There ain’t no Devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk

February 14, 2010 § 3 Comments

The human mind is amazing. It’s ability for complexity and abstraction of thought, for problem solving and creativity, has not been matched by the brain of any other creature humans have encountered. From the incredible amount of information presented to us daily, from the millions of colours, smells, sounds and sensations we encounter, our minds can make sense of all this, put it into some sort of perspective, manipulate it, evaluate and order it. We have the ability to remember important moments, and the ability to forget the junk we encounter. We can use information given to us, abstract it into a new way of thinking, and re-present this information in new ways.

Take for example, the mind of an artist, who sees the world physically much as you or I do. His or her mind is able to not only to perceive the world, but also to then represent this on paper in a way that you and I can then recognise as coming from the original. The artist can also deliberately abstract something, using a different method or approach, to make representations which draw upon the brain in new ways.

Pablo Picasso, between 1907 and the 1950’s, made incredible abstractions of the world around us, with the premise that objects could be seen from more than one angle, that all objects have a three-dimensionality, and was trying to represent this in a 2 dimensional space. The results are stunning, and in most cases, our brains can decode Picasso’s work, and recognise the objects within the paintings as a skull, leeks, a pitcher, a person, a bull or whatever.

Think about the processes involved in this: the artist sees, evaluates, re-evaluates, and recreates the outcome; the viewer sees the artwork, evaluates, and deciphers the meaning. Each step along the way involves a massive amount of brain power, and a huge series of underpinnings and foundations of learning, linking one to the next, making leaps from seemingly unrelated topics, consolidating these thoughts and coming to a conclusion, all with in seconds. Astounding.

Pablo Picasso Still Life with Skull, Leeks and Pitcher (Nature morte avec crâne, poireaux et pichet) 14 March 1945

Pablo Picasso "Still Life with Skull, Leeks and Pitcher (Nature morte avec crâne, poireaux et pichet)" 14 March 1945

We use our brains to decipher the world around us, and we also keep with us the information that will be useful down the track. If we had to reevaluate everything from scratch ever time we encounter it, we would do nothing else than be rediscovering. We build our knowledge of the world based on our actions of the past, what we’ve learnt and been taught by others, namely those who have learnt these thing before us. We do this so that every person doesn’t have to re-learn every situation from a blank canvas. This advantage that we have allows humanity to move from generation to generation, and build upon the collective knowledge of our ancestors. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, and those giants were mere men. We are the giants of the future.

Historically, before the advent of written language, humans had no way of recording our learnings but by word of mouth. Word of mouth was great because it was engaging, and gave people something to do while sitting around fires at the end of the day, after meals. It was a way to teach the histories of people and culture, to pass on rules, and by using parables, metaphors and stories, help others make decisions about their own lives. The problem with word of mouth is that it can so easily get muddled up, with metaphors and stories quickly becoming truths and not examples. Anyone who has played the children’s game “Chinese Whispers” can attest to this.

When we as humans come across something we don’t understand, we do one of 2 things: we try to understand by using lessons from the past; or we ignore it. (Of course this will depend upon the nature of the new thing, if it were a tiger and we were to ignore, we would surely perish.) But imagine this scenario:

Two men are out hunting at dusk, as this is the best time to catch antelope. They hear a rustle in the bushes to their right. Having heard this in the past as just being the wind, they chose to ignore it, and continue to hunt. Suddenly a great lion leaps from the rustling grass and takes one of the hunters as is prey. The other hunter, having never seen a lion, surprised and terrified runs back to the tribe empty-handed. He relates the story of the dusk and the rustle in the bushes and the great lion that attacked and took the other hunter to the other tribe members. He’s in a state of shock, and relates the story badly, forgetting some details, and distorting or exaggerating others. The tribe members try to reason as to what the lion is, but having no prior knowledge of the animal in question, they name it “the big yellow spirit that rustles in the grass like the wind”. The next time the tribe’s hunters go out at dusk and hear a rustle in the bushes, they fear it. The story gets passed down from person to person. There are more stories, of finding dead antelopes ripped apart by watering holes, of a man who heard the rustle in the bushes and ran for his life, feeling the breath of “big yellow spirit” on the back of his neck as he ran, of children being visited by “the big yellow spirit” in their sleep.

The story is passed from tribe to tribe over generations, each tribe adapting the story to suit the environment the live in, adding and removing parts of the story that don’t relate to their situation. “The Big Yellow Spirit” is also told of having spoken to a man from a tribe far, far away, telling him stories of how the world was formed. Others tell stories of being whisked up into the air by “The Big Yellow Spirit”, only this time he came as a large eagle. Eventually, anywhere you travel to you can hear stories of people hearing the rustle in the grass or bushes, and knowing that “The Big Yellow Spirit” was watching them.

This is very overly simplified, but what I hope it does is illustrate and example of how a naturally occurring event such as a lion attack could, over time, be distorted into folklore, especially when passed by word of mouth. These stories still served their intended purpose, and were coloured by tales of great journeys and battles, both to make them interesting, and to fill in gaps where information might be a bit thin. But along the way, stories have a way of gathering information, and unintended meaning that was not there in the original telling.

In age, where EVERYTHING is recorded, and by multiple sources, information is much more scrutinised. This means that we can quickly sort fact from fiction, especially when we look at things of a supernatural nature. With so many worldwide trying to discover the mechanisms and workings of the world around us, my hope is that one day all things will be better understood, that the mind and spirit can be explained in a way that doesn’t involve the fanciful and mythological. Some say that an understanding of all things will take the magic away from life, that “without the unknown, what is there left to live for?”

I answer this. “Just because we know that chemical makeup of water as H2O, does it take away the magic from swimming?”

Carl Sagan, again, has had thoughts about this.

“Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?”

Carl Sagan, Interview with Charlie Rose, 1996


Hit and Myth – Avatar and the Monomyth

January 30, 2010 § 6 Comments

(Warning: very mild spoiler alert!)

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you will have heard a fair bit of talk about Avatar. Everyone’s got an opinion on it, even those who haven’t seen it, and I’m no exception. Some loved it, some hated it. A search for “Avatar” in google returns 580 million results as of today. Regardless of this, it seems most people who have seen it have an opinion on it. Some people have said it speaks of the plight of indigenous peoples of Earth, that the struggle of the Na’Vi is akin to that of the peoples of The Amazon forests or the jungles of Borneo.

I’m sure you read the reports of people suffering “Post-Avatar Depression” after seeing it, with people saying it was so beautiful and realistic that they are having trouble distinguishing the world of Pandora from their own lives, and are shattered by the realisation that they will never be able to visit Pandora. Yes, odd, isn’t it?

Others see it as simply a rollicking adventure in a fanciful world. Some have said that the story was what let it down, that it was too predictable. Despite this, its popularity comes from exactly that, the nature of the story, and the way that hero tales resonate with us.

But this is not just ANY hero tale, this is a perfect example of what has become known as The Monomyth.

In 1949 mythologist Joseph Campbell produced a book entitled “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”, in which he identified the archetypal Hero and the journey that the Hero takes to becoming triumphant. He called this The Monomyth. He summarised the Hero’s journey thus:

“A hero 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.”

The Hero’s journey consists of 17 distinct stages:

  1. The Call to Adventure – Summoned to replace his brother on Pandora
  2. Refusal of the Call – Though unsure of himself, Jake convinced that this was the right thing to do
  3. The Mentor/Talisman – Grace as guide, the Avatar as talisman
  4. The First Threshold – Jake in Na’Vi body
  5. Belly of The Whale – Jake finds his feet, and runs, in the new body; disabilities disappear.
  6. The Road of Trials – Jake surviving in Pandora’s forests, captured by The Na’Vi who give him further tasks; also provided with tasks for the military (Colonel Quaritch)
  7. The Goddess – Jake falls in love with Neytiri
  8. Temptation – Jake is promised new legs by Colonel Quaritch if he provides information on the Na’Vi
  9. Atonement with the Father – Jake accepted into the tribe as a man by the chief of the tribe and the tribe itself
  10. Apotheosis – After destruction of the tree, Jake is captured and held in prison
  11. The Ultimate Boon – Jake’s capture of the Toruk
  12. Refusal of the Return – Jake unwilling to return to his “real life”
  13. The Magic Flight – Jake runs away in his Avatar with the help of others
  14. Rescue from Without – After asking for help from spirit of the planet, the animals of Pandora rise to help in the battle.
  15. The Return Threshold – Jake is ripped out of his Avatar by the Colonel
  16. Master of Two Worlds – Neytiri accepts Jake’s real self as the one she loves
  17. Freedom to Live – Jake takes on the new Na’Vi body, his spirit leaving the other behind

All of these 17 points are addressed in the story of Avatar, albeit they’re are not in exactly the same order. Some of these points are doubly reinforced in the film, or a represented on more than one occasion. But if you see the film with these plot points in mind, they are easy to identify. I’m not going to do an in-depth plot analysis of the film, this has been done a thousand times, and I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t seen it.

But the power of The Monomyth is such that it can be identified over and over again in many cultures, past and present. Some examples of The Monomyth include:

– The story of Osiris
– The New Testament – The story of Jesus Christ
– The trials of Buddha
– The trials of Mohammed
– Frodo in Lord Of The Rings
– Luke Skywalker in Star Wars (the original stories)
– Simba in The Lion King
– Neo in The Matrix

You can see by the list above that some of the most popular stories ever told, and some of the more popular recent stories have used the same basic plot points. Joseph Campbell suggests that this resonates with us so much, because are key as representations in the journey of life.

As a way of ending, I did thoroughly enjoy Avatar, and though I was familiar with The Monomyth and was able to identify that this was one of these stories, knowing this actually made the story even more powerful for me. Read “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” and you’ll see this story everywhere.

Further Reading:

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