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.
If I were reading this on my own, I'd have thrown it against the wall a long time ago. I'm not reading it just for the jollies, so I'm stuck with it.
There's almost nothing in the section I'm reading now -- "The Journey Inward" -- that sits comfortably with me. I like Bill Moyers, and maybe I'm trying to like Campbell more because of that philosophical affection for Moyers. But when it comes right down to it, I don't like hardly anything Campbell is saying.
Reading on my basic Kindle means it's difficult to make notes, but I've made them anyway because I'm so outraged.
Here's just one example:
CAMPBELL: . . . The cathedral was the center of the sacrament, and the castle was the center protecting the cathedral. There you have the two forms of government—the government of the spirit and the government of the physical life, both in accord with the one source, namely the grace of the crucifixion.
MOYERS: But within those two spheres ordinary people told little tales of leprechauns and witches.
CAMPBELL: There are three centers of what might be called mythological and folkloristic creativity in the Middle Ages. One is the cathedral and all that is associated with monasteries and hermitages. A second is the castle. The third is the cottage, where the people are. The cathedral, the castle, and the cottage—you go to any of the areas of high civilization, and you will see the same—the temple, the palace, and the town. They are different generating centers, but in so far as this is one civilization, they are all operating in the same symbolic field.
MOYERS: Same symbolic field?
CAMPBELL: The symbolic field is based on the experiences of people in a particular community, at that particular time and place. Myths are so intimately bound to the culture, time, and place that unless the symbols, the metaphors, are kept alive by constant recreation through the arts, the life just slips away from them.
MOYERS: Who speaks in metaphors today?
CAMPBELL: All poets. Poetry is a metaphorical language.
MOYERS: A metaphor suggests potential.
CAMPBELL: Yes, but it also suggests the actuality that hides behind the visible aspect. The metaphor is the mask of God through which eternity is to be experienced.
MOYERS: You speak of the poets and artists. What about the clergy?
CAMPBELL: I think our clergy is really not doing its proper work. It does not speak about the connotations of the metaphors but is stuck with the ethics of good and evil.
MOYERS: Why haven’t the priests become the shamans of American society?
CAMPBELL: The difference between a priest and a shaman is that the priest is a functionary and the shaman is someone who has had an experience. In our tradition it is the monk who seeks the experience, while the priest is the one who has studied to serve the community.
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth (pp. 72-73). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
No matter what he does, Campbell keeps coming back to prioritizing orthodox christianity, Roman Catholicism in particular, which is how he was raised. Though he mentions other faith traditions and even praises Buddhism, there's no sense of his rising above his own philosophical provincialism. If there is indeed so much power in myth, what is the universality of these experiences?
Is the cathedral/castle/community a universal construct? How does it function in other communities, in other myths? In other mythic traditions, is there a sharp distinction between shaman and priest, or do they sometimes blend to be one and the same?
There's another section almost immediately following the above that drove me up the wall:
MOYERS: The person who has the experience has to project it in the best way he can with images. It seems to me that we have lost the art in our society of thinking in images.
CAMPBELL: Oh, we definitely have. Our thinking is largely discursive, verbal, linear. There is more reality in an image than in a word.
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth (pp. 73-74). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
But myths are not images. Until recently, the people had to go to the images, whether they were painted on cave walls or hung in cathedrals and castles. Stories, whether the myths of the high caste religion or the folk-tales of the common people, were oral. How could there be images in oral stories unless they were created by the words? And how can he say that when he was just talking about poets and artists?
More and more, I'm going past disappointment and full on into anger.
I'll catch up on the links to previous updates later. I'm too frustrated right now.
I'm just not getting Joseph Cambell.
CAMPBELL: That’s exactly it. That’s the significance of the puberty rites. In primal societies, there are teeth knocked out, there are scarifications, there are circumcisions, there are all kinds of things done. So you don’t have your little baby body anymore, you’re something else entirely. When I was a kid, we wore short trousers, you know, knee pants. And then there was a great moment when you put on long pants. Boys now don’t get that. I see even five-year-olds walking around with long trousers. When are they going to know that they’re now men and must put aside childish things?
MOYERS: Where do the kids growing up in the city—on 125th and Broadway, for example—where do these kids get their myths today?
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth (p. 9). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
If I understood the whole notion of "myth," it was as an attempt to explain the unexplainable in a way that tied the invisible to the visible, the magical to the mundane, so that we mere humans didn't have to explain them over and over. So Apollo drove the chariot of the sun across the sky every day without fail, and we didn't have to worry each morning whether the big light would rise or not. We put our trust in the myth and could go on with our lives.
But times change; most of us don't need a myth to explain the earth's rotation and the appearance that the sun rises and sets. We put our trust in science and can go on with our lives.
Wearing long or short pants as a myth of manhood? Hello? What the hell is that all about? Does he want us to go back to knocking out teeth for puberty ceremonies? What's the myth that justifies that? What's the social convention that's served by making all the men toothless?
Maybe if I didn't have a smattering of cultural anthropology in my educational background, maybe then I'd be impressed by Campbell.
Maybe if he provided a connection between myth and ritual, it would make more sense.
MOYERS: What kind of new myth do we need?
CAMPBELL: We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet. A model for that is the United States. Here were thirteen different little colony nations that decided to act in the mutual interest, without disregarding the individual interests of any one of them.
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth (pp. 30-31). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
To me, this isn't myth at all - it's politics. Maybe there are myths that serve political ends, but I just don't feel Campbell is touching that aspect of it. Maybe Moyers, who was at the time of this writing and I believe still is a (liberal) Southern Baptist, found Campbell impressive, but I don't. Campbell is blathering to a gullible audience of one.
But that one isn't me.