Following bliss: Joseph Campbell, myth and living the authentic life

nullToday we’re putting Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) on the masthead. Chances are that you already know all about his thought and work without realizing it. When George Lucas wrote the first few drafts of Star Wars, it was shaping up to be standard, 70’s sci-fi action schlock. Then he put the screenplay aside to settle and re-read Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. That changed everything. Sculpting his imaginary galaxy around the skeleton of Campbell’s monomyth thesis produced a set of films that took a generation by storm and still reverberates through popular culture.

Star Wars doesn’t exactly fit in any film genre. It has action and romance, but it isn’t an action or  a romance film. It isn’t sci-fi either, though for lack of a better classification it often gets put in the genre. Star Wars is a myth. It reveals itself in the opening scroll, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” From the beginning we’re separated from the mundane by a thin line of imagination, but the line is so thin that seeing the fantastic in our own existence is nearly impossible to miss. Campbell was fond of saying that, “Myth is a public dream and dreams are private myths.” Lucas managed to draw the line between them with precision and grace. And in doing so gave Campbell his life-long dream: a modern myth. That is, the psychological motifs present in all mythology dressed in metaphors accessible to modern man.

With the predictive powers of hindsight it’s easy to see Campbell becoming the scholar he was. His middle class childhood in New York state was dominated by an intense fascination with all things Native American. The auto-didactic streak that would characterize his life was evident in a young man reading through whole library collections for pleasure. His early biography is punctuated by profound moments that clearly shape the man he would become. On the return from a European vacation with his family, Campbell befriended Jiddu Krishnamutri. The trans-Atlantic length conversation they shared prompted Campbell to forsake his native Catholicism and ignited his curiosity for the beliefs beyond his personal context.

In 1927, he left for Europe again, this time as a post-graduate student at Columbia University. He was to study Old French, German and Provencal as part of his Medieval Literature studies. He found far more than he expected. He began a life-long love affair with the Cathedral at Chartres; discovered Joyce and Mann; wondered at post-impressionists like Picasso and Klee; and began making sense of the world under the influence of Freud and, especially, Jung. Upon his return to America, he proposed adding Sanskrit and modern art to his course of studies at Columbia. His advisers felt that neither was appropriate to the study of Medieval Literature, and so Campbell left formal, higher education for good.

But he did not leave education. With little hope for gainful employment – it was 1929 – Campbell commenced five years of self-education and travel. He broke each day into four, four-hour blocks, three of which were spent reading. To his impressive foreign language abilities he added Russian, because he wanted to read War and Peace and assumed that much would be necessarily lost in translation. He traveled the U.S. extensively during those years, befriending John Steinbeck and living next door to Ed Ricketts. He spent a year as the headmaster at The Canterbury School and published a short story. And he spent another year living in a rustic, tourist cabin in Woodstock, NY; he simply asked publishers for books, and since no one was purchasing them, they obliged.

A 1932 journal entry shows a man deep in thought and points the way to his ultimate destination:

I begin to think that I have a genius for working like an ox over totally irrelevant subjects. … I am filled with an excruciating sense of never having gotten anywhere–but when I sit down and try to discover where it is I want to get, I’m at a loss. … The thought of growing into a professor gives me the creeps. A lifetime to be spent trying to kid myself and my pupils into believing that the thing we are looking for is in books! I don’t know where it is–but I feel just now pretty sure that it isn’t in books. — It isn’t in travel. — It isn’t in California. — It isn’t in New York. … Where is it? And what is it, after all?

Creepy as it may have been, Campbell eventually took a position in the literature department of Sarah Lawrence College. He retired from the same position 38 years later, still without his doctorate. He spent the rest of his life examining, pondering, discussing and sharing the questions he asked himself in 1932.

Some claim that Campbell was not a great scholar of myth and religion, and to some extent this is true. He never claimed to be one. He was, however, a brilliant synthesizer, able to take in the big picture and tease out the similarities in prima facia dissimilar traditions. He saw context where others saw only details. He shared with Jung a vision concerning the common psycho-spiritual context of humankind. Like Jung, he he saw myth as a means for man to describe the context that was simultaneously internal and external, the present and the eternal. But foremost, Campbell was an educator. He had the gift of the story-teller, and it allowed him to share scholarly thoughts in a way that engaged the not-so-scholarly.

The long conversation with Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth) recorded shortly before his death is a staple of public library AV sections. He’s best known for efforts of that sort because they are so accessible. But his writing is hardly confined to popularizations of myth. The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a deep and complex work exploring the hero monomyth as it has been retold countless times around the world and throughout history. The four volumes of The Masks of God are a heavily footnoted history of man’s spiritual journey from the deepest mists of prehistory to expressions of mythology in modern art and culture. They could easily constitute a fine lay education in comparative myth and religion.

Campbell may be one of the handful of people who understood Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, co-authoring an explanatory tome. And he edited the collected works of Heinrich Zimmer and Carl Jung. And all of this was done in the context of a long marriage, a distinguished teaching career, and a host of deeply intellectual friendships that spanned the globe.

Myth, in Campbell’s view, is metaphor. It is a means of accessing truth and wisdom, and it forms a context in which to integrate the boon into life. He liked to point out that “happily ever after” in fairly tales did not mean “without care or worry”, but rather “knowing and integrating wisdom into daily life.” It troubled him that modern man has little connection to myth, and he rightfully wondered if our sorry state of affairs is the result of too little mythic understanding. For Campbell, this situation did not exclude the throngs of devoutly religious people the world over. He often pointed out that these people are regularly guilty of mistaking the metaphor for the truth that it describes.

His work is a testament to the thought and belief of all humanity, and to the idea that knowledge is understanding, rather than power. He was an erudite scholar, but the rogue’s glint in his eye was impossible to hide. And he spent a life time imparting knowledge that came with the roguish and mildly subversive instructions that we should follow our bliss.

Image credit: The Joseph Campbell Foundation (click for further bio, complete works, etc.)

The reading list given for Campbell’s “Introduction to Mythology” course at Sarah Lawrence.

21 replies »

  1. I still remember my first reading of Hero with a Thousand Faces. This was a transformative book for many people, I suspect, and it’s diffuclut to actually quantify the impact this book had.

    The whole question of what we need myths for continues to be a compelling one–especially as we move to a society that is more and more governed by the media. There was a time when everyone wanted to be a baseball player or something (guys, anyway)–that’s what a hero was (and often still is); now everyone wants to be on a reality show. Something has changed that would probably alarm Campbell. And Jung–he had many of the same interests and concerns. As did Freud, for that matter. I was at the Freud Museum a month ago and was again surprised by his fascination , indeed obsession, with Egyptian mythology. If anything, Campbell understates the importance of myth–it’s one thing to recognize the importance of myth to a satisfying and fulfilling life; it’s another to conduct the kind of cultural experiment we’re undergoing at the moment, when we let our myths be created and sustained by a media with a fifteen minute attention span.

  2. Campbell’s analysis throughout is dominated by Jungian thinking, and it works very well for looking at myth. Jung built heavily on Freud’s ideas, and both saw the motifs and symbolism in myth and the same motifs and symbolism in the human psyche…which begs the question, which came first? But i think that Campbell answered it best with his “myths are public dreams and dreams are private myths”.

    Star Wars proved a lot of the Freud-Jung-Campbell hypothesis, imo. It was/is way bigger than a movie. Listen to people talk about it…even discounting the people who declare themselves Jedis on census surveys. I don’t think it could have done that if it didn’t speak to and awaken something deeper in people.

    Campbell certainly noticed the heading that put us where we are today, and he was dismayed by it. I don’t know what to do about, especially without an engaging, deeply knowledgeable person like Campbell to bring myth to people’s attention.

    It is still out there, but it’s hard to find. Sita Sings the Blues is a wonderful movie that i’m sure would have gotten Joe tremendously excited in his “That’s it!” way.

    • What’s so insanely odd about the Star Wars phenomenon, especially here in the US, is that it’s SO … what’s the word here? … elitist? In the bad way. I’ve heard a couple of people use the term “fascist,” but that’s too strong. Whatever the right term is, “democratic” isn’t it. There is no equality in it, nor is there any of the ideology that says anyone can grow up to be whatever they want to be.

      You’re either born special or you’re born a drone. Fascinating worldview, that.

  3. Hmm, i’ve never thought of it that way. And i’m not sure that i’d agree with it so long as we’re keeping the discussion to the original trilogy. We hear that the Force is stronger in some than in others and see that some are trained. We know that Luke is special, but he’s a hero and they’re always special. Han Solo is a rogue through and through – and apparently not special, but it’s clear that the Force is with him too. There are other religious/mythological overtones in his character (lay Zen/trickster). Yoda’s description of the Force is almost straight Taoism: it is what is and you are it. It’s obviously difficult to plug into that, but it is difficult to plug into that. Most people don’t even try, but to try is to take the hero’s journey.

    Myths are tales of the extraordinary. It is our job to incorporate them into the ordinary.

    (The pre-trilogy is what i’d imagine the original set would have looked like without Campbell. And it’s in those that we hear about countable blood thingies that make one a Jedi and other such bullshit.)

  4. Sam, i’m still thinking on your comment (and i’m not just trying to find counter arguments with the hope that one will stick for the sake of Campbell, because he wasn’t involved in the film).

    I wonder if there isn’t a motif that runs directly counter to the critique. The bad guys (the Empire) had real people who were undoubtedly fascist, but we mostly see the stormtroopers who were clones. The Rebellion is a pretty rag-tag bunch. Could we read that rebellion (which is good) is to not be like everyone else and a social commentary about cultural/intellectual homogenization?

    • Lex: Nope. The thing that allows one to tap the Force – whether Sith or Jedi – is the presence of mitichlorines in the body. So at the very foundation, there are heroes, who are BORN, and drones. Your potential is determined at birth.

      • True, but also false. The mitochlorines were NOT in the original three movies (and represent one of the worst parts of the last three). And only a single hero was a Jedi – Han Solo has no ability to manipulate the Force. Neither does Chewbacca, or Lando. And while Leia has the ability to become a Jedi, she isn’t one – it’s potential.

        So yes, the Jedi are very elitist. But the entirety of the heroic side of the rebellion? Nope.

        • It doesn’t matter what episode the mitichlorines thing showed up in. It’s Lucas’s mythology, and it’s not reasonable to think he’d inject something in it later to undermine the myth.

          And yes, there are non-Jedi characters. All of them are what we’d call “sidekicks,” for the most part.

          I tracked down David Brin’s essay on the subject – have a look.

  5. Ok, Sam. First, i have a hard time reading anyone who uses that many exclamation points! (Christ, they were everywhere.) Second, he can’t even manage to get one of the most famous quotes of the movie right, and i have a feeling that his misquotation was on purpose so that he could make a point.

    “Let’s see if I get this right. Fear makes you angry and anger makes you evil, right?” Wrong, jackass. The original quote, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” And using the actual quote makes his following diatribe pointless.

    Then there’s his sentence about Obi Wan, Yoda and Vader appearing because they’re in Jedi heaven. Seriously, Brinn can’t conceptualize a world without “heaven”? He’s not thoughtful enough to imagine that maybe the dead communicate with the living because they left an imprint on the living (for good or ill) and that the whole manifestation is internal?

    Or there’s this “Imagine Achilles refusing to accept his ordained destiny, taking up his sword and hunting down the Fates, demanding that they give him both a long life and a glorious one!” Yeah, that will help us all tremendously, believing that we’re entitled to everything because, well, just because. I’ll go one step further and say that the sort of belief Brinn advocates with statements like that is the reason we live in such a fucked up world.

    He’s right that kings and tyrants and despots have always co-opted myth. In fact, Campbell discusses that at length in The Masks of God. It’s the moment when kings gave up actual regicide for pantomime versions, and they did it because it suited their political and ego desires. But the direction Brinn faces us in puts us in the same quandary. How many times have we heard our politicians tell us that we can have it all, without sacrificing anything to attain it?

    He complains that Star Wars is too one-dimensional and then writes a one-dimensional analysis to prove it. Beautiful.

    I’ve never read anything that Brinn’s written until that essay, but i have a feeling that he and i disagree fundamentally on the biggest issue. He believes that we’re special and that we can get better and all that other crap that history (right up to this minute) proves categorically false. There isn’t going to be any wonderful Star Trek world because at the end of the day we’re just fucking monkeys. We will continue to bash each other over the head with sticks, just like we have for at least the last 5 million years.

    As to his distaste for Lucas, that’s fine. I hate George Lucas too. And while he may have sketched all of the Star Wars stories, he certainly did not have finished screenplays and scripts ready in the 70’s for Episodes I, II and III. The big difference between the first trilogy and the second is that for the first he hired writers and directors; for the second he mostly did it all himself…and that’s why they’re so bloody terrible.

    • I won’t vouch for Brin across the board, and I defer to your disturbingly superior knowledge about SW. Brin is a smart guy and a good writer, but he’s also a guy with some … blind spots. He and I traded some e-mail a few years back and at that point he convinced me that he was far from clear-headed about all things. (His brother is very cool, though.)

      That said, the core argument here is based in some fact. The structure of the world’s ideology is more or less what he suggests, it seems. I’m not trying to discredit Lucas or Campbell (certainly not Campbell, whose writing literally changed my life in ways that I feel and benefit from every single day). I’ve just always found Lucas’s expression of the inspiration to have a couple of curious quirks, is all.

  6. I’m writing this before i read the reply to my rant from yesterday evening. I think that it showed how powerful anger is, no? It’s probably the most powerful thing in the world, but it’s dangerous too. And that was – i think – the point made in Star Wars. King, Gandhi and Jesus all made the same point about it; the philosophy/religion of India concentrates on it heavily. Yoga and Buddhism (and especially Jainism) are all paths to calming/eliminating the emotions and mental activity because it is from them that suffering arises.

    In other words, Lex would probably do well to take up meditation again. I would have said the same things in that comment, but i probably should have said them a little less vigorously. So part of me wants to apologize for being a jackass…

    But part of me reads Nietzsche’s “ubermensch” differently than Brinn (or Hitler). It’s not about being superior, per se. It is the philosophical man who recognizes that life is suffering and says, “Yes!” to it anyway. It is the being willing to do it all over again, without changing anything…the heartbreak, the sorrow, the loss, the anger.

    It’s based on the knowledge that is common to everywhere except the West: that good and evil are inseparable and that one cannot defeat the other. Hence the high Indian tradition of removing one’s self from the whole field of binary opposites, or the more Oriental position to see that state of affairs as perfection already and participate “as a ball bouncing in a mountain stream”. The ubermensch leans decidedly towards the latter, and it is just as difficult as removing one’s self completely…maybe more.

    I don’t know which way is right, though i feel sure that the Western interpretation is wrong. But i’m not a guru by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t have the answers for myself much less others, but i do know where to find the answers. They’re internal. There won’t be any fixing of the world without individual, internal fixing. Myth and religion are tools, but they require the fixer (who’s the same as the fixee) to open the hood and get wrenching.

    Still, my apologies for letting the anger get the better of me.

  7. As i said, i’m no fan of George Lucas. I’ve always felt that Star Wars was as good as it was in spite of, rather than because of Lucas. And it’s always rubbed me the wrong way that he simply redressed ancient motifs and then pretended that he discovered them.

    Being a kid when the movies came out was one thing, but after studying religion i went back (for a grad seminar paper) and analyzed the films from a comparative religion standpoint…and before reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces (my least favorite Campbell book).

    Regardless of Brinn, i’m still intrigued by your original question/statement because it’s an angle i’ve never thought about. I also never bothered with what Lucas was trying to say, personally. Maybe he was telling us that a benevolent dictator would be easier. If so, he’s missing a huge point. The easy way is never the hero’s path. Maybe he’s too caught up in Heroes rather than heroes. We all have the possibility of becoming heroes, but it requires us choosing the difficult way…to enter the forest where there is no path. Heroes (with the big H) are just there to show us that it can be done.

  8. Dr. Sammy needs help……
    DAMN REPUBLICANS AND THEIR DAMN DRAINING AND EMPTY WORLD VIEW. Oh, everything is democratic , *cough cough* LIBERAL, or Republican, no, it’s more complex than that…

    I am sure we are either Saved or or Unsaved from before we came here too. I guess we are either in Heaven or Hell, right now. I guess we are either chosen or useless to G_d. We are only pro-life or pro-choice too…

    Don’t get me onto racism either….

  9. I don’t understand the whole taking things so seriously here….

    Cultures historically have had to deal with things yet they still embrace the positive and dark sides of their past and show strength and wisdom through suffering. Did America ever suffer ? I am American but we barely had to strengthen the way the cultures of old had to and yet they do not complain, they are humble and have calmed down to embrace their identity they have developed.

  10. Many of us end up choosing a harsh system of belief. Christianity is one good example because you are either saved or evil, god’s or Satan’s, bad or good and loved or hated and some of the reasons are petty as a first grade bully.

    Couldn’t we compare Christian Yahweh to a dictator? We have absolutely no choice or eternal punishment. Your good works are only to avoid Hell. You either on the inside or outside with this religion and there’s no way around it. You love your brother not the unsaved and you protect the unsaved not the heathen or heretics. Many religions had a similar ‘fear-based scenario’ going on like the Greeks, The Nordics and the Egyptians and many world religions had to battle the idea of Hell and morals since the beginning of humanity.

    I don’t see how Joseph Campbell was doing anything more than compiling mythology and how we developed. The human mind pretty much has been scientifically proven to conjure the same thoughts, beliefs, archetypes, and experiences because we are the same. As much as people hate facing this, there is no special person or group or any special intellectual or religious savior since we really all think the same and develop in patterns much like animals.

  11. Hi, I know what I’m about to say may seem absurd but PLEASE hear me out before you write me off or stop reading what I say. The greatest scholar ever in the field of comparative religion/mythology Joseph Campbell (JC) is Back (Reincarnated) and he’s proving everything he wrote about! Don’t believe my words see for yourself! His name is Mikese Morse, and fittingly he was born the day Joseph Campbell died 10/30/87. If you want quick verifiable proof look at the explanation he gives on his non private Facebook page on January 2nd. That day he spoke of the Koran Surah 75 (The Resurrection) and then explained in detail how he was resurrected from the dead. His karmic background or the events of his life perfectly match Campbell’s! (Read the comments under the statuses). If you want another quick way to verify or become convinced that he was him look at his website (, click on the “Miracle” tab. Under the miracle tab he not only explains how he and Campbell’s lives are interconnected but he also shows mathematical miracles involving him and his Twin Soul that No man could possibly produce even if he wanted to. His “Miracles” prove that there is some type of Universal Organizing Intelligence, GOD! Over the last several months he has fulfilled the prophecies of almost all religions and documented/explained them on his Facebook page. He has taken what Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey”, the journey all Prophets or World Saviors took. Campbell in his most famous book The Hero With a Thousand Faces explained the Hero’s Journey and how the trials and tribulations of almost all prophets or Saviors were the same, and Morse has shown that to be true by simply living HIS LIFE! I dare you to take 10 minutes out of your day and see for yourself the truth of my words as well as HIS! As is evidenced by his FB page many Religious studies professors, and all sorts of spiritual teachers are now flocking to him to get a look at THE miracle HE IS! I’m trying to let everybody I can know about him because he single handedly holds the Key to Peace on Earth for Man!