Today 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.