MythBlast | Thus Were the Meditations of the Serviceable Mind
W.H. Auden once remarked that a real book reads us, an observation that seems right enough to me, and certainly seems right to apply to the work of Joseph Campbell. After all, Campbell spent his life in conversation with the narratives—myths—that read and reflect us to ourselves, narratives that remind us that we are more than we realize, and that we all have access to the transcendent if we only remember that our thinking and language are metaphorical—remember that we, ourselves, are metaphors.
Metaphors may be thought of as living things, active and animated; they are, in some enigmatic way, sentient. Metaphors are the figures of movement and of carrying across, of transport; public buses in Athens are called metaphora. The influence of metaphor is the métier of Campbell’s work. The importance of understanding metaphor simply cannot, to my mind, be overstated. In its absence a tyrannical literalness and concreteness overtakes language and living. To this point, I’m reminded of a couplet from a poem by W.B. Yeats: “We had fed the heart on fantasies/The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” The hardened brutality of the heart is the result of taking the fantasies literally, since understood literally, they can only bring disappointment, heartache, and an inevitably hardened heart.
Certainly, anyone reading this MythBlast has at least a passing familiarity with Joseph Campbell the mythologist, but it may surprise you to learn that, as a young man, Campbell wrote fiction and nursed the desire for a literary life. In a volume titled The Mythic Imagination, the Joseph Campbell Foundation has published a collection of seven short stories written by Campbell himself that experiment with different styles of writing and tackle a variety of themes, both modern and eternal. In fact, this essay takes its title from a single, offset sentence in an intriguing, strange, futuristic fantasy of a story, “The Forgotten Man.”
Upon reflection, it shouldn’t be surprising that Campbell tried his hand at writing literature. It’s easy to see how much he loved it, and surely he understood that, as Lionel Trilling wrote, “anyone who thinks about modern literature in a systematic way takes for granted the great part played in it by myth, and especially by those examples of myth which tell about gods dying and being reborn […]” (“On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent). I wonder if the young Campbell, struggling to publish his stories, recognized the great part myth played in them, and was therefore compelled to fully turn his attention to mythology. When you read this collection of short stories, you’ll find no shortage of mythic images and figures; you’ll also recognize the smart, meticulous writing of the Modernist era as well as the influences of Modernist masters like Joyce and Steinbeck.
I believe that Campbell’s enduring popularity and influence continues because he was primarily focused on human potential, particularly the innate potential human beings have to glimpse the transcendent realm of existence (a realization which I wrote about in an earlier MythBlast this month called Tat Tvam Asi, or “Thou Art That”). Mythology was simply the vehicle (the metaphor, if you will) that got him there. More than literature alone could, myth itself provided Campbell with the material—historical, artistic, humanistic, philosophical, literary—and to no small degree (in his hands, anyway), the scientific means by which he could describe in great detail the incipient human capacity for transcendent experiences. Through his extensive research and analysis, he assured himself that the transcendence he wrote of was something more than mere self-delusion or personal fantasy.
In the short fiction comprising The Mythic Imagination, one sees Campbell already wrestling with the larger issues and challenges of living a human life, the same issues he tackles more successfully in his later work in mythology. But always in his writing, whether in fiction or mythology, Campbell is searching for something original, something novel, and something sublime. Martin Amis asserts that “all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart” (The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000, xv). In his writings on myth, Campbell successfully waged an ongoing war against cliché in all three of the theaters Amis identified: pen, mind, and heart. In fact, I still find myself in bewildered awe when I read him, and I never fail to be moved by his humanity, his compassion, curiosity, generosity of spirit and intellect, and his ability to clearly render with grace, with humor, and patient understanding, cogent critiques of the (mis)uses of mythology in addition to the splendidly noble, creative, and deeply beautiful rewards of being human.
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