The Identity Issue

Several years ago I read a book by Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity, which has since been made into a movie.  The story brought to mind questions I have never been able to shake.  Briefly, the story is one of espionage.  It opens with the main character, Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, in a state of amnesia.  A variety of people are chasing him and trying to kill him.  As the story unfolds he displays unusual abilities such as being fluent in several languages and the skill to kill his opponents quickly with his bare hands.  Equally unusual is his access to a Swiss bank account with hundreds of thousands of dollars in it as well as passports from several different countries, all with different names but with his picture on each of them.  Because of his amnesia he doesn’t know if he is a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” or who is trying to kill him and why.  The questions this story raises for me are: “Who would I be if I didn’t know who I was?” and “Would I be a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’?”  These questions introduce the greater issue—identity.

Proof of Identity is more than just a motif in the Cinderella category of fairy tales (Aarne-Thompson Index Type 510); it is a means of categorization.  There must be a proof of identity component in the story to qualify it for this categorization.

Identity issues have long been a motif in stories such as the one in The Bourne Identity mentioned above, but they go back much further than the thirty something years since Ludlum’s book came out.  The epic poem, The Odyssey, raised questions of identity and the issue of proof of identity over 2,7000 years ago.  In The Odyssey, Odysseus returns to his native Ithaca after a twenty-year absence, unrecognized by neighbors and family.  He must prove his identity to his wife, Penelope, by participating in a competition she requires of her suitors.  His childhood nurse recognizes him only when she sees a scar he received as a youth.  In one of the Grail legends, Parzival, the title character’s identity is hidden from him by his mother in his youth.  He doesn’t know who his father was.  He doesn’t even know his own name.  Later when he dons the Red Knight’s armor his identity is hidden from those he meets as they think they have seen the real Red Knight.

Identity, loss of identity, proof of identity, and impersonation are identity issues that continue in modern stories.  In the animated feature film, Shrek, Cameron Diaz provides the voice for the character Fiona, who is a human being by day but has a hidden identity by night as an ogress.  In the film Minority Report, Tom Cruise plays Chief John Anderton, a character who changes his identity by having eye transplant surgery.  In his world, identity is recorded through retinal scan in a manner similar to fingerprinting.  He is a police officer with a high security clearance.  He is able to penetrate tight security after his surgery because he retains his proof of identity, his old eye-balls, which he has had the foresight to hold onto for just such a situation.

What is this thing we call “identity” that has been a crucial part of story for millennia? If you are creating characters for your writing project, what is the identity of your various characters? What does “identity” mean to you?  Who would you be if you didn’t know who you were?

Who am I image from

Who am I
image from

The Monomyth – aka Hero’s Journey

Interest in Joseph Campbell’s work continues to grow.  In a highly compressed whirlwind trip of world mythologies, Campbell shows us that many commonalities exist in our human family through a breathtaking sampler of mythological narratives across an expanse of time and location in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  That is not to say that differences are absent.  Rather, he attempts, through this work, to balance the extreme and extremist focus on the differences that appear to be the dominant view now for centuries, if not millennia.

Campbell quoting James Joyce says: “The monomyth is an everlasting reiteration of unchanging principles and events inflected in particular and unique way.”  That is to say, fundamentally, there is one narrative.  However, this form demands of us that we live our unique narrative out.  We cannot live someone else’s narrative.  Campbell was insistent that we enter the woods alone where it is thickest and where no path exists.

The monomyth is the journey each of us is on.  “Myth commonly is an allegory or metaphor of the agony of self-completion through the mastery and assimilation of conflicting opposites.  The process is described in the typical symbolic terms of encounters, perils, feats, and trials [in myths].”  This comment was made in The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer (edited by Joseph Campbell) before Campbell put to pen the monomyth.  Myths are metaphors to assist us in the confusing business of living life.

The common understanding of myth is as a story.  The content of myth as stories is important but there is something behind the content of the story: mythic form ( Dennis Patrick Slattery on The Relevance of Myth in our Lives). Slattery asked himself: “What kind of energy field gathers itself to coagulate or constellate that has this particular type of plot?  It’s not that myth as story is wrong; it is just insufficient.  There is something behind the narrative that each of us is living out.  To merely discuss the plot of our lives is to sidestep the form.”  The Universal emerges through unique local and individual expression.

For writers who use the Hero’s Journey as structure to guide them in their writing, the greater truth of the monomyth may be overlooked.  There are those who try to capitalize on the form saying things like there are 510+ stages of the hero’s journey. There are in fact uncounted stages of this journey as each of us “inflects in particular ways” the reiteration of unchanging principles.  Do not be taken in by jargon.  There is something very basic to the human condition here.  Jargon muddies these waters when clarity is desired.  Also, I suggest you do not dismiss the form because it appears simple.  Do not confuse simple with simplistic (and simple often does not mean easy).  The potency of the underlying truth is not diminished by the simplicity of the structure.  Another common error is to think of the form as if it were a formula.  If the writer does this, the story most likely will feel formulaic to the audience.

The story you writers tell (and the story that each of us must live) is uniquely our own.  If we do not follow the call, the story that only each of us uniquely has the capacity to live will go unlived; a vacuum will have been created because that gap cannot be filled by any other.  The everlasting reiteration of unchanging principles and events inflected in particular and unique ways is simultaneously a grueling demand to rise to the challenges that are presented to us and a gift, elixir, joy, and experience of the wonder of Life.