Saturday, June 25, 2011

Three Phases of Life

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What is a hero? A hero is a man or woman that has undergone three stages of experiences in life. Life is comprised of many subsections. It comes in all forms, and for every individual, it is a different process. In Joseph Conrad’s classic novel, Heart of Darkness, the main character, Marlow, partakes in a quest into the deepest part of the jungle, losing much of what he holds dear while gaining a glimpse of the deeper recesses of his own conscious. With an overly simple, yet deeply philosophical plot line, Conrad gives Marlow’s journey, what seems to be many of the basic attributes of what Joseph Campbell calls the “Hero’s Journey” in his The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell’s masterpiece parallels Marlow, while outlining the basic aspects of the archetypal “Hero Journey,” which describes the journey as consisting of three major sections Departure, Initiation, and Return.


According to Campbell, there are five subsections to the first stage of the hero’s journey, Departure the Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, the Crossing of the First Threshold, and the Belly of the Whale. The first step, the Call of the Adventure, is the point in the hero’s life where a prophetic notice is given that something is about to change. Campbell states, “This first stage of the mythological journey signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.” The “zone unknown” can have many facets, but in Heart of Darkness, for Marlow, the novel’s designated hero, this is represented by “a place of darkness,” or Africa. His call to adventure is the “snake,” or river of the Congo, with its tail “lost in the depths of the land.” He claimed it “charmed him.” At this point in history, Africa was still unexplored and gave Marlow the chance to go to a “zone unknown.” This clearly marks the beginning of his journey. Following the Call to Adventure is the Refusal of the Call. Campbell says this is the time when “the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action.” This step, however, is not represented in Heart of Darkness, for the reason that Marlow is not the writer of the novel. The audience only sees Marlow through the writer’s eyes. The third part of Departure is Supernatural Aid. This is the stage at which the hero has committed himself/herself to the journey and gains a guide or conductor. The supernatural help, to Marlow, is his aunt who was “determined to make no end of fuss to get me [Marlow] appointed skipper of a river steamboat.” The next phase is the Crossing of the First Threshold. During this part of the journey, the hero steps into the realm of the unknown, where rules and limits are nonexistent. This is the hero’s first step to becoming a hero because, as Campbell says, “The usual person is more than content, he is even proud, to remain within the indicated bounds, and popular beliefs give him every reason to fear so much as the first step into the unexplored.” For Marlow, it occurs when he steps into the main office of the trading company. He compares it to a conspiracy and says, “there was something ominous in the atmosphere.” The last part of the Departure stage is the Belly of the Whale, in which the final separation from the previous world occurs, allowing for entrance into the new one. Campbell compares this stage to a worshipper entering a temple, someone who is looking for rebirth. “The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles…these are the threshold guardians to ward away all incapable of encountering the higher silences within… the devotee at this moment of entry into the temple undergoes a metamorphosis.” As Marlow approaches his station, he is belittled by the immensity of the surrounding, outlining areas. Marlow sees the coast as “smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage.” Marlow remarks about his separation from the other men, a sign of possible “metamorphosis,” as his “isolation… that seemed to keep [him] away from the truth of things.” Paralleling all the parts of the Departure stage to Marlow’s experiences provides insight to the journey on which he must depart for, in order to be considered Campbell’s “hero.”


Marlow has completed the first part of the Hero’s Journey. He has gone through the five steps, with the exception of the Refusal of the Call part, and is prepared for the inception of the Initiation stage. From this point, however, Conrad alters his story. The next sections of the novel are journeys within one big journey. Marlow, once he has reached his destination, has to make a fresh start to his second destination to locate Kurtz. Still, the same steps apply. In the first step�the Call to Adventure�there is a change in Marlow’s life, which is the news of his actual descent down the river toward an ivory outpost, managed by Kurtz. The next step�Refusal of the call�is again not represented by Conrad. Third, the Supernatural Aid, in which involved the aunt, now involves a fellow agent. The agent is the accountant with the “white collared, pressed shirt.” Marlow refers to this rarity as “a miracle” and truly hears about Kurtz for the first time from him. Campbell says that the Supernatural Aid “gives a talisman of sorts, to aid the hero in his journey.” The so-called talisman given to Marlow is the information about his next destination. The fourth step is the Crossing of the First Threshold and in Heart of Darkness, the whole station is considered to serve as the first threshold into the jungle. The last step, the Belly of the Whale, is represented by Conrad’s acceptance of the destination and the possible change that can occur. This is also shown when he starts work on his wrecked steamboat on his first trail down the river. In addition, as a sign of his conscious change, Marlow remakes that “I felt I was becoming more scientifically interesting.” The usage of two separate departures, and the lack of a Refusal step, gives rise to the notion that Conrad is not following Campbell’s general “Hero” structure. However, he is not on his own scheme either as many of the novel’s instances follow the structure described in The Hero With A Thousand Faces.


Marlow has passed through his journey’s Departure and is set to proceed to the Initiation stage. Initiation and Return are comparable flights and can be intertwined. Initiation consists of six segments and is usually the most important action of a story, and Returns consists of two subsections. The six steps include the Road of Trials, the Meeting with the Goddess, Woman as the Temptress, Atonement with the Father, Apotheosis, and the Ultimate Boon. The first step�the Road of Trails�encompasses a series of tests, tasks and ordeals that a hero must undergo to begin his transformation. Campbell compares this area of the journey to “a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where we must survive a succession of trails.” As true in hero structure form, Marlow has to carry out three ordeals. The first task Marlow must complete on his Road of Trials, is to learn to be watchful and diligent when it comes to his steamer. He must watch for snags and occasional recesses in his “ever fluid” road. The next one comes to him as fog “more blinding than the night.” This leads him into his third and final test�a confrontation with the natives. He goes as far to push his fragile steamer directly into the bank and plunge through the natives, eventually scaring them off with the high-pitched wail of the steam whistle. The next step of the Initiation is his Meeting with the Goddess. Although Campbell, uses a woman as his primary example, seeing one’s self in a type of unity, does not necessarily mean love. For Marlow, his realization of unity and purpose comes directly after his last trial, while contemplating the probable death of Kurtz. “I…became aware that that was exactly what I had been looking forward to�a talk with Kurtz.” For Heart of Darkness, this step has two points the realization of purpose and the actual meeting with Kurtz. Campbell says this occurs at “the nadir, the zenith, or at the uttermost edge of the earth, at the central point in the cosmos, in the tabernacle of the temple, or within the darkness of the deepest chamber of the heart.” The last local is perfectly worded for Marlow’s position, in the heart of the jungle, in the “heart of darkness.” This is the point where Kurtz has thought to both mentally and physically bring about self-unification in Marlow’s conscious. The third step in the Initiation holds the Woman as a Temptress. Women, in this step, are supposed to be a metaphor for the physical and material temptations of life. Campbell calls it the sudden awareness that life is “tainted with the odor of flesh.” From Conrad, this step is very briefly mentioned when Marlow starts to track down Kurtz in the jungle. “I thought I would never get back to the steamer, and imagined myself living alone and unarmed in the woods to an advanced age…And I remember I confounded the beat of the drum with the beating of my heart, and was please at its calm regularity.” Finally, Marlow has unified his soul with his desired and then pushed away temptation. Now he moves on to the next step where he must confront Kurtz�the Atonement with the Father. In this step, the hero must confront and be taken in by whatever holds the ultimate power, in this case, Kurtz. “The problem of the hero going to meet his father is to pen up his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands�and the two are atoned.” At Marlow and Kurtz’s confrontation, Marlow tries to “break the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness�that seemed to draw it to its pitiless breast.” Marlow, in his quest to “glimpse the source,” says he “struggled with his soul,” and “for [Marlow’s] sins, [he had] to go through the ordeal of looking into himself.” As for Kurtz, Marlow sees him as “concentrated upon himself with horrible intensity” with his “soul gone mad.” He also claims to see “the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.” All the previous steps have climbed to this. The fifth step of Initiation, the Apotheosis, is usually a stage for the hero when nothing can affect him. It is his moment of rest. For Marlow, it is just that. For the first time that is actually mentioned in the book, he goes to sleep. The last step in the stage of Initiation is the Ultimate Boon. This is the achievement of the goal that one started the quest for in beginning. Campbell writes, “What the hero seeks through intercourse with them [Gods, or in this case, Marlow] is therefore not finally themselves, but their grace, i.e., the power of their sustaining substance.” For Marlow, this “sustaining substance” is Kurtz’s knowledge of the unknown. It is not his physical body, but his mind that Marlow wants to preserve. He first thought of Kurtz as “only a voice,” but now Marlow is in control of that voice and has taken it from the darkness to start the Return with the ultimate boon.


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Heart of Darkness illustrates a night journey or a story of initiation, in which a man gains experiences from three flights in life Departure, Initiation, and Return. In Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a hero must go on a journey and have encounters with several different adventures in order to be considered a hero. Marlow goes on all three flights of life and thus renaming himself as hero. Marlow’s journey into the heart of Africa is also a journey into his own heart. Marlow starts out on his journey looking for adventure. His curiosity drives him to find Kurtz. Marlow soon finds that Kurtz, the supposed epitome of “civilized,” is actually barbaric, savage, and nothing more than the typical greedy colonial white male. Marlow soon realizes he has found something quite different than adventure. Marlow concludes that everyone has the potential for uncivilized behavior, but that no one can live with a “heart of darkness.”





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