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Joseph Campbell, Myth Master

“At his best, Joseph Campbell was merely one of the greatest popu­lar writers on mythology who ever lived.”

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By the time he died last October at 83, he was a little prone to rhapsodies and exhortations. Like a modern Emerson, he let the boldness of his voice drown out the subtlety of his words, sang the praises of the cosmic round too loftily for the tragic sense to bear. He spoke on “human potential” at Esalen and pub­lished books with titles like Myths To Live By and The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. A documentary termed his life “A Hero’s Journey.” And he was eulogized finally as a sort of guru to celebrity, a shaman whose ideas inspired Watership Down and Star Wars

At his best, though, Joseph Campbell was merely one of the greatest popu­lar writers on mythology who ever lived. His effect on modern narratives may not be as central as Jesse L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance; her review of the Holy Grail legend as a record of fertility rites served as a subtext for “The Waste Land” and a virtual plot outline for The Sun Also Rises. But Campbell’s scope is far wider, and his prose approaches liter­ature on its own. 

In fact, Campbell is tough to place among his colleagues. His name does not carry the weight of Sir James Frazer: the Golden Bough remains seminal in its en­cyclopedic comparison of myths and ritu­als. But Frazer skirted the controversial links between ancient rites and Chris­tianity and so, as Robert Graves said, “was able to keep his beautiful rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, until his death …” Graves, on the other hand, leans too heavily on historical explana­tions in The White Goddess and Greek Myths. Each myth to him was the trace of some ancient conquest or migration, and behind them all he saw the con­quered, suppressed but recalcitrant God­dess figure whom, not to put too fine a point on it, he worshipped like a crazy man. Belief also underlies the works of Mircea Eliade, which Campbell consid­ered the scholarly counterpart of his more popular writings. For Eliade, like Campbell, the body of human mythology makes up a metaphysic. But Eliade, un­like Campbell, thought faith in that metaphysic — faith in God, that is — was our only bulwark against despair. 

Which is exactly what makes Campbell so fine, so different. In his best stuff, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and much of the four-volume Masks of God, he never sinks beneath the powerful spell of his subject; he balks at scuttling no belief in his search for a synthesis of them all. Nor does he argue that the synthesis refers to any extrinsic truth. You get all your favorite gods for free, and no evangelist will call. As a result, these books take on a mythic quality themselves — they produce, at times, the liberating effects they describe. Maybe this places Campbell not with the philos­ophers of myth, and certainly not with scientists like Claude Levi-Strauss, but with the authors of “campus classics”: creators of Self-Help Books for the Real­ly Smart like Alan Watts, Ernest Becker, and Norman O. Brown. But Campbell goes beyond them because he does not, as they do, create a closed system of belief. Reading his books, rather, is like putting your hand out in the dark to find a door­way where you thought there was a wall. They offer, in their moment at least, free­dom not only from faith but from faith-lessness, a third way of thinking for those who will neither kneel down nor be shallow. 

Campbell’s life, on the surface any­way, seems something other, if not less, than a hero’s journey. Born in New York City in 1904, the son of a hosiery importer and his wife, he was raised a Roman Catholic. His annual visit to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show inspired an interest in Indian culture, and his studies inevitably turned up the fact that the themes of Catholic dogma recur in Indian lore and other legends around the world. Pursuing his interests at Dart­mouth and then Columbia, Campbell won a traveling fellowship to Paris and Mu­nich in the late 1920s. There, he discov­ered the new world of Joyce and Mann, Picasso, Freud, and Jung — and found that it too was based firmly on the old world of myth and legend. He returned to the States just as the market crashed and spent the next few years jobless, wander­ing and, most of all, reading. By 1934, however, he was teaching literature at Sarah Lawrence, where he would stay for the next 38 years. In that time, he be­came moderately famous as an author and editor of books on myth and religion. His mind, even then, was clearly focused on the spiritual — at least one student compared him to a swami. But after his retirement from teaching in 1972, he be­came more completely a preacher on the uses of mythology in the modern world, rejecting the title of guru yet abdicating any claims to scholarly disinterest. At the end, not only George Lucas and Richard Adams, but the Rolling Stones, John Barth, and Denis Johnson could be counted among those whose work was affected by his. 

It sounds like a nice life. Even, as he used to say, a “serendipity.” But it’s pos­sible Donald Newlove got just a tad car­ried away when he wrote in a 1977 Es­quire piece: “His right eye is a falling blossom, his left a fading ember, his way of seeing is the way of genius, of art, of the world’s eye wrapped in a smile of madness. He weighs suns and shadows. He has a will of steel that works titanic labors. He is not mad. He is mad. His cosmic vision lives in two views of the world at once and is beyond duality … ” His office hours are on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. 

This is not to say that Campbell’s in­sights were less than transcendent, (They would have to be, peering through a fall­ing blossom and a fading ember.) It’s just that the origins and nature of that tran­scendence have been misplaced — and were misplaced even, perhaps especially, by Campbell himself. The Power of Myth illustrates this. The book is edited from a series of interviews Moyers did in 1985 and ’86 at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch and at the Museum of Natural History; some of these talks will be broadcast in a six-part series on PBS starting May 18. The intelligence and ob­vious decency of the two participants make the book likable enough; Camp­bell’s seemingly bottomless erudition sometimes makes it fascinating. But there can be no mistake: Campbell had by this time followed the path of his study into dogma. It’s a good dogma, as dogmas go, a sort of spiritual humanism, but the limitations and stagnation of such doc­trinal thinking are obvious in pontifical exchanges like this: 

Moyers: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology? 

Campbell: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any ritu­als, read The New York Times

Moyers: And you’d find? 

Campbell: The news of the day, includ­ing destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society. 

Those young people! Bring back Torque­mada with his powerful mythology, his rituals, his civilized society — and, oh yeah, those hot pincers, too. 

Such flashes of stodginess show up even in earlier lectures. In 1970, for instance, Campbell scolded “those sociolog­ical geniuses that are, these days, swarm­ing on our activated campuses” because they’d sneered, heaven help us, at the first moon walk. And when, over the years, he mixed these bits of jingoism with a doctrine that seemed to offer en­lightenment without social disruption, he began to become a magnet for the furrow-­browed magi of our more genteel media. The wages of fame is banality.

As a result, it now appears that Camp­bell will be remembered as one of those lovable, harmless philosophers who shake their heads at human madness while re­affirming the “civilized society” that pro­duces it and was produced by it. This is a blessed shame, because it undercuts the power and complexity of the man’s great — sometimes visionary — books. And if the vision of those books congealed over time into priestcraft, if their author, among the first to interpret Finnegans Wake, was interpreted at the last by Jabba the Hut, it only goes to prove a portion of Campbell’s own thesis: “There must always remain … from the stand­point of normal waking consciousness, a certain baffling inconsistency between the wisdom brought forth from the deep, and the prudence usually found to be brought from the transcendent deep be­comes quickly rationalized into nonenti­ty, and the need becomes great for anoth­er hero to refresh the word.” 

That need “to refresh the word,” to revitalize the vehicle of mythic transmission, seems to me the im­plied core of Campbell’s great work. Like Freud, he is far more interesting when viewed not as a guru but as a literary critic: one who tells his tale by giving other tales new life. From this angle, Campbell was a sort of reconstructionist, dedicated to narrative not only as a method of journeying beyond narrative, but also as the place to which silence ceaselessly returns. He was willing to sub­mit to all that narrative implies — causal­ity, authority, and the duality of speaker and listener — but only so that causality would be extinguished, authority re­placed, and the listener metamorphosed into the teller in a round that never ends. Such an outlook, more practically, trans­forms the systems that threaten to crush us into an egress, a way out. The church that makes lapsed Catholics quail, the government that incites revolutionaries, the vagaries of parents and the false stratagems of art are not swept away here, but used as works, as stories that transport us to a place where they cease to exert their power. 

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, written with Henry Morton Robinson, sets the tone of Campbell’s dialogue with world literature. Still a standard textbook 44 years after its publication, the Key identifies Joyce’s use of generic mythic themes. The protagonist’s tumble from a ladder is linked with the Fall; the many faces of Shem and Shaun are pegged to the recurring Brother Battle; the wake becomes a comic rehearsal of Resurrec­tion; and the riverrun which begins and ends the book is seen as the cycle of the One Mother, who is the life of everything that lives and the death of everything that dies. With these themes as guides, the Key proceeds to distill Joyce’s “root language” into something approaching English, and his massive “dreamwork” into something approaching a linear table of creation, manifold life, dissolution, and promised rebirth. 

This is actually kind of a wicked trick: it joins together what Joyce had torn asunder. Finnegans Wake, after all, oper­ates by dismantling itself. Its referential neologisms smudge the borders between the text and all that is not the text. Virtually no word among the book’s many thousands can be read in a single contextual sense; all evoke a series of connected words and ideas which, as the end of the novel suggests, arise from and fall into a unity of silence. This tech­nique, as the author of “Usylessly” brings into focus the accidental nature of the writer’s role. If all words unite finally into one, why are we reading these words? Why Finnegans Wake with all its difficulties and not Dr. No or Peanuts? Or Star Wars? As in the New Testament, the storyteller has to answer the ques­tion: “By what authority doest thou these things?” Joyce, though a fine gentleman in his own right to be sure, had not quite the recourse of his predecessor. 

Campbell and Robinson believed, how­ever, that Joyce had not abandoned his claims on the reader but simply reestab­lished the seat of narrative authority in the collective unconscious. The universal mythic themes enumerated in the Key are worked together throughout the Wake into a recurring dream of the Jung­ian all-mind, an ever-repeating complex of stories that Joyce terms the “mono­myth.” That story-without-end provides its own authority to the teller because, as actual dreams speak the underknowledge of the individual, the monomyth speaks in the hidden voice of us all. 

So an artist like Joyce, as seen in the Key, takes on the heroic role embraced by Stephen Dedalus when he said, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the real­ity of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated con­science of my race.” That is, he must plunge into the collective unconscious as it is temporarily incarnate in himself and his own life, experience the essence of the monomyth, and retell it afresh, giving his own accidental shape — “a local habita­tion and a name” — to the unchanging human story. 

The Hero With a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, is an attempt to decipher that “one shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story.” It is Campbell at his peak, the book people cite when they say Campbell “changed their lives,” and many of its interpreta­tions form the underpinning of the Campbellian spiritual approach. I find this irritating: it seems to me the book delivers its kick not with its mythic con­tent, but with its literary method. Camp­bell does not simply analyze the universal tale of the hero-task, he retells it, reforges it, as it were, in the smithy of his soul. To illustrate the unity of diverse tales, he patches together myths from all over the world. Where the voyages of Odysseus or Jason leave off, the descent into Hell of the Sumerian goddess lnanna takes up only to give way to the reawakening of Kamar al-Zaman in the Arabian Nights or the resurrection of Jesus. “We do not particularly care whether [they] ever ac­tually lived,” Campbell writes of these characters. “Their stories are what con­cern us … ” 

The outline of those stories, which are one story, is simple. First, the hero is called to adventure. If he accepts the call, he encounters a protective figure, usually an old man or woman, who supplies him with charms and instructions. “With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him,” the hero overcomes the guardian of a threshold and moves into “the regions of the unknown” which are “free fields for the projection of uncon­scious content.” Here, “incestuous libido and patricidal destrudo are … reflected back against the individual and his soci­ety in forms suggesting threats of vio­lence and … dangerous delight.” 

These regions, however, are also the womb of the hero’s rebirth. Because now, “the hero, whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth or the dreamer of a dream, discovers and assim­ilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) … One by one the resistances are broken. He must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable. Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh.” 

If he is fortunate, these trials prepare the hero’s consciousness for the ultimate adventure. This could be his atonement with the Great Father or his own apothe­osis; sex with the mother of all things or with an immortal god. Then, if the hero I chooses to accept the challenge of return — have constructed the sort of — critique he had in Hero, literature studying litera­ture. But even he confessed that Hero had been a uniquely vital moment in his work, and that Masks was more of an ”intellectual stunt.” In Creative Mytholo­gy, we are given only a stolid uncovering of the ”norms of myth” as Campbell finds them almost exclusively in Western writings. 

From Hero to Creative Mythology, Campbell has shown the history of the monomyth to be the monomyth itself: the story of the human race moving from its sterile unity with a mother-envi­ronment, traveling into the realm of threats of violence and dangerous delight, ultimately to reach the threshold of the holy of holies — where perceiver and envi­ronment meet again — where we must try to embrace the other and bring back the boon … which is a retelling of the mono­myth. In this madness of reflection upon reflection, Campbell saw the best vision of the oversoul, the “controlled and in­tended statements of certain spiritual principles” of mankind. But what if the method to the madness lies not in our relationship to eternity, but in our rela­tionship to the structure of narrative it­self? Because once it is seen that every story, even the history of stories, is a mirror on a mirror, we next begin to question whether it is the form of the story that keeps imposing itself upon the content. That is, we begin to ask: does a narrative, simply by virtue of being a narrative, mold its accidental contents into the One Great Narrative? 

John Barth did a comic turn with this Chinese box version of storytelling in his 1972 novel Chimera, which is an extension of Campbell’s ideas. In it, he writes of the “recycled” hero: “‘Loosed at last from mortal speech, he turned into writ­ten words: … letters afloat between two worlds, forever betraying … the man they forever represent.” Likewise, a few years earlier, Jacques Derrida had discov­ered in Plato the idea of the word as the son of the speaker; the spoken word re­mains close to the father, retaining his living power; the written word is the or­phan or parricide who, as Plato writes, “always needs its parent to come to its aid.” Again, in the Gospel According to John, Jesus is depicted as the Logos emitted by the father God, sent to plant his own logos, his parables, like secJs. Which brings us in a circle back to Barth, whose characters like to talk as if ”writ­ing and reading, or telling and listening, were literally making love.” 

The mythic narrative begins to look a lot like the hero it describes. Once this myth grows sterile and codified in the mind of the true believer, it travels from him into the hearing of the faithless. Overcoming the resistance there, it meets with and embraces its opposite, the si­lence of illumination, and so refreshes the wasteland of the mind in which it lives once again. Small wonder all stories are the same, when the simple process of telling stories shapes the contents in the mold of itself. 

To go further: “The first thing that confronts us in studying verbal structures is that they are arranged sequentially, and have to be read or listened to in time,” writes Northrop Frye in The Great Code. He goes on to say that myth means ”first of all, mythos, plot, narrative, or in general the sequential or­dering of words. As all verbal structures have some kind of sequence … all verbal structures are mythical in this primary sense.” 

In light of this, Campbell’s work con­tinues into places where Campbell him­self did not go. In his conversation with Moyers, he laments our “demytholo­gized” world (with its wayward youth) and seeks a new universal mythology: “The eye of reason, not of my national­ity; the eye of reason, not of my religious community; the eye of reason, not of my linguistic community.” But this is a myth that misses the point. The universal myth is already with us: Language is myth, and any communication in time partakes of the mythic nature Campbell described so well. 

This accounts for our sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same, our sense of what might be called inclusion — an infuriating realization that our history, our ideas, our very method of thought trap us within them­selves. Inclusion is at work, for instance, when Freud uses objections to his theory to prove his theory. It is inclusion when radical opponents of a system can only work change insofar as they shed their radical values and are absorbed into the system, or overturn the system and take on its oppressive nature. Each approach to the structure, each new dogma, is found finally to be bankrupt, because it is never more than a retelling of the same old story. Each attempt to isolate the story — as Roland Barthes did, for instance, in Mythologies — reiterates the story — as Barthes did with his holy trin­ity of signifier, signified, and sign. Inclu­sion, it seems clear, is an aspect of narrative thought because the method of narrative shapes all contents to its own form. 

Another way to represent that method is as a succession of authorities. The voice of authority implants itself in the listener, a new authority is born in the listener and so overturns the original voice. In short, narrative can be seen as an emanation of the complexes we think of as patriarchal. The sequential ordering of words, linear thought, mythic thought is a “patriarchal” endeavor. It is, after all, a patriarchal system that depends on a verbal or written lineage in conferring power over life and death. 

These sexual images are only images, of course. Our flesh imposes the meta­phors of duality, even when we’ve learned not to impose the metaphors on our flesh. Following along with them, though, it is possible to find an alternative form of communication that, having what we consider “feminine” or yin features, has been largely devalued in the West. In Zen, it is called I shin den shin, meaning “from my soul to your soul,” i.e. word­lessly. It is central to a way of life in which, as the Tao te ching puts it, “those who know speak not.” A ”fixed world of fixed duties, roles, and possibilities,” stagnant and enraging as it may be, does create a society in which actions speak louder than words. This is the communi­cation of direct transmission, as life is communicated from mother to child. 

But as Campbell demonstrated, that silence, insofar as it partakes of life, ceaselessly returns to narrative thought just as narrative thought is always jour­neying toward silence. Whether the movement represents the motion of hero and cosmos, or lover and lover, or body and womb, or the mind and itself — and who’s to say which is the most pro­found? — every story can lead us to a sense of something beyond words, and from that sense we bring new symbols with which we may tell the story again. 

Campbell saw revelation and societal good in some of the moments when story and silence merge, but all that can really be said with certainty is that the conjunc­tion gives us pleasure, like sex, in and of itself. That, stripped of all other mean­ing, may be ”all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Whenever we speak, we tell stories — stories that sound like myths, stories that sound like scientific theories, stories that sound like religions, stories that sound like interpretations of all the stories ever told. When these sto­ries are well received, we experience a silent sense of pleasure, which satisfies us till we need to hear the tales once more. 

To imprison this pleasure in moral law is to lose a bit of paradise through the knowledge of good and evil. As with sex, our judgment need only attend to the different levels and qualities of physical and emotional satisfaction. By this stan­dard, Joseph Campbell, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in the greatness of his prime, was a master mythmaker, a giver of bliss. 

And for that, more than anything else, may the Force be with him. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 17, 2020

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