The Monomyth as Creative-Problem-Solving (or, CPS)
The Heros Journey: It’s Not What You Think…
(it’s: actually CPS – Creative Problem Solving)
I (JT Velikovsky) hereby suggest: The Hero’s Journey monomyth is a model for: All Creativity –
and for – All (i.e., Universal): Creative Problem-Solving.
In Jon Gottschall’s excellent book, The Storytelling Animal (2012):
Gottschall mentions the universal story structure (or: grammar), which he calls `problem structure’:
`A Universal Grammar – Fiction – from children’s make-believe to folktales to modern drama – is about trouble. Aristotle was the first to note this, and it is now a staple in English literature courses and creative writing manuals.
Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction is adamant on the point: “Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction … In life, conflict often carries a negative connotation, yet in fiction, be it comic or tragic, dramatic conflict is fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting. Only trouble is interesting. This is not so in life.”
As Charles Baxter puts it in another book about fiction: “Hell is story-friendly.”
The idea that stories are about trouble is so commonplace as to verge on cliché. But the familiarity of this fact has numbed us to how strange it is.
Here is what it means. Beneath all of the wild surface variety in all of the stories that people tell – no matter, where, no matter when – there is a common structure. Think of the structure as a bony skeleton that we barely notice beneath its padding of flesh and colourful garments. The skeleton is somewhat cartilaginous – there is a flex in it. But the flex is limited, and the skeleton dictates that stories can only be told in a limited number of ways.
Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems.
The people want something badly – to survive, to win the girl or the boy, or to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story – comic, tragic, romantic – is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desires.
Story = Character + Problem + Attempted Extrication
This is story’s master formula, and it is intensely strange. There are a lot of different ways stories could be structured. For example, we have already considered escapist fantasies of pure wish fulfilment. But while characters frequently do live happily ever after in fiction, they must always earn their good fortune by flirting with disaster. The thornier the predicament faced by the hero, the more we like the story.
Most people think of fiction as a wildly creative art form. But this just shows how much creativity is possible inside a prison.
Almost all story makers work within the tight confines of problem structure, whether knowingly or not. They write stories around a pattern of complication, crisis, and resolution.’
Of course, another way to expand out this problem-structure is:
(1) A Character(s) – has a
(2) Problem(s), and they must make a
(3) Sacrifice –
(4) To Solve the Problem. (Or, not… e.g. maybe it is a tragedy, and/or they die)
And so – it occurred to me while conducting the StoryAlity research that – the Hero’s Journey monomyth, as outlined by Campbell (1949), is possibly just, `the multiverse’ (whatever that means) showing How All Creativity (and Creative Problem-Solving) Works…
In one respect, at its simplest, in a narrative (in myth, folk tales, fairy tales, religion, etc):
The basic problem is – (say) the Princess has been kidnapped, the kingdom is now in chaos and ruin, and she needs rescuing from the dragon… Or – The Grail needs finding again by Parsifal, etc.
But, if you look more deeply – note all the following steps, in the 17 Stages of `the monomyth’:
And – maybe think of say: Einstein (with Relativity), Newton (with Gravity), Galileo (Cosmology), Tesla (Electricity) Hawking (M-Theory), Watson & Crick (DNA), Darwin (Evolution), etc.
- The Call to Adventure – A Creative person finds that: a Problem needs Solving…
- Refusal of the Call – It’s actually much easier all round, just to ignore – or, avoid – the Problem
- Supernatural Aid – The creative then obtains a concept – or skill – that will help to solve the Problem, usually from a Mentor (a teacher / instructor…)
- The Crossing of the First Threshold – The creative begins researching / `working’ the Problem
- Belly of The Whale – The creative is soon deeply immersed in the Field (and in: the Creative Problem, itself)
- The Road of Trials – Others may doubt that the creative can solve the problem… (or sometimes, even that, it even IS a Problem…)
- The Meeting With the Goddess – The creative is in the `flow ‘ state (i.e.: loves their work, and their Field…)
- The Woman as Temptress – A metaphor for any distractions from `the creative work’ – of: solving the Problem…
- The Atonement with the Father – The creative confronts the `hardest part’ of the Creative Problem…
- The Apotheosis – The Incubation process…
- The Ultimate Boon – The creative actually cracks / solves the Problem (see: `Illumination’ in Wallas’ 4-stage model of Creativity)
- Refusal of the Return – The creative realizes, they still have much work to do – to Elaborate and Explain the solution, to others…
- The Magic Flight – Defending the Solution against: various skeptics and critics (i.e.: `Flat-Earthers’ / the old guard… see Planck’s Principle about: new scientific truths…)
- Rescue from Without – Some colleagues in the field finally realize / recognize: the Solution works
- The Crossing of the Return Threshold – More Elaboration; How best to present `the Solution’ to the world? (So that they can best understand it… This is actually a whole Creative Problem in itself)
- Master of Two Worlds – The Creative is recognized – for the `Creative Problem Solution’
- Freedom to Live – The Problem is actually finally solved, and, the World is now: the better for it.
So, all Creative Problem Solving (or: CPS) can actually be viewed as, a version of the monomyth:
e.g. See the major (and even minor) creative works of: Einstein, Mozart, da Vinci, Maxwell, Feynman, Watson & Crick, Van Gogh, Shakespeare, etc.
For more see CPF & CPS (Creative Problem Finding – and Creative Problem Solving).
And see Eva Novrup-Redvall’s truly excellent article:
Novrup Redvall, E (2009), ‘Collaborative Problem Finding and Problem Solving: Understanding Screenwriting as a Creative Process’, Medie Kultur, vol. 25 no. 46, pp. 16-21.
And see also this excellent book for more on the `problem-solution’ model, in story:
And see also Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Wilson 1998):
An excerpt from the above (Consilience, 1998) by EO Wilson:
`The epigenetic rules of human nature bias innovation, learning, and choice. They are gravitational centers that pull the development of mind in certain directions and away from others. Arriving at the centers, artists, composers, and writers over the centuries have built archetypes, the themes most predictably expressed in original works of art.
Although recognizable through their repeated occurrence, archetypes cannot be easily defined by a simple combination of generic traits. They are better understood with examples, collected into groups that share the same prominent features. This method—called definition by specification – works well in elementary biological classification, even when the essential nature of the species as a category remains disputed. In myth and fiction as few as two dozen such subjective groupings cover most of the archetypes usually identified as such. Some of the most frequently cited are the following.
In the beginning, the people are created by gods, or the mating of giants, or the clash of titans; in any case, they begin as special beings at the center of the world.
The tribe emigrates to a promised land (or Arcadia, or the Secret Valley, or the New World).
The tribe meets the forces of evil in a desperate battle for survival; it triumphs against heavy odds.
The hero descends to hell, or is exiled to wilderness, or experiences an iliad in a distant land; he returns in an odyssey against all odds past fearsome obstacles along the way, to complete his destiny.
The world ends in apocalypse, by flood, fire, alien conquerors, or avenging gods; it is restored by a band of heroic survivors.
A source of great power is found in the tree of life, the river of life, philosopher’s stone, sacred incantation, forbidden ritual, secret
The nurturing woman is apotheosized as the Great Goddess, the Great Mother, Holy Woman, Divine Queen, Mother Earth, Gaia.
The seer has special knowledge and powers of mind, available to those worthy to receive it; he is the wise old man or woman, the holy man, the magician, the great shaman.
The Virgin has the power of purity, is the vessel of sacred strength, must be protected at all costs, and perhaps surrendered up to propitiate the gods or demonic forces.
Female sexual awakening is bestowed by the unicorn, the gentle beast, the powerful stranger, the magical kiss.
The Trickster disturbs established order and liberates passion as the god of wine, king of the carnival, eternal youth, clown, jester, clever fool.
A monster threatens humanity, appearing as the serpent demon (Satan writhing at the bottom of hell), dragon, gorgon, golem, vampire.
If the Arts are steered by inborn rules of mental development, they are end products not just of conventional history but also of genetic evolution. The question remains: Were the genetic guides mere byproducts—epiphenomena—of that evolution, or were they adaptations that directly improved survival and reproduction? And if adaptations, what exactly were the advantages conferred? The answers, some scholars believe, can be found in artifacts preserved from the dawn of art. They can be tested further with knowledge of the artifacts and customs of present-day hunter-gatherers.
This is the picture of the origin of the arts that appears to be emerging. The most distinctive qualities of the human species are extremely high intelligence, language, culture, and reliance on longterm social contracts. In combination they gave early Homo sapiens a decisive edge over all competing animal species, but they also exacted a price we continue to pay, composed of the shocking recognition of the self, of the finiteness of personal existence, and of the chaos of the environment.’
Also – given this recent(ish) science news article, Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark On Your Genes (May 2013), I suspect that the symbols deep in the human psyche / collective unconscious (see: Joseph Campbell, Chris Vogler, etc) are encoded in our genes/DNA, since the Pleistocene Era, and even prior. (As we know, dogs, cats, and other lower-consciousness animals also dream… If you have ever owned a dog, you will likely know this from personal experience.)
So – maybe we are finding scientific evidence that Jung (in Man and His Symbols, 1968) was really `onto something’, after all…!
(I am actually not a fan of much of Freud’s work, at all: see the StoryAlity weblog Index for some articles on why… Also Freud and Jung had a famous professional split, and I happen to take Jung’s side. Jung seems right, and Freud wrong, and at any rate, even though you should probably always “Trust the Art, and not the Artist” – overall, Jung just also seems a much nicer guy. I can also recommend Jung’s autobiography: Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1989).
And for e.g.: On a smaller, more `personal’ level for a creative – an example Creative Problem, in Film:
The Creative Problem: “How can I make this scene (in my film / novel / song, etc) better / more: compelling / suspenseful / funny / scary / [or – insert the `Desired Solved Problem’] etc…”
As mentioned above, for more on the creative `problem-solution’ model, see Brian Boyd’s excellent On The Origin of Stories (2009).
For more still, perhaps see how the above 17-stage model above matches with all the case studies, in here:
And also – in here:
And perhaps as further supporting evidence of this idea (The Heros Journey as: a “Problem-Solving Instruction Manual of sorts”), I recently discovered this passage below in Colin Martindale‘s excellent work The Clockwork Muse: The Predictability of Artistic Change (1990).
‘Night Journey Narratives – Some narratives show systematic trends in respect to primordial content (Martindale 1978b, 1979, 1987).
One type of such narrative concerns what author Joseph Campbell (1949) called “the monomyth”. This is probably the single most common plot in myth and literature. Typically the plot begins with a hero who is confronted with difficulties or seemingly insoluble problems in the real world.
He undertakes a journey to hell, the underworld, or some other distant and fabulous destination. On the way, usually guided by some sort of helping figure, the hero overcomes obstacles and undergoes various trials. Full-blown versions of the theme culminate in a victory over a dragon or another evil figure, which results in the hero’s obtaining treasure, wisdom, knowledge, or the hand of a captive “persecuted maiden”, whom he rescues. With varying degrees of difficulty, the hero then makes his way back to the real world where he often enjoys new knowledge or power gained by virtue of his journey. He reappears as someone who has been reborn or revitalized in some sense.
A journey to hell is one of the standard features of Western literary epics. Aeneas’ journey to hell in the Aenid and Dante’s in the Inferno come readily to mind. In Eastern literature, the Tibetan Book of the Dead consists of a guide book for the forty-nine-day journey between death and rebirth. The symbolic texts produced by many alchemical writers also exhibit the night journey theme (Jung 1963). Theoretically, all of these seemingly diverse narratives really tell the same story.
Psychologically, the night journey theme has been interpreted by Jung (1963) and the Jungian analyst Erich Neumann (1954) as symbolizing descent into the unconscious, alteration in state of consciousness, or regression to archaic modes of thought.
On the psychological level, the theme of the journey to hell and back hypothetically symbolizes a regression from the conceptual (abstract, analytic, reality-oriented) thought of waking consciousness to primordial (concrete, free-associative, autistic) thought and then a return to conceptual thought. Of course, the psychoanalyst Ernst Kris (1952) holds that any act of creation involves an initial stage of inspiration and a subsequent stage of elaboration. In the inspirational phase, there is a regression toward primordial thought, whereas in the subsequent elaboration stage there is a return to analytic thinking. The inspirational stage yields the “rough draft” of the creative product, whereas the elaboration stage involves logical, analytical thought in putting the product into final form. Thus, the theme of the night journey mirrors the psychological processes involved in the creation of art.
Ehrenzweig (1967) argues that the minimal content of any aesthetic creation includes such “poemagogic” mirroring of the act of creation. Whatever else they are about, night journey narratives are about themselves, about their own creation. This is even more clear in romantic “crisis poems” (Bloom 1975), which I take to be subjective versions of the night journey theme. The regression-and-return cycle can also be seen in the diurnal cycle of sleeping and waking (Rapaport 1957) and in mystical and religious experiences, both of which tend to involve subsequent feelings of rejuvenation. Jung (1959) dealt with personal growth under the rubric of individuation. In later stages of life, this process, too, involves attempts to regress and “bring back” benificent aspects of “the unconscious” (primordial cognition).
Many varieties of psychodynamic psychotherapy are based on the idea that the patient must first be made to regress in order to allow a later “progression” or movement toward mental health. Thus, renderings of the night journey theme might be seen as providing metaphorical maps pointing the way toward personal growth and creativity.
The psychological interpretation of the night journey theme is internally consistent, as can be shown by qualitative analyses. For example, in the Inferno, sexual sins are punished at a shallow level of hell; anal themes peak at middle levels; and oral themes, culminating in the image of Count Ugolino perpetually gnawing Archbishop Ruggieri’s skull, are found only deep in hell. If descending into hell symbolizes a descent into the unconscious or a regression toward primordial cognition, then this sequence is consistent with what would be expected on the basis of psychoanalytic theory.
The problem with most psychological analyses of literature – and indeed, with literary criticism in general – has been that there have been no scientifically acceptable methods for deciding among alternative explanations of a text. Are the examples of the night journey theme mentioned here really similar? It might be argued that much literary criticism, whether psychologically oriented or not, involves imprecise, subjective, and qualitative content analysis. We can bring more objective and quantitative procedures to bear on the question.’
Martindale the goes on to perform primordial content analyses on Virgil’s The Aenid, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Marine, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Dante’s Inferno and The Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Lear and Cymbeline, as well as L Rider Haggard’s She – and also, inverse night journeys, such as Melville’s Moby Dick, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida, and Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tomb of Ligeia, and Berenice, among others – including Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (Martindale, 1990, pp. 316-323)
And now, some quotes from Arthur Koestler’s masterpiece The Act of Creation (1964) which actually support the ideas that Martindale talks about above.
Note also how, the quote below essentially says the same thing as Martindale (although I note, Martindale never references Koestler in The Clockwork Muse 1999); Koestler is not in the bibliography of that book. I looked. It wasn’t there. (I am not criticizing Martindale, but – just sayin’…)
`Freudians, Jungians, etc, try to make the patient revert to unconscious and infantile planes of experience, and to regenerate, as it were, into a more or less new-born person. This psychotherapy may be called an experiment in artificially induced regeneration…
We found the same pattern repeated on the level of human creativity: the scientist, faced by a perplexing situation – Kepler’s discrepant eight minutes’ arc, Einstein’s light-traveller paradox – must plunge into a `dark night of the soul’ before he can re-emerge into the light.
The history of the sciences and arts is a tale of recurrent crises, of traumatic challenges, which entail a temporary disintegration of the traditional forms of reasoning and perception: a de-differentiation of thought-matrices, a dismantling of its axioms, a new innocence of the eye, followed by the liberation from restraint of creative potentials, and their reintegration in a new synthesis.’
Some more intellectual `gold’ from Koestler, about regression to the unconscious, in creativity:
`A pianist, after practising a piece for some time, can reel it off `in his sleep’ as the saying goes. The exact opposite of this is illustrated by the famous case of Tartini composing the Devil’s Trill Sonata while asleep.
The first example shows the unconscious as a repository of habits which no longer need `being attended to’; the second, as a breeding ground of novelties [i.e. dreams]. It is essential to bear both processes in mind – and not to confuse them. Most Behaviourists accept only the first: they regard habit-formation as the essence of mental progress; original ideas, on this view, are lucky hits among random tries, retained because of their utility value – just as biological evolution is held to be the outcome of random mutations retained because of their survival value.
Among those prepared to accept the positive role of the unconscious, there is a frequent tendency to confuse `downward’ and `upward’ traffic – to equate automatism with intuition. Some highly-developed, semi-automatized skills have a great amount of flexibility – the result of years of hard training; but their practitioners are devoid of originality. Tightrope walkers, acrobats, nightclub pianists, and calculating prodigies display virtuosity; a virtuoso is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as `a person skilled in the mechanical part of a fine art’.
Needless to say, virtuosity may combine in the same person with creativity; but in itself it is no more than the highest elaboration of a routine with fixed, automatized rules of the game and a malleable strategy. Such mechanical virtuosity has probably reached its highest development in the Japanese arts inspired by Zen Buddhism: swordsmanship, archery, judo, calligraphic painting. The method to reach perfection has authoritatively been described as `practice, repetition, and repetition of the repeated with ever-increasing intensity’, until the adept `becomes a kind of automaton, so to speak, as far as his own consciousness is concerned’. That is the method by which Professor Skinner of Harvard University, a leader of the Behaviourist school, trained pigeons to perform circus acts, intended as an explanation of mental development in man.’
And also from Koestler, with regard to encouraging what Martindale calls `primordial thought’:
`Though unconscious processes cannot be governed by conscious volition, they can at least be coaxed into activity by certain tricks acquired at the price of a little patience. Friedrich Schiller learned to get himself into a creative frame of mind by smelling rotten apples, Turgenev by keeping his feet in a bucket of hot water, Balzac by drinking poisonous quantities of black coffee; for lesser mortals even a pipe or pacing up and down in the study might do.
And lastly, there is the long process of conscious elaboration – of cutting, grinding, polishing the rough stone which inspiration has unearthed.’
And another quote from Koestler (1964):
`Verification only comes post factum, when the creative act is completed; the act itself is always a leap in the dark, a dive into the deeps, and the diver is more likely to come up with a handful of mud than with a coral.
False inspirations and freak theories are as abundant in the history of science as bad works of art; yet they command in the victim’s mind the same forceful conviction, the same euphoria, catharsis, and experience of beauty as those happy finds which post factum are proven right. Truth, as Kepler said, is an elusive hussy – who frequently managed to fool even Galileo, Descartes, Liebniz, Pasteur, and Einstein, to mention only a few.’
This is also why, the first draft of a feature film screenplay is rarely the one that is produced… A lot of (creative) elaboration and honing has to take place first…
Comments always welcome.
See also the extended P.S., below .
High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher
The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/
PS – Of course, there’s also what I would suggest is, the biological metaphor of the monomyth:
Since, arguably, all Creativity in the universe works the same way – thanks to Evolution, i.e. Combine two old things (e.g. in Culture, combine two `old’ ideas – or in Biology, combine: say, the DNA in a sperm, and an ovum.)
I suggest, a biological model of the monomyth (a la Campbell 1949, etc). I often wonder if, perhaps the monomyth in culture is a deeper, hidden symbol of one `problem’ of life, namely, reproduction.
- The Call to Adventure – The various courtship rituals… (including, falling in love…)
- Refusal of the Call – Any possible impediment that may arise, to consummation/mating: e.g.: perhaps bad timing, or relationship politics, even STDs, or even, a potential mating-partner not being sufficiently attractive, etc…
- The Supernatural Aid – This potentially could be anything that aids sexual orgasm (…could also even be: Viagra, or, `thinking of someone else’ – or, any kind of `sexual turn-on’, in theory)
- The Crossing of the First Threshold – The spermatozoa enters what might perhaps be viewed as `the ultimate rollercoaster ride’…
- The Belly of The Whale – The darkest hour is just before dawn, etc
- The Road of Trials – Swim faster-! (than, the competition)
- The Meeting With the Goddess – Spermatozoa meets egg…
- The Woman as Temptress – Possible distractions/blind alleys – the egg is, biochemically, the ultimate `flame’ to the moth; (also, there is the inherent notion of `You thought it was going to be easier than this to get in here-!’)
- The Atonement with the Father – entering the ovum wall (the most difficult part of the process)… but this is also what your father did.
- The Apotheosis – The conception process begins…
- The Ultimate Boon – Cell division, and the embryo grows…
- Refusal of the Return – Before birth; (Who wants to leave this lovely nice, warm, safe womb?)
- The Magic Flight – The `return journey’ back towards `The Light’ (literally)
- Rescue from Without – The doctor delivers the child
- The Crossing of the Return Threshold – Out through `the gates’ again… (metaphorically)
- Master of Two Worlds – A `star’ (or – a new child) is born
- Freedom to Live – You’re here – Welcome to the World… The journey begins again but on a different (larger) scale: i.e. To survive, thrive, and reproduce.
So, there is also: all that metaphor.
i.e.: It is possible that Creativity works the same, all over.
So – perhaps the monomyth is a Biological, and a Cultural, model for: All Creativity.
Two bits of information, combining. (Either, in biology with DNA – or, in Culture, with memes/ideas.)
More wisdom from Koestler (The Ghost in the Machine, 1967 / 1989), which is along the same lines…
`The Eureka process is a mental mutation, perpetuated by social inheritance. Its biological equivalent are the genetic mutations which carried the existing species up the evolutionary ladder.
Now a mutation – whatever its unknown cause – is no doubt a re-moulding of previous structures, based on a de-differentiation and reintegration of the otherwise rigid genetic code. The transformations of fins into legs, legs into arms, arms into wings, gills into lungs, scales into feathers, etc,. while preserving certain basic structural patterns… were eminently `witty’ answers to the challenges of environment.
It seems obvious that the dramatic release, at periods of adaptive radiations, of unexplored morphogenetic potentials by a re-shuffling of molecules in the genetic code, resulting in the de-differentiation and reintegration of structures like limbs into wings, is the very essence of the evolutionary process. After all ’ontogenesis and regenesis are components of a common mechanism’ which must have a phylogenetic origin.’
So, the idea I am therefore proposing here, is twofold: namely that the monomyth, a.k.a. `the hero’s journey’, a.k.a. `the night journey’ narrative, is perhaps a metaphor for both
(1) problem-solving, which is `cultural’ creativity –
(2) the act of biological creativity – or, Life, itself.
I would suggest that, this is (perhaps) why the monomyth is so popular in myth and narrative: it has an undeniably profound basis – in biological creativity, and also in cultural creativity.
– So, it is perhaps indeed `how Creativity happens’, namely both biological – and cultural – Creativity.
Then again it is perhaps important to note (just with specific regard to this particular research project) – not all of the top 20 RoI films are `night journey’ narratives (though some are), and I contend – almost all of them are inverse-night-journey narratives, (e.g. `Villain Triumphant’ stories).
Also, for more – perhaps also read my post on the holonic structure of the meme.
Or you can read a book chapter on it, here:
StoryAlity #132 – The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)
- Thanks so much for reading.
23rd August 2013