Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth (Prison Diary)


Excerpts from my Prison Diary, with a few contemporary notes:

{5/2/10} Reading Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth. Shall I call it poppycock? Or shall I call it another fairly crappy model? In either case, I don’t see much use for myth as a source of knowledge. Inspiration, yes; but not knowledge, not “power.”

He talks of everything being in pairs of opposites—a common enough thought, even a commonplace, but I see it this morning as more poppycock.

Male and female are different, but they are not opposite. For if they are opposites, what shall we do with transsexuals, bisexuals, homosexuals, hermaphrodites, and people with “abnormal” chromosome structures like XXY and XYY? Are key and lock opposite? Or are they “two” parts of a “single” mechanism? Sex is like this.

A man is a name for a point of reference, a label for a process that we tear out of “its” environment, a bleeding fragment of a gestalt. A gestalt has no opposite, “it” is a unity of figure and ground. We speak of the “interconnectedness of all things,” not realizing that the “things” we are pleased—very pleased—to see as “connected” are in fact disconnected only in our imaginary reality, our model that we use to think.

What is the opposite of “man” or “a man”? Woman? Animal? Child? Thing? Nothing? Not-man? “Opposite” is a crude tool of thought. A simple map.

Speaking of the “interconnectedness of all things” is using the old model in an attempt to express the newer, I want to say “more accurate,” model. I think the idea we are trying to express might be better expressed as: every “thing” is a gestalt. We have the great undifferentiated mystery of reality or the universe, which we differentiate according to an immediate perceived need. A gestalt is a factitious differentiation—a differentiation or splitting into figure and ground.

{5/9/10} I’ve mostly lost interest in Campbell’s The Power of Myth. It has some interesting stories, but a more systematic treatment is needed and [Bill] Moyers is irritating. I’ve already typed extensive quotes, including Chief Seattle’s Letter to Washington (D.C., not George), which isn’t quite as moving and poetic as one would like, but it’s close. Anyway, I’ve been wanting to read some Campbell for a while, given his huge popularity, and now I feel at least partially justified in ignoring him in future. [10/28/18:  The typed quotes have not been preserved.]

{5/25/10} Joseph Campbell speaks of four functions of myths. Seems to me that these functions have been superseded—let’s take a look, shall we?

He calls the first function “mystical”— “realizing what a wonder universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing all before this mystery.” Science, and an understanding of knowledge in terms of models and mystery, serves this function for me. [10/28/18: The universe is a wonder, in part, because now we know much more about it and have such amazing photographs of it, because of science. More about it than when the myths were created.]

The second function he calls “cosmological”—“the dimension with which science is concerned….” This sounds much like the first: “You strike a match, what’s fire?” One needs to contemplate the mystery of fireness.

The third is “sociological”—“ethical laws.” Philosophy, law, psychology do it better. Anthropology, too.

The fourth he calls “pedagogical”—“how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.” Surely literature and comparative religion (i.e., mythology) teach this, not to mention biography (i.e., mythology again). Not to mention the works of Maslow, et al.

If these are indeed the functions of mythology, then it seems we can dispense with the old myths and concentrate on the newer ones, which of course I believed all along.

Talking about future myths, Campbell says, “…what it will have to deal with will be exactly what all myths have dealt with—the maturation of the individual, from dependency through adulthood, through maturity, and then to the exit; and then how to relate this to this society and how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos…. but the society that it’s got to talk about is the society of the planet.”  [Reference lost.]

What I want to consider is how the individual ideally should “relate to” “the society of the planet” and whether this makes any sense. First, speaking of “the society of the planet” or even “American Society” is dubious because of the multiplicity of cultures, economic situations, lifestyles, religions, and ideals. To have a comprehensible model, I think we need to either select one culture, or try to establish what they mostly have in common. It is the latter model, it being more comprehensive, that I want to explore. And given my limited experience, I’ll stick with American culture and society. We all have in common, at least theoretically, the same laws, government, and language, and the same community of fellow citizens. We have the same institutions and media on which to draw.

Can anything useful be said about how the individual should relate to “this society”?

[11/26/10 Surely what is necessary is to relate to individuals; part of what individuals have in common—theoretically simplifying that relating—is what we call “society.” Isn’t this what we mean, pragmatically, as “relating to society”? If so, then the term is misleading, a reification of society. If not, then what is it? I don’t seem to know.]

Copyright (c) 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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