2000-04-02: The Power of Myth

The Power of Myth (1988)

by Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) and Bill Moyers (1934-)

I read more than half of this book, as well as part of Campbell’s Oriental Mythology and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I didn’t much care for any of them. I haven’t seen the PBS series from which this book was derived.

Moyers seems smitten with Campbell, but I find his relating of disparate myths glib, unconvincing, and not very useful. Certainly there is a lot to be learned about human nature from the nature of the myths we have created. Perhaps Campbell has learned a lot about human nature. But in the interviews shown in this book, he often seems to be simply trying to dazzle his admirer. Here is an example:

Moyers:  Culture, though, has always influenced our thinking about ultimate matters.

Campbell:  Culture can also teach us to go past its concepts. That is what is known as initiation. A true initiation is when the guru tells you, “There is no Santa Claus.” Santa Claus is metaphoric of a relationship between parents and children. The relationship does exist, and so it can be experienced, but there is no Santa Claus. Santa Claus is simply a way of clueing children into the appreciation of a relationship.

Life is, in its very essence and character, a terrible mystery – this whole business of living by killing and eating. But it is a childish thing to say no to life with all its pain, to say that this is something that should not have bee.

M:  Zorba says, “Trouble? Life is trouble.”

C:  Only death is no trouble. People ask me, “Do you have optimism about the world?” And I say, “Yes, it’s great just the way it is. And you are not going to fix it up. Nobody has ever made it any better. It is never going to be any better. This is it, so take it or leave it. You are not going to correct or improve it.”

M:  Doesn’t that lead to a rather passive attitude in the face of evil?

C:  You yourself are participating in the evil, or you are not alive. Whatever you do  is evil for somebody. This is one of the ironies of the whole creation.

M:  What about this idea of good and evil in mythology, of life as a conflict between the forces of darkness and the forces of light?

C:  That is a Zoroastrian idea, which has come over into Judaism and Christianity. In other traditions, good and evil are relative to the position in which you are standing. What s good for one is evil for the other. And you play your part, not withdrawing from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but seeing that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder: a mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

“All life is sorrowful” is the first Buddhist saying, and so it is. It wouldn’t be life if there were not temporality involved, which is sorrow – loss, loss, loss. You’ve got to say yes to life and see it as magnificent this way; for this si surely the way God intended it.

M:  Do you really believe that?

C:  It is joyful just as it is. I don’t believe there was anybody who intended it, but this is the way it is. James Joyce has a memorable line: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” And the way to awake from it is not to be afraid, and to recognize that all of this, as it is, is a manifestation of the horrendous power that is all of creation. The ends of things are always painful. But pain is part of there being a world at all.

M:  But if you accepted that as an ultimate conclusion, you wouldn’t try to form any laws or fight any battles or –

C:  I didn’t say that.

M:  Isn’t that the logical conclusion to draw from accepting everything as it is?

C:  That is not the necessary conclusion to draw. You could say, “I will participate in this life, I will join the army, I will go to war,” and so forth.

M:  “ will do the best I can.”

C:  “I will participate in the game. It is a wonderful, wonderful opera – except that it hurts.”

Affirmation is difficult. We always affirm with conditions. I affirm the world on condition that it gets to be the way Santa Claus told me it ought to be. But affirming it the way it is – that’s the hard thing, and that is what rituals are about. Ritual is group participation in the most hideous act, which is the act of life – namely, killing and eating another living thing. We do it together, and this is the way life is. The hero is the one who comes to participate in life courageously and decently, in the way of nature, not in the way of personal rancor, disappointment, or revenge.

There is more, but it doesn’t get any better. Later they have this exchange:

C:  … Once in India I thought I would like to meet a major guru or teacher face to face. So I went to see a celebrated teacher named Sri Krishna Menon, and the first thing he said to me was, “Do you have a question?”

The teacher in this tradition always answers questions. He doesn’t tell you anything you are not yet ready to hear. So I said, “Yes, I have a question. Since in Hindu thinking everything in the universe is a manifestation of divinity itself, how should we say no to anything in the world? How should we say no to brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity to thoughtlessness?”

And he answered, “For you and for me – the way is to say yes.”

We had a wonderful talk on this theme of the affirmation of all things. And it confirmed me in the feeling I had had that who are we to judge? It seems to me that this is one of the great teachings, also, of Jesus.

M:  In classic Christian doctrine the material world is to be despised, and life is to be redeemed in the hereafter, in heaven, where our rewards come. But you say that if you affirm that which you deplore, you are affirming the very world which is our eternity at the moment.

C:  Yes, that is what I’m saying. Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t even a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now that all thinking in temporal terms cuts off. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere. The problem with heaven is that you will be having such a good time there, you won’t even think of eternity. You’ll just have this unending delight in the beatific vision of God. But the experience of eternity right here and now, in all things, whether thought of as good or as evil, is the function of life.

I find this passage so bad, it’s hard to describe. First, Campbell clearly didn’t appreciate the Hindu teacher’s attitude and rationale for only what the listener is ready to hear. He took the teacher’s words as justification for spreading a lot of his own ideas to people who can’t really understand them, because they don’t have the depth of experience that led to his opinions, and who at best will misunderstand them and at worst take them as justification for all manner of ill-considered behavior. Second, he leaps from a general comment about affirmation to criticism of “classic Christian doctrine”, without providing a foundation. I find this kind of behavior, common among missionaries, deplorable and unconscionable. To destroy any aspect of a person’s world view before providing a functional alternative can only cast the person adrift, removing his or her resistance to all manner of ideas. Third, his comments about eternity might have a kernel of truth, but rather than provide support for understanding that kernel (if there actually is one), he creates a parody of the heaven, for the apparent purpose of destroying it.

Campbell’s attitude is apparently like that of a priest who must promote his own religion; however, he is his religion’s only priest. Anyone influenced by him now has no one else to provide guidance. I feel his influence must have been damaging to the many young people who heard his lectures. Here is a little bit about his own view of those young people, while teaching at Sarah Lawrence:

C:  … Now if you’re talking on about the things that students ought to be reading, and suddenly you hit on something that the student really responds to, you can see the eyes open and the complexion change. The life possibility has opened there. All you can say to yourself is, “I hope this child hangs on to that.” They may or may not, but when they do, they have found life right there in the room with them.

M:  And one doesn’t have to be a poet to do this.

C:  Poets are simply those who have made a profession and a lifestyle of being in touch with their bliss. Most people are concerned with other things. They get themselves involved in economic and political activities, or get drafted into a war that isn’t the one they’re interested in, and it may be difficult to hold to this umbilical under these circumstances. That is a technique each one has to work out for himself somehow.

But most people living in that realm of what might be called occasional concerns have the capacity that is waiting to be awakened to move to this other field. I know it, I have seen it happen in students.

When I taught in a boys’ prep school, I used to talk to the boys who were trying to make up their minds as to what their careers were going to be. A boy would come to me and ask, “Do you think I can do this? Do you think I can do that? Do you think I can be a writer?”

“Oh,” I would say, “I don’t know. Can you endure ten years of disappointment with nobody responding to you, or are you thinking that you are going to write a best seller the first crack? If you have the guts to stay with the thing you really want, no matter what happens, well, go ahead.”

Then Dad would come along and say, “No, you ought to study law because there is more money in that, you know.” Now, that is the rim of the wheel, not the hub, not following your bliss. Are you going to think of fortune, or are you going to think of your bliss? …

[In 1929] there was a wonderful old man up in Woodstock, New York, who had a piece of property with these little chicken coop places he would rent out for twenty dollars a year or so to any young person he thought might have a future in the arts. There was no running water, only here and there a well and a pump. He declared he wouldn’t install running water because he didn’t like the class of people it attracted. That was where I did most of my basic reading and work. It was great. I was following my bliss.

This part about following your bliss is the only passage in this book I actually like.


I only read small parts of the other two books I mentioned above. I didn’t like either of them.

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