Whole Earth Review, Summer 1988
by John Lobell
From the early 1970s until his death in 1987, Joseph Campbell lectured to thousands, weaving together East and West, the ancient past and the present, mythology, art, religion, history, and literature. His presentations, usually two days long, were always illustrated by powerful slide images, and the subjects included Arthurian Romances; Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism; The Goddess; Dante, Picasso, and Joyce; Death and Transformation. A master storyteller as well as a scholar, Campbell always brought his subject to life and made it relevant to the lives of those in his audiences.
We ask many questions, but if we keep pushing them back, we ultimately get to “Who are we and what are we doing here?” In the past, religion addressed this question through the direct symbolic power of the image: the shamanic power animal, the Buddhist wheel of life, the Hindu mandala, the Christian crucifix. More recently, however, religion has turned from the image to theology and moral proscriptions. In our culture, religion has lost much of its power and has been replaced by the social sciences and the arts and humanities, both of which seek to understand human nature, but by different methods.
The social sciences (psychology, sociology, political science, economics) attempt to emulate the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) and look for timeless laws and cause-and-effect relationships. Perhaps these methods are not appropriate for dealing with human nature, and many question the success of the social sciences.
In contrast, the arts and humanities (painting, sculpture, music, literature, philosophy, cultural history) build on history and the observations of past cultures. For example, in order to understand Picasso and his explorations of the human being, we must be aware of Cezanne, Leonardo, Greek art, African art. This form of knowledge roots itself in the past and in human culture rather than attempting to build a body of knowledge independent of time. The study of myths, as pursued by Joseph Campbell, similarly roots itself in the past and, as a result, is perhaps better able than the social sciences to tell us about the meanings of our lives. Two Generators of Western Thought: Descartes and Vico
The social sciences grew out of a branch of Western thought which developed during the Renaissance and which received its formal philosophical footings in the work of Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes attempted to extend mathematical methods to all fields of human knowledge, thereby rationalizing experience and trivializing history and culture. Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) rejected Descartes’ rationalism and with it the notion of one fixed human nature. For Vico, history was central, with each period having its own patterns of meaning, discernible through the study of its language and myths.
The views of these two generators of Western thought, Descartes and Vico, are still in conflict today. Descartes dominates, but there is a surge in Vico’s approach as we begin to realize the inability of the social sciences to tell us anything about the meanings underlying our individual and collective lives. Following in Vico’s tradition, Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) illuminates meaning in history, and Carl Jung (1875-1961) illuminates it in the psyche. In mythology, it is Joseph Campbell who most clearly addresses the issues of individual and collective meaning. And since Campbell sees mythology broadly, encompassing not only legends and fairy tales, but also religion, art and literature, he illuminates a large part of our lives.
Four Functions of Myth
For Campbell, there are four great functions of myth. The first is to awaken and maintain a sense of wonder of the whole mystery of the universe in our waking consciousness. The second is to provide a map or picture of the universe and of our relationship to it. The third is to validate and maintain the moral systems and life-customs of a particular culture. And the fourth function is psychological, aiding the individual in passage through life’s stages, from the dependency of childhood to the responsibilities of maturity, to old age and the transition through death.
Campbell’s method in mythology is the study of thousands of myths and mythological traditions, and the deduction of general principles. In so doing, he maps the realms of meaning which are the fields of potential in which our lives move.
Thus for Campbell, mythology becomes a suprapsychology, a system of principles describing the nature and workings of being, the universe, society, and individual development. Embedded in myths, fairy tales, theologies, art, and science are the accumulated wisdoms of cultures and individuals, available to us like words in a book if we know the codes for deciphering them. Cracking the codes has been Joseph Campbell’s lifelong career.
Integrating the East with Modernism
Campbell studied at Columbia University, and then went to Europe in the 1920s where he discovered Freud and Jung, Picasso and Matisse, Sanskrit and the Orient, Mann and Joyce. Campbell’s first book, done with Henry Morton Robinson, was A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), the standard reference still used by those attempting to read James Joyce’s masterpiece.
Campbell describes Joyce as having found his way out of Catholicism without losing his symbols – a task which Campbell also accomplished for himself. Campbell feels that symbols, still rich in much of modern art, should not only be interpreted theologically, but also must be directly felt, and must become “transparent to the transcendent,” that is, pointing beyond themselves to that which stands behind the phenomenal world and beyond concept. Campbell edited the lectures of the great Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, which he published as Philosophies of India (1941), Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (1946), and The Art of Indian Asia (1955). These, and his work with Swami Nikhilananda in translating The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, along with his visits to India made him familiar with Indian culture and spiritual traditions. When, in the 1960s and 1970s, Americans became interested in Eastern spiritual ideas, Campbell was there to act as a guide, relating ancient traditions to our needs today.
Deciphering the One Great Story
In 1949 Campbell published The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the book that made his reputation. What Campbell had realized (as others had done before him) was that there are two levels to myths: the universal and the local. Thus, for example, a dying and resurrecting god, born of a virgin, and associated with a cross, is a universal idea, what Jung would call an archetype. This archetype then receives varied local expression in Christ for the Christians, Adonis for the Greeks, Quetzalcoatl for the Toltecs, Osiris for the Egyptians, and in numerous other manifestations. Campbell feels that as long as we insist on the historical reality of a local deity or particular event, we miss the larger meaning, which is metaphorical, in this case of the possibility of our own death to worldly attachment and our opportunity for spiritual rebirth.
In Hero, Campbell’s main concern is with the archetypal hero journey. In looking at myths, legends, fairy tales, novels and individual mystical experiences, he uncovers an underlying pattern in which the hero is called to the quest and goes through a series of stages. First, separation from ordinary reality. Thus Odysseus is blown off course on his trip home from Troy to the land of the lotus eaters, signaling that the rest of the adventure will be on another level of consciousness; the Princess drops her golden ball into the pond and a frog brings it back and talks to her. Next, there is entry into a realm of fabulous forces, where the hero must survive a succession of trials, Odysseus encounters the sirens and visits the land of the dead; Theseus enters the labyrinth; Aeneas enters the underworld. A decisive victory is won: Prince Charming’s sword parts the thorns surrounding Sleeping Beauty’s castle; Odysseus slays the suitors. Finally the hero returns to enrich the world. Prince Charming and Sleeping Beauty marry and live happily ever after; Odysseus and Penelope are reunited, bringing harmony once again to the kingdom.
This then is the monomyth, the structure of a fundamental potential in our lives. It is the story of Buddha, Christ, and Mohammed. And today we see it in Star Wars, in which Luke Skywalker leaves the farm (ordinary reality), journeys to a realm of space technologies (fabulous forces), destroys the death star (winning a decisive victory), and aids the just cause of the rebels (enriching the world). George Lucas readily acknowledges Campbell’s influence on his films.
Campbell’s analysis of the hero journey is not just scholarly research into ancient literature. It is a deciphering of a code that speaks to us today, laying out maps of the landscape of our own individual psyches, of the levels of reality and unreality we encounter, and of the possibilities of our lives, Campbell writes: “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and The Beast, stands this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”
A Career of Scholarship and Storytelling
From 1959 to 1968 Campbell published a four-volume work, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology and Creative Mythology. Here he looks at the wellsprings of the human imagination, then the great division between East and West, and the role of Christianity and the rise of science in our world.
In 1972, age forced Campbell’s retirement from Sarah Lawrence College where he had taught since the ’30s. On the day of his last class he flew to Iceland for a conference on altered states of consciousness, thus beginning his relationship with the human potential movement, and a new career as a lecturer. He lectured throughout this country, but primarily in New York, where an intellectual audience appreciated his scholarship, and in California, where a New Age audience appreciated his access to other levels of consciousness.
Campbell died in October 1987 at the age of 83, while still at work on his multi-volume Historical Atlas of World Mythology, in which he called on all of his knowledge and insight to present the human condition as a vast geo-historical drama, with the rise and spread of the great themes that animate human life. The first volume, The Way of the Animal Powers, appeared in 1983, and subsequent volumes are still under preparation.
In this, as in his other works, Campbell gave new authority to the cultures of the past, showing the earliest peoples capable of experiencing and integrating the complexities of life in ways commensurate with the sophistication of our own. And, at the same time, he deepens the meanings of our experiences, whether that of the awe of the stars at night, the mystery of the relationship of man to woman, or the image of the crucified Christ, Campbell’s illumination throws such experiences into depth, opening them to a past that floods new meaning into them.
The Myths for Today
In The Decline of the West (1918-1922), a book influential on Campbell; Oswald Spengler describes each stage in a culture’s development as having its own spiritual potential. Ours is the late stage of Western culture, which had its first expression in the Gothic cathedrals and Arthurian romances of the thirteenth century. In our current stage, the potential is for individual inner spiritual development. All of the world’s myths and images are available to us as material for our own inner journey and Campbell illuminates the vital material for this journey. In The Inner Reaches of Outer Space he writes:
The old gods are dead or dying and people everywhere are searching, asking: What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this unified earth as of one harmonious being?
One cannot predict the next mythology any more than one can predict tonight’s dream; for a mythology is not an ideology. It is not something projected from the brain, but something experienced in the heart, from recognitions of identities behind or within the appearances of nature, perceiving with a love a “thou” where there would have been an “it.” As stated already centuries ago in the Indian Kena Upanishad: “That which in the lightening flashes forth, makes one blink, and say ‘Ah!’ – that ‘Ah’ refers to divinity.” The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949, $9.95 postpaid from Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, NJ 08540; 609/452-4900. Campbell’s major work. Here his concern is with the archetypal hero journey: “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.”
This is not only the story of Buddha, Christ and Mohammed, of the characters in legends, fairy tales and novels, but also the story of each of our lives.
It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.
The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s key work, described above.
The Masks of God, in four volumes: Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology and Creative Mythology, 1959 to 1968, $34.80 ($37.80 postpaid) from Viking, attn: DMO, 299 Murray Hill Parkway, East Rutherford, N J 07073; 800/631-3577.
In this monumental work, Campbell surveys the sweep of human experience, from the emergence of human beings to shamanism to the first high civilizations. Then he looks at the great divide between East and West. In the beginning of Occidental Mythology he writes:
Throughout the Orient the idea prevails that the ultimate ground of being transcends thought, imaging, and definition. It cannot be qualified. Hence, to argue that God, Man, or Nature is good, just, merciful, or benign, is to fall short of the question . . .
The supreme aim of Oriental mythology consequently, is not to establish as substantial any of its divinities or associated rites, but to render by means of these an experience that goes beyond: of identity with that Being of beings which is both immanent and transcendent; yet neither is nor is not . . .
In the Western ranges of mythological thought and imagery, on the other hand, whether in Europe or in the Levant, the ground of being is normally personified as a Creator, of whom Man is the creature, and the two are not the same . . .
Thus the major themes are laid out. In the East, divinity, human being, and nature are one. In the West, the three are in opposition.
The last volume, Creative Mythology, brings the Western mythological tradition up to the present, showing mythology’s struggle against the confines of theology in the history of Christianity and its confrontations with the starkness of science.
Myths to Live By, 1972, $4.95 ($6.95 postpaid) from Bantam, 414 East Golf Road, Des Plaines, lL 60016; 800/223-6834.
A good, highly readable introduction to Campbell’s work. The immediacy of mythology in our lives today, as seen through the space-time of the mythological dimension continually intersected by that of chronological time. Campbell explores the contrast of East and West, love, war and peace, drugs, the Moon walk, and the inward journey.
We may think of ourselves, then, as the functioning ears and eyes and mind of this earth, exactly as our own ears and eyes and minds are of our bodies. Our bodies are one with this earth, this wonderful “oasis in the desert of infinite space”; and the mathematics of that infinite space, which are the same as of Newton’s mind – our mind, the earth’s mind, the mind of the universe – come to flower and fruit in this beautiful oasis through ourselves.
The Mythic Image, 1974, $19.95 postpaid from Princeton University Press, 3175 Princeton Pike, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648; 609/452-4900.
Here Campbell addresses the world as dream, the cosmic order, inner realization, the sacrifice, and the awakening. The theme is that there exists in each of us a self that can be in touch with a higher dimension of oneness. He weaves together East and West, ancient and modem, in a text profusely illustrated with images from all cultures, since much of the world’s mythology and wisdom is contained in art. In discussing the world mountain – the pyramid – he writes:
. . . In the view of the old Sumerian astronomical observers, the universe was neither flat nor a sphere, but in the form of a great mountain, marked in its stages from an infinite sea; and it was this glorious world mountain, marked in its stages by the orbits of the circling spheres – the moon, Mercury, Venus and the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn – that the imposing temple towers were designed to reproduce in local, visible form.
Flight of the Wild Gander, 1969, $7.50 ($8.75 postpaid) from Kampmann & Co., 9 East 40th Street, New York, NY 10016; 212/685-2928.
A collection of essays. In one, “Symbol without Meaning,” Campbell confronts the modern condition. He contrasts the role of the shaman, “one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own,” with that of the priest, “the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization . . .” Commenting on today he writes:
Within the time of our lives, it is highly improbable that any solid rock will be found to which Prometheus can again be durably shackled, or against which those who are not titans will be able to lean with confidence. The creative researches and wonderful daring of our scientists today partake far more of the lion spirit of shamanism than of the piety of priest and peasant. They have shed all fear of the bounding serpent king. And if we are to match their courage, and thus participate joyfully in their world without meaning, we must allow our own spirits to become, like theirs, wild ganders, and fly in timeless, spaceless flight – like the body of the Virgin Mary – not into any fixed heaven beyond the firmament (for there is no heaven out there), but to that seat of experience, simultaneously without and within, where Prometheus and Zeus, I and the Father, the meaninglessness of the sense of existence and the meaninglessness of the meanings of the world, are one.
Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Vols. I and 11, available in Fall, 1988 from Alfred van der Marck Editions, 1133 Broadway, Rm 1301, New York, NY 10010; 800/999-2665.
The human condition as a vast geohistorical drama, depicting the rise and spread of the great themes that animate human life.
The fabulously illustrated and produced first volume of the Historical Atlas, entitled The Way of the Animal Powers, presents the beginnings of life on Earth, our evolution to human beings, the recognition of the mystery of death, and the spiritual separation of human beings from animals. Subsequent volumes of the Atlas are planned and are still being worked on despite Campbell’s death. They will deal with the emergence of agriculture and its myths of sacrifice of the animal and the god, which we see from New Guinea to Calvary; the rise in Mesopotamia of the first cities and the establishment of priesthoods with their strict observation of the heavens, writing, mathematics, and the following of the cosmic rhythms; and the replacing of the image by the text around 500 B.C. so that what had previously been immediately experienced now becomes philosophy. He traces this development through the Renaissance and into today in our world of narrowing perspectives and expanding horizons.
The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion, 1986, $16.95 ($18.45 postpaid) from Alfred van der Marck Editions, 1133 Broadway, Rm 1301, New York, NY 10010; 800/999-2665. Myths, Campbell contends, are metaphors. Of what, then, are they metaphoric? What is a metaphor? How do myths work? Where do they originate? Here he answers these questions. Historical and technological forces have broken the old horizons that separated and defined groups, and have placed the peoples of the earth in one world. Religions have traditionally been horizon bound because they took their symbols to be literal – Christ was born of a virgin on an historic date, was crucified, resurrected bodily, and ascended to heaven.
But, if we are to survive in this world without boundaries, we need a new way of seeing religion. The deity must become “transparent to the transcendent,” and point beyond itself. For Campbell the Fall is metaphoric of our movement out of oneness into the duality of the phenomenal world, Christ’s birth is metaphoric of the potential birth of spirit within us, an Christ’s resurrection is metaphoric of the transcendence of duality into oneness again.
. . . Where those bodies [of Christ and Mary] went [when ascending to heaven) was not into outer space, but into inner space. That is to say, what is connoted by such metaphorical voyages is the return of the mind in spirit, while still incarnate, to full knowledge of that transcendent source out of which the mystery of a given life arises into this field of time and back into which it in time dissolves.
The Hero’s Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell, $49.95 for individuals ($350 for institutions) from Direct Cinema, Box 69799, Los Angeles, CA 90069; 213/652-8000. A film available on videocassette presenting Campbell’s life and ideas, richly illustrated with the images he talks about.
Interviews of Joseph Campbell, by Michael Toms. $9.95 /one-hour, $15/two-hour segment from New Dimensions Foundation, P.O. Box 410510, San Francisco, CA 94141.
A series of one- and two-hour interviews focusing on the role of myth in our lives today, available on audiotape cassette. Write for ordering information.
Interviews of Joseph Campbell, by Bill Moyers, $49.95 each (one-hour segment) from Public Affairs Television, 356 West 58th Street, New York, NY 10019, attn: Diana Warner.
Two series: the first is two one-hour interviews, the second is six one-hour interviews prepared for broadcast on P.B.S. television stations.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Point Foundation