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Reply To: Why I Disagree with Joe Campbell


Hello Nandu,

I’d like to focus, if you don’t mind, on your second area of disagreement with Joseph Campbell (no rush getting back to me on this – I suspect this is the beginning of a long, leisurely conversation. Once you do reply, I might try splitting our exchange off from the original thread, so it doesn’t get lost amid the thickets of the earlier discussion of European  projections onto the history of Hinduism).

You describe that difference as follows:

2. Mysticism: It seems to me that both Joe and Jung were mystics to a certain extent. Over the years, I have become more and more of a hardcore rationalist. I am an atheist for all practical purposes now; and I don’t believe that there is any “mystery” out there not accessible to science.

However, I am a writer – and I do believe that both myth and art proceed from the same source. So on this level, I can still connect with Joe, and deal with all his theories as concepts which are useful for me to connect with my inner muse. You can call me a “spiritual atheist”.

I don’t seem to recall Jung having a problem with being described as a mystic – and I have no trouble embracing that label myself. Campbell, however, has a different perspective:

I’m not a mystic, in that I don’t practice any austerities, and I’ve never had a mystical experience. So I’m not a mystic. I’m a scholar, and that’s all.

I remember when Alan Watts one time asked me, “Joe, what yoga do you practice?” I said, “I underline sentences.” And that’s all I’m doing. My discipline is taking heavy notes and correlating everything I read with everything else I’ve read. I have nine drawers full of notes, and I have four more packed down in the cellar that I can’t get another piece of paper in. For 40 years I’ve taken notes on these materials that seemed to me to be opening the picture to my mind⁠.” (Interview with Jeffrey Mishlove)

Maybe it would help if you shared your understanding of what a mystic is, which seems different than Joseph Campbell’s understanding (that’s not to determine which is correct, but to ensure our vocabulary doesn’t trip us up and have us thinking we disagree where our perspectives actually overlap, and vice versa).

Campbell’s definition would appear to be that a mystic is someone who has had a mystical experience – an actual experience of the transcendent which can not be put into words, as opposed to using words as metaphors for the transcendent (which is done by mystics and non-mystics alike).

I would agree with that definition, as far as it goes, which is in sync with my own subjective experience. You mention that you are now an atheist and believe there are no mysteries out there which are not accessible to science; that may be, but I’m not clear as to why either of those beliefs would preclude and/or negate a mystical perspective. One doesn’t need to believe in deity to be a mystic (multiple schools of Buddhist thought attest to that), nor disbelieve in science (theoretical physicists and Nobel winners Erwin Schrödinger and Wolfgang Paul are just two scientists of many who come to mind); heck, the wave-particle paradox is a scientifically confirmed example of what lies beyond and remains inaccessible to human experience and conception.

Campbell’s understanding of mysticism appeals to me. I have experienced what cannot be put into what words, experiences that I can’t “describe” to anyone who has not had such themselves, but can only “talk around.” There is no way I can rationally explain or convey these subjective experiences, which some might describe as existing only in my head – crazy talk, if you will.

That might explain some of the confusion re the congruence you see between mysticism and a belief in God. Some mystics do describe experiencing “God” – but that’s essentially a shorthand term to describe a mystical experience that is beyond words; however, it is difficult for the bulk of people, who have never had such an experience and likely never will, to avoid injecting personifications and projections of the “God” their culture/society/church/family subscribes to onto that term.

In one of my junior high literature classes nearly two decades ago, I had an inspiration I thought might help to illustrate for students this inadequacy of language to describe an experience of what is beyond human experience.

Fortunately for me, Stephanie Gutierrez was in this class; Stephanie was gifted with the voice of an angel – just two weeks before, during an official flag-raising ceremony honoring the victims of the recent 9/11 attacks, she sang the national anthem in front of the whole school – which was all the more poignant because Steph had been blind since birth.

So, having cleared this with Stephanie ahead of time, I asked the class to raise their hands if they believed the color red actually exists. Naturally all students raised their hands. Then I challenged Steph’s classmates to describe the color red to her in such a way that she would “get” it – and watched with fiendish delight as they struggled to describe the indescribable.

One student said that red is hot, like red-hot coals – but I pointed out that red can be cool, like an apple or strawberry you take out of the fridge to eat. Some said red means “stop,” like a red light or stop sign – but Steph pointed out that what means “stop” for her at a main intersection is a specific sound that’ s made when the light changes from green to red, so would that noise be the same as red?

Some spoke of red as anger, others claimed it meant danger, and some said love or sex (red roses, red valentines, passion), and so on

. . . but, ultimately, the best they could do was hand Stephanie a collection of metaphors.

I pointed out that Stephanie has no point of reference for any of these metaphors. She knows that sighted people claim to experience something they call the color red: they believe in  and will respond to that something, but that to her is no proof there really is such a thing. What is real, and what she must deal with, is that people believe and act as if there were a color red, so she certainly takes that into account – but when it comes to the objective existence of the color red, she is, at best, an agnostic.

Similarly those who have never experienced a mystical state, whether Campbell, you, or billions of others – it does not necessarily follow there is no such thing, any more than Stephanie’s experience is proof the color red does not exist.

But pardon my digression. Back to your differences with Campbell: the fact that you and Joe might define your terms differently does not necessarily mean you that are at odds in what you believe (as you pointed out, you think of Joe as a mystic “to a certain extent”); the difference seems to that, though he never had such an experience himself, he might have been more open to mystical experiences reported by others.

So I’m curious: what do you mean by mysticism? Can you narrow down where, exactly, you and Joseph Campbell actually disagree?