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Ego, Irony, and the Goddess,” with Bradley Olson, Ph.D.”

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    Bradley Olson, Ph.D. – writer, depth psychologist, editor of JCF’s MythBlast essay series, and host of Pathways with Joseph Campbell, the flagship program in JCF’s MythMaker Podcast Network –  joins us in Conversations of a Higher Order to discuss this week’s MythBlast: “Ego, Irony, and the Goddess” (click on title to read).

    Though I’ll lead off with a general question or two, please keep in mind this is not an interview, but an opportunity for readers to share impressions, observations, insights and questions with Dr. Olson about his essay – which is what makes this a true “conversation of a higher order.”

    Brad, thank you for taking the time to come play with us in COHO – “serious” play, if you will. On first read, several key thoughts from your essay keep bouncing through my head, starting with “The ego’s insistence that its own reflection is really reality is made more complicated by the fact that, simply put, we do not know ourselves.” At some point in the conversation I’d also like to return to the distinction you make between popular misconceptions about archetypes and “the reality, and especially the force, of the archetypal”

    . . . but, before we start unpacking your essay, would you mind sharing for readers a little bit about how and when you first encountered the work of Joseph Campbell? What drew you to myth – and to depth psychology, for that matter? Do you actively employ myth in sessions with clients, or do you keep it in the background, supplying necessary context?

    That should get us started. I don’t want to hog the conversation, so I will circle back later to some of my key take-aways from your essay.

    Bradley Olson

      Hi, Stephen

      Thanks for the opportunity to interact with the COHO community. I first became aware of Campbell in the very early 1990’s through the repeated showings of The Power of Myth on PBS. I was captivated by Campbell’s charismatic command of mythology, it’s stories, and the way he extracted meaning from them.

      At the time I was working in a large private practice in Scottsdale, AZ, and was feeling dissatisfied with what I believed to be a lack of imagination, creativity, and poetry in the field of psychology and psychotherapy in general. In watching Campbell’s interview with Bill Moyers, I was immediately struck by the therapeutic value of Campbell’s understanding of mythology, and that reading myth was an intensely personal act of reconnecting to one’s self as well as the world; that the deep self freed of ego distortion was a gift to be shared with the world.

      I was already psychoanalytically inclined, having done my own therapy with a psychoanalyst and pursuing psychoanalytic training while in a Ph.D. program in psychology, but Campbell was really the first person I encountered who made Freud and Jung seem like a synthesized whole, two halves of the same coin. This led to me receiving my Ph.D. in mythological studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute where I was profoundly influenced by both Christine Downing and David Miller who continued to help me find ways to unify Freud and Jung intellectually, practically, emotionally and theoretically.

      I tend to approach mythology from a literary perspective, which is probably no surprise to those of you who are familiar with my MythBlasts. The reason being is that literature (of which mythology is an inescapable foundation) gives a reader the opportunity to see themselves in a less subjective, less self-critical, less self-judgmental way because myth forces one to regard the world and human nature as it is, rather than as we want it to be. The idea of developing mythic thinking is more useful to me than mythic narratives by themselves. But of course, one can’t develop mythic thinking without reading and understanding the mythic narratives themselves. We learn to see mythically, which then encourages the ironic double vision which allows one to see into and through manifest appearances the world throws up to us and begin to apperceive a more metaphysical, transcendent reality which can’t, I believe, be fully understood, known, nor predicted.

      Another thing that draws me to Campbell and his work is that he was a beautiful and highly skilled writer. No one else in the field of mythological studies writes as well as wrote. James Hillman, of course, comes close as a writer, but Hillman was more of a romantic while Campbell was a modernist to the core, and this made Campbell more experimental, more personal, more subtly experimental in his writing that is as not all that different from James Joyce’s erudition, or Wallace Stevens fascination with the sublime. In fact, Stevens once wrote that a poem should resist the intelligence “almost successfully.” This is exactly the manner in which Campbell works with myth, and this is the reason psychotherapy done with this in mind is so…therapeutic.

      Thanks to all of you who support and enjoy the Joseph Campbell Foundation in general, and the MythBlast Series in particular. I look forward to the ongoing discussion.

      Dennis Slattery

        Brad, I thoroughly enjoyed your wonderful introduction to the Goddess theme. But I was particularly drawn to your insights on irony, a feature, or attitude of consciousness that has interested me over the years. I like the way you write of the ego’s most un-ironic stance in the world and the way that irony creates space within ourselves.

        I want to share briefly, apropos the theme of the Goddess. I wrote some years ago about the myth of Narcissus and Echo. There I postulated that when Narcissus spurns Echo’s advances before reaching the virginal waters of the pond, where he becomes transfixed, that his fixation is the consequence of his spurning irony in the figure of Echo. When we can hear ourselves, truly resonate with our own words or thoughts, we gain that sense of irony that does not allow us to be too serious about ourselves. That Echo return to Narcissus his own words gives him that opportunity to create space between his own pronouncements and who he is. Fixation accrues when we lose Echo, a point that you are making in your own language of your fine essay.

        I ran across a book I have owned for decades the other day that I want to make you aware of: Images of Faith: An Exploration of the Ironic Imagination by the Jesuit priest, William J. Lynch (1973). It is a fine study, matched only by his Christ and Apollo: the Dimensions of the Literary Imagination, which I mention here because we share a deep love of the poetic imagination. Thanks for a wonderful lift-off, Brad. Most enjoyable.

        Bradley Olson

          Dennis, thank you for your kind words about my essay. Yes, the story of Narcissus and Echo is veritably dripping with irony. In fact, every word Echo speaks is ironic, cloaked as it is in that double vision I mentioned in the essay; words not hers but deeply felt by her as her own. I agree that irony helps us, frees us really, from a too serious sense of self and lets us take ourselves and the reality of our lives more lightly. Thanks for the book recommendations; it seems that whenever we have a conversation there’s always a book or two bought. Speaking of irony, Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, and God is a brilliant and beautiful combination of Carson’s poetic genius and her incomparably smart essays. Thank you again for your comments, it was lovely to hear from you.


          Dear Bradley Olson,

          I have been listening to the Joseph Campbell Podcasts with you as the host, and I would like to take a minute and express my gratitude to the way you summarize Joe’s lectures, and consolidate the core points towards the end. I am referring to  EP 6:( Living Your Personal My) and Ep 7. Your voice too is immensely pleasant to listen to. I can listen to these podcasts over and over again, and never get tired.  Did not Joe say somewhere, that a person’s voice has a lot to convey to you —- Listen to the sound carefully. I do not recall where he said it, but each time I listen to the podcasts, I am reminded of Joe’s words on the ‘sound of one’s voice’.

          Sorry, I have not read your essay yet, but shall soon read and comment.

          Shaheda Rizvi (says many thanks)



          Bradley Olson

            Many thanks, Shaahayda, for your greatly appreciated comments regarding the Pathways With Joseph Campbell podcast. This podcast is such a delight for me to research and host, and it’s gratifying to hear of your enjoyment of it. I am not familiar with Professor Campbell’s remark about one’s voice, but it is surely appreciated.

            Thank you for taking the time to share your enthusiasm about what is certainly one of my favorite ways of contributing to the Joseph Campbell Foundation.

            With warm regards,



            Dear Dr. Olson,

            I read with utmost interest your wonderful essay on ‘Ego, Irony and the Goddess’. Your insights on irony took me to a stage in my own life.  You write, “Irony turns things inside out and upside down; it upends and reverses things; irony deconstructs and overthrows, it draws attention to the discrepancy between literal meaning and essential meaning.” Is there a Goddess that then sets the record straight?

            Away from mythic realms and poetic insights — there is such a thing as practical irony, and  it’s just the way courtroom dramas take place. It’s called the law of the land. It’s called the sociological function of a mythology. It’s the way lawyers defend and prosecute in lawsuits.  They turn the record upside down, they upend and reverse things. Their unrelated manufactured evidence sets and defines one’s record, while the issue that was the origin of the lawsuit is totally forgotten — it’s left drowning in darkness.

            You write, “Irony is the indispensable attitude for engaging the goddess in her depths and darkness—darkness that places the radiance of transcendence in bold relief. Irony is life’s language; it grants one multiple points of view, it lets one see oneself seeing oneself, and mercifully, irony saves us from sarcasm, cynicism, and desuetude, the demoralized manifestations of broken hearts.  ” Those are poetic and sublime words. My hope is that this “Sweet Irony”  stirs the goddess and places radiance of transcendence to all those who face these dark periods, whether behind prison walls, or outside the prison, and for whom, there is not a soul in sight to see their side.

            Through irony might we see more deeply into the metaphor that is life, and in so seeing grow wiser, more joyful, humbler, and indeed, more compassionate?”

            Yes indeed. In answering that question, ‘ll go back to what you quoted a while ago.

            Shaahayda (With gratitude)

            Bradley Olson

              You are right, Shaahayda, to relate courtroom drama to the sociological function of myth. But the issue of distorting the record, manufacturing evidence and the like, isn’t a use of irony. That is simply lying. Deception, fraud, propaganda, and similar rhetorical tropes are not properly ironic. One might, however, reflect on one’s unpleasant courtroom experience after the fact in an ironic matter. Irony has the quality of pointing to and highlighting truth, it has the awareness of the dual nature of things. There is an ample supply of irony to draw from; Two soothsayers cannot meet without smirking at each other, writes Cicero. I feel I am becoming a god, said a dying emperor. Oscar Wilde’s last words were said to have been, “Either that wall paper goes or I do.” These examples show the power of irony to cut through obfuscation, hubris, and ornamentation.

              Thank you again for your lovely compliments; I am grateful and so pleased to be able to have these kinds of conversations.


              Dear Dr. Olson,

              Thank you for your generous response and setting me right on the difference between deception/lies and irony. I suppose I confused the upside down, inside out, manufactured  data with   the outcome, which was indeed the irony — the courtroom drama and events that followed were so ironic that I did not know whether to laugh or cry, literally.

              So for irony, my take was that it’s generally an unforeseen outcome, a false testimony from one you considered your bosom friend, the very individual you thought would accord safety and security, hands you over to the firing squad, and a host of  incongruous statements.

              You wrote, “Irony is the indispensable attitude for engaging the goddess in her depths and darkness—darkness that places the radiance of transcendence in bold relief. Irony is life’s language; it grants one multiple points of view…” It sure did. And what makes me laugh and cry, and perhaps you might smile a little too.  So Just imagine, unbeknown to you, your bosom friend is about to hand you over to the cops — the cops really know more about the friend than you do, so they ask you to stay a few feet apart, and not say a word. You think the cops are acting against your interest, and the day comes when you file your motion against the cops in the kangaroo  court, and describe your friend thus:

              “The quality of mercy is not strained.
              It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
              Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
              It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” (William Shakespeare)

               Yes indeed, “Irony is the indispensable attitude for engaging the goddess in her depths and darkness—darkness that places the radiance of transcendence in bold relief.

              Shaahayda (with gratitude)




              I wanted to jump back to this essay of yours Bradley:  “Ego, Irony and the Goddess.” Just read it last night.

              You write: Irony is the indispensable attitude for engaging the goddess in her depths and darkness—darkness that places the radiance of transcendence in bold relief. Irony is life’s language; it grants one multiple points of view, it lets one see oneself seeing oneself, and mercifully, irony saves us from sarcasm, cynicism, and desuetude, the demoralized manifestations of broken hearts.

              When you mention multiple points of view, to me that conveys almost a hawk or birds eye view…something out of the fray, which sees more clearly? And remains untethered and free of prevailing tangles?

              I am curious Bradley: What do you think of Cognitive Dissonance? After reading your essay, I would take that Cognitive Dissonance is an imbalance in the ego…which is stubbornly unable to see itself and remains in an unhealthy state because of refusing to see its split image in the mirror,,

              BUT Irony can recognize Cognitive Dissonance and is perhaps its antidote? (Because Irony can SEE from many point of views but is not required to invest Belief in them? That it’s granted that objective gift of seeing many views at once and it’s a much healthier place to be?)

              What are your thoughts on this?


              Your ending paragraph is so beautiful and moving and painfully true!


              Perhaps you’ve looked around and noticed how unforgiving and thoughtless culture is becoming; aesthetic sensibilities wane as we flirt with the neo-brutalism that encroaches upon so many aspects of contemporary life. Is it possible that irony may free us from the conventional constraining literalism of existence? Through irony might we see more deeply into the metaphor that is life, and in so seeing grow wiser, more joyful, humbler, and indeed, more compassionate?


              I feel it everyday…and the Hope for something else…

              There are days when one thinks that looking in the mirror would be good ALL around.

              And other days we are just doing the best we can.

              Your last question feels like a prayer or a small flame lighting the darkness…

              It is really beautiful…

              Through irony might we see more deeply into the metaphor that is life, and in so seeing grow wiser, more joyful, humbler, and indeed, more compassionate?

              I love it! We have become so serious yet deeply long for that laughter and joy…even if we are hurting too much to see it. Irony can be a freeing and healing place to be…Thank you for reminding us Bradley!







              Bradley Olson

                Thank you again, Sunbug.

                I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it may indeed be a prayer.

                And I want to add how much I enjoy your responses, not just to me, but to other authors as well. It’s very generous of you to take the time to respond in the heartfelt way that you do. I’m grateful…

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