Friday, February 15, 2008

The Power of Myth

How is it that I managed to get through eighteen years as a professional student without ever encountering the work of Joseph Campbell? Alright, so there were those initial years where I couldn't read, and a few more where his dense, complex ideas would have been over my head. But how did I make it through college without ever reading his books? These are the sorts of things that make me wonder what exactly I learned in college. Four of the Five Books that Changed My Life were books I sought out independently and after graduation. It seems to me that I've learned far more being abroad in the last two years.(Although a more reasonable part of me says that the timing is perfect. His books might have been wasted on me at an earlier time, kind of like reading "Madame Bovary" if you've never had a lover.)

I first heard about Joseph Campbell in connection with the Star Wars movies. But then his name came up again in the excellent film "The Namesake". And so I decided to investigate.

I'm so glad I did. This book is based on the immensely popular Bill Moyers PBS series of the same name. I'm not sure how much of this book was included in the program, but it served as an excellent introduction to Campbell's work and ideas. I've now added all (a hefty number!) of his books to my Amazon list.

Here he lays out his basic ideas about the function of myth as metaphor to help guide human lives on earth. His famous phrase "Follow your bliss" (which was the line quoted in The Namesake)peppers the conversation with Moyers. "Following your bliss" means focusing on what it is that brings you joy and making time to do exactly that. This will open up a path for you that you never could have planned or forced.

"CAMPBELL: Have you ever read Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt? Remember the last line? "I have never done the thing I wanted to in all my life." That is a man who has never followed his bliss...You may have a success in life, but then just think of it-what kind of life was it? What good was it-you've never done the thing you wanted to do in all your life...Go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it and don't let anyone throw you off." pg. 146-147

"MOYERS: Do you ever have this sense when you are following your bliss, of being helped by hidden hands?

CAMPBELL: All the time. It is miraculous...If you follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss and they open the doors to you...where you didn't know they were going to be." pg. 150"

I found this so beautiful because this was exactly our experience in Africa. We set off on our little adventure with a vague plan, but a real sense that we needed to go there and see things for ourselves. And I was constantly overwhelmed with how things fell together and the help that came just as we needed it. I wouldn't have changed a thing about that adventure, even if this film never goes any farther. That wasn't the point of the adventure.

The sections on marriage and love were equally moving to me. Campbell talks extensively about how the yin yang symbol explains the ideals of married life. Here you have the male and there you have the female. Neither one is complete without the other but both contain part of the other in them. And in Oriental thinking this shape is constantly rotating.

But the idea I found most beautiful is that when you submit to your partner in marriage, you are not really submitting to that person but to the idea of marriage. To this unit of which you are a part. I think there is this misguided notion of a marriage having winners and losers and with each conflict one partner comes away ahead of the other. But with that idea you are constantly competing with the other and you never loose yourself. If instead each partner takes turns submitting themselves to the union, the final reward is a totally selfless love.

MOYERS: What happens when you follow your bliss?

CAMPBELL: You come to bliss. In the Middle Ages, a favorite image that the wheel of fortune. There's the hub of the wheel, and there is the revolving rim of the wheel...If you are attached to the rim of the wheel of fortune, you are either going down or at the bottom coming up. But if you are at the hub, you are in the same place all the time. That is the sense of the marriage vow. I take you in health or sickness in wealth or poverty; going up or coming down. But I take you as my center and you are my bliss, not the wealth that you might bring me, not the social prestige, but you. That is following your bliss." pg. 146-147

This promises to be the beginning of a very happy relationship with an author for yours truly. Anyone else out there ever read Campbell? Which book should I read next?


tangata said...

Hey Sweetie!
Too late to call tonight but will try sometime this weekend. My first contact with this book was via the MIA exhibit of Starwars paraphenilia of all things! Spielberg mentioned it as one of the major influences on his work. I haven't read it yet but need to along with the two out of five I haven't gotten to on your book list. I just finished "God laughs and plays" by David James Duncan a collection of essays I think you would really like. It's good reading weather here:)if you don't remember what febuary in Minnesota is like! Love you lots, talk soon !

Brandon Till said...

For all those who laugh at a classical education, I give you Joseph Campbell.

Brandon Till said...

For all those who question a classical education, I give you Joseph Campbell.

chris said...

i'm SOOOO glad you're getting into campbell. he has had a tremendous impact on me over the years. the more campbell you read, the more my art (he was a major inspiration for my college sculptures) and, really, the more i will make sense to you.


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