MythBlast | Joyce, Campbell, and Jim Morrison
I recently had the pleasure of reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming—a story, eponymously, about Michelle’s “becoming,” grateful for the accessibility of an autobiography that models the unfolding nature of finding one’s purpose. I think how different the experience of this text is from the one my father gave me as a teenager: James Joyce’s Ulysses. Nothing was accessible about Ulysses. It took me until I was Odysseus’ age to finally understand that Ulysses, like Michelle’s story, is also about becoming. Except the metaphor Ulysses employs is the familiar motif of western becoming stories, popular since the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric epics: fathers and sons. Sons become fathers. And fathers, midway through life, when they have forgotten their younger selves, need sons, so that they can become mentors.
My key to understanding Ulysses lay in Joseph Campbell’s explications, primarily in his lectures. I began to see that perhaps the whole point of wrestling with Joyce was learning how to read comparatively. That the difficulty of the text was in fact the test of my initiation into an artist-as-intellectual.
This ideal was instilled in me by my genius composer of a father. It was to be achieved through a reading of the greats: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Joyce. I’d slept in Dad’s floor-to-ceiling library as a teenager dreaming that one day, I’d be as well-read. In retrospect, all that reading was about me looking to connect to my father, Fred Myrow — just like Stephen Daedalus and Telemachus before me. But Ulysses held a special place for Dad. Two decades before I took on Joyce, Jim Morrison, the rock icon of the 1960’s, also sought to connect to my father, and did so through Ulysses.
In 1969, Jim was on the top of the rock world and Dad on the top of classical world as composer in residence at the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. When they met, Jim told Dad that if he didn’t “find some way to transform, all he’d be good for was nostalgia.” Both Jim and my dad were inhabiting a kind of a wasteland fashioned from somebody else’s vision of success, causing them to suffer like the Grail King. Seeing in one another the living myth of the artist-as-intellectual, they decided to collaborate. Jim and Dad dreamed up a Wagnerian vision of the Gesamptwerke, the total art work, in a rock opera. But first Jim had to read up, in order to catch up to my Dad. When Dad left for Ireland for 6 months to score a film, Jim sublet Dad’s house to read through his library. At the end of it, Jim came to Dad with Ulysses. They would tell the story again for our time: a Vietnam Vet travels through a night-time Los Angeles odyssey. Jim’s last meeting in the States was with Dad on this project, before he left for Paris, right before he died.
The unfinished project haunted Dad. I picked up writing the libretto with Dad just before he, like Jim, unexpectedly died. The difference between Dad and Jim wielding a revisioning of Ulysses and me was that I used Campbell’s tools and tricks as a way in. Through Campbell I understood that the theme Jim and Dad wanted to take on was really about their own becoming and getting stuck along the way. My surprising insight into my father and Jim was that they didn’t seem to have understood the myth they were living. And I wondered if you need to see the patterns of your myth to tell your story.
I didn’t know anything back then about what it feels like to be in the middle of your life and lost. When I finally did hit that point, I knew exactly what it was because I’d read about it and even tried to write about it for Dad and Jim. That’s when the metaphors of ten-year odysseys, shipwrecks on islands of shadow lives where the only thing you can do is story-tell about past adventures, became my living myth. That’s when I discovered the only way through the crises at the center of our lives is to tell our stories so that our past experiences make sense. This is the story Michelle tells, Joyce tells and Campbell explicates. It is the story of living myth that you, too are living, as you go about your becoming You.
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