Reflections upon a Hawaiian Graveyard
I am standing in a Hawaiian graveyard looking down at the final resting place of Joseph Campbell. My wife is in the car with our eleven-month-old grandson, waiting. Waiting for me to come to some sort of conclusion about why one of the greatest mythologists of the last two centuries is buried beneath a looming statue of unambiguous Christological intent: Beard, tunic, quote from Matthew 6:33. I, too, will probably be surrounded in death by such theologically familiar touches. But then, I am not Joseph Campbell. I am not the man who did more than any other since, oh, Aldous Huxley and his perennial philosophy, to utterly erase distinctions claimed by orthodoxy and exclusivist religious authorities, always showing how the publicly opposed actors upon the sacred stage are secretly united behind the scenes. Talk about blurred boundaries (our theme this month).
We drove here because I googled “Joseph Campbell’s gravesite,” and there it was—five miles from our Airbnb.
I don’t know what sort of epiphany I expected. You know what would have been a nice touch? Maybe a statue of a finger pointing to heaven reminding us, as Zen teachers are known to do, that we must not mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. Campbell put it this way: Religious expression is always metaphoric, it speaks in symbols that are only relevant when they are “transparent to transcendence.” So what did I expect?
Signage. I’ve heard that there are placards indicating the route to Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. I see none, so I locate the small office outside of the historical crematorium and seek guidance. The young man is friendly but businesslike as he consults some photocopies. He hands me one with a route outlined in yellow. He opens the door and points: Down to the lane, turn left, and from there, “follow your bliss.”
He said that. As threshold guardians go, I’ll take this guy.
I expected to find myself standing in a field charged with symbolic intentionality. I did not expect a garden variety garden. I did not expect Jesus. And I asked myself a question, or maybe I asked Joseph Campbell a question.
In that moment, I saw intention. I saw myself transformed into one of Campbell’s favorite archetypes, Parsifal, him of the question that must be asked. Parsifal stood, not in a cemetery, but in its more kinetic cousin, the ritual. According to Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal, the lad had only to ask one question: Whom does the grail serve?
Or, in my translation, what gives?
I asked and I was not disappointed. In life, Campbell surrounded himself with the symbols and signs from which he drew the conclusion that the boundaries between faith traditions are always effaced in the pursuit of transcendence. In death, he was surrounded with another symbol set and it spoke just as loudly of a subject even closer to his heart—his capacity to love and to be loved.
Not only does he share a space in a cremation garden with his beloved, Jean Erdman, his Iseult, his Eurydice, they lie within concentric rings of signification, each powerfully reinforcing the idea that this man is happily subsumed into a shared identity. This is not a Campbellian shrine, it’s the Erdman/Dillingham family plot, located not in Campbell’s Manhattan, but in Jean’s Oahu.
Jean was Campbell’s student at Sarah Lawrence, but the idea that this represents a power differential is not borne out by subsequent chapters of their love affair in which her career as a globally recognized dancer and choreographer eclipsed his own nascent notoriety. These were binary stars, these two, as his placement in a small corner of her historical reality attests, one Campbell among three generations of Erdmans in the land where she grew up, “doing what we all do here, which is dance” (Hero’s Journey, p. 97). “I never thought Joe would want to move to Hawaii, but here we are.”
Indeed, here they are. In The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, their union is celebrated as mutually fructifying, not mutually exclusive. Near the end of World War II, Joe and Jean were staying in Nantucket where, in her words, “Joe was writing about the fifth version of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and I was deciding what the art of the dance really should be, right?”
Campbell speaks lovingly of the first half of marriage as a time when the anima is in full flower, when the projection of the female from the mind of the male meets a sweet horizon in the youthful figure of grace that is the beloved. And he speaks lovingly of the second half of marriage, the “alchemical marriage” where the projections are slowly withdrawn to reveal an even more apposite pairing of two spirits.
Jean lived to be 104, three decades after Campbell’s death, and is reunited here, in this Hawaiian haven, with the man who spent their first years “with [me] on one arm and Finnegan’s Wake on the other.” She dealt wisely with the sweet rivalry by turning James Joyce’s masterpiece into a dance.
“My notion of marriage,” Campbell reflected, “is that if marriage isn’t a first priority in your life you’re not married” (Hero, p. 101). With this in mind, I suddenly remember I have left my own wife sitting in a car with my grandson. I snap out of my reverie and happily invite my little family to come join me.
Here we go, Johnny. This is the grave of Joseph Campbell and his wife Jean Erdman.
I point. My grandson is eleven months old. He does not look at the grave. He looks directly at my finger. Just my finger.
Joseph Campbell would have loved it.
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After a successful career as a television writer in the 1970s and '80s with such credits as M*A*S*H and Maude, John's interest in story became increasingly academic. He transitioned to a new field, music, with a Masters in Conducting, then earned a PhD in Mythology from Pacifica University.
His main musical ensemble, Shantigarh, emphasizes a wide range of liturgical music styles, and its membership swells to as many as one hundred voices when they present John's original score for Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, CA, at an event broadcast nationally each January.
Envoy: No Horizons
Our gift to you this month is eSingle. Access this download for free until the end of the month.
This eSingle is an excerpt from Joseph Campbell’s book Myths to Live By.
Campbell famously compared mythology to a kangaroo pouch for the human mind and spirit: “a womb with a view.” In Myths to Live By, he examines all of the ways in which myth supports and guides us, giving our lives meaning. Love and war, science and religion, East and West, inner space and outer space-Campbell shows how the myths we live by can reconcile all of these pairs of opposites and bring a sense of the whole.
News & Updates
The Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh, May 29, marks the death of the founder of the Bahá’í faith—and this in a month that saw the death of Buddha (Wesak, May 16) and the Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ (May 26). The Bahá’í observance beings at 4:00 am DST. (Bahá’ís refrain from work on this day.)
Christ’s ascension into heaven is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox churches on June 2, forty days after Easter.
When the sun goes down on June 4, Shavuot begins. Jews throughout the diaspora as well as the Holy Land will recall the day they received the Torah from the hand of G-d.
When the Centeki moon rises over the Pacific Northwest this month, the Sockeye salmon return to the Pacific Northwest where once, long ago, the Salmon took pity on the impoverished humans and agreed to allow themselves to be caught. So goes the Salish origin story.
Life is but a mask worn on the face of death. And is death, then, but another mask? ‘How many can say,’ asks the Aztec poet, ‘that there is, or is not, a truth beyond?’
Hero’s Journey, The (book)
This masterfully crafted book interweaves conversations between Campbell and some of the people he inspired, including poet Robert Bly, anthropologist Angeles Arrien, filmmaker David Kennard, Doors drummer John Densmore, psychiatric pioneer Stanislov Grof, Nobel laureate Roger Guillemen, and others. Campbell reflects on subjects ranging from the origins and functions of myth, the role of the artist, and the need for ritual to the ordeals of love and romance. With poetry and humor, Campbell recounts his own quest and conveys the excitement of his lifelong exploration of our mythic traditions, what he called “the one great story of mankind.”
“There’s hardly a tale centering a young person that isn’t at some point broadly referred to as a “coming-of-age” story, as if children are nothing but transitional creatures, pre-adults waiting to evolve into their final form. The chasm between childhood and adulthood is broadened and examined in this month’s book: Lydia Millet’s 2020 novel A Children’s Bible. This is a story that will remind adult readers of the ever-present unease of youth, an endemic harshness that keeps children acutely aware, by nature, of death and danger. Millet weaves the reality of current climate crises with Christian allegory to highlight evergreen questions central to humanity’s monomyth: What world have we inherited, and what will we leave behind for the next generation when our time is up?”
Joseph Campbell Foundation
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