Modulations of the face of man. Joseph Cambell’s final reflection on the face of the Hero of our time
The way to become human is to learn to recognize the lineaments of God in all the wonderful modulations of the face of man
With this, we come to the final hint of what the specific orientation of the modern hero-task must be and discover the real cause for the disintegration of all of our inherited religious formulae. The centre of gravity, that is to say, of the realm of mystery and danger, has definitively shifted.
For the primitive hunting peoples of those remotes human millennia when the sabertooth tiger, the mammoth, and the lesser presences of the animal kingdom where the primary manifestations of what was alien -the source at once of danger, and of sustenance- the great human problem was to become linked physiologically to the task of sharing the wilderness with these beings. An unconscious identification took place, and this was finally rendered conscious in the half-human, half-animal figures in the mythological totem-ancestors. The animals became the tutors of humanity. Through acts of literal imitation – such as today appear only on the children’s playground (or in the madhouse)- an effective annihilation of the human ego was accomplished and society achieved a cohesive organization.
Similarly, the tribes supporting themselves on plant-food became cathected to the plant; the life-rituals of planting and reaping were identified with those of human procreation, birth, and progress of maturity.
Both the plant and the animal worlds, however, were at the end brought under social control. Whereupon the great field of instructive wonder shifted -to the skies- and mankind enacted the great pantomime of the sacred moon-king, the sacred sun-king, the hieratic, planetary state, and the symbolic festivals of the world-regulating spheres.
Today all of these mysteries have lost their force; their symbols no longer interests our psyche. The notion of a cosmic law, which all existence serves and to which man himself must bend, has long since passed through the preliminary mystical stages represented in the old astrology and is now simply accepted in mechanical terms as a matter of course. The descent of the Occidental sciences from the heavens to the earth (from seventeenth-century astronomy to nineteenth-century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in the twentieth-century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is the alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in those images, society is to be reformed. Man understood however not as “I” but as “Thou”: for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.
The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. “Live”, Nietzsche says, “as though the day were here”. It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal -carries the cross of the redeemer- not to the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silence of his personal despair.