By: Josh Scammell
STORYTELLING AS MAGICAL PRAXIS
“We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard defining edges.”
Writing Systems and Joseph Campbell
Opportunity often comes in the guise of challenge, and there is nothing more challenging for a writer today than an earnest attempt to master their craft. Beware, O pupil, of searching the words “How to write a book” online. The writinggurus crowd every digital street corner. The lifestyle hackers find us where we scroll. The ten commandments come to us in blogposts on obscure websites. There’s a deluge of gurusdispensing unquestionable truths about Story.
Some of these gurus have earned great acclaim, and rightfully so. Blake Snyder, Chris Vogler, Lester Dent, Georges Polti, Ronald B. Tobias, John Truby, Lajos Egri, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Shawn Coyne, K.M. Weiland. The list continues to grow every day. Some pupils may study at the altar of each and every guru, and learn much. Yet adherence to the tenets, the rules, and the intellectual principles taught by these gurus results in little more than a sad scholasticism. There is a veritable avalanche of new media adhering to such Systems. Agents reject manuscripts for lacking a strong three-act structure. Contests eschew any screenplay with a misplaced midpoint. Readers shrug off books without a palpable character arc. Story is our only religion, and we have swiftly become the foot-soldiers of a nascent orthodoxy.
This deluge of gurus owes everything to Joseph Campbell who once wrote “The gods as icons are not ends in themselves. Their entertaining myths transport the mind and spirit, not up to, but past them, into the yonder void.” Joseph Campbell is remembered today chiefly for writing a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces and discovering (or inventing) something called the Monomyth, now better known as the Hero’s Journey. Everyone who has heard of the Hero’s Journey knows that Campbell discovered (or invented) it by studying mythologies and folktales from cultures around the world and discovering their essential similarities.
However, fewer know that Campbell was a card-carrying Jungian. His was a living cosmos. His interest was not chiefly sociological, but psychological and indeed magical. He was not looking for recurring forms, but recurring themes. He was interested in symbolism, not signifiers. He believed the collective unconscious guided the creation of all myths worthy of the name.
Campbell’s project was to shed the light of consciousness upon the hitherto unconscious mythmaking process at the very moment it was fading into the far reaches of our collective rear-view mirror. His book was never meant to become a System, a “How To” guide. His book was meant to be an injection of purpose, of meaning, of vision into the veins of the young writer. His book was meant to be a scalpel slicing through the defenses of the conscious mind, creating a living link between the individual and the collective. He was pointing to the yonder void.
One must note the melancholy in such passages: “There can be no question: the psychological dangers through which earlier generations were guided by the symbols and spiritual exercises of their mythological and religious inheritance we today must face alone. This is our problem as modern, ‘enlightened’ individuals for whom all gods and devils have been rationalized out of existence.” This is not a man attempting to impart a Confucian wisdom of Proper Writing, but a man attempting to inject modern life with the Divine it sorely lacks.
Writers today should confer less with gurus, and more with the yonder void.
Archetypes and Carl Jung
Whether we’re talking about a two-thousand year old parable, or a blockbuster film streaming today, what makes a myth resonate is not its structure but its symbolism. The modern pantheon of gods may inspire us to Marvel for a day at the dazzling spectacle, but it’s those rare stories that contain the power of living archetypes that really remain with us, for the archetypes we encounter in these stories are the same archetypes that live within our own psyches.
But what exactly is an archetype?
The concept has a genealogy. Freud, in his early studies of his patient’s dreams discovered recurring motifs, what he called “Archaic remnants.” Jung explains how Freud saw these motifs as “mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind.” Jung and Freud both saw “the analogies between the dream pictures of modern man and the products of the primitive mind, its ‘collective images,’ and its mythological motifs.”
Jung took this concept and ran. He compared these mental motifs to, “an instinctive trend, as marked as the impulse of birds to build nests, or ants to form organized colonies.” And yet, he also claims they “manifest themselves in fantasies and often reveal their presence only by symbolic images. These manifestations are what I call the archetypes.”
Archetypes, to simplify, are universal, living symbols.
But what exactly is a symbol? Jung writes, “The sign is always less than the concept it represents, while a symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. Symbols, moreover, are natural and spontaneous products. No genius has ever sat down with a pen or a brush in his hand and said: ‘Now I am going to invent a symbol.’ ”
To recapitulate: The stories that resonate with us are not necessarily those that most accurately follow a manmadeSystem, but ones that are injected with the energy of universal, living symbolism. Armed with such knowledge, we should be living through a mythical renaissance, for Jung observes that, “We know more about mythological symbolism than did any generation before our own.” Yet this fact has a dual impact: on the one hand, we have a unique ability to create myths with a high degree of consciousness regarding their purpose, and on the other hand, we are more alienated from our own mythmaking, more ironic and self-aware, and thus skeptical and overfamiliar with them. We seek novelty even as we drown in novelty. We reject “tired tropes” like “the Chosen One” without wondering if those tropes can hear us.
Perhaps they appear “tired” because they are immortal.
Jung, like Campbell, takes these claims at face value. He lives in a divine cosmos. He writes, “Modern man does not understand how much his ‘rationalism’ has put him at the mercy of the psychic ‘underworld.’ He has freed himself from ‘superstition’ (or so he believes), but in the process he has lost his spiritual values to a positively dangerous degree. His moral and spiritual tradition has disintegrated, and he is now paying the price for this break-up in world-wide disorientation and dissociation.” Our storytelling practices become complicit with this “dangerous disintegration” when we study Systems rather than archetypes. If we are to follow Campbell and Jung, our storytelling practices must become a magical praxis.
Storytelling, therefore, when it engages with living archetypes and aspires to the status of myth, becomes a sort of psychoanalysis of the commons. This is how you (as a writer) can change the world: not by telling your audience what to think, but by allowing them to encounter their own psyche. Not by “representing reality as it is” but by representing the numinous.
The Tarot and the Law of One
Now, after I’ve suggested that any writing System is inherently limited, I would like to advance a new writing System. It does not come from me, nor from any human, but from a sixth-dimensional entity originating from the planet Venus who calls itself Ra. If you find this hard to believe, I salute you, and yet I’d urge you to stay with me a moment longer.
Ra’s teachings come to us in a 5 volume book entitled “The Law of One” (which is essential reading for any seeker of higher-dimensional truths). My contention is that this book of New Age philosophy also contains a powerful writing System, more malleable than Save the Cat, more meaningful than The Writer’s Journey, more personal than Creating Character Arcs. You likely already know this tool. We call it the Tarot, or more specifically the Major Arcana.
There is an ongoing debate regarding the origins of the Tarot. The earliest known decks are from the mid-15th century in Europe. Some argue that the cards originate with the Egyptian mysteries. Ra claims that this system of 22 images was devised millions of years ago on Venus with the purpose of familiarizing the initiate with the living archetypes of the collective consciousness unique to our solar system. This is where I would glance around the room to see how everyone is doing. Alas, I cannot see your face, O reader. Instead, I provide citations.
Ra says, “We wish not to form that which may be considered by any mind/body/spirit complex to be a complete and infallible series of images. There is a substantial point to be made in this regard. We have been, with the questioner’s aid, investigating the concept complexes of the great architecture of the archetypical mind. […] In no way whatsoever should we, as humble messengers of the One Infinite Creator, wish to place before the consideration of any mind/body/spirit complex which seeks its evolution the palest tint of the idea that these images are anything but a resource for working in the area of the development of the faith and the will.” Thus, take this System with a multi-dimensional grain of salt. It’s not meant to becomea dogma, or an object of academia. It merely points to yonder void.
The System Itself
The best way to learn this System is to simply spend time with the cards themselves. Find yourself a deck and spread them out before you as they are spread above. Then spend ample time considering each card. Consider each card alone and in sequence. Remember: there are no answers in the back of the book. Each of these cards reflects back to you an aspect of your own psyche. These cards are mirrors of the deep mind. No insight is without value.
Classically speaking, each card in the Major Arcana is numbered. We progress from the top left to the top right, before progressing to the second row, etc. In Ra’s System, the first 7 cards correspond to the Mind, the second 7 to the Body, the third 7 to the Spirit. The 22nd card, usually called the Fool, in this system is called the Choice. It stands alone. The first card of each row is called Matrix, the second Potentiator, the third Catalyst, the fourth Experience, the fifth Significator, the sixth Transformation, the seventh the Great Way. Thus, each of the three rows is split into seven columns, creating a grid that helps us see our Story at a glance.
The Matrix represents a status quo. It’s not static or stagnant, but it is skirted by a limited horizon. For example, card 1, the Magician (Matrix of Mind) is meant to represent the conscious, rational mind. It can build, it can plan, it can trap birds in cages. Yet, its magic is always grounded in “reality”(he’s pointing down). The Magician must be “Potentiated” by the unconscious mind, represented by the High Priestess, who reveals the limitations of the Magician’s horizon, revealing how reality itself can change. In a sense, this is our “Normal world” and our “Call to Adventure” in Campbellian terms. The Catalyst represents transformative encounters with the external world, while the Experience represents the internalization of these encounters. Together they form the “Road of Trials” and the “Ordeal” in Campbellion jargon. The Significator represents the Mind, Body, or Spirit most directly. For example, the Hierophant is the classical depiction of Mind: a figure whose power and influence is drawn from their knowledge. At this phase, the Hero has passed through their “Ordeal” and claimed their “Reward.” And yet, the journey is not complete. The hero has grown, but the horizon is still limited; the elixir is not ours. A further Transformation must occur to challenge the Significator to expand beyond a final frontier. This is the Campbellian “Resurrection.” The final stage of this System, the Great Way, is the Hero’s Apotheosis, the “Elixir” at the end of the Journey.
You can likely see how this System corresponds to the popular three act structure (Mind, Body, Spirit) however I would caution against such one-size-fits-all pronouncements. This could also work as a seven act structure. The beauty of this Gridis that it’s modular. There’s so much space for the individual writer to shuffle the cards as it were, and develop their own idiosyncratic relationship to these cards.
For example, perhaps your story has a “Tower Struck Down” moment near the start. Perhaps it’s your “inciting incident.” Perhaps there’s even a scene of a lightning bolt striking a pyramid, as the Potentiator of Spirit depicts. Perhaps placing this card 16/22 through your story makes no sense. In that case, perhaps a seven-act structure makes more sense. Perhaps for your purposes, instead of moving through the seven cards of Mind, to the seven cards of Body, and finally to the seven cards of Spirit, you instead move from the Matrices to the Potentiators to the Catalysts, etc. In this alternate system, the Magician remains card 1, but Justice becomes card 2, and the Devil becomes card 3, the High Priestess card 4, The Hermit card 5, and so on.
In this alternate system, only 4 cards retain their original number. The Magician remains card 1, and the World remains card 21. The Fool or the Choice remains card 0, of course, but the card in the middle also remains card 11. In this system, that card is Strength.
In other Tarot systems, Justice (sometimes called Balance, card 8) and Strength (card 11) are swapped. It’s good to keep an open mind, but in this case I insist that the original is superior. Justice is far more of a “Matrix,” depicting a status quo (she even holds scales!). Whereas, Strength is the paradigmatic “Experience” by depicting a woman taming a lion—a delicate balancing of wills which offers a twist on our initial concept of what “Strength” actually looks like. It’s not about strength of arms, but about courage. Inner strength. Love! This is the central card of the Major Arcana. Look at the spread above—it’s literally the center. And it’s a Lion, Leo, a classic symbol for the Sun, around which the other cards orbit as planets. (Sure, there’s also a card called ‘The Sun,’ but in this case we’re talking about the inner sun, the Heart.)
Thus, Strength (or the Experience of Body) is the midpoint in the Hero’s Journey.
The True Hero
What I find so appealing about this System is that the structure is not simply a dead skeleton upon which to fashion your symbols. The structure is itself the symbol. If you are stuck, figure out how the cards relate to your story. The cards will show you what’s missing.
Just as the Hero passes out of the “Normal world” and into the “Special world,” so the writer must pass beyond their consciously grasped concepts and Systems, and enter the unknown world of the unconscious. Delve into the archetypes. Become the archetypes. These are not intellectual figures, these are aspects of your own soul. If your story is to resonate with others, you must pass beyond the individually meaningful, into the universally meaningful. Go deep, pupil. Then come back and share what you’ve discovered. If you cannot put your insights into words, but require a narrative to make sense of them, then you have succeeded.
Today, the true Hero who returns from their journey with an elixir to heal his riven world is not a warrior. The true Hero is the creative individual who can fearlessly confront their own psyche, their own demons, and ask “Which of the 22 are you?” and wait patiently for an answer. The true hero is the lover of the archetypes, who can tame the Lion without bodily strength. Even the Devil, even Death are but aspects of your shadow. Integrate them. Greet them. Love them.
Leap into yonder void.