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MythBlast | Mythic Mavericks

BY Leigh Melander June 12, 2018

For years I have been intrigued with what I perceive as a particularly Celtic sensibility, an ability to dance on the knife’s edge between insight and nonsense, tragedy and comedy, sacred and profane. Not to say that only those of Celtic antecedents have this ability, of course, but there seems to be a profound and specific love for this dance in Celtic myth, story, and literature.

This month, the Joseph Campbell Foundation is celebrating that uniquely Celtic voice, James Joyce, and his intersections with Campbell’s work and thought. Campbell viewed Joyce as a core inspiration for his work (indeed, this is where the famous – or perhaps infamous –  ‘monomyth’ sprang from for Campbell), and lectured and wrote extensively on Joyce throughout his career.

As I open the proverbial door for a series of essays from various myth and Campbell writers on this Joycean thought play this month, I am struck by how interwoven not only the thought on Joyce’s writings have been with that knife’s edge, but how the personalities and relationships have been as well, and how they brush up lightly against my own landing place and fascination with how people and ideas connect.

I live in the Catskills, just down the road from Woodstock, where Campbell holed up for several years reading voraciously after deciding that a doctorate at Columbia wasn’t of interest, and where he ran into Henry Morton Robinson, whom he had known while he was getting his master’s degree when Robinson was teaching at Columbia.

Robinson grew up in the heady creative radicalism of the Maverick artist’s colony, a rebellion not only against polite society of an America in a new century, but a rebellion against the lingering politeness of the Byrdcliffe artist’s colony efforts at rebellion against polite society. Its founder, Hervey White, co-founded the latter, but recast his vision into something simultaneously more sacred and profane with the Maverick. In a superbly Joycean move, he underwrote most of the prosaic expenses for food, heat, and supplies for a free-thinking artist’s colony by producing an ever-wilder festival every year, where people (as many as 6000 at a time) would flock to shatter their proprieties into wildness.

By the time Campbell landed in Woodstock, the Maverick had subsided into an ongoing, fairly decorous concert series that continue today in White’s exquisite concert hall, but that wildness lingered in the area’s imagination. (And was reborn decades later in the Woodstock Festival, which, of course, in a superbly nonsensical way, didn’t actually happen there, but instead, almost 60 miles and two counties away in Bethel, NY. This hasn’t kept the town of Woodstock from cashing in on its imaginary history as the epicenter of tie dye hippy culture, with little memory of its antecedents in the mavericks who actually lived there several decades earlier.)

Both Joyce enthusiasts, Campbell and Robinson decided that they could, as a mythologist and writer, respectively, write a ‘key’ to the seemingly impenetrable Finnegans Wake after its 1939 release. Their efforts were met with disinterest by publishers until Campbell and Robinson reacted to Thornton Wilder’s hit play, By the Skin of Our Teeth, with two articles imbued with a fair amount of outrage, seeing it as a cheap trick light-fingering of Finnegan’s Wake by Wilder, in a creative and financially opportunistic move.

…Campbell and Robinson were offended by what they saw as an attempt to profit from Joyce’s work at a time when Finnegans Wake itself had been remaindered, and when the Joyce family was in financial difficulties; the war had frozen British and American royalty payments, thereby preventing money from reaching Nora and Giorgio in Switzerland. (A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, xv)

These articles gotten snapped up by the Saturday Review, and suddenly publishers were interested in seeing more from Campbell and Robinson on Joyce. Together, they wrote A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, which has lasted as the bedrock unlocking of Joyce’s profanely sacred nonsensical insights for generations of scholars and readers.

What delights me about this is the earnestness of their desire to assist the world to begin to understand what Joyce had to offer, which was dismissed as having importance until they rose to his defense at the expense of another writer. The ideas themselves weren’t as juicy as outrage. Highbrow intellectual thought about controversial writing became interesting when the artists themselves became controversial. Campbell and Robinson both shouldered their own bits of controversy – Campbell with accusations of being a pop culture guru himself, and Robinson, who served as a senior editor for that most polite society of publications, Reader’s Digest, and then wrote The Cardinal, which took on assumptions about the Catholic priesthood.

And Campbell and Robinson’s outrage, whether they were right about Wilder’s use of Joyce as a plagiarized source (which they make an eloquent case for, but as you can imagine, scholarly arguments still echo on this), was from a distance. Neither of them knew Joyce personally. Ironically, Thornton Wilder did, wrote a biography on him, and in fact was working hard to bring financial resources to Joyce and his wife in this era. Wilder spoke of his inspiration from Joyce’s work not unlike how Joyce spoke of his inspiration from Homer for his version of Ulysses.

To me, this swirl of place, of people, of the complexity of alliances and ideas, with all of their good intentions and emotional tiger traps, feels like something what Joyce could have written. And it feels, ultimately, deeply mythic, filled with the same dance between what is most and least true, what is most sacred and most profane, and most ridiculous and most heartbreaking.

Join us in celebrating Joyce this month!
Click the links to find A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, and Campbell’s lectures and essays on Joyce (including he and Robinson’s article on Wilder’s work, “By the Skin of Whose Teeth”) in Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce, now also available just this month as an audiobook.

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