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Reply To: The Ripening Outcast, with Mythologist Norland Tellez


Thanks to everyone who contributed to this conversation – and especially Dr. Norland Tellez, for taking the time to directly engage your readers.

Two takeaways from this exchange occur to me:

One is the awareness that mythologizing is always going on, under the surface, both in our individual psyches as well as the collective psyche of the greater society – but these are unconscious processes: we are generally not aware of them. As Norland points out, in ancient India the caste system was shaped by and reinforced through that culture’s mythology, though those who lived inside that bubble didn’t think of their mythology as “myth,” but simply “what is.”

We can look back today and see the central role mythology played in their culture because we live outside that bubble; however, what we don’t see are the bubbles we inhabit: whether in our individual lives, or the culture-at-large, we remain generally unaware of the mythological dynamics driving our bus.

One of Joseph Campbell’s most potent observations is that we don’t live in a culture shaped by one prevailing myth anymore – but that doesn’t mean there are no “living mythologies” in the world today. Islam, Catholicism and other Christian denominations, and even communism, all share qualities of a living mythology among their most devoted adherents (Communism? Well, Campbell made a compelling case that communism, as practiced in the old Soviet Union and Mao’s China, conformed to the pattern of a Levantine mythology – Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam – with its revelations and sacred scriptures, its prophets, it’s linear concept of time with a blissful global utopia at the end [the workers’ paradise] when the forces of Good finally triumph over the forces of Evil, etc.; the only function of living mythology this secular version misses is the first of the four Campbell posits: the mystical or metaphysical function).

Norland subtly makes a compelling case that we, too, are subject to unconscious mythic forces shaping our culture. In the United States this includes the concepts of manifest destiny, American exceptionalism, and an unbridled faith in capitalism and the power of the free market (faith indeed, as we have never experienced a true free market), not to mention the unconscious racial myths that drive our behavior.

Awareness – bringing what is unconscious into the light – is the first step in depotentiating the power of these unconscious forces to compel collective behaviors; alas, that is often a painful and revolutionary process. We experienced a bit of that late spring into summer in the United States in the wake of the George Floyd murder, which triggered a powerful confrontation with society’s collective shadow for so many who had ignored or stuffed these issues in the past.

But that’s just a first step.

My second takeaway from this conversation is the tension between the two poles of the Campbellian universe. There is an academic side to Joseph Campbell’s work, in the best sense (yes, Joe had his problems with the academy, but he also relied on the work of specialists when conducting his research, and did his best to document and reference what he had found: some of Campbell’s best academic work appears in several of the essays in The Flight of the Wild Gander).

But his work also has broad popular appeal – especially in the areas of self-actualization and self-improvement (such as the embrace of the trajectory of the hero journey motif as a road map to life), not to mention in the woo-woo of things-that-go-bump-in-the-night.

At the Joseph Campbell Foundation, that’s a fine line we walk, that delicate balance between the academic and the popular appeals of Campbell’s work. For Joseph Campbell it was not an either / or proposition – and so it is at JCF, where we inhabit that tension: no one side is allowed to capture the flag.

I found a few of the exchanges over the course of this discussion reflecting that tension. That’s not to suggest that any individual post was either right or wrong – far from it – but rather an illustration that there is more than one way to approach myth.

No doubt the conversation will continue, whether tomorrow, or next week, next month, or two years from now when someone new to the forums stumbles across this thread and revives it, adding her or his own thoughts. For now, though, I’d like to thank Norland for his generosity of time and spirit. I have no doubt we’ll see more ripples spreading out from the pebble he  has tossed into the pond.