Friday, December 5, 2014

Using a Higgs lens to read Illuminatus!

Author John Higgs

In his blog post about the Cosmic Trigger weekend, John Higgs writes about two different ways to tell a story — (1) the hero's journey, focusing on one protagonist's point of view, and (2) the intersection of many different stories, or "reality tunnels."

John offers these two means of storytelling as a contrast to each other. But I want to argue, here, that both methods can be seen in two seminal works of 20th century literature — James Joyce's Ulysses and Wilson and Shea's Illuminatus!

First, a bit more detail about the two fiction methods.

About the hero plot Higgs explains, "I’ve written a book about the 20th Century which will be out next year and which I’ll bang on endlessly about soon. But one thing I realised writing that book that the predominant story form of the 20th Century, especially in cinema, is what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey. A young man (and it's almost always a man) of lowly means receives a call to adventure, meets a patriarchal mentor, faces many challenges, defeats the personification of evil and returns home with treasure. You’re probably sick to death of that story, it’s been used in everything from Errol Flynn movies to Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. It’s the story of a single reality tunnel – it’s the tale of how the hero views the world." It seems to me the story of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings also would be an example of what John is talking about.

He then adds, "But there’s been a huge shift in our culture. Look at the big hits that we get now. You have TV series like Game of Thrones, where the complicated interplay between dozens of competing reality tunnels proves to be a far more interesting, rewarding and illuminating piece of television than the story of one single reality tunnel. You get things like the Marvel cinematic universe, where all these separate individual superhero films join up into something larger, because Marvel understands that the sum is larger than the parts. In the Eighties the fact that Doctor Who had decades of backstory was a reason not to watch it: now people love it when they pick up on a Jon Pertwee reference from the 1970s. A simple children’s Hero Journey story such as The Hobbit becomes an epic 9-hour trilogy for today’s audience. Alan Moore understood all this decades ago, when he first began connecting up the entire world of fiction in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

John then applies it to the past "Cosmic Trigger" weekend. "All the stories, all your individual stories about what brought you here to this building on this day, they all connect up and form one larger story that is greater than the sum of its parts. And none of us can see that story, but we can sense it. We know deep down that this is exactly where we are meant to be, and that being here is important and will resonate with us for perhaps the rest of our lives. This weekend is about something other than one person’s reality tunnel. And yes, it is frustrating that none of us can see this larger story, but you know it’s there, just out of the corner of your eyes, because you keep getting flashes of it."

Isn't a mesh of different stories a pretty good description of what James Joyce's Ulysses is about? The different plotlines weave and intersect, but you get a sense that there are many different stories going on in Dublin, and that the reader is only getting a few of them, focusing in on the details of the characters to show that there is a much richer, larger whole. Certainly Illuminatus!, published in the 1970s, would seem to be an early example of the  "shift in the culture" that John perceives, with its multiple reality tunnels weaving in and out.

But it also strikes me that the "hero's journey" model can be applied in both of these books. If Stephen Dedalus is the Frodo/Luke Skywalker character who "faces many challenges,"  Leopold Bloom would seem to be the patriarchal mentor who gets Dedalus out of trouble after an encounter with a British soldier and then takes care of the  younger man.

Perhaps the model is more clear in Illuminatus!, where the "hero's journey" takes place at least three times. On one track, George Dorn is the "young man," and his "patriarchal mentor" is Hagbard Celine. Joseph Malik is the other "young man" (perhaps not chronologically) and his "patriarchal mentor" is the (probably younger) Simon Moon, who lectures Malik relentlessly and takes him on the Discordian path.

And in a sense, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson function as "patriarchal mentors" for the readers. There's even a series of tutoring sessions in the back, in the form of an Appendix, where the authors take the time to further lecture the reader and provide pointers for further research.


michael said...

Lots of potentially fecund ideas here.

One: Bloom is never more "Ulysses" than when he confronts The Citizen (Cyclops) and his dog, Garry Owens. To me, that is.

Eric Wagner said...

Howdy MIchael, I hope all goes well. I agree with you. I think Bloom also seems most himself in that scene, especially when he talks about Jesus.

By the way, next Tuesday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the recording of Coltrane's "A Love Supreme".

Eric Wagner said...

I wonder what Vico would have thought about Joyce's take on Homer.

Arthur Hlavaty said...

Much to think about here. Applying the terms to other books I love, Stranger in a Strange Land is mostly hero's journey (with more patriarchal mentor than most) and Stand on Zanzibar is mesh of stories (perhaps the first in science fiction).


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chas said...

The Illiad is more of a mesh. Are we moving backwards in time?

John said...
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