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Reply To: Why I Disagree with Joe Campbell


Robert – as usual, I appreciate your contribution to the discussion. Of course, I’m not so much preaching, as agreeing with you – and providing a little insight for those who might read this thread and assume all criticism is automatically negative.

There is no dearth of hagiography and hero worship attached to Joseph Campbell – indeed, that is one aspect that dissuades some academics from taking him seriously. Part of our task at JCF, as his literary heir, is to dispel that lilac fog, which made Joe extremely uncomfortable during his lifetime. (That’s one of the reasons he shied away from biography and was reluctant to discuss his own life; he did not want to be viewed as a guru, but preferred the material to speak for itself.)

In general, the first works published after a maverick thinker and philosopher passes from the scene are primarily hagiography (e.g. the Larsen’s bio, A Fire in the Mind: though it contains a wealth of details about his life, the authors are hardly objective – not to diss Robin and Stephen, who did their best to take a balanced approach; nevertheless, works created by disciples tend to present their subjects in the best possible light, glossing over or explaining away any character defects and/or flaws in reasoning). Heck, even The Power of Myth tends to place Joe on a pedestal.

The next phase after a popular author/thinker passes are works that draw back the curtain to challenge his/her approach and position in the pantheon of greats; often these critiques, too, are far from objective, focused more on deflating the subject’s reputation.

And then, over time, more objective and comprehensive works appear that examine and take into account positive as well as negative evaluations. That seems the phase we are moving into now. Hence the value of Nandu’s honest assessment of his areas of disagreement with Campbell’s approach; Nandu doesn’t throw Campbell out, but qualifies his embrace of Joe’s mythological perspective through the lens of his own experience and understanding. It does my heart good to know he (and, I hope, others) feel safe enough to share their honest criticisms here in COHO.

(Not to suggest we do away with hagiography and hero worship; though I, too, strive to be objective, there’s no doubt I’ve drunk the Kool-aid myself.)

As to the name Joseph, there is much to unpack there (not the least of which is the mythological figure of Joseph the Dreamer in scripture), though that should probably take place in a different thread than one discussing areas of disagreement with Campbell’s ideas.