Monday, October 6, 2008

The monomyth and the Obamamyth (The Daily Northwestern 10/3/08)

I would have never guessed a class I took called "The Hero's Journey: Jesus, Star Wars and the American Dream" would prove useful in a political column four years later. Bear with me.

The teacher, Doc Failla, wanted to explain two things: the relationship between Luke Skywalker and the obsession Americans have with stories. We are addicted to them. We are chemically, emotionally, historically and even politically dependent upon them. Not just Americans of course - civilizations throughout time relied upon stories to understand themselves and one another. But in the home of Hollywood, Americans just want to hear your story.

Doc Failla structured his class around Star Wars because it approaches narrative perfection. Back when George Lucas had a clue, he brilliantly structured Luke's story around the writings of Joseph Campbell. Campbell pioneered the theory of the hero's journey, what he termed the monomyth. He explains that all great stories feature a hero who "ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

With a little imagination, we can find this structure in every great story - from Star Wars to Jesus to Batman. And this is where it gets political: John McCain has this kind of story. He constantly tells his POW stories for this reason. Those years not only play up his patriotism but also root his story in the hero's journey. Vietnam was his Dagobah, so to speak, his "region of supernatural wonder." For all the criticism he receives for telling this story ad nauseum, it works on a fundamental level with voters. It is a phenomenal and heroic story, and it mirrors the structure of the hero's journey.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, sucks at telling his story. I've studied both of his books, read almost all of his speeches and yet I still struggle to recount his convoluted biography. It's not that he doesn't have a good story; he has an inspiring and distinctly American story. He's just not a good storyteller. He is without a doubt the greatest orator our generation has seen. Yet time and time again he fails to connect on an emotional level, not just with the average voter, but often with his most fervent supporters.

His will be a hard story to tell. "Community organizer" and "Chicago" don't instantly conjure the image that "POW" and "Vietnam" do. But before he can rewrite history, he needs to rewrite his story. He needs to stop talking about the future all the time - the audacity of hope - and start talking about his past - the improbability of hope.

We need to know that he earned this. He needs to explain the improbability of his life in a way that echoes the hero's journey. Obama too often sounds like a messiah who has descended from heaven to save us from the flood. That b-movie plot teaches us nothing. And what is a story but teaching in a way that everybody can understand? So before he hires his next speechwriter, he better hire his first screenwriter.

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