Further Searching for our Seven Archetypal Stories: Why Celebrity Matters

Our fascination with the lives of celebrities isn’t just a simple matter of yearning to be like them …. it’s because the exposure of their lives in high definition fulfils a fundamental need to see certain stories played out. This post is all about celebrity stories and what we learn from them.

The great effort we invest in studying the lives of celebrities through the mass media, and the prurient pleasure we derive from their dramas or sufferings, indicates their huge importance to our society. A visiting alien might consider them our true rulers.

Celebrities themselves may not often be business people. But they’re undoubtedly big business. And they’re thought leaders and shapers of fashion or opinion. Their actions have enormous economic consequences. But what can these people have to do with archetypes that drive behaviour?

Previous posts in this series have presented the concept of Seven Basic Stories or plots that permeate all world literature and drive our deeper conduct, consciously or unconsciously. The source is The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker.

I’ve then explored each of these plots in the context not just of art, but also in the daily life of nations, organisations and above all of companies and their top executives. In Part One, we studied national narrative. In Part Two, we looked at the cost of the business world’s fixation with Tragedy. Part Three was about Comedy. Part Four looked at  business Rebirth.

To make the link between collective or corporate stories and our own very personal narratives (subject of the next article), I’ll examine three types of
celebrity, occupying a halfway position between public corporations and the private person.

These are: artists, sportsmen and criminals.

Up to now we’ve looked at stories that play out fully to the end. But not all stories have a “happy ending” in real life. As anyone who’s ever walked out of a theatre performance or cinema screening knows, an incomplete story is hugely frustrating. If the bedtime story doesn’t have the right ending, children won’t sleep.

Yet the incomplete or frustrated playing-out of some of our Seven Basic Plots is precisely what provides the bulk of what we know as “celebrity drama.” So we’ve created this class of highly-paid global professionals whose job is to play out before our very eyes the thrills and spills of “broken stories.”

In each case I’ll contend that the “day job” – recording albums, beating records and scoring knock-outs, or doing time in jail – is no more important than the public living-out their stories. Because it tells us all about ourselves, celebrity matters.

Broken Stories that Possess us: The Downfall of  Artists, Sportsmen, and Criminals.

The premature death of British singer Amy Winehouse in July 2011 was both a tragedy and a predestined event: nobody who knew her well expected any other outcome.

She joins the “27 Club” — a roll-call of charismatic popular artists who all died before the age of 28. They include Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. Beyond noting the unhappy coincidence, no commentator has satisfactorily explained why contemporary artists are drawn to self-destruction.

In tearful interviews, singers in the Winehouse backing group and family members explained that Amy was trapped by fame, driven into a life that wasn’t hers. She was living another story, and darkness overwhelmed her.

The cult of eternal youth is only part of this story. Just like Greek heroes, we know that those whom the Gods love, must die young. Laurence Binyon’s Ode to Remembrance for the World War I dead is also a tribute to fallen rockers like Amy Winehouse: They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

Drugs may have been the agent – but they’re not the underlying reason. Something deeper goes on whenever fame transports performers to a landscape beyond the consciousness of ordinary mortals. To a place from which return seems impossible.

Exactly what is it that rock musicians do that seemingly makes their chosen profession more dangerous than that of a Formula One racing driver? Joni Mitchell (thankfully a survivor), came closest to describing the singer’s job (and the temptation to abandon it) in her 1974 song Free Man in Paris:

You know I’d go back there tomorrow/ But for the work I’ve taken on/Stoking the star-maker machinery/Behind the popular song.

The dangerous nature of this “star-maker machinery” is hardly new. The fact is that self-destruction has lain close to the heart of the Romantic experience for over two centuries. Just like the “27 Club”, a common destiny of insanity, suicide or premature death binds together painters such as Van Gogh, Samuel Palmer, or Richard Dadd; the poets Percy Shelley, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Chatterton; the composer Schumann; the philosopher Nietzsche.

Closer to our times, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas and Malcolm Lowry. Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett. The list goes on and on.

It’s a commonplace that artists must travel to places the rest of us cannot reach: from these journeys they transmit insights, horrors and experiences that reach closer to the heart of the human condition. They act as ambassadors on our behalf. No wonder Yoko Ono was widely vilified for the fact that John Lennon chose to become a house-husband, baking, rather than earning the family’s bread. We don’t expect our artists to be domesticated.

In fact, so powerful is the need for a complex and potentially self-destructive “back story” that even would-be artists sporting the blank slate that comes with pre-celebrity existence, also need to have one. Contenders for TV talent shows like “X Factor,” “America’s Got Talent” and others, need a bit of angst. Consider the case of Susan Boyle, the singer who shot from non-enity to celebrity and (virtually) back again in less time than it takes to grow a crop of tomatoes.

Properly lived, these artistic journeys into the imaginative world of dreams or parallel reality form the basis of one of the most powerful archetypal story patterns or tropes – that of Voyage and Return.

This plot exists at almost every step in the history of storytelling. In children’s stories, Peter Rabbit’s journey into Mr McGregor’s garden in the work of Beatrix Potter, or the adventure of the Darling children in Never Never Land in Peter Pan. (No coincidence here that Michael Jackson also got lost inside this same J.M. Barrie story).

In Classical literature, we have both the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Both Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels explore the same theme. From Jules Verne and HG Wells onwards, modern science fiction uses this trope as its central plot engine.

In every classic version of Voyage and Return, the hero returns to his starting point, wiser, older, and changed. But he (or she) is demonstrably back in the same place where he began: the rabbit burrow, the Darling family home, Ithaca, the planet’s surface, today. Sometimes – like Gulliver – upon return to the “normal” world they cannot wait to get back to their extraordinary exploring again.

But there is a hugely important variant of this trope we might call “Voyage Without Return.” In this variant, darkness overwhelms our hero. Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Marlon Brando’s version of this character in Apocalypse Now; both Tamburlaine and Faustus in Marlowe’s plays. Randle McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. These are the folks who never come back.

The common root of all “creative journeys of the soul” that bring doom and a violent end is that of Orpheus, the first of all poets and musicians.

Most of us know that in order to bring back his beloved Eurydice, Orpheus travelled down to the underworld and secured an agreement that she would live again if he could complete the return to the upper world without looking back to see if she was always behind him.

What’s less well-known is that after Eurydice was dragged down by Hades for a second time (because her beloved looked back), Orpheus wandered the earth as an inconsolable poet. Eventually he was torn to pieces by Maenads or female followers of Dionysus, in a drunken frenzy. The sexual ambivalence of Orpheus, his on-off relationship with alcohol, his circle of crazed but deadly groupies, his grisly end, make him the original “27 Club” member, as well as inspiration for the modernist and surreal tradition via Jean Cocteau’s ground-breaking 1950 film Orphee.

So thanks to her troubled life and early death (whatever the explanation for it), Amy Winehouse not only went “posthumous platinum,” but launched an ocean of magazine articles. She embodied one of the most powerfully destructive variants of the Voyage and Return story archetype – the “Journey Without Return” of youthful death.

We like our sportsmen to fail. Or rather, we like them to stumble as the tangle of their personal lives threatens the purity of their physical prowess. Sometimes they recover. Sometimes the wound is fatal.

Sporting heroes occupy a hugely important place in our lives: it is upon them that we project our desires and wish-fulfillment, for they have demonstrably used their strength and self-discipline to escape our common destiny as minor cogs in the machine trapping us. By strength of arm and fleetness of foot they have won freedom and huge wealth.

Yet we continually set them up for failure. It happens too often to be a coincidence: and it almost always happens off the pitch, the track or the court. Sex, violence, performance-enhancing drugs. Sometimes it’s naivete in politics.

In each case here’s a discernible pattern. A sporting star achieves extraordinary prominence – then goes right off the rails for reasons unconnected with sport. A long, slow process of rehabilitation then begins, in which the hero must regain our collective trust.

Consider the downfall of Tiger Woods after a string of sexual alliances that therapists explained as a show of exaggerated risk-taking by an overly-confident sports professional. Two years and a string of humble-pie confessions after his 2009 downfall, Tiger is still stuck deep in the bottomless bunker marked “dishonoured sportsmen.”

Then there’s the 1992 conviction for rape of boxer Mike Tyson. After being released from prison in 1995, Tyson engaged in a series of comeback fights, only to be stripped of the WBC title and eventually disqualified for biting off an opponent’s ear. By 2003 Tyson – who had earned over $300 million during his career – was bankrupt.

By contrast the greatest boxer Mohammed Ali, survived his 1967 banning and conviction (for refusing the Vietnam draft) and was rehabilitated after his “Rumble in the Jungle” and “Thrilla in Manila” fights. Today Ali – recipient of medals from presidents Obama and Bush – embodies sportsman-hero ethos despite his crippling Parkinson’s disease.

Consider the suspension of the greatest-ever England cricket star Ian Botham, who in 1986 was caught out smoking cannabis and rowing with fellow-players. Botham rehabilitated himself by walking thousands of miles and earning millions of pounds for children’s charities, and was subsequently knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

Then there’s the case of Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna. As the recently released docu-drama Senna shows, the deadly dispute with his team-mate French driver Alain Prost, left the Brazilian driver completely unhinged.  He received fines and a FIA suspension for his conduct in 1989, and as his ever more aggressive conduct on the track spiraled out of control, his fan-base was threatened. I met Senna in the late 1980s and remember the encounter as deeply unpleasant. Yet in the run-up to his death in 1994, Senna, a fundamentalist Christian, regarded himself as an agent of God. Posthumously, of course, the three time world champion Senna has been rehabilitated as one of the greatest drivers of all time.

George Best, Diego Maradona, Eric Cantona, Paul Gascoigne  — the list of soccer’s ‘fallen angels’ seems endless. What all these sporting heroes have in common is that, just like Icarus who soared too near the sun on false wings, or Prometheus who was condemned for giving stolen fire to give to mankind, they embody the “dark side” of our Romantic myths.

What is happening here? In each case we see how the pursuit of extreme excellence in sport triggers overwhelming growth of the “dark side”; downfall, then (for some) the painful road back toward the light. The story archetype being played out here is The Quest.

As in every Quest story, the journey is as much an interior one as a physical transformation. In the Arthurian Grail Quest, what is initially sought after is a physical chalice. But this is soon transformed into a set of mystical beliefs and spiritual values that transcend a material object. This is made very clear in the 1989 movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Back to Athletes. As the records tumble, the trophies build up and the rewards mount, the prize becomes symbolic. The athlete is no longer competing against others. It is himself he must beat to reach the end of his unreachable Quest. No wonder the experience renders extreme sportsmen and women partly insane.

And here we introduce the trope of the “Broken Quest” – the repetitive struggle to reach the place we have already been. The seeming impossibility of going one step further. The slide down the hill just as we reach the summit. The physical decay of age.

Just as the Orpheus story set the scene for the Voyage Without Return, so the classical figure who embodies the Broken Quest is Sisyphus.  Condemned eternally to roll his huge stone up a hill for his crimes, Sisyphus could be the patron saint of overly-ambitious athletes.

In Homeric legend he was the aggressive king of Corinth, engaged in a fatal competition with his rival and brother Salmoneus. Sisyphus betrayed the secrets of the Gods, for he regarded himself as equal to them.

Sisyphus tricked death twice (once by chaining up Thanatos, the God of Death, and once by getting Persephone to free him from the Underworld). As punishment for his over-reaching, Sisyphus was condemned to an eternity of frustration with the boulder rolling away from him whenever he neared the top of the hill. What closer paradigm could there be for athletes competing against themselves and struggling to rehabilitate their reputations?

The final “broken story trope” is that played out by the darkest of all heroes in modern society: the media-conscious mass murderer.

I write these lines in Scandinavia, a region now struggling to come to terms with the July 2011 massacre at Utoeya in Norway, and the bombing in Oslo. The “rationale” of killer Anders Behring Breivik, was that his attacks and the deaths of over 90 people were “gruesome but necessary”.

Breivik made shameless use of his legal right of reply to broadcast his arguments for the killings, presenting a spurious mix of nationalism, racism and eugenics as the justification for his actions.

Of course this is completely false. Breivik joins a long list of mass killers who acted for still-unexplained reasons. Or rather, who were beyond reason. In Shakespeare’s Othello, the villain Iago was described by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge of possessing “motiveless malignity.” That captures the mood.

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy Mcveigh. Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Washington Sniper John Allen Mohammed. UK lake District killer Derrick Bird. Germany’s Albertville Technical High School killings. Finland’s Jokela High School shooting. The Beslan hostage killings in North Ossetia. Harold Shipman, the UK doctor who killed 215 seniors, Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe. (30 years ago, as I sat in the courtroom reporting on his trial, Sutcliffe gazed deep into my eyes from the dock, and I knew I had seen the Monster).

In each case, psychologists have sought cognitive reasons for these acts in the individual biographies and formative experiences of the killers. And in cases other than the Norway massacre, the killer generally dies or commits suicide, having achieved his purpose.

But what if these people were impelled by a deeper, darker drive that forms part of the collective unconscious in each one of us? Perhaps there is no stopping these massacres because they are present at a primal level in the stories that we all carry inside us.

Certainly, Scandinavian popular fiction is rich in monsters and serves up staggering portions of random cruelty and sexual deviation. Steig Larssen’s Millennium trilogy and the movies based on it offer us a coterie of Breivik-like monsters: the killer-CEO Martin Vander; the deformed Russian spy Zalachenko; the unfeeling giant Niedermann who must (literally) be nailed to the floor. In Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander stories, the dark and rotten side of advanced liberal democratic civilization is pitilessly exposed.

Every newspaper describes the real-life killers as monsters. And they are. The most basic, fundamental story type in our analysis is Overcoming the Monster. Here, the community is threatened by a dragon, an ogre, an incarnation of evil, a vampire.

Like Perseus when he slew the Gorgon with the aid of his polished shield; like Beowulf when he kills Grendel and his mother; like Jack who fells both the Giant and Beanstalk with his trusty axe; like James Bond who saves the world with the aid of gadgets from “Q” his armourer, it falls to the hero to overcome the monster with the help of special tools.

In the full version of Overcoming the Monster, the threat is completely externalized. Yet over the centuries our monsters have become bipolar as our ambivalence toward them has grown. So we internalise the Monster. The father of all these is Mary Shelley’s monster and his anguished creator in Frankenstein. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant. The tortured spirit who is The Phantom of the Opera. And of course the comforting Disneyfied legend of Beauty and the Beast.

I want to end with the hypothesis that a “broken” version of Overcoming the Monster could lie behind this repetitive behaviour. Our storytelling-driven society demands heroes. But not everyone can be the hero. For the story to work, somebody always has to be the Monster. Failure to “complete” the full story results in a distortion where some monsters recast themselves as heroes and their destruction becomes a horrendous, inverted interpretation of the hero’s own monster-slaying.

The reason they do this is profound ambivalence towards monsters embedded in our society thanks to story-telling. So who is to blame when a gun-toting devil like Anders Behring Breivik recasts himself as warped hero or – just perhaps – a prince captive inside a monster’s body?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault’s writings show the ways in which psychiatry has been recruited for the task of identifying socially-acceptable or “normal” behaviours. All those lying outside accepted standards are labelled as “monsters.” In his 1974 lecture series Abnormal and its follow-up Society Must be Defended, Foucault explores the human monster, incest, cannibalism, witchcraft, and possession. And he suggests that the contemporary medico-legal power of criminal psychiatry is actively making monsters, not just identifying them. From the story-teller’s perspective, Foucault places our treatment of the Monster at the heart of contemporary social schizophrenia.

By contrast, Christian teachers tell us Breivik and his like are incontrovertible evidence of the continuing existence of pure evil in the world. And by a specious piece of legal sophistry, they claim this can only mean that God is present too.

Yet we dearly love a Devil. As the poet William Blake observed, in the epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton inverted the entire sequence of cosmic history to make the Devil, and not God, his true hero.

The last word on this should go to the poet Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man: Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; 
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

As I’ve tried to show, the “broken” versions of the Seven Basic Plots can be just as important in understanding deeper behaviour as the “complete” versions that we find in literature. Here – just as in Tragedy, the dark side overwhelms the light. And the roles played by those three types of celebrity – the doomed rock star, the damaged athlete, and the mass murderer – should not be under-estimated in our quest to understand how story drives all human behaviour.

Richard House



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