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Reply To: Campbell on Writing


The original topic of the thread focuses on Joseph Campbell’s approach to writing, rather than the hero’s journey (true, the HJ  can be a useful aid for fiction writers, but Joe didn’t write fiction – none, at any rate, published in his lifetime), so when James in his comment referenced the hero’s journey in regards to personal myth, I wasn’t sure where he was heading (there is, after all, a wide gulf between the hero’s journey as a writing template, and as a guide to life).

The mention of Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey does bring us back to the topic.

James writes

My problem with Vogler’s particular template is that it is often seen as a concretized construct for the alchemical process that takes place within the individuation process so that all individual stories or personal life experiences have a tendency to be interpreted through this particular lens instead of the wide variation that any persons life-course may take.”

That’s a complaint that seems to apply as much or more to Joseph Campbell’s schema of the hero quest first announced in The Hero with a Thousand Faces; it, too, is “often seen as a concretized construct for the alchemical process . . . so that all individual stories or personal life experiences have a tendency to be interpreted through this particular lens instead of the wide variation that any persons life-course may take” (not what Campbell intended, of course, but that is certainly how many see it – not that Campbell, nor Vogler, for that matter, should be blamed for a reader’s misunderstanding)

Vogler’s book, unlike Campbell’s, is first and foremast a guide to creative writing, specifically screenplays. Neither individuation nor alchemy are mentioned, nor is his intended audience those who are trying to improve themselves or seeking the meaning of life. The book is merely about applying mythic structure to the craft of creative writing (though the latest edition now includes a new final chapter, called “Trust the Path,” added for those who wish to  discover themselves through the act of writing).

Two summers ago at the annual combined JCF Board and staff meeting, Chris gifted each of us with copies of the latest edition of The Writer’s Journey (which, I trust, addresses Shaahayda’s concerns about Vogler’s relations with JCF. Though he does his own thing, he does not downplay his debt to Joseph Campbell and is generally supportive of JCF’s mission).

Nevertheless, I do share James’ uneasiness in general.  Like James, I don’t have any problem with what Vogler writes in his book, and happily recommend it to others. My issue is with the tendency of more than a few writers and directors working in the Hollywood dream factories to take the guidance offered in Vogler’s book as a rigid formula for turning out blockbuster box office gold – a concern Vogler himself warns against in his book. As with George Lucas and others, awareness of the hero’s journey story arc can help one polish and improve a tale, but is no substitute for talent.

Which brings me to Shaahayda’s understandable frustration with Hannah Yang’s summary of the hero’s journey story pattern. Some unforced errors are way off base, such as the claim that The Hero with a Thousand Faces was adapted for television as the Power of Myth (as Shaahayda notes, only one of the six broadcast episodes is focused on hero myths), or listing, among five of “his other major works,” three books by Heinrich Zimmer (Campbell did edit these works, and had much to do with their creation, but ultimately they are major works by Zimmer, not Joe).

At the same time, Yang gets several things right, given her mission and her audience. Keep in mind this is essentially a simplified summary of the hero journey motif designed for a broad audience – sort of a Cliff Notes version – rather than an evaluation of Campbell’s entire body of work.

From that perspective, Yang’s comments about Freud’s and Jung’s influence are on target. Discussing The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell notes in a radio interview “For a while I was equally committed to Freud and Jung as the principal explicators of myth in psychological terms, but during the years the Jungian position has seemed to me to be more and more important.⁠” It wasn’t until well after he finished Hero that he gravitated toward Jung as a guide to life, seeing Freud  as more focused on the role myth plays in the psyche of the those with pathological conditions.

Yes, over the course of his lifetime Campbell’s work embraced more than just Freud and Jung, but Hannah Yang isn’t discussing his entire corpus. Her mission is to succinctly summarize the origins of Campbell’s identification of the hero’s journey arc, which is equally indebted to Freud and Jung. In a piece like this, which is basically a brief dictionary or encyclopedia entry, can’t really blame someone for not covering every nuance of the subject (I’m frankly surprised she got as much in as she did).

Similarly, the objections to the hero’s journey Yang shares with readers aren’t her own complaints, but “common criticisms” of the hero’s journey (which any good teacher is obligated to raise). Though one might disagree with these criticisms, Yang isn’t defending them, just sharing them with her audience. What she says is accurate – these are common criticisms, and she would be remiss to leave them out, though the wording is a little awkward (e.g. the statement that Campbell’s work “reduces the world to binary choices” is more often expressed as the claim that Campbell embraces duality – not a valid observation to to my mind, but one that is heard from some, like Robert Segal).

Shaahayda, like you my initial tendency is to want to reach out and enlighten this individual, correct her misunderstandings – but I believe James offers a valuable piece of wisdom when he asks why this bothers you so much. What would it serve to reach out to her and correct her? What would that accomplish? Would she read a brief paragraph from you, slap her forehead with the palm of her hand, and be convinced that her take is in error? Unlikely (heck, most people who post material on the internet for public consumption already know to never read the comments).

I write the responses to the general queries people send in via JCF’s online contact form. Just today, I pulled up a query that landed in my InBox several days ago, which asked us, “Are you related to Joe? What deplorable examples of humanity you are. You know it, and you know why. For everything Joe gave to our human family, you have taken away.”

That must have struck a nerve, because I spent an inordinate amount of time crafting a response detailing JCF’s accomplishments, observing how little of Joe’s work would be available if the Foundation didn’t exist, and so forth and so on. I edited and re-edited it down to a little over 1,100 words. When it was perfect, just as I was about to click Send, I asked myself the question James posed to you” “Why does this bother me?” – and an addendum: “what do I hope to accomplish?”

I’m not going to convert this individual. He is just trolling us, and isn’t going to read my response with an open mind and rue his insensitive words – so, fortunately, I did not send off my missive (though I saved the draft – I should be able to use portions of it elsewhere at some point).

I don’t think it’s necessary to try and convert Ms. Yang either, whether with a detailed erudite post, or by assigning homework (i.e. come to this website and read what’s here so you can learn the proper facts about Campbell). I don’t think such actions would have the effect you’d hope. Not that you shouldn’t express an opinion – such feedback can be important – just don’t be wedded to the results.

If someone misquotes or plagiarizes Joseph Campbell, JCF will certainly correct them. And if there is an egregious misstatement of fact (e.g. Campbell was an anti-Semite, or a misogynist), that could, depending on the platform and who is posting it, require a response  But we aren’t going to take issue with everyone who writes about the hero’s journey and expresses a contrary opinion on some points; nor are we going to ask for credentials from anyone who offers a critique, positive or negative, or demand they financially support the Foundation, any more than Joseph Campbell would have been expected to write a check to the C.G. Jung Institute when he analyzed and opined about Jung’s work.

Rather than play whack-a-mole, I find the best approach, at least for JCF, is to do our best to ensure we present Campbell’s core understandings as clearly as possible, to the widest possible audience. That’s part of the reason behind creating our 500-plus quotation database – Joe’s own words. The update of our website will include permanent thought pieces on the hero’s journey, the four functions of myth, and what Campbell means by “follow your bliss” – informative for the general public, while, at the same time, almost in passing, popping some of the most egregious misstatements by citing Campbell’s actual words. That works much better than most direct engagement, which only feeds the controversy.

That said, maybe we can veer back to the subject of Campbell’s thoughts on the creative spark that started this thread . . .