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Reply To: “Myth-Construing” and other puns


Hey There, Sunbug,

Nothing wrong with challenging Joseph Campbell – that was something he expected as a scholar, and embraced. Indeed, as his colleague David Miller (author and professor of comparative religions) has pointed out, on more than one occasion Campbell was delighted to discover he had been in error. (Miller offered an example of bumping into Campbell right after Joe learned he had been wrong in his understanding and interpretation of Melanesian myths and rituals – the man was almost ebullient; Campbell’s bliss wasn’t to be right, but to increase his knowledge and understanding).

Briefly, identifying “the hero” with the muscular ego is not at all unusual. James Hillman – friend and colleague of Campbell – does exactly that, and I believe Joe himself had no trouble with that sense, especially at the start of the journey (when most heroes-to-be, from Luke Skywalker to Moses to King Arthur are most pre-occupied with ego concerns).

In conversation with Bill Moyers, Campbell observes, ““A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” That can be someone who risks their life or sacrifices oneself for others, or for an ideal. As any good scholar, Campbell defines his terms to distinguish this usage of “hero” from popular usage, as well as that of other thinkers. (Ayn Rand, for example, is also closely identified with “the hero” – but in her conception, a hero never sacrifices him or herself for others, always acting out of self-interest – a polar opposite to Campbell’s reference to heroes in myth).

So, from one perspective, over the course of the hero’s journey, an individual ego (someone pre-occupied with his or her own ego concerns) is challenged and transforms as that ego dies and is reborn as a Self, focused more on wholeness and concerns beyond just one’s own ego.

Sure, many critics fall back on stereotype and claim “Heroes are always in it for themselves, see themselves as saviors, and will not take advice from others but will  force their advice on others” – which seems more the description of a narcissist – no surprise . . . more than a few narcissists in their megalomania see themselves as heroic figures; nevertheless, I would take issue with projecting that pathology onto the concept of hero, any more than one would project the pathology of authoritarian control-freaks onto everyone who is a father.

(That criticism also ignores the fact that many of the “heroes” of literature and myth that Campbell references do not recognize themselves as heroes.)

I do understand the criticism of the hero going it alone. The hero is often left outside the dominant culture, and finds her or himself up against prevailing societal norms (from Jesus, for example, to the Buddha, or Picasso, or Martin Luther King, Jr.); naturally, those invested in the society prefer everyone go along to get along and simply conform.

But there is something to be said for the collective hero (e.g., Campbell notes the primary hero of the Tanach – or Old Testament – isn’t Abraham or Joseph or Moses or King David, but the children of Israel – a collective hero: the Chosen People, who conform to the trajectory of the Hero’s Journey). As Campbell’s friend and publisher (and JCF president) Bob Walter noted in conversation with William Shatner, Captain Kirk was not the hero of Star Trek; rather, the hero was the Enterprise – and her crew – which kept being reborn in future iterations in the Star Trek films and The Next Generation television series

. . . but the individual and the collective hero need not be mutually exclusive. As you point out, “the irony remains that the individual quest and realization of the universal consciousness shared by ALL are not antithetical to each other.”

However, I have over time come to realize it’s not necessary to rebut those who critique Campbell or come at myth from a different point of view. Sometimes those differences are a result of misunderstanding what Campbell is saying, and sometimes just a question of vocabulary – so the best approach, in my mind, is not to argue in a specific forum with those who take a contrary position, but do my best to convey Campbell’s perspective as clearly as possible (preferably in his own words), and let others take from that what they will.

Thanks for initiating this discussion, Sunbug. I have thoughts on your other post as well, but domestic responsibilities, alas, are calling. (I’m afraid my wife won’t allow me to refuse that quest . . .)