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Reply To: The Way of Art and Two-Way Roads” with Mythologist Craig Deininger”


Dear Jamesn,

No worries at all on what you call “clumsy descriptions” as I am quite the clumsy descriptor myself.

And here I was thinking that in this forum I’d get some easy stuff to work with, and instead I meet up with others every bit as earnest (if not more) as I am, to get to the heart of it. Well, thank god I don’t have the answers. There, that takes the pressure off.

I just want to preface with your addressing Campbell’s emphasis that he is not a Jungian, parallels so sharply in my mind with Jung claiming that his paintings and other works were (emphatically) not art. And to approach them as such was to miss the boat (like, of the Amduat, if I may). And that opens a whole new frontier of exploration into what art is and, more so, what it is not. But one mountain at a time!

Let me get back on topic with what felt to me the pithiest part of your post, and that is Campbell’s claiming of autonomy in approaching and interpreting the “common” symbols in myth. Of how he employs the work of Zimmer and Jung, sure, but he makes them his own. And Jung, I think, would do nothing less than applaud this.

Campbell addresses the ideas he’s gotten from others, acknowledges them, but emphasizes this business of making these one’s own! If somebody wants to be like their guru, and I mean really be like their guru, then they must do as their guru does, and be precisely themselves. Marie Louise von Franz tells a story of a man who went to Jung to get answers on what happens after death, and Jung told him you have to formulate or encounter your own version. And then von Franz says, with a twinkle in her eye, “You cannot quote Jung in the dying moment. That will not help you.”

And this parallels rather precisely with encountering and interpreting symbols. Since the perceiving consciousness is necessarily involved in what the “meaning” (though I think a better word is “experience”) of a symbol is. It MUST be our own. Sure, there are centers of gravity to “common” symbols (which a Jungian would call “archetypal”), but even those have their varying shades within that commonality dependent on the observer, context, and so on. It is the same, and I guess I’m forming a clumsy analogy here, with ideas. Yes, this is Campbell’s idea, this is Zimmer’s, this is Jung’s. But then the next level is what they are to “me?” Have I made them “my own?” which is the only place they will be alive anyway–in ‘my’ psyche. And Campbell says in that quote you shared, that it involves taking the “risk,” having the courage of claiming one’s own adventure.

Everyone’s so worried about being original and about not taking content that’s not theirs. In academia, it’s called plagiarism. Business has patent rights, and all that. But that’s different from what I’m talking about here, which I would call “assimilation” or “integration.” It reminds me of when I was in my first MFA poetry workshop and a student was worried they had inadvertently written a line that had been written by someone else. And our teacher quoted T. S. Eliot: “Good poets borrow. Great poets steal.” There’s that courage and risk that Campbell is talking about. Sure, there are gradations and all, but the hidden kernel of autonomy is there.

Or on a more practical approach, is when I told my dissertation advisor that I wouldn’t be doing the dissertation because I came for the knowledge, not the degree. I told him I had taken all the classes and done (not quite) all of the reading. In other words, I had it. Anyway, he was a very influential force and dissuaded me. So I wrote the thing over the next five years. And here’s the big discovery from that: by writing it, by translating it into Craig, so to speak, the content of others became, in its way, mine. It was straight up alchemy: the prima materia in the alembic above the slow fire being worked and witnessed by my participating consciousness. So now I emphasize to my students: if you want to learn something read about it. If you want to own it, write about it. And that goes for what one reads.

Anyway, I think the bottom line is autonomy. Which is the work of individuation. I could steal so and so’s olympic gold medal, but then I’d just have an elaborate necklace. Better, I could study his sprinting techniques, practice them, integrate them to my style, and next time around steal the race. And get the gold medal on top of it.

Anyway, it’s late out here and I’m starting to get really clumsy. There’s so much more in what you shared that was left unaddressed, I know.