I think that it is important to reflect on ways one can cultivate a living relationship with myths and symbols. The approach Joseph Campbell employed in his 1949 book Hero with a Thousand Faces was, in part, through hermeneutics. And this hermeneutic was largely grounded in the specific approach of depth psychology: Freud’s Psychoanalysis and Jung’s Analytical Psychology. Critical to this discussion is consideration of how one approaches the image.
One can certainly approach the image through the process of interpretation. And such interpretation can certainly hold the view that the surface form of an image is a “childish disguise that distorts and hides a latent truth beating within.” Crucially, these are not necessary approaches to the image. Beginning with the latter point, to see the manifest image as a childish disguise is to prevent the fullest experience of it. A far better approach, one which respects the image and how it has chosen to reveal itself, is that it is just so, complete in itself just as it appears. The image, then, requires nothing more. It is a single image whose meanings are infinite. This demonstrates a necessary humility on our part. To see the image from the contrast of manifest vs. latent is, in my opinion, highly problematic. Furthermore, it is critical we understand that interpretation by whatever means is not the only way of experiencing the image. There are numerous other ways, some which work to deepen the experience of the image by focusing on how it appears to us – carefully noticing subtleties in its manifestation. This sentiment is wonderfully expressed by Jung and very much embodies the approach of James Hillman in his school of depth psychology called Archetypal Psychology:
Image and meaning are identical; and as the first takes shape, the latter becomes clear. Actually, the pattern needs no interpretation: it portrays its own meaning.
Given that Campbell’s book is far more than just the interpretation of myth, one does question whether the heroes of it really are Freud and Jung. In my opinion, to make myth a distinctly modern experience is not through its interpretation, but by cultivating a living experience of the myth in modern times. This is why Campbell’s second step described in his Preface is absolutely critical: “The second step will be then to bring together a host of myths and folk tales from every corner of the world, and to let the symbols speak for themselves.” Thus, interpretation can be, but is not necessarily, a beginning of experiencing myth, one which is appropriate for some, but not for all individuals.
The hero, then, could be considered to be that person who, in great humility, encounters the image/myth as it has chosen to appear and first gives of themselves to deep and profound appreciation of the image and the deepening of its experience. One does this so that the image now lives in that person, a life which is further cultivated by sustained engagement with it rather than a relationship which is broken off once the individual thinks they understand the image.
One more thing. Campbell’s relationship with Jung’s work is quite complex. An excellent work of scholarship on this is Dr. Ritske Rensma’s book The Innateness of Myth: A New Interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s Reception of C.G. Jung (see enclosed link below) which explores Campbell’s reception of Jung’s work and proposes that this reception can be understood as consisting of three distinct phases – phase one (1943–1959) where there is a certain scholarly distance with Jung’s work and where Freud and Jung were of equal importance, phase two 1959–1968 where Campbell dismissed Jung, and phase three 1968–1988 where Jung’s work is emphatically embraced by Campbell.
Robert E. Juliano, Ph.D.