The Power of Myth:
Remembering Joseph Campbell,
March 26, 1904-October 30, 1987
Joseph Campbell, the famed teacher of comparative mythology, was born on this day in 1904. For many people, including yours truly, he has served as a “gateway drug” into not only a new way of looking at myths, but into a non-materialistic way of viewing the world. And although as a public figure, Campbell mostly remained apolitical, evidence from his private life indicates that he was at least nominally a “man of the Right.”
Campbell was born into an Irish Catholic family in White Plains, New York. He attended Dartmouth College, and then later, Columbia University, where he studied English and medieval literature. He was not strictly a bookish type, either, being an accomplished athlete, and in fact during his time at Dartmouth he was considered to be among the fastest half-mile runners in the world.
It was during his travels to Europe and Asia during the 1920s and ’30s, as well as a great deal of wide reading while living in a shack in Woodstock, New York, that Campbell developed his interest in world mythology. He also discovered the ideas of C. G. Jung, which were to profoundly influence all of his work. Indeed, he participated in many of the early and historic Eranos conferences in Switzerland alongside not only Jung himself, but such luminaries as Mircea Eliade, Karl Kerényi, and Henry Corbin, among many others. In 1934 Campbell was hired as a professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, a position he was to hold until his retirement in 1972, after which he and his wife moved to Honolulu, Hawaii.
Interestingly, in regards to the Second World War, Campbell was a fervent non-interventionist (like his friend, the poet Robinson Jeffers), even in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, and in fact gave a public lecture at Sarah Lawrence three days afterwards in which he urged his students not to get caught up in war hysteria and to pursue their educations instead of joining the military. He felt passionately enough about this matter to send a copy of his lecture to the German novelist Thomas Mann, who at the time was working to convince Americans to join the fight against the Third Reich as an exile in California. (Mann sent him a quite angry reply.) And according to Campbell’s biographer, Stephen Larsen, in his journals he comes across as an early Pearl Harbor conspiracy theorist, pointing out that the Roosevelt administration had been trying to goad the Japanese into war for years and discussing the fact that the US Navy had received indications that the Japanese were about to attack in the days prior, but that these warnings were ignored – perhaps deliberately.
While Campbell gave frequent public lectures and published many books, including The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949, which was the most thorough overview of his essential ideas, and his four-volume The Masks of God opus, which appeared between 1959 and 1968, in which he attempted to summarize all of the world’s mythologies, he remained relatively obscure outside academic circles until late in his life. His later fame is largely attributable to the endorsements he received from two of his biggest fans. One is Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who invited Campbell to observe a concert they gave in Berkeley, California in February 1985. (Campbell reported that he was impressed by the event, comparing it to the ancient Dionysian festivals and Russian Easter celebrations.) In November 1986, Campbell and Garcia shared a stage at a conference at UC Berkeley. The other is George Lucas, who frequently cited Campbell’s conception of myth in interviews as being one of his primary inspirations in his writing of the Star Wars films. Indeed, in the 1980s Lucas invited Campbell to come to his Skywalker Ranch to view the entire trilogy (Campbell gave it somewhat guarded praise), and also helped to arrange the most crucial factor in securing Campbell’s late fame: Bill Moyers’ The Power of Myth series.
Moyers, a well-respected figure in broadcasting, filmed a series of interviews with Campbell during the mid-1980s, mostly at Skywalker Ranch, that were edited into six one-hour episodes and broadcast on PBS in 1988, along with an accompanying book of the same name. The series introduces and details Campbell’s ideas in a very accessible and entertaining way. It proved to be very popular, both during its original airing as well as in reruns and on video, and cemented Campbell’s reputation as an influential and respected intellectual in the American popular consciousness. Sales of Campbell’s books began to skyrocket as well. Unfortunately, he himself didn’t live to see any of this, as he had passed away the previous year, but he left behind a large body of work in which he had already presented his fully-articulated worldview.
As is frequently the case with prominent white men who don’t pay the proper lip service to political correctness, it wasn’t until after Campbell’s death that some of his former colleagues and acquaintances began to come forward with accusations of racism and anti-Semitism. This charge first appeared in an article by Brendan Gill in the September 28, 1989 issue of The New York Review of Books entitled “The Faces of Joseph Campbell,” in which he cited purely anecdotal evidence to support his claim that Campbell had been an anti-Semite, including Campbell’s stance on the war as well as the fact that he had praised the Germanic Jung while disdaining the Jewish Freud, and the fact that he had evinced a love of German culture as well as a general dislike of the Abrahamic religions in his work – all of which is undeniably true.
In the letters that were printed in response, some came to Campbell’s defense while others pressed the attack, including a Sarah Lawrence colleague who claimed that Campbell had reacted to the racial integration of the school with horror. (Although again, no evidence for this was ever produced.) His sympathetic friends indicated that Campbell never tried to hide his conservative sympathies, and pointed out that the fact that Campbell was sympathetic to German and “pagan” cultures while disdaining Judaism and Christianity was hardly evidence that he had been a racist. Nevertheless, these charges have overshadowed Campbell’s work ever since, even if they have had no noticeable impact on the popularity of his work. (I first became aware of the controversy shortly after discovering Campbell, sitting at a restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1995, when a passing waiter noticed that I was reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces and felt compelled to ask me, “Reading Joseph Campbell, the ol’ anti-Semite, huh?” I later learned that the waiter was a grad student at the University of Michigan.)
Regardless of whether these accusations are true or not, they follow a pattern that is typical for any artist or scholar who refuses to toe the party line. If Campbell had been engaged in “deconstructing” mythology, and showing that the Mahabharata or the Arthurian legends were nothing more than “narratives” expressing patriarchy and sexual repression for example, his personal failings in the eyes of academia would have been ignored. Surely what really bothers academics about Campbell, as well as about scholars with a similar worldview such as Jung, Mircea Eliade, or René Guénon, is that they dared to assert that there is an essential meaning to things, which of course then implies that there may actually be such a thing as values and traditions that are worth preserving.
I first discovered The Power of Myth series on video at my local library in 1995, during a period when I was looking for a new sense of direction and meaning in my life. I was 22, and like most Americans I had been educated in a strictly materialist way of understanding things. For the previous few years I had regarded myself as a Nietzschean, existentialist atheist (in spite of the fact that I only half-understood either Nietzsche or the existentialists). But I soon found this stance to be insufficient as I grew into adulthood and began to better comprehend the complexities of the human condition. It was my discovery of Colin Wilson, who I have written about elsewhere, and Campbell at this time (and through the latter, his own guru, Jung) which persuaded me that there is more to reality and living than what can be known through the five senses. Although I later moved on to other teachers and interests who in some ways surpass them, I will always owe a debt of gratitude to these two figures for “converting” me to something other than a model of a modern major materialist.
The Power of Myth struck me as a revelation, and it caused me to seek out Campbell’s books as well. Like most of us these days, I had always thought of myths as nothing more than quaint stories with some sort of simple moral lesson to be gleaned. Campbell contended that these myths are in fact reflections of a much deeper reality, one that is both metaphysical and which is reflective of deep psychological processes in our unconscious that transcend the individual and are connected to our racial memory. Even more importantly, Campbell first showed me that meaning was in fact anchored in something outside of ourselves, which was certainly very different from what I was being taught in most of my literature classes at the University at the time. I soon began to see everything from a Campbellesque perspective, and I doubt I could have mustered the enthusiasm to finish my degree were it not for the inspiration I derived from him.
The center of Campbell’s worldview is the idea of what he termed the “monomyth.” It posits that underneath all of the world’s mythologies, there is a single structure which they all more or less follow. This structure is timeless, as it is embedded within our consciousness, and can be found in the best modern art and literature – Campbell himself was particularly fond of James Joyce, and in fact the term monomyth itself is derived from Finnegans Wake – as much as in the ancient myths. Campbell believed that this monomyth was the expression of the single metaphysical reality which lies hidden behind the mere appearance of things, and that each culture and era develops its own stories to express this unchanging reality in accordance with “the unforged conscience of their race,” to paraphrase Joyce. In this sense, he shares some commonality with the traditionalists such as Guénon and Julius Evola. I don’t know of any place where the traditionalists have commented on Campbell directly, but surely they would criticize him along the same lines for which they criticized Jung: namely, that he understood myths as merely containing psychological symbols and “archetypes,” and as depictions of psychic processes, rather than as expressions of an objective reality (this is a complaint that a “true believer” in any religion could make against the Jungian conception of myth).
Surely a large part of the success of The Power of Myth, as it certainly was in my case, was due to the fact that Campbell comes across in his recorded interviews and lectures as an extremely likable man with a gift for communicating complex ideas and stories in simple language. He was also a masterful storyteller. He was the very embodiment of your favorite teacher, who (hopefully) turned you on to the wonders of the world of ideas and filled you with the fiery passion to learn more about a particular subject. Like the very best teachers, what you learned from him only marked the starting point in a long odyssey that ended up leading you to other ideas and other destinations in life.
There are certainly many criticisms one can make of Campbell’s conception of things. In addition to the traditionalist objections already mentioned, some scholars have said that not just Campbell’s, but all efforts in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion, are flawed in that they emphasize the commonalities between all of the world’s traditions at the expense of the particularities which distinguish them, thus presenting a false universalism. There may be some truth in this, but at the same time it seems to me to be symptomatic of the general postmodern disregard for anything which asserts that there is an essential meaning to things, preferring to study each subject in isolation rather than as part of a whole. After all, how can a three-thousand-year-old story from ancient Greece teach a present-day American anything more than a Toni Morrison novel can? In fact, those old stories may actually be detrimental, given that they depict a way of life that reinforces old social orders rather than emphasizing the need for racial equality or the fluidity of gender.
At his post-war trial on the charge of promoting Fascism, Evola said about his beliefs, “My principles are only those that, before the French Revolution, every well-born person considered sane and normal.” I suspect that Campbell believed something similar, even if he never couched it in language that was quite so incendiary. When we look at the ancient stories, whether they are European, Indian, Chinese, Native American, or whatever, there is certainly a common outlook there which directly challenges the norms and values which we have come to accept as normal in the modern world.
And this, perhaps, is Campbell’s ultimate value from our point of view. There are certainly greater scholars of myth and religion to read. But especially for newcomers, he can open up the world of primordial, timeless, pre- and anti-modern wisdom that still lurks deep within our souls and continues to shape our lives, whether we are consciously aware of it are not. We are all part of a story that began long before we were born and which will continue long after we die. Campbell brings this story, and our place in it, to light like few others can. And this, in the end, is what the “true Right” is really about.
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