MythBlast | King, Campbell, and the Ecstasy of Being
Yesterday, January 15th, we in the U.S. celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This federal holiday, declared by Ronald Reagan, was established in 1983. Other cities in the U.S. had been honoring Dr. King since 1971, and even though a federal holiday was finally instituted, a handful of states delayed in recognizing the holiday, and it was not until seventeen years later that all fifty states recognized and celebrated the holiday honoring a remarkable and remarkably courageous man who embodied a moral force that contributed to and shaped the evolution of civil rights in the United States and human rights around the world.
The Joseph Campbell Foundation, with our publishing partners at New World Library, has recently launched another volume of Campbell’s work, The Ecstasy of Being: Mythology and Dance. The first part of this book consists of seven articles and one transcribed lecture published between 1944 and 1978. The second half of the book is a previously unpublished manuscript which bore the title, Mythology and Form in the Performing and Visual Arts. Now, lest it appear to be a non-sequitur, both of these men, Campbell and King, knew something about ecstasy.
The English word, ecstasy, is derived from the Greek word, ekstasis, which literally means to be standing outside of oneself, carried beyond individual, rational thought to a psychosomatic state in which rationality and personal volition are suspended. The word has often been associated with mystical and prophetic states of being. Ekstasis dissolves the sense of a bounded, contained self inspecting and experiencing the world, it plunges one into a transcendent experience, an experience of the world, the universe even, as unified, timeless, unbounded, and harmonious. Campbell found this in some art and he found it in myth (powerful artistic images are also mythic images). In this volume, and in Art as Revelation, Campbell describes a kind of aesthetic arrest occurring when an individual encounters “proper art,” such an aesthetic arrest is ekstasis. Ekstasis is precipitated by an individual falling entirely and completely into beauty, into an idea, into a sensation, or the accretion of all three, a mythological image. There is often the feeling of a disturbing loss of self which may frighten and compel one to truncate the ecstatic moment, but if one can resist the temptation to terminate the experience too soon, one falls into what James Joyce described as the “rhythm of beauty” (The Ecstasy of Being, 99).
In his last public speech prior to his assassination on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in the “rhythm of beauty,” from ekstasis, transcending his, and his community’s fear and hope, resonating harmoniously with an imperfect world perfect just as it is. Ekstasisdoesn’t translate well to conscious exposition, so one must resort to mythic metaphor:
“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man.”
Our familiar world may fall into disarray; the institutions upon which we rely may be less than reliable; fear, suffering, and loneliness may unleash cruelty and selfishness on people around the world; truth may live in exile and compassion may bitterly moulder, but the human capacity for ecstasy will continue leading many to the eternal, still point within—the point from which springs all creativity and the courage to engage life. Here we discover, Campbell says, “…the manifestation pouring forth from it… (35),” which is to say creativity and courage literally precipitate out of ecstasy, and a material change to the world is made manifest by living into the ecstatic revelation, creatively and heartfully shaping our efforts to address the challenges of contemporary life. I understanding that while my human life may be short, my soulful reach into the world’s future may be long. And as the result of the ecstatic revelation, one realizes that one may be happy, one need not worry about anything, one need not fear any man.
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