The Inner Reaches of Outer Space is Within Reach
Some have confused a mythology as nothing more than an elegantly-packaged ideology. Not so. Nor is it true to say that mythic figures are to be read as literal facts. The confusion commonly stems, as Campbell often repeated in his writings, from assuming that something or someone is literal, not metaphorical of another reality that invites the imagination into a world of multiple possibilities. Such a move towards literalism belittles the universal appeal and power of the mythic images to no more than “prosaic reification” (The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion, xxiv).
Making the shift from literal to figural alters one’s entire perception of the phenomenal world, to say nothing of its opening one to the symbolic power of dreams. I can only speculate here as to why this confusion arises. I think one answer may be found in Adolf Bastian’s brilliant understanding of “elementary ideas” and “ethnic ideas.” The former transports us into the rich arena of archetypal images and situations; the latter into the particular historical and specific ways that such universal realities are embedded in and flourish in a particular culture of a people.
A brief example may suffice to unfold such a distinction. In their book Your Mythic Journey, Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox offer that “a myth can make a cow sacred in one culture and hamburger meat in another” (xi). Same animal. One cultural myth perceives it as sacred, the other reaches for it in an act of consumption. The animal’s universality is bent to conform or to support a local ethnic belief. Beef as belief. Animal as anima. Billions of burgers served. Campbell was keen to see that myths provide a dual vision: the transcendent and universal, but rooted firmly in history’s particularity.
Such a belief allowed him to retrieve an ancient idea that it was the human body itself, “in miniature a duplicate of that macrocosmic form,” (13) which conveyed a sense of unity through the great chain of being’s diversity. Correspondence and correlation are the lenses through which to uncover and further this ancient wisdom of analogies linking all diverse parts of creation. Such connective tissue is heightened when we are invited to gaze at a photo of the Earthrise taken from the moon’s surface (Inner Reaches, 19) to reveal that a new cosmological perspective insists on and incites a revisioned mythology. I believe such a miraculous image accelerated our concern for saving the planet by seeing it with all the boundaries of countries removed.
Such a dramatic photo struck Campbell as a vision of a new myth. It also reveals his own mythopoetic way of discovering analogies that reveal relationships we might miss or ignore without his acute insights. He explores patterns closer to home–for example, between native American people and those of India–sensing “equivalences” in their images and beliefs. His method is “to identify these universals. . . archetypes of the unconscious and as far as possible, to interpret them” (69).
Let’s pause to suggest here that the act of interpretation is a mythic move of imagination. Hermes is the god-guide in this human activity and hermeneutics therefore is a god-inspired talent. Without this rich act of being human, and Campbell is one of the most cogent minds in such an uncovering, we would stack up event-after-event with no cohering sense growing from such a futile performance.
Interpretation is a fundamental act in learning. As he creates a unique form of such meaning-making, Campbell uncovers “an implicit connotation through all its metaphorical imagery of a sense of identity of some kind, transcendent of appearances, which unites behind the scenes the opposed actors on the world stage” (81). Life itself is dramatic, but to miss the experience because of an obsession with meaning is to miss the action that is before us and within us.
Art in all of its guises becomes the delivery system by which myth, history and aesthetics congeal on the same stage. But as is his habitus of finding correlations between worlds, he suggests that “the mystic and the way of the proper artist are related” (111). I do not think it is too much to proclaim that all art is metaphorical to a large degree; Campbell’s own language is that the figural realities on the stage of artistic creation can succeed in opening us to “ a transformation of perspective” (109).
Like that magnificent image of the Earthrise, the power of aesthesis, a showing forth or an unveiling, is the artist’s sacred inspiration for expression. The artist’s creation provides us with a mimetic reality, a way to activate our sense of analogy to recover our own mythic imagining, to see “with two eyes, and alone to him is the center revealed: that still point. . . (117).
Draw a circle around the still point. Now you are at the center of it all.
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