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Mythology as Depicted in Being There

Sociological and mystical mythology as depicted in the novel Being There by Jerzy Kosinski, and the subsequent film adaptation Being There by Hal Ashby, reaches its transcendence in the book The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. This paper weaves the underlying mythologies of a hero's journey and his resulting transcendence into a fable about society while questioning the roles, rules, schemes, and manipulations of the social order.

American Studies Today Online

The Little Mouse SolamaeLinda Cardinal SchneiderLinda is a graduate of Barry University in Florida and author of The Little Mouse Solamae series of children's books.

by Linda Cardinal Schneider


Posted 15-Feb-2012

Being There book cover

The novel, Being There, and the subsequent film by the same title, with Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener, (a.k.a. Chauncey Gardiner), and Shirley MacLaine as Eve Rand, wife of a wealthy industrialist, is a sociological and mystical mythology about a simpleton who has been raised in isolation by a wealthy recluse. Hal Ashby’s dramatic adaptation, which was first released in 1979, closely follows the comic novel written by Jerzy Kosinski. Both the film and the book weave a fable about society and the roles, rules, schemes, and manipulations of its members. The stronger underlying mythologies in the story are of a hero’s journey and his resulting transcendence, which is addressed in The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell.

In Kosinski’s novel, the first thing Chance does upon awakening each morning is tend to his beloved plants. He very gently touches “every plant, every flower, every branch of the garden” (3), a direct metaphor to Christ and the church. Chance, who possesses the qualities that were taught by Christ, compares the plants he tends to human beings. He compares their life cycle to that of humans who need care in order to live, to survive disease, and to die peacefully. He makes the following observation in the film: “Young plants do much better if a person helps them,” emphasizing his compassion and nurturing nature.

Kosinski tells his readers that Chance occasionally turns the water off and sits in the grass to meditate in the wind. The garden, which is full of life, “was its own graveyard.  Under every tree and bush lay rotten trunks and disintegrated and decomposing roots. It was hard to know which was more important: the garden’s surface or the graveyard from which it grew and into which it was constantly lapsing” (5). The importance of life vs. that which gives life is discussed by Campbell in The Power of Myth. According to Campbell, “Death is required for new life” (127).
Campbell uses this metaphor to represent the idea of life consuming life in a constant cycle and recycle, “a continuing inbeingness” (p.127).

Kosinski states that plants are different from people in that they have no mirror in which to recognize themselves, and they cannot reason or dream. Kosinski’s concept reminds his readers of Carl Jung’s theory about the qualities that make one human: conceptual thinking, wonder, and love, and further that the world is a mirror of one’s own unconscious. According to Jung, one can only make sense of the world by unconscious projection of his or her own previous experiences. In order to lead a human, happy, fulfilled life one must learn to read his or her own mythology. Only then, will humans find out who they really are and what they really wish to do. Like Campbell, Jung maintains that humans accomplish self-realization only when dreaming or thinking mythologically.

Early in the novel, Chance is informed of the death of the Old Man, the wealthy recluse who has provided for him since his infancy. Upon hearing of the Old Man’s passing from Louise, the black housekeeper who brings Chance his meals, Chance goes to the Old Man’s bedside and places his hand on the Old Man’s forehead, as if to give him his blessing along with his final farewell. “Chance stared into the Old Man’s face. It was white, the upper jaw overlapped the lower lip of his mouth, and only one eye remained open, like the eye of a dead bird that sometimes lay in the garden” (9). In the film, Chance simply states, “It looks like it’s going to snow;” then he retreats to work in the garden and to await the cleansing white snowfall.

The following morning, Chance is summoned to the study upon the arrival of the attorney who is handling the Old Man’s estate. Kosinski describes the subsequent inquest about Chance’s relationship to the property. There is no record of his employment; he has no birth certificate
or papers of any kind to prove his identity. “Are you certain, Mr. Chance - truly certain - that you have indeed been employed in this house?” (p.17). Chance informs the attorney that he has been there all along. “I was here before there were big bushes and before there were automatic sprinklers in the garden. Before television” (16). When the attorney asks Chance for proof of his residence in the house, he responds, “You have me. I am here. What more proof do you need?” (22). Unfortunately for Chance, his existence does not prove to the attorney that he exists, and since he cannot drive, Chance is turned out into an unfamiliar world to begin his hero’s journey on foot.

The novel describes Chance as being reluctant to leave the peace and security of the garden. He is totally content and “moving in his own time, like the growing plants” (4). He is not curious about life on the other side of the wall that encloses the garden. Nor is he eager to give up his comfort zone and leave Jung’s “field of domesticity.” According to Kosinski, all Chance knows of the world is what he has experienced in the garden.

Chance’s entire sense of reality comes from watching television: “Thus he came to believe that it was he, Chance, and no one else, who made himself be” (6). Carl Jung’s theory would explain Chance’s belief as the “extent of his awareness.” According to Jung, Chance has had no opportunity for “phenomenological experiences.” He has no “perception” or stored information on which to draw conclusions about the outside world. And yet, since the Old Man is dead, Chance is forced to make his way into the outside world. In the novel, once Chance had “crossed the threshold…he could never return to the garden. He was outside the gate” (28), armed only with his television’s remote control.

Unbeknown to Chance, his hero’s journey has begun. In The Power of Myth, Campbell maintains that fearlessness and achievement are the intention of the hero’s journey. He assures his readers that “The conquest of fear yields the courage of life” (188). Chance cannot read, write, tell time, or drive a car. He enters the world a deadpan cipher who is mistaken for a man of means because of the well-tailored suits he has inherited from the Old Man. Unwittingly, Chance has created what Carl Jung would term a “persona”, in what is to become a biting satire on society and politics.

On his journey, he passes in front of the White House; Chance stops a policeman to report an ailing tree he notices along the way. His blank affect is taken for intellect, and his personae causes most of the people he encounters to greet him with deep respect. He tips his hat to the homeless and asks for food from strangers. Kosinski describes Chance as relieved to be seen by others because he believes that like television, not to be seen is to fade out. “When one was addressed and viewed by others, one was safe. Whatever one did would then be interpreted by the others in the same way that one interpreted what they did. They could never know more about one than one knew about them” (34). According to Jung, Chance’s ego is making an attempt at “projection”. He encounters some drug dealers loitering on the sidewalk, and inquires about a possible job in a garden. When they respond by pointing a knife at Chance, his reaction to the threat is to try to change the channel with his remote.

Chance is fortuitously struck by a limousine carrying the wealthy Eve Rand. He is invited to the Rand’s home by Eve in order to receive care for his injury from the family physician who resides with the Rands, as the patriarch Ben Rand is now aged and dying. In Kosinski’s novel, thinking that he might again be asked to leave does not trouble him; Chance knows that as on television, “everything that happened had its sequel and the best that he could do was wait patiently for his own forthcoming appearance” (38). Once there, his literal pronouncements about gardening are mistaken for metaphorical economic predictions. Soon Chance is introduced to Ben’s confidant and friend, the President of the United States, and he is being interviewed on television.

Chance makes the people he encounters feel good, feel safe, and because he has no agenda of his own, they trust him. In the film, Ben tells his doctor that since Chance has been present, “the thought of dying has been much easier…” He comments to Chance, “You seem to be a truly peaceful man. You don’t play games with words to protect yourself. You have the gift of being natural.” He urges Chance to “take care of Eve…” after he is gone.

The film portrays Chance as concerned for Eve’s welfare. Chance asks her if she intends to close the house and leave when Ben dies. Eve misconstrues his attention for affection of another kind and is mistakenly “turned on” by the fact that Chance says he likes “to watch.” Eve, in the act of self-stimulation, writhes in ecstasy on the floor in front of him. As Jung would have it, having had no experience with the opposite sex, Chance has not developed either “anima or animus.” Chance is more interested in watching television than he is in watching the erotic show being performed by Eve for his entertainment and her gratification. Later, Eve confesses to Chance, “you set me free and I reveal myself to myself and I am drenched and purged.” In The Power of Myth, Campbell speaks of creating a “reunion of the self with the self” (6)

Chance is full of compassion; he allows everyone he meets to see in him whatever it is they need to see. Compassion, according to Campbell, is “the fundamental religious experience” (265). Some of the supposed greatest minds in the world are taken in by Chance’s innocence and his simple analogies to a garden. Because of their pedantry, they take these as metaphors, exposing the folly of a self-deceived society.

When Chance’s former housekeeper, Louise, realizes that Chance has attained overnight fame, she lashes out in amazement in the film exclaiming, “All you gotta be is white in America and you can get whatever you want!” The black housekeeper is projecting an inequitable, discriminatory society. According to Jung, like Chance before her, this is a “projection” of her own personal experiences.

In the film, the President himself refers to Chance as “refreshing and optimistic.” Following his visit to the Rand’s home, the president quotes Chance’s metaphors about the garden in his next national speech. He subsequently orders his staff to produce a background check of Chance; this fails of course, as Chance has no background.

When Ben Rand dies, Chance once again places his hand compassionately on the forehead of the deceased. At Ben’s funeral, the men are whispering about who will inherit Ben’s power and they seriously consider Chance for the position. Chance wanders off during the eulogy, tends to an ailing tree, and then walks across the lake, atop of the water, in Christ-like fashion. Here, Kosinski is representing the similarity to Christ that this simple man has achieved by allowing others to see their own reflections in him. Chance, who just floats through life, remains above the manipulations and mundane trappings of others; he never becomes submerged in the wearisome drama of life. Kosinski ends his novel with the following words: “Not a thought lifted itself from Chance’s brain. Peace filled his chest” (p. 140), and the last words spoken in Ashby’s film are: “Life is a state of mind.”

Works Cited

Being There. Dir. Hal Ashby. Perf. Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine. United Artists, 1979.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor, 1991.

Kosinski, Jerzy. Being There. New York: New, 1970.


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