What’s Wrong with Joseph Campbell?

During the years 1983 and 1984 I read some of the most important works in my intellectual development. One of these works posed the problem that I would spend the rest of my life answering. The other provided the basis of my answer. This essay is about my confrontation with Modernism that posed the great question that I have spent my life answering. It emerged from what I thought would be a simple question that I had after reading Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God.

The Arc of the Story

I had learned the basis of story structure in my senior English class in high school from a great teacher named Mrs. Kelly. She taught us that the way to “individuation” was to pass through several stages, which she told us were derived from the works of Carl Jung.

  • A conflict starts you out on the journey. Being a disciple of Sigmund Freud, Jung pictured this as journey to the underworld.
  • You encounter your id. This is a dangerous time, for your id has not yet been tamed and could master you, rather than you it.
  • If you are among the elect, you connect with your “other half,” your anima or animus. This connection reintegrates you with your “whole” humanity, not simply simply your gendered identity. (See the explanation in the Symposium where Aristophanes tells the story of the whole man and his division into two gendered parts who go looking for others to complete their humanity).
  • She (in my case) guides you back up from the underworld.
  • Only then are you a “whole” person.

The advantages of being a “whole” person were many. First of all, the whole person didn’t need to travel to find themselves, because they were always at home with themselves. In Jung ‘s view, people who are constantly traveling are people who are looking for something that they could not find at home; but people who stay at home do not need to travel, because they had found within themselves all the resources of psychic survival. I was hooked.  I wanted to be a “whole” person.

Only in retrospect can I see that this was because of my upbringing. I moved to in Glencoe, Illinois in the seventh grade, the fifth richest town in the suburbs of the city of Chicago. Having been raised in a middle-class neighborhood, I was never comfortable in the upper class neighborhood to which we had moved. I simply didn’t fit in, and I became (figuratively) one of those kids from “the other side of the tracks” that were so popular in John Hughes movies in the 1980s. I was looking for a sense of belonging in Glencoe. Carl Jung offered the possibility that there was a “higher” nobility to be had in the world, a nobility that one could earn through hard work, rather than a nobility that one simply inherited. That was for me.

My Introduction to Joseph Campbell

I had picked up Campbell’s Occidental and Creative Mythology a few years before, while I was still in high school. I had them around, but I never really got around to reading them. In 1983, I picked the third book, Occidental Mythology, at random, and it was about a quarter of a way done with it when I realized this was the third in a series of books. So I put down Occidental Mythology and went to the bookstore and picked up Primitive Mythology and Oriental Mythology, the first two books in the series. I began reading from the beginning.

I told a number of people in my life that this was one of the formative experiences in my reading life. After I dropped out of college, I’d been reading constantly to make up for my lack of knowledge about literature, philosophy, psychology, etc. I went into the experience of reading Joseph Campbell as a naïve kid who read a lot works at random. I came out as a systematic reader.

Campbell complemented my (admittedly small) learning based in Jung and Nietzsche, but he extended it vastly. He extended in two ways, if I may use a spatial metaphor. First, he extended my mind horizontally by covering all of the works of human history, not simply concerning himself with, say, the 18th-century poets or 19th century prose.  And he extended my mind vertically by offering up readings of the deepest works of literature such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

However, it was not very easy for me to read at first. I had not really studied very much in high school, when I got to college I found that I do not have the discipline to understand what I was reading. So I went to the store and bought a notebook, I started writing down notes about the major ideas on every page. At first, my comments were very sketchy; but over time I found that I needed to pay more and more attention to the details. My note taking grew more detailed, and this slowed my reading down to a crawl. It took me a year and a half to work through to the last book.

This was the first comprehensive appraisal of literature that I had read. In subsequent years, I would discover others such as Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. After reading Campbell, I could place my thoughts in a broader and deeper context. One of the things I learned after reading Campbell is that I did not need Campbell to structure my experience anymore. That’s one of the things that Campbell talks about in his book: the mind’s ability to grow beyond the authors whose works informed you. That, in Joseph Campbell’s mind, constituted  psychic growth.

After Campbell

Campbell had offered me a dynamic and extensive worldview through four books of The Masks of God. From this, he had managed to take the collective experience that transcended individual experiences of individual religions and collected them into a syncretistic experience of finding truth in the “deeper” meanings of human life, which he called “The Words Behind Words.”

I found a lot of value in Joseph Campbell. He had raised us (not just me) out of our individual existence to a collective plane in which we operated, not on the basis of our individual desires and needs, but on our “humanity.” But I had one remaining question: this process of inquiry could go on forever. How were we to know when we had arrived at the word behind words? The fact was that the postmoderns had begun asking such questions and had decided in the negative. There was no ground underneath our feet.

However, I was living outside of academia the time that I read Joseph Campbell. Figuring somebody smarter than me knew the answer to these questions, I went back to college looking for answers to my one remaining question. At the time, the academic world was just coming to terms with the new postmodern revolution. As an undergraduate, I was shielded from the force of these ideas.

When I got back to college, I had grown beyond Campbell, and this caused me and admittedly minor problem with at least one of my professors. Most of my professors in the late 1980s were of the generation that I’ve come to call “The Last of the High Moderns.” They were very interested in exploring knowledge in extending themselves out through the universe. This particular professor had learned of Joseph Campbell during the interview series conducted by Bill Moyers on PBS in 1986, after I had already outgrown him, and he had brought this new knowledge to class. I told him that I read Campbell and that I did not agree with his assessment of life.  He was astonished, and decided there was something wrong with me.

His reaction, I believe, has to do with the organization of relative knowledge that obtains in the world. Teachers know more than students.

Teacher-student knowledge

Teacher-student knowledge

My professor had put himself in the lower position to Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell had more than my professor, who knew more than me. And so he could not imagine that there was not something wrong with his student who was not following, not my professor’s example, but the example that my professor was following. It was not the last time I was classified as “the other,” a man who was clinging to the lower, more material view of the world, which was characteristic of the status quo ante. According to Jung’s model, I was either beyond Campbell (my opinion) or I was not even on the path to “individuation” (my professor’s opinion).

This is not how I saw my situation. I had read Joseph Campbell, but I was already asking the postmodern question about the end of knowledge. When I would press him on the “bottom” of knowledge in the system, he would lead me back to insights that were new to him rather than answering my question. In the end, my professors were prepared by their experience with the “ends” of modernism to accept the “there is no bottom” answer.

This mixup happened to me over and over in graduate school and has become a major line of development in my thought for no other reason than that happened to me so much. The fact that I got classified as “other” so often divided me from my professors and eventually took me off in a separate line of intellectual development from the main. In graduate school, the fact that I had a different approach to the postmodern problem caused me no end of difficulty and was ultimately one of the reasons (but only one) that I decided to leave academia.

However, in 1983 and 1984, that was all in my future. I had yet to complete the story arc which Joseph Campbell had laid out for me.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.