Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Monolith of Myth: Paradigms, Paradox, and Joseph Campbell

In many of the courses I teach, I utilize the work of late mythologist and academic Joseph Campbell. For some time, I have planned to talk about the storytelling paradigms his ideas have contributed to, the paradoxes they present, and the rich world of myth that his output continues to inspire audiences to investigate. At the same time, I have been reluctant to do so without providing some type of primer on Joseph Campbell the popular culture figure. A "cult of personality" seems to have come into being that centers the study of mythology and heroes on Joseph Campbell's life and his work. This places disproportionate emphasis on one scholar's perspective and is the source of undue idolization and criticism of his person.

Let me begin my primer on Joseph Campbell with this:

Mythology is not centered on the life and work of Joseph Campbell, the life and work of Joseph Campbell was centered on a particular characterization of mythology.

Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book titled “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and 1988 series of television interviews titled “The Power of Myth” have become monolithic touchstones for storytellers around the world. With these two works, Campbell presented an accessible introduction to myth centered on a popular paradigm that has become deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness. In hundreds of hours of lectures, numerous written volumes, and video interviews, Campbell espoused the value of myth and his belief in an underlying universal structure in its stories and heroes. The universal structure he presented in his work has contributed to the adoption of a storytelling paradigm in the late twentieth century. This paradigm continues to influence storytellers at the dawn of the twenty-first.

The manner in which Joseph Campbell and his two most popular works have been distilled in popular culture, however, undermines an understanding of both. Campbell’s arrival on the stage of popular culture has led to the twisting of his concept of “the hero with a thousand faces” into popular storytelling practices that seem to espouse ‘heroes… they're all the same’. The former issue makes an intelligent discussion of Campbell's work arduous. Joseph Campbell (the man) has been mythologized to such an extent that his persona has overshadowed his work and the study of mythology. The latter issue has resulted in a complete misunderstanding of his work and its misapplication. Examining the myths and legends of the world with a belief in their sameness, misses a great deal of what makes the myths so engaging and rich as a subject.

Joseph Campbell's fascination with the common thread he believed existed throughout all mythology informed his approach to the subject, and this concept was a pronounced element of his output as a scholar. However, in only emphasizing this view of mythology, the storytelling opportunities that geographic region, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and zeitgeist may offer have been neglected in many modern storytelling methodologies. In addition, such methodologies fail to be informed by the decades of research that Campbell utilized in his approach to mythology, and seek to infuse narratives with "the power of myth" by using elementary story beats via weak induction. The resulting work can be soulless at its best and cynical and paternalistic at its worst.

If the above elements are de-emphasized as a result of Joseph Campbell's popular approach to mythology, the popular mythology surrounding Joseph Campbell himself seems to support their dismissal. In popular culture, Campbell has been portrayed as either a transcendent mystical sage or a charlatan. That there is a need for him to be either is perhaps the result of the unhealthy relationship society has with figures that rise to prominence in popular culture. Neither unsophisticated portrayal appears to be supported by an abundance of evidence, and both are utterly incompatible with an informed understanding of the scholarship and point of view Campbell brought to his study of mythology.  

There is sufficient enough information in his biography to both develop a healthy view of Campbell and avoid the potential limitations of the view of mythology he presents.

The biography "Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind" presents Joseph Campbell as a man gifted with intellectual and physical capacity and whose parents privileged him with opportunity, financial stability, and travel. This is not to say that Campbell was untouched by instances of loss or doubt, however, Campbell's life was one with ample stability and resources. This may explain Joseph Campbell's (and many other westerners in the late twentieth century) affinity for the story of Prince Siddhārtha, whose confrontation with human suffering is one he has the power to initiate by choice.

If the powerful role that geographic region, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and zeitgeist are not particularly pronounced in Campbell's approach to myth, it may be the result of their not having played a detrimental role in his life and the common tendency to believe that any positive effects they have are solely the result of personal agency.

The mythologist who said that he was transfixed by Native American culture as a boy, and who longed to have a relationship to what would have been an alien culture, could only have found such a relationship in the role of an academic. The extravagant vision of Native American culture paraded in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show or categorized and presented in the American Museum of Natural History, and not the realities of life on a reservation, were the spark that ignited his affinity.

Native American war shield sketch by Joseph Campbell age 13

Native Americans killing buffalo sketch by Joseph Campbell age 14

Joseph Campbell had both the opportunity and the confidence to study the subjects that interested him, and he possessed enough intellectual ability to make contributions to those subjects with his work. Inspired by the portrait of Native Americans that was displayed in the popular culture of the early 1900s, he chose to investigate the mythologies of the world. The resulting work of his investigation has inspired millions to do the same, and his ideas have shaped the popular perception of mythology for the last few decades.

Joseph Campbell was not, however, a "maverick" (as he called himself in "The Power of Myth") or a "hero" (as some have chosen to see and portray him).

Joseph Campbell was a northeastern American man gifted with intellectual and physical capacity, and whose parents were invested in providing him with the best education and experiences they were able to afford. What Charles and Josephine Campbell were able to afford their son was ample. He traveled the world, went skiing, went surfing, played the saxophone in a jazz band, and found success on his college track team. Campbell attended Dartmouth College and then transferred to Columbia University when he decided to pursue the humanities. After returning from a trip to Europe, and after not receiving support from faculty regarding the direction of his graduate studies, Campbell retired to a cabin in the woods to read books on the subjects that interested him (as "The Great Depression" began), at age twenty-five. Five years later, at the age of thirty, he left his independent study when, through the efforts of a former Columbia adviser, he was offered a faculty position at Sarah Lawrence College where he remained for 38 years.

Joseph Campbell Sarah Lawrence College 1950

Joseph Campbell was not greatly affected by "The Great Depression" or WWII, the two most prominent touchstones of his generation. As documented in his biography he expressed opposition to U.S. involvement in WWII and espoused a detached moral relativism that Campbell believed was the result of some transcendent epiphany. This privileged viewpoint of the insulated spectator resulted in a rebuke from Thomas Mann (one of Campbell's heroes), when Campbell naively shared this perspective in a correspondence between the two men. Joseph Campbell's journal displays his increasing rancor at leading political figures and his terror at the approaching conflict's potential impact on his life and idealistic beliefs (he did not wish to serve in WWII and, though briefly eligible for the draft, was elated not to have been "called up"). In spite of his best efforts at maintaining the veneer of enlightened detachment from the politics of the time, he was certainly not apolitical or emotionally indifferent when his personal survival and security were threatened. This stands in stark contrast to his seeming ambivalence toward the Vietnam era draft during his interview in the Bill Moyers series "The Power of Myth".

Joseph Campbell's biography tells the story of a fortunate life spent on a truly worthy pursuit. The quality of this pursuit was shaped by an abundance of opportunities and support. It is not surprising that Joseph Campbell was able to achieve success with the considerable assets and advantages he possessed, however, it must be stated that Campbell's unorthodox decision to pursue mythology and the resulting success and influence on popular cultural he achieved is worthy of note, and indeed admirable. That would still make Campbell a figure that falls short of the definition of a "maverick" or "hero".

During his lifetime, Campbell had many encounters with leading minds in his and other fields of study. At the age of forty-five, the landmark book that distilled his investigation and perspective regarding mythology "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" was published. Joseph Campbell did not set foot in Asia until the age of fifty-one, six years after the book's publication. In his later life, he was embraced by important figures in popular culture that were attracted to his ideas and may have shared a similar cultural background. His knowledge, notoriety, and gifts as an orator led to his television appearance on "Bill Moyers Journal", and eventually, to the creation of the landmark series "The Power of Myth".

When "The Power of Myth" was finally broadcast, Joseph Campbell had already passed away. For much of the television audience, Campbell seemed to come out of nowhere. He was easy to project into, mythologize, and turn into a cult figure. Joseph Campbell's books, audio and video lectures, and interviews are there to be studied, however we are deprived of an equally significant record of Campbell having to defend his views on mythology let alone his characterization of himself as a "maverick".

There was also some criticism. However, contrary to a particularly vile accusation made by Brendan Gill in the wake of the series' broadcast, Joseph Campbell was not a crypto-Nazi charlatan. He was surely flawed as he was human, but not nearly as flawed as Gill's reckless portrayal of Campbell in the article "The Faces of Joseph Campbell" (September 1989). This article is at the epicenter of the popular smear leveled at Campbell. It is particularly troubling that, in addition to citing no concrete evidence to support his allegations, Gill's follow up article offers as "evidence" a letter from a reader who utterly misinterpreted a myth of India that Campbell often presented in his lectures.

From the November 1989 article "Joseph Campbell: An Exchange" (November 1989), in which Gill defends his September 1989 article:

The latest addition to this evidence is at hand. A correspondent, Carol Luther of San Anselmo, California, writes to say that she once attended a lecture in which Campbell recounted what he called a popular Indian fable (a favorite of Campbell’s in old age), the gist of which was that we are not all mere mild grass-eating goats but, instead, are blood-thirsty, carnivorous tigers, who do well to prey upon whatever lower species of animal makes up our natural diet. When she heard Campbell tell this story, my correspondent was so upset by its ethical implications that, she writes, “I rose shaking from my chair and shouted, ‘What about the six million who were gassed during World War II?’ In response, Mr. Campbell simply shrugged and said ‘That’s your problem.’”

-Brendan Gill

There are audio recordings of Campbell telling this very story (One recording was featured on an audio CD published in 1997 as a part of "The Joseph Campbell Audio Collection: The Eastern Way", Vol. 1 "Oriental Mythology" track 11 and is also available on iTunes as "Lecture I.3.1 - Interpreting Oriental Myth" Track 11) readily available, though not recorded on the day of the supposed incident. They would seem to illustrate that any response Campbell had was likely the result of a speaker who was interrupted by a shouting audience member asking something utterly unrelated to India, mythology, or the point of the story. Instead Brendan Gill seems to interpret this incident, that he was not a witness to, in order to bolster an incredible claim: that Joseph Campbell was using the "fable" to justify genocide! The myth in question is not espousing:

"we are not all mere mild grass-eating goats but, instead, are blood-thirsty, carnivorous tigers, who do well to prey upon whatever lower species of animal makes up our natural diet."  

It is troubling that this is the kind of ethical system and message that Gill and the reader believe is the essence of the story Campbell was telling. Gill's description of the reader's story as "the latest evidence" is irresponsible and inaccurate, but in describing his misinterpretation of the "popular Indian fable" as its "gist" he calls into question his ability to accurately interpret the character of both the story and Joseph Campbell. Brendan Gill lived a similar life of privilege and opportunity, and Gill's initial article seems to have more than a hint of envy and joy in what is essentially a postmortem airing of a fellow private club member's "dirty laundry in public". Ironically, the prejudice obsessed Gill was comfortable being a member of the Century Association, which did not admit women members until 1989 and was hardly an exemplar of diversity.

In addition to asserting that his recollections and secondhand accounts of Campbell's prejudice in social situations betrayed a core and insidious ideology, Brendan Gill's article betrays more than a little unsettling social jealousy. Why else would Gill feel the need to preface such criticisms and accusations with a description of Joseph Campbell's youthful attractiveness?

From Brendan Gill's article "The Faces of Joseph Campbell" (September 1989):

"If by the calendar he had reached his eighties, in person he was a good twenty years younger than that, or so any stranger would have assumed on meeting him. He was slender and quick-moving and because of his erect carriage gave the impression of being taller than he was. He had thick dark wavy hair, bright blue eyes, unwrinkled skin, and a pink complexion. He laughed readily, boyishly, and his laughter remained especially attractive in old age because, as far as one could tell, his teeth were his own, neither false nor capped. He was, in short, an invincibly youthful figure, so uncannily unaltered by time that I used to accuse him, to his delight, of practicing some hitherto unknown form of satanism."

Likely, Brendan Gill was setting up the cliché logical fallacy of the popular cynic: beauty and charisma are always masks for evil and ignorance.

If you are seeking a healthily disillusioned view of Joseph Campbell, neither the condemnation of Brendan Gill nor the deification of the "documentary" titled "Finding Joe" (2011), are the council you should seek. It would be irresponsible to assert that Joseph Campbell was incapable of prejudice or without ignorant beliefs. Any sensible academic would be foolish to assume that a popular culture figure's professional success and accomplishments preclude prejudice, ignorance, or action motivated by terror and self-doubt.

As Huston Smith stated in his response to Brendan Gill, from "Joseph Campbell: An Exchange" (November 1989):

"As Joseph Campbell never hid his politics and prejudices, I wonder why Brendan Gill befriended him in the first place, waiting until he died to target him as his enemy.

The reason he gives is that Campbell’s posthumous Power of Myth series was a siren song to selfishness. For evidence, he cites Campbell’s counsel to “Follow your bliss” and five short nondescript glosses appended thereto.


As Joe Campbell never tired of explaining, it is the human way of pouring the hodge-podge of life’s experiences into molds—ultimately a single mold—that renders it intelligible and meaningful. To overlook that as the program’s appeal—or to downplay it in favor of a doctrinaire political explanation—is to abet the “politicizing of the humanities” which last year’s NEH report cited as one of the problems the humanities now face.

This does not excuse the side of Joseph Campbell that I (with Gill) consider shadow. If Gill has light to shed on how we should balance our accounts on people like Wagner, Picasso, Heidegger, and now in ways Joseph Campbell, who bless us with their genius but disillusion us in other ways, it would be good to hear his views."

Huston Smith's more evenhanded perspective and its tempered approach are a pleasant respite from the more extreme characterizations (both pro and con) of Joseph Campbell.

Joseph Campbell was a well-read and inspiring teacher with feet of flesh. Campbell had a sharp mind and compelling ideas that came from the thorough study and influence of great thinkers (Jung, Joyce, Mann, Schopenhauer, Krishnamurti) and the myths of the world. Joseph Campbell's work might be best approached with an awareness that a framing or confirmation bias may have clouded it. This does not change the fact that Joseph Campbell's work on heroes, myth, metaphor, and symbol are worth considering, if only to understand modern storytelling paradigms. Joseph Campbell’s prodigious output is available for anyone interested in exploring mythology with an engaging, opinionated, and passionate tour guide who is not above using charisma or rhetorical tricks to make his points and who is more than qualified to benefit the education of an engaged student.

I am forever grateful to the college professor who introduced me to his work, because Joseph Campbell's introduction to mythology started me on a journey that has enriched my life and my career. That very same teacher had the wisdom to encourage students to use Campbell as a catalyst for the exploration of mythology, and not use Campbell as a lens for limiting that exploration.

Joseph Campbell’s two most popular works introduce broad areas of study in a manner that continues to inspire millions around the world to explore mythology and see the many traits that they share. These works are not the final word on, or the definitive resource for, mythology, and it would benefit a student to seek out other sources and viewpoints as a part of their education.