You Are That (.org)
The resurrection of my late lamented website (mostly) on spiritual matters.

The Influence of Joseph Campbell

How Uncle Joe changed my life

[This essay was originally posted to]

The Condensed Version

This is a personal reminiscence on the importance of scholar Joseph Campbell's work to my thinking (and my life).  For more on Campbell's life. works, and ideas, start here.

Me and Uncle Joe

[Note: down to the stars * * * * * * * * this article is identical to "The Influence of Buddhism."]

To understand the point of view expressed in the Realize! pages, you must understand two of the most important influences on my thinking.  One of these is the work of Joseph Campbell; the other is my studies in Buddhism.

Until my divorce in 1990, I was pretty much a "Western Civ" kind of guy, interested in Greek philosophy, Medieval scholasticism, and British literature.  My majors in university were English and philosophy, and-- as I was in those days an "Evangelical Christian"-- I used these disciplines to explore (and ultimately justify) my belief in the Bible as THE WORD OF GOD.

All this changed when my wife left and everything I knew was cut loose from its moorings.

Unlike some, who find that such experiences strengthen their faith, I found mine shattered. The "faith community" that my wife and I had been a part of failed me utterly, and I started searching for something...more.

* * * * * * * *

As mentioned above, this search eventually led me to the Buddhist path.  But before I arrived there, I needed a transitional point of view, a "world view" that could encompass my previous dedication to Western thinking and Christianity, as well as my emerging interest in Native American practices, world religions, and, ultimately, Buddhism.

I found this in the ideas of Joseph Campbell.

The capsule biography of Campbell in his Penguin publications reads as follows:

Joseph Campbell was interested in mythology since his childhood in New York, when he read books about American Indians, frequently visited the American Museum of Natural History, and was fascinated by the museum's collection of totem poles. He earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees at Columbia in 1925 and 1927 and went on to study medieval French and Sanskrit at the universities of Paris and Munich. After a period in California, where he encountered John Steinbeck and the biologist Ed Ricketts, he taught at the Canterbury School, then, in 1934, joined the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College, a post he retained for many years. During the 1940s and '50s, he helped Swami Nikhilananda to translate the Upanishads and The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. The many books by Professor Campbell include The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Myths to Live By, The Flight of the Wild Gander, and The Mythic Image. He edited The Portable Arabian Nights, The Portable Jung, and other works. He died in 1987.

More thorough biographical references can be found on my Joseph Campbell Index page.  For our consideration here, however, a few key points will do:

  • 1924: Young Campbell meets Jiddu Krishnamurti on a trans-Atlantic crossing; the two young men become close friends
  • 1933: Campbell spends one year reading (in several languages) and writing
  • 1934: Campbell takes a position teaching literature at Sarah Lawrence College, where he will remain until his retirement in 1972.
  • 1943: Indologist Heinrich Zimmer dies; his widow asks Campbell to see several posthumous works into print, including Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, The King and the Corpse, Philosophies of India, and the two-volume  The Art of Indian Asia.
  • 1949: The Hero with a Thousand Faces presents the pattern found universally in hero stories.  George Lucas would later find in this work inspiration for his Star Wars films.
  • 1954-1955: Campbell spends one year traveling in India, Southeast Asia, and Japan
  • 1959-1968: Campbell publishes his magnum opus, The Masks of God, in four volumes: Primitive Mythology (1959), Oriental Mythology (1962), Occidental Mythology (1964), and Creative Mythology (1968).
  • 1988: PBS first broadcasts Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, a six-hour series of interviews created in the last years before Campbell's death in 1987.

As I've already mentioned, I encountered Joseph Campbell's thinking at a crossroads in my life.  Looking at the brief items from his biography above, it's interesting to note how many of them have resonance for me: reading, teaching literature, Asia (including Japan), and so on.  This may not be entirely coincidental.  In the years just after my divorce, I was fortunate to come under the influence of a couple of fascinating characters.  Dan and Nancy Booth were teachers at the school where I was then teaching, and were light-years ahead of me in their studies of religion, psychology, and literature.  They patiently led me into their world, Dan by giving me Frank Waters' Pumpkin Seed Point (about the Hopi), and Nancy (as my department head) by challenging me to challenge my students to see literature as transformative.

Along with my seventh-graders (students around 12 years old), I was reading The Hobbit, A Christmas Carol, The Sword in the Stone, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.  It was Nancy who encouraged me to help my students see that they were Bilbo, Scrooge, and "The Wart"; and that the waking world of Shakespeare's mortals was inextricably intertwined with the nighttime world of the fairies, in the text as in the world of adolescence.

Whether it was my "Southwestern Studies" with Dan (which I eventually taught in a formal course at the school) or my field trips to the Southwest (twice with students); my 1990 Christmas driving the length of Baja California, or my repeated viewing s of Campbell's The Power of Myth (first lent to me by Dan); my reading of Parabola magazine or my long discussions with students and other teachers: my years at Campbell Hall, while painful in many ways, were also extremely formative thanks to the nature of that intellectual community, and especially Dan and Nancy.

When the time came for me to leave Campbell Hall, I was hoping to attend Pacifica Graduate Institute, a school which had acquired Joseph Campbell's personal library after his death.  Building on this acquisition, Pacifica offers an M.A. and Ph.D. in mythological studies, a program I was hoping to enter.

But it was expensive.  So I arranged a meeting with the then-director of the program, Dr. Jonathan Young, to explore ways to finance my education. Dr. Young had at that time been engaged to write a book based on Campbell's taped lectures on Freud and Jung; he asked me to work on this, and create an outline for the book.  Unfortunately, Dr. Young left Pacifica before I could make heads or tails of the project, and it was never finished (and I never went to Pacifica--but that's another story).

Nevertheless, for a period of months there, I was immersed in the words and work of Joseph Campbell.  I was speaking in his cadences, thinking in his vocabulary.  And my own thinking was revolutionized.  Shortly thereafter, I moved in with actor Robert Urich and his family, where I had more time to read, think, and write (like Campbell in 1933). I read every book by Campbell that I could get my hands on, and wrote voluminously.  (Some of the things I wrote at that time appear on this site.)

Lessons from Uncle Joe

And what did I learn from all this?

Primarily, I learned the importance of Campbell's use of the word metaphor.  All language about "the Other," I came to see, is of necessity metaphorical language.  That is, "God," "heaven," and other such words, are referring to something which cannot be expressed in words at all.  The more I pursued this idea, the more excited I became.  I came to see that words might hint at reality, but they can never capture it.  In the Eastern image, they are "fingers pointing at the moon"...but never the moon itself.

Think about it.  Christians put great stock in "the name of Jesus." But this name is no word he ever heard; it's a translation (of a translation).  The name is just a name, and by extension the story is just a story.  It may be pointing toward something "real," but cannot be the reality itself.

Can you imagine the effect this insight had on me?

Suddenly, my ideas about "God" became something much... bigger.  God was no longer a tame, domesticated animal.  Instead, he was ferocious, unencompassable, ineffable.  In Otto's words, a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, sometimes translated "a dread and yet alluring mystery," repulsive and yet attractive  Wow.

Where in Campbell's work do we find this idea?  Everywhere.  The very title of his magnum opus, The Masks of God,  speaks to this metaphorical insight.  All religions and mythologies are merely masks for the reality of "God"-- as I have often said, they are like the clothes and bandages on the Invisible Man, giving shape to that which we cannot see.

Building on this foundational insight, Campbell created a world of meaning.  In time numerous essays (there's an index to some here) will explore these ideas more fully, but here is a hint:

  • Comparative mythology: exploring the myths of various cultures, finding "common ground"
  • The Four Functions of Mythology: the Mystical (opening us to wonder), Cosmological (placing us in the universe), Social (organizing our lives in community), and Pedagogical (teaching us how to live a human life)
  • Metaphor: As discussed above, the idea that all words about "the Other" are metaphorical, and less than the "real thing"
  • Becoming "transparent to transcendence": allowing the energies of the universe to work through you (largely by avoiding a concrete, scientific, historical reading of myths)
  • Archetypes: Drawing heavily on Jung, finding keys to understanding widely varying myths through their resonance in the human psyche
  • The "Hero's Journey": A cycle of Call, Departure, Attainment, return, and Transformation underlies the world's hero stories
  • "Follow Your Bliss": Campbell's best known (and, I suspect, least understood) dictum, crystallizing the wisdom he gained from a lifetime of studying myths
  • Native American stories: Along with stories of other primal cultures, these pre-literate stories held special meaning for Campbell
  • Arthurian romance: In contrast to the Native American tales, these are some of the most sophisticated of stories
  • Eastern thought (Hindu and Buddhist): Campbell "went East," as I have, and found there some of the purest soundings of the themes of world mythology
  • Art and creativity: Throughout his work, Campbell often returns to the nature of the creative process, saying that in the past the shaman was the poet and artist of the tribe, and that today the poet and artist is our shaman

For more on the life, work, and ideas of Joseph Campbell, start here (and a longer list of his ideas, with links to some articles): You can explore the Tables of Contents of his many books, as well as bibliographic information on books that he found important.

Also, don't forget to check The Journal [now my blog] for frequent comment on one aspect or another of Uncle Joe's teaching.

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