After the bitter disappointment of The Power of Myth, I wanted to try Joseph Campbell's original work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I hoped it would be more illuminating than the pretentious nonsense of Campbell/Moyers collaboration.
If anything, it was worse. I managed to slog through about 50 pages before giving up. There isn't enough time in the world to waste on this.
I was expecting an analysis of myths from around the world to show how they fit Campbell's pattern, but what I got seemed like fragmentary stream-of-consciousness ramblings. Though his "nuclear unit" of story construction made sense, nothing else did.
That nuclear unit posits three main parts of a myth or story. The hero begins in his/her ordinary world, then leaves that world to have some kind of adventure in a non-ordinary world, and finally returns to the ordinary world with some special knowledge or talent or gift that fixes whatever was wrong in the first place. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again - that sort of thing.
If he had taken that core and expanded it into the more detailed structure of Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Threshold Guardian and so on, I might have felt there was something of value. But his examples of myths rarely illustrated his premise. The last one I bothered to read was about the Chinese prince who didn't want to get married, but Campbell ended the chapter without explaining what the point of it was!
The other negative for me was the inclusion of dreams, either from Freudian or Jungian psychoanalysis. First of all, I'm not all that impressed with either Freud or Jung, though Freud really rubs me the wrong way. But second, and far more important, was that I just don't feel random dreams, taken completely out of context, are a valid foundation on which to build a theory of story structure.
A few nights ago, I had a dream that a volcano was opening up under a portion of my house. In the dream, I was trying to keep certain objects from falling into the volcano, but they were relatively valueless objects. As I came to the realization that there were far more valuable objects to be saved, and that I did have the means to save them and escape the path of destruction, I exited the house and began to select items to be packed and taken away with me. As I did so, however, I discovered that someone was cutting down all the trees and big cactus on my property, with the explanation that he was doing so to stop the volcano. At that point, I woke up.
Because I'm aware of the context in which that dream developed, I know that there's not a whole lot of Freudian bullshit involved. Were the dreams cited by Campbell also taken out of an everyday context? Not knowing for sure, I just brushed them aside as meaningless.
That, of course, made much of the rest of the discussion equally meaningless.
The book was definitely not what I expected, and I really didn't find it useful at all as a basis for analyzing story structure.
As always with Campbell, what strikes you first is his personality, his passion, his erudition, his joy at using comparisons of ancient religions to show us what they have in common and thus the deepest impulses that made them, their most basic truths, and how these truths may be applied to the creative life.
Some of us are old enough to remember the trash bag commercial that referred to the bargain brand as "wimpy, wimpy, wimpy."
The cheap brand broke, and all the trash spilled out.
With Joseph Campbell, it's wacky, wacky, wacky, and all the pretentious bullshit is falling out.
In the interest of disclosure, I should add that I was raised nominally Protestant, though I didn't get much education in that faith until I chose to become specifically Presbyterian in my mid-teens. Much of my maternal family is Jewish. So I come from a mixed and very spiritually tolerant background. Growing up, I had friends who were Irish Catholic and went to the Catholic schools, friends who were Italian Catholic and went to public schools, friends who were Missouri Synod Lutheran and went to the Lutheran school, as well as plenty of friends whose religion was completely unknown and totally irrelevant.
And as I mentioned in a previous status, I have just enough background in cultural anthropology -- Malinowski and his Trobriand Islanders! -- to come to The Power of Myth with an open and curious mind.
The first couple of chapters irritated me. I couldn't discern a real theme, a real thesis of what is myth, what is its power, how is that power used, by whom is it used. Because my objective was an analysis of romance novels as myths, this was important to me.
What I found through the 33% of the Kindle edition that I read was gobbledygook. Bullshit. Horse crap. Garbage.
But I was determined to continue reading.
At the 30% mark, page 74, I came to this:
MOYERS: What do you mean? What can you make of the watch you’re wearing? What kind of mystery does it reveal?
CAMPBELL: It is a thing, isn’t it?
CAMPBELL: Do you really know what a thing is? What supports it? It is something in time and space. Think how mysterious it is that anything should be. The watch becomes the center for a meditation, the center of the intelligible mystery of being, which is everywhere. This watch is now the center of the universe. It is the still point in the turning world.
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth (p. 75). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
At that point, the book became a wallbanger. Campbell, whose face and mannerisms and even voice I knew from snippets of videos, had become in my mind a pompous old man demanding attention and reverence even though he was spouting obvious nonsense.
When I was a graduate student in about 2002, I had a seminar class of seven students with two professors. One of them I had had before, so I was familiar with his teaching style and I had taken the class partly because of that. The other, whom I shall call Arthur for the sake of this discussion, was unknown. Sadly, Arthur did 95% of the teaching. If you can call it that.
We had some very difficult texts by some very difficult authors: Georg Lukacz, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Terry Eagleton. I dutifully read every assignment, even though I didn't always understand what I was reading. I came to class prepared to ask questions, discuss ideas, listen to other interpretations. But what happened was that Arthur took over from the moment the class started, and he never shut up.
Non-stop, he rambled, on and on and on and on and on and on. If one of us raised a hand to ask a question, Arthur would say something like, "I'll get to you in a minute," and the minute became thirty. The class was two hours long, and he frequently talked for the entire two hours, not even allowing us the customary ten-minute break in the middle. One of the students, a full-time firefighter, occasionally fell sound asleep. And snored.
Nothing fazed Arthur. One evening I managed to demand his attention and asked, "You do all this talking, but we aren't discussing the material. What does this stuff all mean?"
He laughed and replied, "Welcome to grad school." Then he resumed his monologue on some unrelated topic. I don't even remember the name of the course.
One evening Arthur opened the session with a declaration that he was not going to talk more than fifteen minutes and then would open it up for discussion. All of us who had questions about this reading material were eager to have the chance to air our thoughts. Arthur of course talked for the entire two hours, less maybe five minutes at the end. By that time, no one cared.
I thought of him often while reading Campbell.
I struggled through the rest of that chapter with the watch, because I really wanted to read about "The First Storytellers" and "The Gift of the Goddess." But I couldn't get past the absurdity of Campbell's thinking. I felt as if I'd gone back into that seminar room in the Sands Building and Arthur was once again droning on about some stupid shit that mattered less than Rick, Ilsa, and Lazlo.
This morning, even though I had already DNFed The Power of Myth, I took it up again to write this review. I skipped ahead, skimmed some of the text.
Campbell gives a nod to the divine feminine in the chapter "The Gift of the Goddess," and I began to have some faint hope. Very faint. And I was quickly relieved of even that.
Frequently, in the epics, when the hero is born, his father has died, or his father is in some other place, and then the hero has to go in quest of his father. In the story of the incarnation of Jesus, the father of Jesus was the father in heaven, at least in terms of the symbology. When Jesus goes to the cross, he is on the way to the father, leaving the mother behind. And the cross, which is symbolic of the earth, is the mother symbol. So on the cross, Jesus leaves his body on the mother, from whom he has acquired his body, and he goes to the father, who is the ultimate transcendent mystery source.
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth (p. 208). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I added the emphasis, because plainly Campbell still privileges the masculine over the feminine, no matter what he says in other places to the contrary. And he still privileges the strict duality, despite dismissing it often enough . . . in theory.
There was a temptation to give this one or one-half or even no stars, but I went with one and a half because the negative lessons were somewhat worth it. I still have some old anthro books that might give better insights into the value and true power of myth. Campbell sure as hell didn't.
I know I said I was going to finish it, but I changed my mind because things.
When Campbell asks how do we know what "a thing" is and never answered except to go about how every "thing" is the center of the universe, um, no.
I ordered The Hero with a Thousand Faces from the library. The Power of Myth is just . . . . bullshit.
Now I'm going to find something fun to read.