Criticism of the monomyth?
February 20, 2008 4:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for criticism of Joseph Campbell's theory of the monomyth - online or print, either will do. I'm actually keen on finding some outright hostile reactions to his work, but failing that, I suppose balanced appraisal is okay, too.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The power of choice : a critique of Joseph Campbell's "monomyth," Northrop Frye's theory of myth, Mark Twain's orthodoxy to heresy, and C.G. Jung's God-image. (Unfortunately, it's a thesis, and only one library in the world has it. Maybe try to contact the author for a PDF version.)

Also try Communities of the heart : the rhetoric of myth in the fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin and perhaps "Pluralistic Monism" by James R. Kincaid in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Summer, 1978), pp. 839-845 (no link, sorry).

You may want to sift through this Google Scholar search, too.
posted by cog_nate at 6:06 PM on February 20, 2008

Well, I don't like his work, but you're probably looking for more cogent and authoritative rebuttals.

Look at Robert Segal's Joseph Campbell: An Introduction or his Theorizing About Myth In both books, Segal looks at the logical inconsistencies of Campbell's approaches towards myth and places them in the context of other earlier theorists who proposed similar plot model.

Also, Dean A. Miller's The Epic Hero positions his examination of hero stories against the over generalizations of Campbell's approach.
posted by bibliowench at 7:04 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: bibliowench, even some off the cuff invective would be interesting! And thanks for the links so far: looks like my university carries Critical Inquiry, and there's a copy of Theorizing About Myth, so hooray for that.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 7:32 PM on February 20, 2008

I think the problem with Campbell is also the virtue: namely that the framework of myth he proposes is so malleable it can be adapted to almost any protagonistic narrative. It is a sort of Turing Machine of narrative, in the sense that almost any narrative can be shoehorned into a Campbellian form if it has a beginning, middle and end, and a protagonist.

There's also a self-fulfilling prophecy aspect in modern media in the sense that Campbell is uses to critique and generate so many contemporary narratives that then go on to be models for subsequent narratives that it has become the dominant narrative-meme.

The counterexamples to Campbell are mostly non-heroic or anti-heroic narratives, which really begs the question, since he's set up as a theory of heroic, or protagonistic, myth. I think sometimes people forget that there are other kinds of myth (eg creation myths).
posted by unSane at 8:41 PM on February 20, 2008

bibliowench, even some off the cuff invective would be interesting!

Well, a caveat - I teach a world mythology course at community college, and my scholarly background consists of an abandoned dissertation on Victorian theater, so I'm hardly an expert. (And I'm 1/2way through a marathon grading session, so I'll make no claims for coherence or correct grammar).

Campbell gets my dander up. The textbook that I inherited for my class (and which I'm in the slow process of changing because I loath it more than any book I've used before) takes an archetypal approach to myth and basically cherry picks examples of types (creation myths, heroes, tricksters, goddesses) that obliterate cultural differences and emphasize these forced similarities. It's a technique that many "universalist" theorists use (Frazer is another good example along with Campbell), and one which I think reduces myth to a structure that robs it of much of its complexity and cultural individuality.

I don't think Campbell's wrong for pointing out structural similarities in hero stories, but others have done it before him, and they've resisted the urge to add that self-help pablum that his later work displays. As unSane says, his theories try so hard to be universal that they almost end up being meaningless.

Another reason I don't like him, as a teacher, is that my students really do, at the expense of other myth theories. I always teach a "toolbox" approach to theory - let's throw a bunch of strategies out there (Levi-Strauss, Malinowski, Eliade, Freud and followers, Frazer, Burkert) and see what works and what we can say about these stories, but students really take to the monomyth, in part because of the almost plug-and-play analysis it allows ("Oh, this must be the threshold. And here's the elixir. QED: hero myth"). I'm so tired of reading these papers.

So I don't like him because on one hand, he's too general. On another, he's too reductive. And, speaking as a reader of his books, he makes myth boring for me.

But then, he's a famous myth theorist, and I teach at a 2 year school. I think he could take me in an intellectual cage match.
posted by bibliowench at 9:17 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Eight Reasons Why the Hero's Journey Sucks and New Proof that Every Scifi Epic is Based on Joseph Campbell. This is more targeted at a genre that follows Campbell's Hero's Journey with an unwavering devotion, but does have some nice invective in there too.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:11 AM on February 21, 2008

The reason some sf tends to follow Campbellian templates has more to do with the nature of early 21st century pulp magazine fiction requirements than adherence to Big Joe's principles. The better writers during the genre's mid-period, like Damon Knight, Cordwainer Smith and Philip Jose Farmer, weren't very Campbellian. Nor were some of the worse (but still popular) ones, like Hal Clement and Isaac Asimov. (Yeah, fuck you -- Asimov was a poor stylist with a lot of decent ideas and an overactive work ethic.) But Campbell's theories weren't commonly known back then, and most of those writers hadn't read him. The New Wave in sf was largely a backlash against pulp standards. I personally believe that an understanding of the New Wave is important if you're looking to criticize the genre. Campbell's ideas have had a lot of resonance in the field post-Star Wars, but probably less so that Robert Heinlein's writing, post 1940's.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:09 AM on February 21, 2008

Shoot -- that ought to be "...early 20th century pulp magazine..."

Hellfire and damnation.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:10 AM on February 21, 2008

This may not be what you are looking for, but When They Severed Earth from Sky provides a very strong case that myths are, in fact, coded histories, which I felt kind of skewered Campbell's view of things.
posted by herbaliser at 11:03 AM on February 21, 2008

bibliowench: "But then, he's a famous myth theorist, and I teach at a 2 year school. I think he could take me in an intellectual cage match."

Well, the man's been dead for twenty years now, so you might do better than you'd think. ;)
posted by phaded at 7:41 PM on February 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

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