All works of art, no matter what the medium, are at the same time both new and old, both novel and traditional. As William Faulkner put it in his speech upon accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, one of the artist’s primary tasks is to “[leave] no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.” All artists ever do is tell a very old story in a new way—for a new time and place. Drawing on their own particular experience of the world, artists retell “the old universal truths” insofar as they have experienced them. To use Michael Oakeshott’s term, artists “re-create” the world and the human condition according to their own experience of it, and insodoing, they give life to and delineate the eternal principles of Truth underlying all that exists.
In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot called this simultaenous perception in the artist of both the universal past and his own particular present the “historical sense.” “The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.”
This is the principle which Joseph Campbell picks up on in his work in comparative my-thology. All myths, all great stories are really just different cultures’ takes on the same fundamental ideas and principles. All stories have their foundation in the same basic human experiences, thoughts, and desires. More than that, they have their foundation in the same truths of the world in which we live. That is what artists do, tell very old stories with new characters and new imagery based on their own personal experience of the world. That is what they must do, for art re-creates the world, and the truth in the world never changes, it merely takes on new shapes and faces.
Take for instance one of Campbell’s own favorite myths—the heroic journey. All heroes follow the same simple pattern: Battle, Journey, Homecoming. Though the pattern expresses itself differently across different times and cultures, nevertheless the pattern remains the same. Let’s look at a few specific examples:
Odysseus left his home, wife Penelope, and son Telemachus in Ithaca for ten years to fight in the Trojan War. After his victory, he had to travel another ten years in order to reach home. The point of this journey was that the hero should learn how to leave the Battle behind and prepare the way for a life of peace. Upon returning home, Odysseus finds his house overrun with potential usurpers. He applies the things he learned on his journey to the cleansing of his house, setting it in order once and for all.
|Odysseus cleansing his house of the suitors.|
In The Divine Comedy, Dante must fight his way through Hell, literally. He must then journey up Mount Purgatory, being purified more and more along the way, allowing himself to be prepared for his eventual homecoming in Paradise, in which he is granted the vision of God himself.
Christ our Savior came down from Heaven to do Battle against Sin by dying on the cross, even to the point of descending into Hell. Like Odysseus, Christ waits in order that the victory he won may be perfectly applied to his Body the Church through his heroic patronage, until the time is right for him to return and set his house in order once and for all.
Like every element of art and literature, this heroic pattern contains inherant within it implications and meanings beyond a simple tale being told. This is not to say that the any work of art proposes to send an explicit message. If that were the case it would be mere propaganda. That being said, by virtue of the truth that lies in its characters and events, it can be more than just characters and events. These characters and events, insofar as they are representative of larger truths and realities, are able to signify them, stand for them, personify and incarnate them.
In this case of the heroic journey, we can draw an analogy to the general experience of Mankind. All men must fight their own Battle for the principles of Truth, Jusice, and Honor. All men must endeavor on the Journey to bring the victory home, work to restore order to their sphere of influence. And it is the Homecoming, the setting into Order of our household for which we fight, and for which we hope. By extension from this analogy, we are all called to be heroes, in our own specific times and places—we are all called to live a heroic life, especially in those mundane things which occupy everyday existence. We must fight for Truth, Justice, and Beauty, sacrifice our lives to the principles which are greater than us, and the people whom we love. More than just being true for us men, however, we have seen how this heroic journey is true universally and eternally by virtue of the Christ having lived it out himself.
It turns out, then, that his is the Truth that poets, painters, composers, and authors have been recreating over and over again throughout history, bringing it to us in new ways, for new times and new peoples. Insofar as any character (fictional or real) is heroic, then, he is Christ-like, and the title of an old film about his life seems all the more apt—The Greatest Story Ever Told.