Joseph Campbell

26 Nov 1997 21:51

Rejected, with all his works, but interesting. I especially want to know how he came to have his reputation, and how deep his influence really is.

I used to think very, very highly indeed of Joseph Campbell's work, and in consequence was very trying to my humanities teachers. Eventually one of them challenged me to make out the strongest case against Campbell that I could, just as an exercise. I found the case convincing.

The monomyth. Campbell claimed to have established in The Hero with a Thousand Faces that all hero-myths (i.e., myths with a hero) follow the same pattern, the ``monomyth,'' for which he gave some pretty detailed features (e.g. the hero encounters his double as the guardian of the realm of power where his adventures take place). Unfortunately, the scheme has more escape hatches than the lair of a James Bond villain, and we're told that if some element is missing, it's significant, not a contradiction. The unalterable essentials of the monomyth seem to be this: ``Stories human beings tell tend to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and a protagonist who does interesting things.'' This is not exactly news. (Cf. Kurt Vonnegut's description of the basic story, which he calls ``Man in a Hole'': ``Somebody gets into trouble and gets out of it. People never get tired of this.'')

The message of myth. One of Campbell's claims, developed at length in e.g. The Masks of God is that all myths really have the same message, which is that of a certain school of metaphysical Hinduism; Campbell furthermore strongly suggests (but doesn't, I think, ever actually say outright) that this particular sort of metaphysics is correct. The obvious problem is that myths seem to have lots of different messages, to be incorporated into religions quite incompatible with that school of Hinduism, and even (heaven forfend!) to have social functions and roles. (Consider the many millenarian myths, for an extreme example, or the all-but-inevitable myth explaining why Everyone Should Know His Place and Stay There.) This is evaded by saying that all this pertains merely to the surface or exoteric meanings; the real, true, deep and essential content of mythology is as stated. In practice, this means that we can start with any story we like, and by selectively amputating it, abstracting, ignoring parts of its context, juggling parallels and general re-interpetation, we can end with (some of) the desired notions. Since by exactly analogous methods we could, with just as much support, end up with Freud, or Levi-Strauss, or Catholicism, or almost any system we please, the drawbacks of this method of saving the hypothesis are too obvious to go into. (Could we get to literally any set of ideas, or only more-or-less ideological ones?)

The historical-cultural analyses. Having divided the Old World civilizations into four zones along conventional and reasonable lines (Europe, the Levant, India, the Far East), and claiming that they each have very distinct and persistent types of mythology and religion, Campbell runs into the obvious problem of their borrowing religions from each other (Christianity in Europe, Buddhism in East Asia, Islam in India). This is explained away in two main ways: either what looks like borrowing is really a profound transformation of the inner (and unobservable) content; or else there was a ``pseudomorphism'', and what was borrowed was alien and unnatural and made everyone very unhappy, at least until it could be re-shaped into something native. The combination of Spengler and Mr. Pickwick is not a happy one.

Archetypes. I know of only one systematic attempt to test the idea that myths are archetypal symbols: that of G. S. Kirk, reported in his book Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (University of California Press, 1973). This looked at the Greek myths, which, given Jung's being a Greek-intoxicated man, ought to be an unusually favorable case: nonetheless they are not important in the myths. (The evidence is naturally somewhat lengthy; see Kirk's book, or his later Nature of the Greek Myths.)

The reliance on psychoanalysis. I've dilated upon why psychoanalysis is supremely untrustworthy elsewhere; and of course Campbell's work relies crucially on Jungian psychoanalysis.

Now, if Campbell was trying to convey something ineffable of spiritual value, this quite misses the point. But remember his marvellous story about the Shinto priest: ``We don't have theology. We dance.'' Campbell did not dance: he wrote, and learned works at that. He seems for all the world to have been trying to say true, non-vacuous things about how people talk and act and believe, and how they have done so in the past. Alas, his major ideas aren't even wrong, and he built upon a solid core of vacuity. Given his marvellous range of interests, deep feeling for history, and superb writing, we can say of him what Nietzsche said of Emerson: what a loss that he never had a truly scientific education! (Or that it didn't stick.) ``In him, we have lost a philosopher.'' (I should say that I ought to be grateful to him if for no other reason than that he led me to read Uncle Fritz.)

I have no idea whether he was an anti-semite in private life, having examined none of the relevant evidence, or even the accusing articles. In his writings, he's as opposed to Christianity as to Judaism, and for about the same reasons, so ``anti-semitic'' hardly seems like an appropriate adjective. ``Anti-monotheist'' might do better. His personal politics were however definitely very right-wing; he was, for instance, opposed to the US entering World War II --- at least on the side that we did.

See also: Jung; Myths; Narratives

People tell me I should include a link to The Joseph Campbell Foundation, but I can never connect to the site.