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Reply To: The Mythic Image


Welcome, Shaheda!

Your story about finding The Mythic Image and then shelving it, not realizing what treasures it contained, syncs with my own experience.

Back in my college days I took a year-long undergraduate course called Ancient Mediterranean History. The primary text was Sir Arnold Toynbee’s final work, Mankind and Mother Earth (an elegant volume with a lot of history compressed into it, that also took into account humankind’s effects on its environment, and where we are headed in the future). However, the class only met once a week, and there were no grades, papers, or tests, and at the end of each semester we graded ourselves – but we were expected to read multiple comprehensive, self-selected academic tones within our individually chosen areas of interest, and meet for half an hour each week with our instructor in his office to discuss what we had read.

Though no tests, papers, or grades from the teacher seemed oddly disconcerting at first, I was surprised that this turned out to be my favorite class (you may have noticed the format is similar to Campbell’s course on mythology at Sarah Lawrence). The professor, J.W. Smurr, with a distinguished beard and tweed patches on the elbows of his jacket, was nearing retirement and a bit dry as a lecturer (none of Campbell’s verve and sparkle – though in lectures he did impart a wealth of knowledge, albeit in a densely-packed monotone), but he would dive deep, asking penetrating questions in our informal office dialogs. Our session was at 2:30 on Fridays, so at the end of our half hour in his office we would continue the conversation over a beer in the tavern on campus.

Those were heady times. I chose several ambitious works (such as Russian historian Mikhail Rostovtzeff’s masterpiece, The Social & Economic History of the Roman Empire, published in 1926 – hundreds of pages of dry writing and valuable insights interspersed with details of grain shipments from Alexandria, industrial centers in Italy and the provinces, and such – and 141 pages of tiny, detailed endnotes). One book I read that literally fell into my hands off the top shelf of the university library was called Changing Images of Man – a futuristic study crafted by a team of six scholars for SRI – Stanford Research Institute – that looked at the the central images of humankind that have shaped past cultures, and how the way modern culture perceives itself can shape the future.

I loved the entire work, which rings true today, but especially the first two chapters, penned by the scholar whose name came first, alphabetically, in the card catalog – one J. Campbell. That book, along with the Toynbee volume above, played a major role in shaping my own perspective. However, can’t say I paid particular attention to the authors, none of whom I’d ever heard of.

It wasn’t until a few years later, while working my way through the early volumes of The Masks of God series, that I experienced heavy deja vu – I realized I’d come across these concepts somewhere before! I finally traced that back to insights from the Changing Images of Man, and was astounded to realize that Joseph Campbell was the J. Campbell listed among the authors. Little did I know that work, which I spent a week zipping through in college and discussing over a beer with my professor, would have such a profound influence.

This book is rare and difficult to find today – but is intriguing how our destiny is shaped by what we read. Maybe literature is fate . . .