too, is shadow. He represents more than the dwarves’ uninterrogated greed. He is an usurping serpent in the heart of the mountain and the human heart. His possessiveness of gold is witness to his colossal covetousness of his own self, his massive ego. He loathes nothing more than a thief who might relieve him of his burden and has no greater blindspot than flattery.

When Frodo comes to bear the ring we see exactly how a possession may possess its owner. Like Bilbo, Frodo begins to echo Gollum’s speech: my own, mine. We learn that the ring, though forged, cannot be unmade except in special circumstances. It’s this idea of the ring as a discrete object, whole, existing objectively and immutably as fact, that forms part of its attractiveness (contrast with the Buddhist concept of emptiness). It represents something absolute, apart from other objects, and so able to satisfy dark longings for power and security that all other possessions have failed to quench. The hobbits’ relative resistance to the one ring has its root in their humility; the allure of the ring is the support it lends to the assumption at the root of possessiveness: that there is an enduring ego that gains security through possession. It literally prolongs the life of its bearer, but in doing so unites them with the shadow of their nature. Ultimately, Tolkien dissolves the deadlock between possessor and possession as the ring melts in the belly of Mt. Doom.

The Grand Budapest Hotel as allegory [spoilers]

I’d recommend watching Wes Anderson’s new film before reading on.

I’ve only seen it once but I think The Grand Budapest Hotel is an allegory for the first half of the 20th Century and the fall of the British Empire.

A hotel makes a good a metaphor for the world: people are checking in and out all the time. Its owner is mysteriously absent. He sends a representative, Kovacs, but we learn that the hotel is effectively run by the concierge, M. Gustave, who in this theory represents the British Empire. Zero Moustafa, the orphaned lobby boy, stands for the USA. The first time the train stops in the barley field represents WWI; the second time, WWII, after which the inheritance of global hegemony passes decisively to Zero, i.e. the USA.

There are a few clues that support my interpretation:

  1. Agatha, who has a ‘birthmark shaped like Mexico’ on her cheek, suggests that people can stand for nations in the logic of the film. The young Zero is connected to her.
  2. The scene towards the end when everyone comes out of their hotel room to start shooting at each other.
  3. M. Gustave is described as an anachronism whose time had already passed. Fiennes’ character associates with old Europe, reads romantic poetry and is perhaps quintessentially ‘British’ to an American audience.

That’s my theory, anyway.