I recently saw a fan documentary about Joseph Campbell, the great, if somewhat faded cultural syncretist whose book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, with subsequent writings about ancient myths as enigmatic answers to life’s big questions, inspired George Lucas’s first Star Wars film, and encouraged thousands of disaffected mostly middle class teenagers to reject mainstream American social norms so they could follow their “bliss” a more personal, authentic sense of spiritual fulfillment.
I call this a fan documentary because it approached hagiography. In addition to photos from his youth (I loved the a precious image of the future sage as a Catholic altar boy in New Rochelle, New York) and his wanderings throughout the world, we saw the elder Campbell as a casually dressed lord-of-the-manor on the grounds of his Hawaiian house, perspiring before the camera as he told of his rejection of Catholicism and his youthful, Razor’s Edgy quest for spiritual meaning, and then his revelation that ancient myths contained insights into the “great mystery” of life that you encounter when you notice that, not only will everything that lives die eventually, but that, in order to live, you must kill, or you must enable others to kill for you.
The documentary also included scenes of Campbell pontificating before a throng of visually attractive young people with blow-dried haircuts and earth-tone clothes, ending with Campbell in a tuxedo getting an award that, while it is obviously not the Nobel prize, is sufficiently important to have George Lucas himself give a speech of thanks.
Does it get any better? A house in Hawaii. A distinguished academic career. A loving wife who is also a dancer (the narrator mentions she was his former student at Sarah Lawrence–nowadays liaisons between professor and student, even if they lead to marriage, are verboten on most college campuses and punished by a loss of tenure, and worse). The gratitude of a pop-culture icon. The admiration of young, good-looking people.
This documentary is a warm up to the best video portrait of Campbell. Search the Internet for the four-part Power of Myth, a conversation with the eminently cordial Bill Moyers, filmed at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch and broadcast on PBS in 1987, about a year after Campbell died. The transcript from the documentary, published as a book, became a best seller that reminded aging hippies and smarmy Yuppies (Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals) that the quest for personal fulfillment that they may have abandoned for jobs, family and other concerns may not be over, that they may still find a cave in which what they fear may be their greatest treasure, mentors wait to guide them to “follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.”
As one who has slammed into more than enough walls in his lifetimes, hoping that a door would appear when it most definitely did not, I confess that Campbell’s ideal–that our live changes when we choose to see ourselves mythic heroes on an epic journey–is wonderfully compelling. We may not have a lightsaber, or a ring that makes us invisible, or a latent talent or ability that our mentor will help us develop, but we’ve read the book, seen the movie and know what happens next. Or what should happen.
Though many hippies believed following their bliss condoned hedonistic indulgence, or, for the Yuppies, oversized clothing in power colors worn to power breakfasts, Campbell emphasized that our bliss was an deep expression of our being, a something you found on your quest that gave your life a purpose and value. Again, it’s a great ideal that moved many artists and creative types. I tried to follow my bliss as best I could, but some other things I learned in college held me back.
Campbell’s quest was inspired by a youthful fascination with American Indians. His failure to equate the spiritual world of the Indians to what he had learned as a well-meaning Irish Catholic led him to texts in cultures both ancient and contemporary, from the fragmented Gilgamesh to the unbearably long Upandishads. For him, the myths performed a function of relating a metaphorical truths that tended to be inexpressible in ordinary language. Where we come from, why we’re here and where we’re going are not just slogans. They are questions that can never be answered adequately but myths can point us toward an understanding of ourselves and how we fit in to our physical and social environment.
My English professors acknowledged that Campbell’s emphasis on myth as a humanistic cultural backbone could explain many literary works, most obviously James Joyce’s Ulysses, some works by Shakespeare, some of the magical realist stories coming out of South America, and some genres, such as the bildungsroman, a story of how a young person grows to maturity. But most literature looks at ancient and cultural myths ironically: we may want to be Perseus using our wits to slay the minotaur, or Odysseus descending to the underworld to get good advice, or even Dante progressing through the afterlife in search of spiritual understanding, but life is too messy, foolish, cruel, horrible, stupid and unfair to deliver the happy ending of classical comedy, or the final epiphany in tragedy.
My religion professors (I majored in English and Religion) were wary of Campbell, and not merely because their students brought his books to class. The myths on which Campbell based his ideas were translations, and even if you teach yourself the original language and translate the texts yourself, you can never be sure what the myth meant to those who first transcribed it. Anyone with an historical insight into a culture–ancient or contemporary–knows that the meanings of myths change over time (post-modern thinkers would take this further, suggesting that every time you read a text, be it a myth or a laundry list, its meaning changes).
They also argued that, as much as we would like to believe that myths and religions are the same and function within societies and civilizations in similar ways, the dissimilarities are far more obvious, and cannot be ignored. Campbell’s attempt to find core or unifying myths is more a matter of what he chooses not to see, or to leave out. The hero who trusts the Force and blows up the Death Star also kills thousands of human beings working on that space station who needed a job.
I didn’t take any psychology courses, but I read widely in the field later and got to know some who practiced psychotherapy and psychiatry. I also read Kurt Vonnegut’s and Hannah Arendt’s efforts to understand how basically decent, well educated European people could abandon their sense of decency and moral rectitude to these dictators’ blatant evil.
The banal truth is that you can follow your bliss over Niagara Falls, with or without a barrel.
Campbell’s hero’s journey isn’t so much a distillation of ancient truth as expressed in myth, as it is a restatement of a paradigm for modernist success: the individual who offers the most valuable contribution to society does so from the satisfaction of inner need. It’s great when that need builds character, fosters compassion and reveals vital capability. It’s not so great when that need invents a charismatic tyrant who foists his dark compulsion on a naive constituency, and leads them to an abyss that, unlike Nietzsche’s, does not gaze back at them, but roars “come on down!”
This said, I am now at the age of the bearded mentors whose quirky attentions speed heroes along their journey. And yet, I find myself more like a youthful hero, whose progress around so many walls feels unsure, awkward and unlikely.
I have found my inner need, that bliss that doesn’t so much guide me, as tease me with possibility.
And so, when no one is looking (or no one appears to care) I follow that bliss. I pause occasionally before a wall and, thinking of old myths made new again, I say, “Open sesame!”
Alas, the bagel bakery is too frequently out of sesame, so I settle for a poppyseed, or a plain, and hope that if a door in a wall ever opens, I’ll be welcome on the other side.