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Reply To: Artistic Origins, with Professor Andrew Gurevich



Brevity has its place, but really, no worries about that with your posts. In my mind, one of the advantages Conversations of a Higher Order has over social media like Facebook is the luxury to develop and play with a thought. When JCF was sponsoring the Mythic Salon on Facebook, I and others would often contribute posts that dove deep and sparked multiple profound responses – but the thread would then scroll off the screen and disappear into the ether in a matter of hours or days.

Here, in contrast, we have the leisure to think and write, rather than just react – and our posts aren’t just for an audience in the passing now; someone who registers with the forums six months from now, or six years, will be able to find riches galore.

I don’t have any burning questions per se, just a couple of observations.

As you describe the intersection of mythology, psychology, physics, and anthropology, and other fields in both your personal and professional development, I am reminded of what has become a standard criticism of Joseph Campbell: that he’s a generalist, not a specialist (or, to use the imprecise vernacular, a lumper, not a splitter).

Joe’s response?

Then there is the problem of what’s known as the generalist against the specialist. Just as in medicine,  sometimes it’s better to go to a generalist than to a specialist—depends on what your problem is. A specialist can come up and say, in all seriousness⁠, ‘The people in the Congo have five fingers on their right hand.’ If I say, ‘Well, the people in Alaska have five fingers on their right hand,’ I’m called a generalist. And if I say that the people in the caves in 30,000 B.C. had five fingers on their right hand, I’m a mystic⁠!”

(from a yet-to-be-published draft I’ve edited, drawn from dozens of obscure interviews and Q & A sessions at the end of Campbell’s lectures)

Joseph Campbell was not opposed to specialists, whose work often informed his; it just was not his approach. In fact, I think of Campbell as one of the pioneers of interdisciplinary studies. I know the pendulum swings back and forth within academia, with specialization often in the ascendent – so it does my heart good to see scholars such as yourself making common cause with others outside their immediate field.

And then a powerful line, as you described your personal history: “Joe kicked open the door for me to start the work of soul recovery.”

That, to me, is key to Campbell’s wide appeal: he’s not just researching and writing for the sake of expanding human knowledge on a macro scale, but also looking at how what he studies resonates for the individual, answering the question of what is its value to our lives today?

And one final observation: I know I’m belaboring the obvious, but in case anyone has missed a major theme running through your “Artist Origins” essay and your contributions to this discussion, I’d like to draw attention once again to the emphasis you place on experience, and embodiment. We are not talking head knowledge: the ancients didn’t pull books off the library shelf and read about a myth – they lived their myths

. . . which, in a roundabout way, brings me back to ritual.

Today we tend to think of rites as those accompanying critical transitions – birth, coming of age, marriage, death, sacraments all – but ritual once permeated every aspect of life:

[T]he archaic world knows nothing of ‘profane’ activities: every act which has a definite meaning – hunting, fishing, agriculture, games, conflict, sexuality – in some way participates in the sacred . . . the only profane activities are those which have no mythical meaning. . . . Thus we may say that every responsible activity in pursuit of a definite end is, for the archaic world, a ritual.

Every ritual has a divine model, an archetype .  . . ‘We must do what the gods did in the beginning.’ ”

(Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, p. 27-28, 21)

Eliade illustrates his point by providing examples of construction rituals in early cultures – required, for example, in ancient Mesopotamia, whether laying the foundation of temple, palace, or peasant’s house. These rites replicate “the primordial act” of the creation of the cosmos (traces of such construction rituals echo today in the rites of the Masonic Order). Yet other examples of “the divine model” abound in rituals still observed, from the Judeo-Christian Sabbath (God rested on the seventh day, after six days of creation) to the marriage ceremony (the divine Hierogamy of the union of Heaven and Earth).

Campbell arrives at a parallel conclusion:

Well, the value of mythology in the old traditions, one of the values, was that every activity in life had been mythologized. You saw something of its relevance to the Great Mysteries and your own participation in the Great Mysteries in the performance – in agriculture, in hunting, in military life and so forth. All of these were turned into spiritual disciplines. Actually they were. There were rituals associated with them that let you know what spiritual powers were being challenged, evoked, and brought into play through this action.”

(Joseph Campbell, The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell, New Dimensions Radio Interview with Michael Toms, Tape I, Side 1.)

You note in your initial post above, “Individually and collectively, the myth must be enacted or experienced for the person or the group to truly expect to share in its transformative bounty” – and a little later, “So, finally, it is my suggestion that through a full, authentic, and open engagement with the rituals, rites, and ceremonies of living myth, we are able to return to a prelinguistic mode of experience that allows us to step away from our preoccupation with death and our linguistically confined categories of binary opposition and reenter a space where we can, like the child, encounter the sacred directly, immediately, and without a chaperone” (emphasis mine).

Of course, there’s a lot of context in between I’ve skipped over – but, considering so much of the dominant traditions in our cultures seems tired rather than inspired, and many individuals drawn to Campbell’s work do not participate in any mythological tradition,  I’d like to focus on the question of how you define “living myth” today. What is a living myth, and how does one find it? Would you recommend an individual attach themselves to an existing tradition that speaks to their soul, even if outside their own culture, or perhaps construct their own rituals, maybe draw from a number of mythological and cultural traditions stories, rituals, and other elements that activate centers within their own being (what I think of as the cafeteria model, which Campbell seems to recommend on occasion).

Or does something else come to mind?