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Flirting With Reality: At Play in the Play of the World

BY Bradley Olson May 2, 2021

Theatre with cut-out actors, by Thomas Quine. Creative Commons 2.0.

One of the things that I find endearing about Joseph Campbell is that frequently in his writing, as well as his lectures, he displays a palpable enthusiasm for certain subjects. When I read Myths of Light, for example, I recognize Campbell’s enthusiasm in its truest sense—enthusiasm as it is derived from the Greek word entheos, which is to be rapt or enthralled, divinely inspired or possessed by a god—when he speaks to the subject of jiva or life force, the animating principle, a principle he called “the deathless soul.” (Myths of Light, 44)

Once, struggling to come up with a metaphor that might more easily facilitate an understanding of the deathless soul, Campbell was inspired by common ceiling lights:

Each bulb carries the light. We can think of this totality as many bulbs; this is the lunar world of multiple entities. On the other hand we can focus on the one light that emanates from all the bulbs. This is the solar consciousness. What are we focusing on, the light or the lights? Which way of looking at things is correct? If one bulb breaks, we take it out and put another in—is it the bulb that’s important or is it the light? Then I said to the boys, “Now I look down here and I see all your heads like bulbs and within them is consciousness. What’s important: this particular head or the consciousness that’s in it?”


In Western mythologies, and as far as Western thought generally regards human beings, we tend to focus on the importance of individual light bulbs, so to speak, while Eastern Asian mythologies regard the light as the most important thing; it is the élan vital, as Henri Bergson called it, that vital principle that strays, vanishes, returns, and animates each living thing, that is truly worthy of awe.

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“The idea,” Campbell writes, “of the reincarnating principle is thus of two orders: first, the reincarnating principle that puts on bodies and puts them off as the Moon puts on and puts off its light body; and the other is that principle of sheer light that never dies, the light that is incarnate and immanent in all.” (14) The solar light that never dies, reflected in the lunar cycles of waxing and waning luminosity characterizing the élan vital, can be seen to be involved in a type of play which bestows the aspects of a game to life. In a recent episode of the JCF podcast, Pathways With Joseph Campbell, I commented on Campbell’s remarks regarding the peculiar tendency of the human being to find itself through imitation: children imitate parents, hunting cultures wear animal masks and skins imitating the sacred totem animal, planting cultures bury their dead in the ground as if expecting a new life to sprout. Reflecting on these mimeses Campbell said, “At some point you have to wonder: To what degree is this a game?” Realizing that life is a game or a performance helps us remember that we’re actors who have forgotten we’re in a play. Shakespeare, in As You Like It, says “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his life plays many parts.” (Act II, Scene VII) We star in comedies, tragedies, melodramas, and farce; from one moment to the next we are men, women, or children; heroes, villains, victims, lovers, or fools. The nature of Life reveals itself to us in spiel raum, the realm of play.

Eugen Fink put it this way:

Play comes to be a “cosmic metaphor” for the total appearance and disappearance of existing things in the time-space of the world. The frothing, intoxicated tide of life, which elevates living beings in the delight in reproducing, is secretly one with the dark surge that drags the living down into death. Life and death, birth and dying, womb and tomb are twinned: it is the same moving force of the totality that brings forth and annihilates, that begets and kills, that unites the highest delight and the deepest grief. (Play as Symbol of the World and Other Writings, 77)

Not understanding the rules of the game nor its objective has never been a hindrance to playing it; children often make up rules as they go along, or play by very fluid rules that, contrary to spoiling the game enhance it, and make the game more expressive, more relevant to a particular moment, more delightful. A child-like immersion in the game is indispensable. In Greek, play is paizo, and it’s what a child—a pais, does. Fragment 52 of Heraclitus says, “Aion pais esti paizōn, pesseuōn; paidos hē basilēiē “/ “Lifetime [more properly, Time itself] is a child at play, moving pieces in a game. Kingship belongs to the child.” (Fink, 325) Contemplating this fragment, an awareness begins to dawn that the child may be moving pieces in a game she may not understand, moving the pieces randomly, or making up moves as she goes along, and yet within the context of the game the child is, as Hamlet said, the king of infinite space.

Realizing that the universe is at play, and that play is the ground of being humans occupy, we can, as Campbell puts it, achieve an “undifferentiated consciousness while awake.” Viewed as a game, life ceases to be unrelenting drudgery, hard labor, or pointless, because the point is the game itself. At that point of undifferentiated consciousness, Professor Campbell says there are two choices: “You may let the body drop off, close the eyes, as it were, and unite with this central transcendent realization. Or you may open the eyes and take delight in the play of forms, seeing through them the one form. That is the attitude of world affirmation, the affirmation of every single thing, even the monsters.” (Myths of Light, 79)

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.

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In this wonderful, thought provoking extract from Myths of Light, his exploration of the underlying myths of the great Asian philosophies and religions, Joseph Campbell presents two characteristic stories: one of the Buddha’s birth, and the other the Hindu parable of the tiger orphan raised by goats. In his exploration of these two tales, Campbell unlocks the core mythological values of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

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Mythologies present games to play: how to make believe you’re doing thus and so. Ultimately, through the game, you experience that positive thing which is the experience of being-in-being, of living meaningfully. That’s the first function of a mythology, to evoke in the individual a sense of grateful affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence.

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