Joanna Kavenna

The Quest

“Are you genuine? Or merely an actor? A representative? Or that which is represented? In the end, perhaps you are merely a copy of an actor…Are you one who looks on? Or one who lends a hand? Or one who looks away and walks off? …Do you want to walk along? Or walk ahead? Or walk by yourself? One must know what one wants and that one wants.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, “Twilight of the Idols


MaskAttack, “Realistic Handcrafted Latex Masks” (2011)

Nietzsche’s questions are about character, and the rites of personality, and the masks we wear or are given to wear, and what we do when confronted by the expectations of others, societal calls to behave in certain ways, ‘interpellation,’ as Althusser defined it. Nietzsche is saying, ‘Be alert!’ This is important, he adds, because if you don’t ask yourself, “Who am I? What do I want?” then someone else will tell you.

“Are you genuine? Or merely a… representative?” writes Nietzsche. You can be both in a single day. But if your real desires and persuasions are occluded by manufactured desires, falsehoods, then, according to Nietzsche, you are “merely a copy of an actor.”

“Do you want to walk along? Or walk ahead? Or walk by yourself?” They are all options, but, “one must know what one wants…” “Hear me!” Nietzche writes in “Ecce Homo.” “For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.”

“What am I?” asks the child. “You are Lily. You are Robert,” you tell them. “What is Lily? What is Robert?” they ask. “You are a little girl, a little boy.”


KidKraft, “KidKraft Country Kitchen Educational Toy” (2014)

Lily, then 5 or 6, says to her mother, “I don’t think I am what people say I am, when they say I am Lily. I am someone else.” She has already discerned a gap between what people tell her she is, and what she feels herself to be.

Lily and Robert grow up, they become teenagers. They are bewildered, reality seems insufficient, they weep and rage and fall in love.


The Smiths, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” (1986)

They go out into the wildness of adult life.

They are ‘young,’ they benefit from the help of allies and are cast down by the opposition of foes. They struggle against fleeting adversities. They fall in love with each other, for the purposes of narratorial neatness. Robert says, “When I am with you, Lily, I am myself.” He means, I feel comfortable, I recognise the self I am with you. But is he his entire real self with Lily? Is there more that cannot be expressed? Is he genuine? An actor? A representative? How can he tell?


The Killers, “Romeo and Juliet” (2004)

Lily becomes a mother, Robert a father. The Althusserian calls to behave in certain ways diverge. Their biological and emotional experiences are different too. Yet they are also bonded by their shared responses, they are astonished by how fiercely they adore their children. They wonder at the development of human personality, how distinct, how characterful their children are.

Much has changed between them, sometimes Robert doesn’t quite know what has happened to the Lily he knew, and vice versa. Sometimes Lily looks at Robert and is shocked — this venerable, responsible man! Who is he?

When Lily goes into the post office, she performs the expected role, the mother, telling her children not to run around, making small talk at the cash till. She does not beat her chest, beg for mercy. She takes her change, takes her children, leaves.

They commute to work each day, something changes, they adopt the guise. They are sometimes harried by quotidian stresses, the boredom and familiarity of daily life. They are, as Vila-Matas says, in danger of being coarsened by repetition, of losing their sense of wonder and expectation.


Dwight V. Swain, “Boredom At Work” (University of Oklahoma, 1961)

And yet, they can now see behind the masks of their parents, they understand that their parents had contradictory selves lurking within them too. They can imagine the inner thoughts of their children. In this sense, they have greater knowledge than before. Sometimes they are stoical: they live within the shifting strangeness of mortal life and their personalities: it is their natural habitat, all they know.

Vast swathes of literature, religion, philosophy, aim at a response to this sense of the unheimlich, as Freud calls it, the “uncanny,” the strangeness of being a fragile individual in the world, among billions of others, and then the dead, and then the untold legions of future selves.

The unheimlich is within the gap we discern between inner reality and the external and societal, between the possibly real and the possibly feigned. It expresses the slippery parametres between these binaries, the difficulty of establishing where one begins and the other ends. Freud, also, felt that we are assailed from within as well as from without. Not merely the calls of society, he suggested, potentially stymie and perplex us. The calls of our unconscious, deep impulses and traits of personality, also cause us to act in certain ways, make certain decisions, without quite knowing why. Hemmed in from both sides, how might the self recognize itself at all?

In our individuality-obsessed society, we have a complicated relationship to formal rites of personality. We are neither certain that such rituals might express us, nor are we certain what we are without them. A key contemporary mantra is “be yourself,” even where this is really a call in the service of consumerism: Be Yourself by buying this.

Certain religions within the Western Judeo-Christian tradition offer rites of passage, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the rites of Baptism and Christening. However, broadly speaking, we do not conduct extensive formal ceremonies of slaying the father, or the king, or fearsome, elaborate initiation rites, as has happened, and still happens, in some tribal societies.

What do we have in western late capitalism? According to Joseph Campbell, we have a compelling survivor from antiquity, the “monomyth,” the “hero’s journey.” In “The Hero with A Thousand Faces,” Campbell writes: “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”


Joseph Campbell, “Hero’s Journey Abridged” (With Bill Moyers, 1988)

Oedipus stands at the corner of 42nd street and Fifth Avenue because each one of us is the hero or heroine of a particular quest, the journey through life. The “thousand faces” in Campbell’s title indicates repetition — the way this journey recurs through literature, theology, myth, philosophy, and how each one of us repeats it too.

We are born, we are nurtured by our parents and held close to our families until, one day, we are go out into the unknown — adult life — where we must contend with trials and vicissitudes, where we encounter friends, foes, gatekeepers, lovers, confidants. In this adult realm, we birth children, we forge alliances, we care for our parents as they dwindle. We are sustained by hope, a sense of community with others; we are cast down by darkness and the fear of death. We strive for some sort of grail, some culminating trophy or prize, whether it is meaning, or belief, or stoicism, passion, virtue, great riches, fulfillment or peace.

This is the “hero’s journey” as Campbell understood it. It is mirrored, reiterated, by a thousand quest narratives, by Hercules and his trials, Theseus in the labyrinth, Odysseus — lost to his family and struggling to get home. Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Grail legends. Hamlet is forced onto a hero’s journey: he is cast out of his easy life as a young prince by the revelations of the Ghost, he is given a quest — to avenge his father’s murder, to kill Claudius, the usurper, to restore justice through a defining act of violence.


Kenneth Branagh, “Hamlet: Act 1, Scene 2” (1996)

Hamlet accepts the quest but he is betrayed by false allies (Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern); the mythic terrain into which he enters is fraught with uncertainty. He doubts, at times, if the Ghost is reliable, if his quest is real, if any quest within the flawed and mortal world can be worthwhile at all.

Modernist authors such as Joyce and Woolf refashion the hero’s journey, condensing the quest into a single day.


Marleen Gorris, “Mrs. Dalloway” (Mrs. Dalloway, 1997)

What a lark. What a plunge.

- Joanna Kavenna

  • Alexwaywire

    Love any exploration of the Hero Journey!

  • Constantin Pop

    What an amazing essay!

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Joanna Kavenna is the author of three novels, "Come To The Edge," "The Birth of Love," and “Inglorious,” winner of the 2008 Orange Prize for New Writers. Her first book, “The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule” was an account of a poetic tour through northern lands. Kavenna writes for the London Review of Books, the Guardian and Observer, the Times Literary Supplement, the International Herald Tribune,Spectator Magazine and the Telegraph. More Joanna Kavenna here.