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The Man Behind the Myth: Should We Question the Hero’s Journey?””

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    Robert Juliano

      In an early release of the September, 2021 edition of The Atlantic, there was a most interesting article on Dr. Maria Tatar’s soon to be published book entitled The Heroine with 1001 Faces (see enclosed link [B]), the title of which the author of the review chose Joseph Campbell’s Woman Problem. Since that article was published, there have been a number of comments in favor of and against Joseph Campbell on social media. Recently, there was an article of substance posted by Dr. Sarah Bond, Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa and the director of Undergraduate Studies, and Dr. Joel Christensen, Professor and Chair of Classical Studies at Brandeis University and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the School of Arts and Sciences, entitled The Man Behind the Myth: Should We Question the Hero’s Journey?. So far, this article has been well received, but not by me. While it raises some issues with which I largely agree, overall, I find it to be deeply problematic.

      There are a number of legitimate criticisms of Campbell’s proposal of a Monomyth in his 1949 book Hero with a Thousand Faces, the theory that there is a particular pattern which underlies all of myth, a pattern which he called “the hero’s journey.” Since its publication, there have been a number of works of scholarship which have challenged this proposal, some of them successfully defended dissertations, and many with specific counterexamples (i.e., myths which do not fit the pattern such as the Sumerian myth The Descent of Inanna). Furthermore, there have been legitimate criticisms that the fundamental pattern is primarily a male path (e.g., Dr. Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey and Dr. Maria Tatar’s The Heroine with 1001 Faces). And there have been legitimate criticisms on the choices Campbell made regarding the materials he included in his book.

      However, the title of this article purports to explore the man behind this myth, yet the article says almost nothing specific about Joseph Campbell the author! On the contrary, it is at best suggestive, using polarizing language such as “it is a lie” or “cherry picking” or “toxically masculine, heteronormative view,” or tying him with the controversial figure of Jordan Peterson. One could be forgiven for seeing the Joseph Campbell which emerges from this article as an evil villain.

      And so I decided to reflect on Joseph Campbell and his Monomyth and respond in this note to some of the points made in the article. Before beginning these reflections, it is worth remembering that Hero with a Thousand Faces was the first book Campbell published as sole author, and that he was still in the beginnings of the upward trajectory of his scholarly life. He began the book in 1943 during WWII while he was teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, an all girls school at that time. This was a world divided, the carnage being prosecuted and the heavy loss of life on all sides almost unimaginable. It was in this context that the book first took form.

      Organic Scholarship and the Emergence of Hero with a Thousand Faces

      Joseph Campbell did not pursue his doctoral degree in major part because he wanted to pursue scholarship in an organic way, following the paths which beckoned him instead of those which did not. His reading, therefore, did not involve linear paths from A to B, but instead was far more circuitous where only in the end would he know where he had been led. It was out of this pattern of reading that his booklist for his class on comparative mythology would emerge, and it was the texts in this list which would serve as part of the raw material for his book. It is most unfortunate that the article conflated “cherry picking” with this more inner, centered-driven scholarship.

      Campbell originally intended to write a book on how to read a myth. This makes sense given his experience in developing a “skeleton key” for James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake which he co-authored in 1944. It was Joyce’s enigmatic Ulysses which forced Campbell, then a graduate student abroad in Europe, to seek help because he could not understand the book. He would receive that help from Sylvia Beach who ran the bookstore in Paris called “Shakespeare and Company.” Sylvia Beach had helped Joyce publish Ulysses in the first place, and it was she who taught Campbell how to read it. Thus, early drafts of Campbell’s book was less about the hero and more about how to read myths. The enclosed passage is from the early drafts of the book, but one which Campbell decided not to include in the final version, and it is quite beautiful and worth reading:

      Myth is as fluid as water: without forfeiting its character, it assumes and vivifies whatever shape the conditions of time and space may require. Gentle as the blossoming of spring flowers, it flourishes in the gardens of the planting-folk of the Sudan. Hard and strong as flint, it flies with the arrow of the Cheyenne hunter. Terrible as fire, it rides fiercely over the steppes with the Hun. Slow, magnificent in its towering as the growth of a giant tree, it burgeons multifariously and mightily in the great cultures of the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and Ganges, the Yangtze and Huang-ho, Peru, Yucatan and the isles of Greece. . . . A spectacle of brilliant myth transformations, a magnificence of wildly colliding and intermelting forms, is revealed through the long history of the Americas. Ours is a continent where waves from all directions have sloshed against each other and broken. The land itself, furthermore, has given forth a mythology of its own.

      In putting together this book and undergoing five years of rewriting, editing, etc., he was writing out of his center, the fullness of his being. And with the violence of the war and the great divisions of the world, is it any wonder that he would have been attracted to those commonalities which we all share? In the forward to the book, Campbell wrote:

      My hope is that a comparative elucidation may contribute to the perhaps not-quite-desperate cause of those forces that are working in the present world for unification, not in the name of some ecclesiastical or political empire, but in the sense of human mutual understanding. As we are told in the Vedas: ‘Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.’

      Depth Psychology and the Hero’s Journey

      Accounting for the existence of myth and the underlying pattern, the Monomyth, is not fully accomplished in Campbell’s book, but it is suggestive of a closer tie between myth and the unconscious. Initially, the depth psychologies of both Freud (Psychoanalysis) and Jung (Analytical Psychology) were employed primarily to interpret myths, but later Campbell would come to posit the source of myths to be the unconscious and to consider the explanation by Jung that similarities among myths were due to the organization provided by particular contents of the deep (collective) unconscious called archetypes. In Campbell’s Pathways to Bliss, he wrote:

      I would like now to review the archetypal myth of the hero’s journey as I dealt with it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This is what Joyce called the monomyth: an archetypal story that springs from the collective unconscious. Its motifs can appear not only in myth and literature, but, if you are sensitive to it, in the working out of the plot of your own life.

      The hero’s journey would eventually be tied to another notion within depth psychology; that of individuation, a process consciously enacted resulting, deo concedente, in personal transformation, a notion fundamentally different than the “individualism” discussed in the article. Crucially, Campbell did not see, as the article holds, that myth is solely a social construction.

      Prescriptive Elements of the Hero’s Journey

      It has been alleged that Campbell intended the hero’s journey to be prescriptive. I never read the book that way. But, if there is a feeling like the hero’s journey is prescriptive, then the reason may be as follows. Campbell came to believe that the individual quest and the individual path embodied best the authentic spiritual path of the West. One of Campbell’s favorite passages in all of Grail literature which embodies this individual path comes from La Queste del Saint Graal, a 13th century text written by an unknown author:

      They [the knights of the Round Table] thought that it would be a disgrace to go forth [on the quest for the Grail unveiled] as a group. So, each entered the forest at a point that he himself had chosen, where there was no path and where it was darkest.

      He also felt very strongly that the West needed to find its own way forward, and this is compellingly expressed by Dr. Heinrich Zimmer in Philosophies of India, a book that Campbell edited (and completed when Dr. Zimmer passed):

      We of the Occident are about to arrive at a crossroads that was reached by the thinkers of India some seven hundred years before Christ. This is the real reason why we become both vexed and stimulated, uneasy yet interested, when confronted with the concepts and images of Oriental wisdom. This crossing is one to which the people of all civilizations come in the typical course of the development of their capacity and requirement for religious experience, and India’s teachings force us to realize what its problems are. But we cannot take over the Indian solutions. We must enter the new period our own way and solve its questions for ourselves, because though truth, the radiance of reality, is universally one and the same, it is mirrored variously according to the mediums in which it is reflected. Truth appears differently in different lands and ages according to the living materials out of which its symbols are hewn.

      Thus, if there is a hint of the prescriptive in the book, it is likely to relate to anticipations of Campbell’s later work in which this individual path was more fully explored.

      Issues with the Hero with a Thousand Faces‘ Sources/Bibliography

      There are two claims within the article about Campbell’s bibliography which are untenable – that it was “light” and that Campbell was “particularly averse to growing fields like sociology or anthropology.” In the commemorative edition of the book, the staff of the Joseph Campbell and Marija Gimbutas Library prepared a definitive bibliography of works Campbell consulted. This bibliography includes more than 300+ works, together comprising a true multidisciplinary approach to comparative mythology. Furthermore, pride of place was given to the work of anthropologists such as Adolf Bastian, Franz Boas, James Frazer, and especially ethnologist Arnold van Gennep, author of Rite of Passage, which was the inspiration for the nuclear unit of the monomyth (separation, initiation, return).

      Having said this, there is legitimacy in critiquing the choice and content of Campbell’s sources in terms of the lack of diversity in authors (e.g., the often stated recommendation to include more scholarship from non-white males). Here, I am reminded of the work Dr. Carrie Dohe did in her excellent book Jung’s Wandering Archetype: Race and Religion in Analytical Psychology. There, she explored the intellectual traditions Jung pulled from and the subtle problematic views incorporated in late 19th century intellectual scholarship on subjects such as race, cultural development, etc. Certainly such scholarship would be most welcome with respect to the intellectual traditions from which Campbell pulled.

      “Follow your Bliss,” the Deeply Misunderstood Path

      Campbell explained how he arrived at his famous “follow your bliss” recommendation. The “bliss” is the “ānanda” of “satcitānanda” found in, for example, the Brahmanic Upanishads (in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, it says “It is Brahman which is absolute being, knowledge, and bliss.”). Campbell, in the fullness of his life, was to learn Sanskrit and work with this ancient language with Indologist Dr. Heinrich Zimmer, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, and Swami Nikhilananda. Thus, Campbell would develop a reasonably nuanced and experiential understanding of satcitānanda. But, “follow your bliss” is deeply misunderstood. It expresses the notion of following the subtlety of one’s authenticity, one’s center, the clue of which is experienced as “bliss.” It is not a path of hedonism. But, living out of one’s authenticity/center can result in an exceedingly dangerous life, sometimes involving great suffering and turmoil. “Follow your bliss” should also be considered in the context of Campbell’s view of the “affirmation of life.” Life affirmation is done by affirming life in all of its beauty and all of its pain. Campbell would stress this “affirmation of life” in his last interviews before he passed.


      Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

      Jung’s Wandering Archetype: Race and Religion in Analytical Psychology by Carrie Dohe

      Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind by Stephen and Robin Larsen

      The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock

      The Innateness of Myth A New Interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s Reception of C. G. Jung by Ritske Rensma

      The Philosophies of India by Heinrich Zimmer

      Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

      Additional Resources

      A. The Man Behind the Myth: Should We Question the Hero’s Journey?

      B. Joseph Campbell’s Woman Problem in The Atlantic

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