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A Lovely Nothing

BY Bradley Olson November 28, 2021

Paul Henry, Killarney, Co. Kerry, Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 cm, Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art, Heritage Gift from the McClelland Collection by Noel and Anne Marie Smyth, 2004

Readers of the MythBlast Series will, no doubt, detect a Joycean flavor to this month’s offerings not only from the highlighted text, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork, but also from the monthly theme of Return. Finnegans Wake is a novel that eternally returns—quite literally in terms of its composition (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s…”), and more phantasmically, like a recurring, haunting dream of life. Finnegans Wake also suggests the return to consciousness of repressed multiplicities of me-ness, awareness of which is generally sacrificed for the sake of a more orderly, logical sense of selfhood, or relational continuity and social harmony.

Ending a letter to his son, George, James Joyce wrote: “Here I conclude. My eyes are tired. For over half a century they have gazed into nullity, where they have found a lovely nothing.” Lionel Trilling goes on to remark on Joyce’s observation: “…Joyce can be understood to say that human existence is nullity right enough, yet if it is looked into with a vision such as his, the nothing that can be perceived really is lovely, though the maintenance of the vision is fatiguing work.” (The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews, 1965-75) What is it that Joyce and Trilling understand about human existence that they can declare the nothingness to be lovely?

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A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake coverNothingness perpetually encompasses us, inhabits us in the form of the unrecoverable memories and phenomena transformed by consciousness into vague intuitions or unanswerable questions of what we were before we were born and where we’re headed when we die. When we speak of nothingness, of no-thingness, we’re not speaking of emptiness, we’re not speaking of oblivion—and we know we’re not because we feel the disturbing presence of nothing attending our every mood. Nothingness is analogous to Chaos in its archaic Greek sense: the primordial source from which all order comes, and by which it is maintained.

Joseph Campbell tells us that “The self is void, the world is void; heaven, earth, and the space between are void: in this rapture, there is neither virtue nor sin.” (The Masks of God, Volume 4: Creative Mythology, 88. Emphasis is mine.) Rapture is a quality of the void, of the lovely nothing which constellates the energetic rivers of life running in and around and through us, creating and sustaining life everywhere, circulating back around into the void from which it simultaneously arises. When we inquire into nothingness as an absence of something, or as an alternative to or lack of something, we’re asking the wrong question. Shadows and holes have locations and even qualities of temporality, but they don’t consist of matter. Nothing is not a negativity contingent on some positive something.

Joyce’s nullity is a reality so unimaginably rich, so pregnant with inconceivable possibility, that only surreal, lyrical, dream-like language such as that of Finnegans Wake can come close to capturing it. Silence, for instance, is often thought of as nothing, but silence is not merely the opposite of sound. Silence surrounds language, it’s a place where reason, logic, and even time itself cannot intrude. What we hear as silence a dog hears as noise, John Cage heard silence as music, and Cage himself said that “These sounds (which are called silence only because they do not form part of a musical intention) may be depended upon to exist. The world teems with them, and is, in fact, at no point free of them.” (Alex Ross, Searching for Silence, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010)

Martin Heidegger insists that human existence is fundamentally a revelation of Nothingness. Jean-Paul Sartre went so far as to say that Being IS nothingness. Nothingness belongs to essence itself, and it issues forth Being. But logic tends to break down in the face of Nothingness because logic exists in relationship to matter and time, qualities that bear no relationship to the unimaginable, the unthinkable, or to no-thingness. Transcendence and nothingness are, I believe, synonymous. Experiencing the transcendent essence of being, we instantly become aware of Nothingness as the ground of being, an entirely unanthropomorphic world in which a human being is simply another thing existing alongside all other things.

Freud once remarked of his own theories that they tended to, like the theories of Copernicus or Darwin, diminish man’s pride. While that may be one of the greatest humblebrags ever uttered, the lovely nullity has a similar power to absorb and disturb us in secret ways, diminish our pride; it puts us human beings in our place in the world, and in the order of things. And as I read it, this is one of the aims of Joyce’s bewildering Finnegans Wake. Similarly, that is the aim of myth: myths are, to my way of thinking, the disclosures of Nothingness that otherwise remain frustratingly enigmatic allow us to explore, or at least wonder about, humanity’s place in the world and that which lay beyond the last thought and the final cause. Myths are projections of Being much in the same way that Being is a projection of Nothingness.

Human existence and the Nothingness from which it’s projected can’t be grasped by the logical, reasoning mind, but myth gives form to the void, and in a manner of speaking, it nullifies the appearance of nullity and perhaps most importantly, myth offers a consoling embrace that allows one to, at least emotionally, grasp the fecundity and freedom of Joyce’s lovely nullity. How many times have we, disheartened, muttered, “nothing matters?” It turns out that nothing matters a great deal, in fact, nothing is everything! Nothing is always, and in all ways, mattering! Nothingness contains within itself all the constituent elements of life: birth and death, astonishment and possibility, fulfillment and pain, potentiality and pathos. That lovely nothing upon which Joyce gazed, is nothing less than the dynamism of life. “Finally,” writes Campbell, “the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form—all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.” (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, 163)


Thanks for reading,

Best regards, Bradley Olson, Ph.D. About Brad  Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.

Monthly Gift

The Way of Art

Our gift to you this month is eSingle. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

In this extraordinary conclusion to The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell explores art as a tool for “mythopoesis,” or the creation of new myths for a new world. The artist, he argues, is the new hero, and the creation of art—of what James Joyce called proper art—is the perilous adventure on which artists must journey in order to bring back the boon of myth and meaning.

News & Updates

By the reckoning of the Salish People’s lunar calendar, this is the month of the “elder moon,” a time to retreat from the harsh winter season to the warmth of the home, a time to revere the tribal elders and hear the ancestral stories.

Weekly Quote

Mythology — and therefore civilization — is a poetic, supernormal image, conceived, like all poetry, in depth, but susceptible of interpretation on various levels. The shallowest minds see in it the local scenery; the deepest, the foreground of the void; and between are all the stages of the Way from the ethnic to the elementary idea, the local to the universal being, which is Everyman, as he both knows and is afraid to know. For the human mind in its polarity of the male and female modes of experience, in its passages from infancy to adulthood and old age, in its toughness and tenderness, and in its continuing dialogue with the world, is the ultimate mythogenetic zone — the creator and destroyer, the slave and yet the master, of all the gods.

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Myth Resources

NYPL Archives: Joseph Campbell Papers

The Joseph Campbell papers date from 1905 to 1995 (bulk dates 1930s-1980s), and consist of materials related to Campbell’s career as a college professor, lecturer, researcher, and author. The collection is arranged into eight Series, and holds Campbell’s original writing; teaching materials; files from his appearances in film and television; his research files; correspondence; photographs; and press clippings. Campbell’s files detail his research and writing work on mythology and literature, and chronicle the many lectures he gave throughout his career. The papers were previously held and processed by The OPUS Archives & Research Center at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, and include some materials that were added posthumously, such as lecture transcripts and outgoing correspondence. Projects started by Campbell in his lifetime and completed after his death, such as The Historical Atlas of World Mythology, are also held in the collection.

Visit the Joseph Campbell papers at the NYPL Archives

The Joseph Campbell papers are arranged in eight series:

Series I: Diaries and Journals

Series I contains an assortment of handwritten notebooks and some typescripts composed by Campbell between 1917 and 1977. This includes the Grampus journals, in which Campbell discusses his time in California in the 1930s, and his trip to Alaska with Ed Ricketts. The Grampus materials also contain a typed copy of an Ed Ricketts manuscript, and some materials related to John Steinbeck. Of note are Campbell’s journals from his trip to Asia in the 1950s, which encompass an assortment of handwritten diaries, notes, outlines, an address book, and typed journals. Additionally, there are four bound books of original writings that were assembled posthumously. The writings are original, but the order is artificial. These bound writings contain project plans, notes, schedules, banking information, seminar outlines, lecture notes, and lists.

Series II: Writing

31.38 linear feet (77 boxes)

Series II dates from 1927 to 1995, and holds Campbell’s original writings, comprising a mixture of manuscripts, drafts, materials intended for publication, and unpublished items. This includes pieces Campbell edited or produced in collaboration with other scholars; typed manuscripts; proposals for writing projects; published articles; and materials related to Campbell’s published books.

Editing and Collaborations comprises writings in which Campbell served as an editor, as well as pieces he authored with other writers. In the 1930s and 1940s, Campbell edited lectures from the Eranos conferences in Ascona, Switzerland, and prepared them for publication as Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks for Bollingen press. Campbell’s notes and reports for this project are compiled in the Eranos Papers files. Also included are Campbell’s notes and annotations on the papers of Heinrich Zimmer that he edited for publication. Of special interest is a handwritten draft script and notes from an opera collaboration with John Cage that was never produced, and a folder of Maya Deren’s writings that Campbell edited.

Among Campbell’s writings is also a selection of manuscripts, most notably his 1927 Master’s thesis, “A Study of Dolorous Stroke.” There is also an assortment of partial drafts which were posthumously separated, arranged by topic, and labeled as “outtakes.” These materials comprise handwritten drafts, typed excerpts, manuscript fragments, outlines, and notes. Many of these items also contain handwritten page numbers, but it is not evident where the writings originated, or with which work they are associated. Also included in the manuscript files are Campbell’s fiction and short stories and a number of unpublished works.

The Series also holds a small selection of proposals, most of which are from the 1950s. These proposals are for various writing and research projects, as well as Campbell’s 1953 study trip to India.

The Published Articles contain an assortment of Campbell’s early pieces, reviews, and chronologically arranged published works in their final form.

The Published Books files comprise notes, images, and manuscripts from Campbell’s books. Included are materials from A Skeleton Key to Finnegans WakeThe Hero with a Thousand FacesMasks of GodThe Mythic ImageInner Reaches of Outer SpaceFlight of the Wild Gander, and Historical Atlas of World Mythology. The most comprehensive materials are from the Historical Atlas of World Mythology files, some of which were compiled after Campbell’s death. There are handwritten and typed manuscripts, notes, research files, proofs, and many files of images intended for inclusion in the final text. The research materials are arranged alphabetically by topic, and also include some posthumously bound research notes.

Series III: Teaching

7.33 linear feet (18 boxes)

Series III contains files related to Campbell’s work as a college professor and lecturer. The Series holds Campbell’s CVs and a few certificates; files from Campbell’s teaching work at Sarah Lawrence College, the Foreign Service Institute, and Theater of the Open Eye; a comprehensive collection of his lecture notes and outlines; some lecture texts and transcripts; and programs and flyers from various speaking engagements.

The Sarah Lawrence files contain course lecture notes, outlines, and typed lecture texts and transcripts from Campbell’s tenure at the college. These course materials were filed by year, but typically do not state the class title to which they correspond. The Foreign Service Institute files hold contracts, schedules and a lecture transcript, while the Theater of the Open Eye materials include board minutes, brochures, financial records, and schedules.

The Lectures files are all arranged chronologically, and include each lecture’s title, date, and the location, when this information was documented. The files comprise an assortment of notes, outlines, and transcripts that span over five decades. Materials from Campbell’s lectures further assist to provide a detailed record of his public speaking and travel itinerary throughout his career.

Series IV: Film and Television

Series IV holds files that relate to Campbell’s appearances and work in film and television. Files from Mask, Myth and Dream and The Power of Myth both contain transcripts of Campbell’s televised lectures and conversations. The Series also hold a television proposal for The Mythic Landscape, and filmmaker’s logs and notes for The Hero’s Journey. All files are arranged chronologically by project.

Series V: Research Files

27.92 linear feet (69 boxes)

Campbell’s Research Files consist of handwritten notes and outlines, as well as some images, prints, and slides. The materials are all arranged alphabetically by subject matter, most of which are the names of countries or regions. The major exception is the Authors and Philosophers files, which comprise Campbell’s notes on individuals such as William Blake, Franz Boas, Geoffrey Chaucer, James Joyce, Immanuel Kant, Marcel Proust, Claude Lévi- Strauss, Friedrich Nietzsche, and W.B. Yeats.

The Series also holds files of reading notes, which includes materials removed from Campbell’s personal book collection. The items removed from the book collection were placed in folders and labeled with specialized call numbers by OPUS. A list of Campbell’s book collection and the numbering system can be found as an additional resource to the finding aid.

Additionally, the Series holds a selection of posthumously bound notes. The arrangement of the research files, as well as the assigned subjects were likely applied after Campbell’s death.

Series VI: Correspondence

7.5 linear feet (18 boxes)

Series VI contains Campbell’s professional and personal correspondence, which dates from 1929 to 1987. The majority of the files are incoming letters, and are generally professional in nature. While most correspondence is arranged alphabetically by correspondent or organization name, there is a selection of letters to Campbell commenting on his books and lectures, which are filed by title. Most folders in the Series contain a single letter, and include a label displaying a typed summary of the letter’s content. The major exception is correspondence between Campbell and Jean Erdman, where an abundance of incoming and outgoing letters is present, none of which were individually described. There is additional personal correspondence from Campbell’s parents, immediate family, and close friends found in the Series as well.

Series VII: Photographs

6.33 linear feet (15 boxes)

Prints, slides, and negatives that were held by or depict Campbell are in Series VII. Most of the images are personal photographs, and portray Campbell’s immediate family, friends, colleagues, his travels, and Campbell himself. The Series includes photographs of Campbell as a child, as a participant in college sports, and on vacation with his family. There are also professional portraits of Campbell, and photographs of such individuals as Christine Eliade, Simon Garrigues, Angela Gregory, C.G. Jung, Einar Palsson, Ed Ricketts, Dick Roberts, Carol Henning Steinbeck, Herbert K. Stone, and Heinrick Zimmer. While most of the photographs appear to have originated from Campbell and Erdman, there are some images of Campbell which were obtained from others to be used in posthumous book projects. All materials are arranged chronologically by topic, with the exception of two albums of photographs from the 1920s.

Series VIII: Press

2.75 linear feet (7 boxes)

Series VIII contains clippings of articles about Campbell and his work. The press files were previously arranged in a manner similar to the correspondence files in Series V. Most articles are in individual folders, and include a description of the material it holds. These files have been subsequently arranged by topic, which includes Awards; Books; Film and Television; Interviews and Profiles; Lectures; Reviews; and a scrapbook of press clippings dating from 1924 to 1944. All press files are further arranged chronologically within each topic.

Featured Work

Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, A

Countless would-be readers of Finnegans Wake—James Joyce’s 1939 masterwork, on which he labored for a third of his life—have given up after a few pages and “dismissed the book as a perverse triumph of the unintelligible.” In 1944, a young professor of mythology and literature named Joseph Campbell, working with novelist and poet Henry Morton Robinson, wrote the first guide to understanding the fascinating world of Finnegans Wake.

Page by page, chapter by chapter, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake outlines the basic action of Joyce’s book, simplifies and clarifies the complex web of images and allusions, and provides an understandable, continuous narrative from which the reader can venture out on his or her own. This current edition includes a foreword and updates by Joyce scholar Dr. Edmund L. Epstein that add the context of sixty subsequent years of scholarship.

Book Club

“As 2021 comes to a close, it seems fitting that we end this year by taking a step back and spending some time exploring the origin story of humankind. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Graphic History is a beautifully constructed novel (one of two) that brings forth some of the most crucial—and often overlooked—aspects of how we got to where we are. When did we create our principle social constructs? How long have we had the capacity to change the ecological structure of Earth? And in the grand dance of the universe, how significant or insignificant are humans, really? Harari and a host of terrific characters take us on a tour of the world long ago, and in the process, bring us that much closer to home.”

Prabarna Ganguly
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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