Project 2: The Hero’s Journey

I began this project taking notes in my learning log.

heros journey

Aristotle’s basic template led to more elaborate ones, some variations of which are taught in school (for example, Freytag’s plot pyramid). Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (summarized on Wikipedia here) was handily simplified for movie writing (but can also be applied to storytelling in general) by Christopher Vogler (official online resource here).

As summarized in the course binder, the stages of the Hero’s Journey (taken from Christopher Vogler’s 1999 adaptation of Campbell’s work) is as follows:

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Exercise 1a: The Hero’s Journey in Madonna in a Fur Coat

I mapped this journey onto a novel I read recently, the Turkish classic, Madonna in a Fur Coat, by Sabahattin Ali (first published in 1943, this English translation published by Penguin Classics in 2016). It’s basically a novel within a novel, and the more significant story occurs almost entirely within the framework of the latter.

Act I (Beginning/Hero’s Decision to Act)

Raif Efendi is dying in his home in Ankara, Turkey, and has entrusted his unnamed friend/colleague, also the narrator, to burn a notebook containing his life’s secrets. The friend decides to read the notebook instead, and so the novel within the novel begins, narrated by Raif Efendi himself. He describes his disconnected youth in Turkey, and an extended trip to Berlin he took as a young man to learn how soap factories work. His Ordinary World is just that: ordinary, filled with banality, passionless.

Raif’s Call to Adventure comes in the form of an encounter with a captivating work of art: a self-portrait of a beautiful woman: “Even now, after all these years, I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me in that moment. I only remember standing, transfixed, before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat” (Ali, p.51). The artwork awakens his dulled senses, enlivens and haunts him; he returns to the gallery day after to day to sit with and contemplate this work. The work gives him purpose.

When the artist, Maria Puder, whom Raif has fallen deeply in love with via her self-portrait, appears at the gallery and approaches Raif, he is instantly humiliated; instead of siezing the opportunity to meet the woman of his dreams, he mumbles an odd and untruthful response to her questions. He Refus[es] the Call: “I did not dare look around me, as I jumped to my feet and fled” (Ali, p.58).

Raif can’t stop thinking about his wasted opportunity. He ends up crossing paths with Maria while out on the town with an older woman he didn’t care for. His Meeting with the Mentor, the person who will teach him what it means to live and love, occurs the next night, when he tracks Maria down at her place of work.

The Crossing of the First Threshold is articulated across several moments during Raif’s first encounters with Maria, but is perhaps best summarized by his immediate awareness of a newfound vulnerability: “Never before had I felt so much happiness. I could feel my heart opening, as if for the first time” (Ali, p.70).

Act II (Middle/Action)

Raif and Maria enjoy a strong, beautiful and intimate connection, spending all their free time together. All Tests, Allies, and Enemies are contained within their respective personalities, painful personal histories and fears. The greatest test is Maria’s endless warnings that she’ll never love Raif, that he musn’t expect anything of her: “As different as you are, you’re still a man…and all the men that I have ever known have ended up leaving in sorrow or anger once they realize I don’t love them, and can never love them…” (Ali, p.95).

Raif Approach[es] the Inmost Cave after a drunken celebration; he and Maria make love but when she awakens the next morning, she is sick and feels empty. She ends things with Raif: “‘Smile once for me and then go,” She said. I smiled and then hurried out of the room, my face hidden in my hands. Out on the street I began to walk aimlessly” (Ali, p. 122).

He spends days like this, before finally deciding to inquire after Maria. The Ordeal occurs when Raif discovers that she’s been very ill, is at hospital, and goes to offer her support. Her condition is very serious: “I was terrified I might lose her. Whenever her fingers strayed beyond the covers, or her feet quivered beneath it, I saw the shadow of death. I could see it even in her face, her lips, her smile: I sensed in them a surrender, an acceptance of some awful fact, a readiness even…” (Ali, p. 132).

The Reward reveals itself when Marie suggests Raif should continue caring for her after she is released from hospital. They fall into a loving caretaking ritual: “…Everything had fallen into place in a way that felt natural. No desires plagued me…I lived only in the present. My soul was like a glassy, windless sea” (Ali, p.137).

Act III (End/Consequences of Action)

The Road Back to Raif’s old, ordinary world occurs when Raif is summoned back to Turkey following his father’s death. Maria agrees to join him there soon, but as he prepares for her arrival, her letters becomes less and less frequent, stop altogether, and finally, his own letters get returned to him.

Raif somehow accepts the inexplicable loss of Maria, but he is not again able to find love or joy in living. His Resurrection is a defeated, sad one: “I slipped back into the life I’d led before meeting Maria Puder: my days were just as aimless and empty as before, but also more painful…I was suffering now because I knew there was another way to live…The joys of life were for ever closed to me” (Ali, p. 150).

Raif’s Elixir, or release from the pain of life without Maria, is represented by his learning the truth about what happened to Maria (she died giving premature birth to his child), by putting their love story in words and on paper (now being read by the narrator), and also by his own release from the painful life he’d been leading without her. Raif dies the day after learning what happened, and his story of true love proves also to be a sort-of elixir for the narrator, who finds in him quiet, timeless inspiration.

Exercise 1b: Writing my own Hero’s Journey

We were encouraged to write out the framework for a Hero’s Journey of our own. As I am mostly interested in autobiographical storytelling, I positioned myself as the (very imperfect, flawed) Hero of my own story of becoming. This is actually a helpful exercise as I have several story/essay ideas that are inspired by the emotionally-charged/growing-pains period of my life that I drew from.

The different points of the journey resemble a romance in many ways, but ultimately I think this journey was a romance with myself. I need to think about how I’ll frame that in different snippets I’d like to zoom in on in my writing. I indulged myself in some of the details, with the intention of referring back later when I’m doing the writing component of my degree program.

Act I

Ordinary World: Following my teaching degree, I’m living with my  boyfriend’s parents in Vancouver. Life is mostly good: I’m in love, but not with myself. Dissatisfaction with my personal trajectory and, ultimately, a failure to create, lead me to a deep, subtle feeling of misery.

Call to Adventure: Having dinner with a friend, talking about the future. She reminds me of my old fantasy of moving to Paris (I’d studied French, it had been a dream of mine). “We all know that’s never gonna happen,” she said. My face burned. Mental alarm bells started ringing. Just after our dinner date, I went to a slideshow being put on by a man who made his living as a travel writer. His life in many ways eschewed convention. I was envious. The gap between my current life and my dream life felt too vast.

Refusal of the Call: I felt helpless, stuck, powerless. I had a good job, a wonderful partner, both rooted in Vancouver, and not much money saved. I had agreed with my friend that leaving now was unlikely, impossible. Where would I begin?

Meeting with Mentor: I had just begun working with Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. The book acted absolutely as my mentor, and the diverse exercises it contained pushed me closer and closer to identifying steps to realizing this one dream: moving to Paris. It seemed like it would afford me a fresh start on many ideas I’d left behind. It felt like I needed to act alone.

Crossing the First Threshold: Without telling my loved ones, I contacted an old friend living in Paris, and with her help found an exchange program offering teaching jobs in France. Two months later, I found I’d been offered a position in Paris the following school year. I hesitated, discussed with my partner, had his and my family’s support and finally accepted. I had about eight months to save and prepare.

Act II

Tests/Allies/Enemies: Once in Paris, the tests came in many forms: a kind of culture shock, loneliness, language barrier, long-distance relationship, financial stress, social awkwardness, so much fear all the time. My greatest ally was my dear friend, who invited me into her home, supported and encouraged me at every step. My partner at the time remained a strong source of love and support as well. My only true enemy, as always, was myself: I began a blog and then abandoned it. I lacked the confidence to make friends and led men to think I was interested just to have someone to hang out with. It ended poorly more than once. I wanted to learn French but was afraid of appearing stupid or making mistakes.

Approach to the Inmost Cave: At the end of my nine-month stay, I realized I wasn’t ready to leave. I felt I was on an important journey that was only just beginning and had to occur far from my usual “home” context. Around this time, change led me toward a person I felt a deep connection with. I still had a partner I loved deeply; I was running out of money; I hadn’t put anything in place to come back the next year but I knew it was what I had to do.

Ordeal: I spent a month, full of all kinds of incertitude, back in Vancouver; my partner and I began the slow, excruciating process of splitting up. We didn’t know exactly what was happening but it was like being turned inside out. I managed to get the visa stuff sorted out, but I was operating in emotional survival mode. Everything outside of my last memories of those last weeks in relationship feels blurry, even now. It was a deep confrontation with Self: I was looking up to the sky, every single day, praying for answers to come from outside me. They never came, but somehow I got on a plane back to Paris. Somehow the decision to act was my answer. I was losing “home.” I was redefining “home.” I was deeply ashamed of myself for being so selfish and taking such emotional risks.

Reward: I found a place to stay, a (terrible) job, slowly sifted through ugly feelings, connected with someone new. With many steps backwards along the way, I felt I was carving out my own destiny, for once not blindly following the advice of my parents or caving to convention just because it was what the people around me wanted.

Act III

The Road Back: This took the form of a few years making peace with my choices and myself. In particular, that second year back in Paris was a year of dying, hoping that a stronger version of myself was waiting on the other side. My “road back” overlaps with the next and final steps elucidated below, as it also involved a significant journey of sharing yoga and completing The Artist’s Way with a close friend on her own heroic journey.

Resurrection: I went back to Canada again the following summer and was able to make some peace with family members who hadn’t accepted my previous decisions, also reconnected with my previous partner in a way that felt beautiful and loving and peaceful. Miraculously, he showed up at the airport just as I was leaving. We held each other and said goodbye. It was the start of a painful rebirth.

Elixir: That goodbye afforded me closure, not just from on a loving relationship that had become something else now, but from the past, from my old self. It freed me to move into the next iteration of my self, which is still happening.

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