Lawrence and Jewett on The American Monomyth

John Lawrence and Robert Jewett seek to understand the relationship between what they call the “American monomyth” and the society in a modern context.  The idea driving this exploration is the belief that the mythical stories reveal tensions, desires, and anxieties about American democracy in the modern day.  To understand the modern monomyth, however, the classical monomyth must first by understood.  In the classical version, a hero goes into a wondrous, supernatural world, engages and definitively comes out the victor in a conflict, and goes back to where he came from with some new power that benefits his place of origin.  Rites of initiation are often incorporated, and the narrative of leaving a community, enduring trials, and returning as a mature individual with something to offer is often present.

The more current version of the monomyth natural has similarities, but tends more to involve a normal community that is threatened by evil and protected by a selfless superhero who brings redemptive elements to the story.  The similarities include the selfless hero, decisive victory, and restoration of the community to its pre-conflict Edenic state.  In the modern version, though, the redemption or restoration is emphasized more, as opposed to the initiation narrative. The article suggests that this relates to the rejection of religion in light of scientific rationalism; since Christianity is so embedded in our culture, we still want a Christ figure, and thus we find it in a selfless superhero who is a servant to a community and carries out redemptive tasks. Relating it to the ideal of American culture, then, it makes sense to accept William Doty’s suggestion that the myths (and the symbols and rituals that come with them) are suggestive of the ideals and goals of their society.

The strong relationship between a society and its myths is further demonstrated by what the authors refer to as the Werther Effect.  Specifically with Werther, the issue was people committing suicide and relating it to Werther’s novel.  Such events illustrate the interplay between the fantastical monomythical world and the everyday realities of an individual’s life.  The lines between the fantastical and the real are seriously blurred, since the fantastical and non-real influences a person’s perception of what is real and desirable.

Two important elements of the American monomyth are the community, the evil, and the hero.  With respect to the community, it is important to note that it is an Edenic community.  The authors contend that this aspect is derived largely from Puritan expectations of paradise in the future of America.  This optimism is alive even today is the ultra-modern manifiestation of the American “paradise” Disneyland- what sort of place, if not a pseudo Eden, would call itself “the happiest place on earth?”

It makes sense then, that another important element, the evil, is viewed as external to the community. It is an “other,” and cannot come from within the paradise of the community.

Finally, there is of course the matter of examining the hero in greater depth.  As mentioned, it is important for his character to be selfless (it is in fact usually a “he”), but sexual renunciation is an important particular aspect of this. It not only contributes to his virtue, but also leaves him as continuously open and available to be fully serving the community, and not a loved one or family.  Especially for the modern monomythical hero, the supernatural elements of his power are important, and the shift to this characteristic being incredibly important is exemplified by Superman and the Lone Ranger.

In the explosion of popularity in the new American monomythical hero, the modern paradigm for his character is well defined, and central to Lawrence and Jewett’s article.  The hero is a strongly redemptive figure, and his moral purity is important to his image.  A modern twist is that he is external to the community that he is saving, either in his actual origins or in that he is not well integrated within the community. Selflessness is as important as his redemptive role, and the community reaps the benefits of his actions, even if he himself does not.  Through the creation of such a hero, the societal desire to simplify life and reject the tragedy of realism is shown.

*Are these heroes truly religious figures? Do we worship them in a way that is similar to how we worship celebrities (if so, how and to what extent)?

*How does the popularity of the anti-hero factor into Lawrence and Jewett’s analysis of the overwhelming presence/necessity of a redemptive, selfless, and virtuous hero? Do they account for it or leave room for it at all?

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