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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, April 18, 2008


It occured to me that, before analyzing anything else, I should expatiate on the way I interpret Campbell's so-called "four functions" in terms of literary analysis, which I mentioned in "Gore and Allegory." This is partly because I interpret one of Campbell's functions a little more broadly than Campbell does.

Here are Campbell's original descriptions of the four, from 1964's OCCIDENTAL MYTHOLOGY:

"First is the metaphysical function. Myth awakens and supports a sense of awe before the mystery of being. It reconciles consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence. Myth induces a realization that behind the surface phenomenology of the world, there is a transcendent mystery source. Through this vitalizing mystical function, the universe becomes a holy picture. "

(Since the title of this essay contains a Fantastic Four pun, I may as well call this the "Human Torch" function. More on why later.)

"The second is a cosmological dimension deals with the image of the world that is the focus of science. This function shows the shape of the universe, but in such a way that the mystery still comes through. The cosmology should correspond to the actual experience, knowledge, and mentality of the culture. This interpretive function changes radically over time. It presents a map or picture of the order of the cosmos and our relationship to it."

This is of course the "Mr. Fantastic" function.

"Third is the sociological function. Myth supports and validates the specific moral order of the society out of which it arose. Particular life-customs of this social dimension, such as ethical laws and social roles, evolve dramatically. This function, and the rites by which it is rendered, establishes in members of the group concerned a system of sentiments that can be depended upon to link that person spontaneously to its ends."

This I call the "Invisible Girl" or "Invisible Woman" function.

"The fourth function of myth is psychological. The myths show how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. It is this pedagogical function of mythology that carries the individual through the various stages and crises of life, from childhood dependency, to the responsibilities of maturity, to the reflection of old age, and finally, to death. It helps people grasp the unfolding of life with integrity. It initiates individuals into the order of realities in their own psyches, guiding them toward enrichment and realization."

And this grimm-sounding one goes to the Thing.

My main difference in approach to Campbell's summations is that his description of the "metaphysical" function doesn't take in enough territory. I would not confine the metaphysical just to the emotive sense of the mystical, as the quote here suggests. (I have not gone back and compared Campbell's later versions of the functions theory to this first enunciation.) Whenever I use "the metaphysical," I also include all notions common to a mystical view of the universe-- for instance, the notion that ideas possess essential natures, and can be opposed to one another, as is seen in the JUSTICE LEAGUE critique on this blog. "The metaphysical" would also include Mircea Eliade's concept of "techniques of ecstacy," which are the means by which a shaman purports to journey to heaven, change into an animal and so forth.

For the other three-- cosmological, psychological and sociological-- their application to critiquing aspects of a given fiction should be obvious, even though it's rare for the "cosmological" one to be invoked in most literary fiction, where the nature of science and the regular phenomenal world is usually taken for granted. Every once in a while, though, a work like MOBY DICK does hinge in part on the narrator's semi-educated investigations into the brute material world.

Now, how serious I am about comparing Campbell's functions to the members of the Fantastic Four? Not very, since in an outstanding feature like the classic Lee-Kirby FF all four myth-interpretation functions can be found to some extent in assorted stories with varying degrees. But if one focuses only upon the characters, there are some middling parallels.

Mr. Fantastic, the scientist-leader of the group, is obviously the figure who continually provides insight into "the shape of the universe."

The Invisible Girl/Woman is, of the four of them, the one most responsible for drawing them all into a social bond, often acting like a "den-mother" to juvenile-acting adults Ben and Johnny and somehow getting the reticent Reed to propose and form an extension of their extended family.

The Thing's character is the one most explored by Lee and Kirby for psychological depth (as much as is appropriate to a superhero comic) as to his petty grudges, insecurities, and fundamental good-heartedness. Of the four he's the only one likely to yell at a villain, "You're gonna give me a complex!" From my POV, he already has (or is) one.

However, I confess I can't find even a middling parallel between Johnny Storm and the metaphysical function. He doesn't have a mystical temperament and doesn't even function as a conceptual embodiment of something, at least no more than the others do. And none of the others fit with it either, though arguably a number of the feature's support-characters do, principally the Watcher and the Silver Surfer.

So the parallels aren't perfect, which is why I'm not that serious about them. But I am still serious about why I think Campbell's functions are a good method for seeking out mythic content in literature of any type. I wrote earlier:

'In a previous essay I noted that there might be a way to counter the interpretation of Eric Gould, of viewing myth as a failure to bridge an ontological gap between the world we live in and what our minds make of it. I would suggest that Campbell’s categorical approach—as long as it is restrained from pure allegorizing by a Cassirer-like understanding of myth’s indeterminate conceptualizing nature—does bridge the ontological gap, as much as humanity can expect to. Campbell’s categories are, at their base, attempts to discern patterns in reality, whether one is dealing with external realities (what Sallustius calls “material objects”) or internal ones (“souls and intellects.”)'

In my VALKYRIE/DEFENDERS analyses I've been trying to show how a figure like the Valkyrie-- who barely incarnates any of these functions very well (the sociological one perhaps coming closest, since she starts as a parody of women's lib)-- can grow and change in terms of that figure's symbolic complexity. The next VALKYRIE post will show how the character's crude sociological design takes on greater complexity within a matrix more properly belonging to the psychological function.

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