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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Risky Business

Yesterday, stopping in at the library on our way home in the cold wind and rain from New Westminster, Kimmie and I picked up a DVD of Risky Business, the 1983 movie written and directed by Paul Brickman and starring the young Tom Cruise. We watched in last night over our dinner of sauteed zucchini, broccoli, and portobello mushrooms on pasta.

It was our third viewing of it, and we both enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed it more than ever before. One important reason was that I saw in it a depiction of many of the elements of the great cycle of human myth described by Erich Neumann in The Origins and History of Consciousness.

Neumann's thesis is that world mythology maps the birth and development of ego-consciousness in humanity as a whole, which is identical to its birth and development in each individual. The conscious ego, the center of our personality, emerges from the dark bliss of unconsciousness as a baby emerges from the womb. After a long period of fleeting moments of consciousness that rise and sink back into the bliss of unconsciousness, the ego gradually becomes stronger, until it decisively proclaims its own independent existence, recognizing its distinctness from the nurturing but also smothering womb of unconsciousness. This decisive moment is pictured in the universal myth of the separation of the World Parents, in which a hero pushes apart his mother and father to create earth and heaven, and between them the whole manifest world.

Tom Cruise, playing Joel Goodson, the well-heeled, dutiful teenage son of complacent, affluent parents, is this hero. When his parents, leaving on vacation, leave him to look after the house, they expect him to continue along the rails on which they have set him from birth: the predictable track of responsibility and submission to their dictates. They show every sign of expecting his whole life to be lived in that way. He is nudged off the track by his friend Miles, who orders in a call-girl for him. When the girl, Lana (Rebecca de Mornay), arrives, Joel receives his sexual initiation, then finds himself embroiled with her further when she steals his mother's prize possession: a giant crystal egg she keeps on the mantle. In his effort to retrieve the egg, Joel finds himself in conflict with her pimp, and is eventually driven to accept Lana's suggestion that he host a night of schoolboys-paying-for-hookers at his parents' place in order to pay for damage to his father's Porsche.

The story contains virtually every element of the complete mythic emancipation of the hero from the matrix of the unconscious. I was most intrigued to watch how Brickman handled the crystal egg--an element I did not remember from my previous viewings of the movie. The egg, very valuable, was the "dragon's treasure"--for the dragon is a symbol of the devouring, regressive aspect of the mother, and the treasure is the boon of life and consciousness that she nonetheless carries within her and which it is the hero's task to free. The dragon itself appears in the guise of Guido, Lana's pimp (Joe Pantoliano), who gains possession of the egg, and is also in possession of Lana--the captive princess of myth. The captive princess is another epiphany of the Great Goddess, but a personal one, one that can be known and loved as an individual--one who contains all the love and life and creative potential that is to be gained by the heroic accession to full conscious autonomy.

Even the fact that Lana is a hooker is consistent with the symbolism, for the Great Goddess was regarded as mother, virgin, and prostitute. In the ancient world, "virgin" did not mean, as it does for us, physically inviolate; it meant a woman who was not under the authority of any man. In the ancient Near East the Great Goddess, whatever her name, was honored with the institution of ritual prostitution: her temples would be staffed by women who were regarded as epiphanies or priestesses of the Goddess, and they would have sacramental sex with men as a rite of both love and fertility, which the Goddess ruled. Often townswomen would have to prostitute themselves in this way before they could be married, to render due respect to the Goddess, and their wages would be offered to her.

So Lana's status as a hooker is consistent with her identification with the Great Goddess. And in the story she does indeed bring vitality to Joel's sterile, dutiful life. Sex, money, danger, violence, disgrace, risk, adventure--all come in her wake. Joel's mettle is tested, and he grows up; he becomes his own man. He is able to relate with Lana not as a timid teen but as an equal: a man worthy of her. By boldly displaying himself as he now is, he wins admission to Princeton University--the Ivy League college seemingly out of his reach as a "good boy".

Joel's mother, who has made an issue of how much she "trusts" him throughout the story, gives this the lie at the end when she angrily accuses him of putting a crack in her crystal egg. Yes: for the hero has hatched now. And Joel has indeed separated the World Parents, for while he mother stalks upstairs in a huff about the egg, his father takes him aside to reveal to him, joyfully, that he has been accepted by Princeton. Father and son are atoned. Joel reveals himself to be a "Good Son" not just in the sense of a dutiful boy in thrall to his parents, but one who has thrown off their authority and proved his worth to inherit a kingdom.

This gives an idea of why I found watching the movie so absorbing and exciting this time around. I doff my cap to Paul Brickman. Nice work.

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