Ramble of the day.
I’ve been thinking about quests lately. I haven’t read enough of Joseph Campbell’s stuff, so let me know if I’m reinventing the wheel here. Two traits of a quest: motive for quest and object of quest, i.e., “to save the world” and “magic sword.”
I’m trying to work out some realistic, modern quest motives and objects. I’m trying to stay out of the realms of fantasy, myth, or symbolism. I’m trying to think of real-world quests for real-world people. I ended up with a couple of pages of side tangent about modern day rites of passage that I’ll type out later, but this is what started me off originally.
It’s very hard to do. I can make up realistic-looking quests, with realistic-looking motives and objects (for example: You’re trapped in the desert. You have a quest. Motive: survival (possibly even rescue of another, even more helpless party). Object: oasis, water bottle, cel phone (or whatever). The stuff of many a great adventure film, the realistic-looking quest.
But a realistic-looking quest isn’t the same thing as a true quest that can happen in a real setting.
A couple of other traits about quests. The person that finishes the quest isn’t the same person that started the quest. The motive of the quest represents the greatest need of the culture that the questor belongs to (if the questor rebels against his or her culture, it shows that the culture is repressive, unjust, etc., and needs a good ass-kicking to make it healthy). The object of the quest represents the set of values or traits that will best fulfil the need of the culture. Examples: In the Talisman, the questor’s motive is to heal his mother. The quest object is the talisman, a representation of a planet. The greatest need of the culture, human sickness (of the soul?) can best be healed by paying more attention to the world in which we live. In The Lord of the Rings, the questor’s motive is to prevent his culture’s greatest enemy from destroying everything he loves from within. The quest object is the ring, which, as a reversal, the questor takes with him — in order to destroy it. The greatest need of the culture is to get rid of a power it never should have adopted.
A realistic-looking quest doesn’t do this. The person trapped out in the desert doesn’t symbolize anything but people trapped out in the desert, and the oasis (etc.), doesn’t symbolize anything but water. Oh, there are adventure stories that try very hard to do the same thing that quest stories do (Black Hawk Down — quest motive becomes the protection of the wounded members of the party while getting the hell out of the city; the quest object is the downed helicopters. But what does it mean? The highest need of our society is to protect our own, and we can’t do it? Behind Enemy Lines — quest motive is to reach safety in the possession of the quest object, information about genocide. Does it mean that the biggest need of our society is justice in the face of opposing law and treaty?)
I want to find out if a real person, in Western society, can go on a true quest. Native Americans can–or could–go on quests–their quests could also be considered rites of passage. Western people in the middle ages could go on pilgrimages (a pilgrimage is a quest. The greatest need of their society was to honor and uphold their religious society, and they did so by overcoming great obstacles (the chaos of the roads, disease, poverty) in order to reach orthodox places and objects of worship). Practicioners of Buddhism have a built-in quest: reaching enlightenment or Nirvana. Islamic people can go on Jihad (with ugly results–and don’t think I don’t ask myself what that doesn’t represent for their society).
The best quest-story I can come up with off the top of my head is “The Joy Luck Club.” (The main character travels to her ancestral homeland in order to meet her family.) The greatest need for Western society — or at least members descended from other societies that live in a Western society — is to honor their cultural heritage. (There are other types of stories that identify society’s needs and the means by which we should satisfy them, but I’m looking particularly for quest stories.)
So my idea right now is that there really aren’t any good, standard quests for members of society in general. OK, everybody in America could stand to pay more attention to to their ethnic heritage, but for me that doesn’t say anything about what I see as our society’s greatest needs, or what society seems to see as its greatest needs. What I see as our society’s greatest need is a sense of balance (or wisdom or maturity). It seems like everything’s a conflict: people are idealistic or self-serving; they’re liberal or conservative; they’re capitalistic or socialistic; they’re zealots or they’re apathetic. Wisdom itself isn’t valued; having an opinion is valued. I can come up with symbolic quests for this issue, but I have trouble coming up with realistic quests. I can come up with realistic stories for this issue, but I can’t come up with quest stories.
And as for what society itself seems to value, it seems like my best idea so far is The Quest for the Golden Cel Phone, representative of money, connectivity, and technology.
What a hollow piece of crap. Well, it might make for good satire.