Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Every Prophet in his House: Avatars and the Monomyth in HBO's "Carnivale"

“Perhaps some of us have to go through dark and devious ways
before we can find the river of peace to the soul’s destination.”
– Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949

In our early lives, we are exposed to many different tales and myths about the nature of mankind. These myths vary depending on the cultures and religions we identify ourselves with; they proliferate throughout culture over time and through a variety of media – literature, film, television. The mythology of a television drama is what makes it worth watching. It puts the content of the show in the context of the real world and makes it relevant to society and humanity at large. A primary theoretical and spiritual component of the mythology of the HBO show Carnivale (2003-2005) is the concept of avatars, which is illustrated through allegory of classical mythology and Joseph Campbell’s heroic journey.

In Hindu philosophy, avatars are creatures of light and darkness. They are human-like beings with supernatural powers (such as healing, telekinesis, and telepathy) who are considered incarnations of a higher being on Earth, embodying either good or evil. Many believe that avatars serve as prophets and thus explain certain events in the history of mankind such as the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment. The characters of Ben Hawkins (the Creature of Light) and Justin Crowe (the Creature of Darkness) serve as avatars in the world of Carnivale.

In Sanskrit, the word avatara literally means “descent,” as in, a descent into lower realms of existence for special purposes. In the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism, Vishnu is seen as the supreme God of the Hindus. Buddha is believed to be the 24th of 25 avatars of Vishnu; the 25th being yet to come. Despite its roots in Hinduism, the concept of avatars is prevalent throughout many different varieties of religion and mythology, and the term is used to describe influential teachers and incarnations of divine beings from Buddha to Jesus Christ, Abraham, and Muhammad.

There exists a belief that all beings are brought forth from the divine creative essence, but avatars are “living princes” – incarnations of the highest essence, identified with the superhuman being. These ideas have had a great influence upon Western occultism and its revivals. In particular, the New Age movement supported a belief in a celestial hierarchy of “ascended masters,” spiritually enlightened beings who were once ordinary humans but have undergone a spiritual transformation.

Supernatural and occult-based texts tend to make good, thoroughly researched use of religious and mythological concepts, and Carnivale is no exception. The story arc of Carnivale is structured around a timeless theme of Good vs. Evil, which is supported by a complex allegorical mythology (hinted at beautifully in the opening credits). At the beginning of the pilot episode, Samson (the carnival’s manager) establishes these themes:

"Before the Beginning, after the great war between Heaven and Hell, God created the Earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called Man. And to each generation was born a Creature of Light and a Creature of Darkness... and great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then. Nobility. And unimaginable cruelty. And so it was until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and man forever traded away wonder for reason."
– Samson, “Milfay” (Pilot)

The Creatures of Light and Darkness born to each generation are our Avatars – Ben Hawkins and Justin Crowe, respectively. Show creator Daniel Knauf chose to set Carnivale in the 1930s, an era which he saw as “the last great age of magic” (which was, in fact, the tagline of the first season) – between two great world wars, before the atomic bomb destroyed the magic and ushered in the Age of Reason. Knauf highlights this concept by pointing to signs of the end times in the Depression era: drought in the Dust Bowl, poverty, famine, the rise of Hitler, introduction of nuclear warfare – all seemingly signaling the coming of the Anti-Christ. Our avatars are the ones preparing for the final battle.

Joseph Campbell, an American writer and professor whose work in comparative mythology and religion remains the basis for much modern storytelling, explored the concept of the avatar in his classic work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He discusses how Krishna was recognizable as an incarnation of God. Knauf and the writers of Carnivale were clearly influenced by Campbell’s work. Our Avataric Creature of Light, Ben Hawkins, is also recognizable as an incarnation of a divine being.  When the carnival enters the town of Tipton, Oklahoma, the townspeople recognize Ben as the man who healed a crippled girl, and they treat him as though he is Jesus. Samson, the carnival manager, periodically uses Ben’s gifts for the advantage of his business henceforth. According to Campbell, a hero is a personage of exceptional gifts who is frequently honored by his society, but just as frequently unrecognized or disdained. Though many people treat Ben like a God and do indeed see him as a hero, just as many see him as a freak no different from the rest of the carnival.

So what exactly does it mean to be an avatar in the world of Carnivale? The last names of our avatars – Hawkins and Crowe – are references to the Hawk and the Crow, winged symbolic creatures of light & dark. (Other references to the duality of avatars – light/dark, God/Devil – are evident in the show’s production design; for example, the carnival’s logo – a juxtaposition of sun and moon.) Crowe and Hawkins are connected through their avataric status, yet they are initially unaware of it. They can sense the existence of their moral opponent but are unable to identify each other outside of close physical proximity. As we can deduce from the show, an avatar has free will to overcome his destiny. There are times when Ben and Justin deliberately choose not to use their spiritual powers in certain circumstances, acting contrary to their nature when they feel it is what’s best for them or for others.

Hawkins and Crowe share an ability to envision the past, the present, and the future both literally and symbolically through their dreams. It is through their shared dreams and visions that the two of them are forced to face their personal struggles, which are strikingly similar to one another, indicative of their spiritual connection. Ben and Justin are both trying to make sense of their past, which may explain why they are what they are. Once our avatars learn how to use their connection, they will be able to transcend their personal struggles and prepare to fight the great final battle for mankind.

Crowe and Hawkins are both provoked to find out more about their dreams; yet before they can, they must accept their gift. Justin does so rather quickly; he is very aware of his dark supernatural abilities and is motivated to use them. In Episode 1:8, “Lonnigan, Texas,” Crowe has been placed in a mental institution after an attempted suicide. He tells the doctor, “I am the left hand of God – I am no longer his servant, and I never was – I am his will made flesh.” He plays mind games with people who place their trust in him because he is a preacher. Crowe serves as a possible allegory for Hitler (considering the time period) or an Anti-Christ figure, suggesting that these, too, can be considered Avataric Creatures of Darkness.

Ben Hawkins is not as easily accepting of his gift as Justin is. He has something to overcome. In the pilot, “Milfay” (1:1), we learn that Ben has escaped from the chain gang and his mother has just died. As he joins the carnival on their journey, he struggles to make sense of his identity, his gift, and his past – all of which assail him in his dreams. “The hero is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms.” (Campbell 19-20) 

A path is laid out quite clearly for Ben in the beginning of the series to follow Joseph Campbell’s monomyth – more commonly known as “the heroic journey” – which Campbell discusses in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell maintains that all mythology is essentially the same, and it all points to the same timeless vision. We can trace this monomyth back through time and across cultures to stories like the Odyssey, the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the story of Christ. “It will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told” (Campbell 3).  Campbell discusses the heroic journey as three separate rites of passage – separation, initiation, and return.  At the end of the pilot, Ben experiences the first step in the monomyth: the call to adventure.  For almost the entirety of Season One, Ben Hawkins refuses his call. He is a humble young man who is unwilling to carry the burden of a healer and an avatar on his shoulders. A hero is the world’s symbolic carrier of the destiny of Everyman (Campbell 36).

Many viewers complained that the show’s first season merely served as a prologue to the real story and that Ben’s refusal of the call prevented anything from really happening. However, by the beginning of Season Two, Ben finally chooses to accept and explore his healing powers.  He is driven to learn more about where they came from and to learn more about his moral opponent, Justin Crowe. The second season thus follows Campbell’s monomyth more closely.  After our hero crosses the first threshold, he can then move onto the next phase of his journey.  Unfortunately, Ben Hawkins never makes it this far. Carnivale was cancelled after two of its six planned seasons and thus was unable to flesh out the full epic of Ben Hawkins and Justin Crowe. It is both difficult and frustrating to imagine what could have happened to these characters had they been given more of a chance. But Campbell gives us a clue:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region
of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a
decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious
adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
(Campbell 30)

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