On Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth
Lately, I’ve been watching some of the various television documentaries featuring Joseph Campbell. For those who don’t know, Joseph Campbell was a “mythologist” who specialized in comparative mythology and religion. Famous for condensing much of mythology into monomyths and influencing George Lucas, Campbell is a difficult nut for me to crack.
Perhaps it is my innate fondness for deconstruction, suspicion of grand narratives, or historical/ cultural mindedness, but I find myself troubled by Campbell’s condensing of all mythology into monomyths, grand narratives that lead to limited, interior, and spiritually affirmative meanings.
Now, I personally am not a mythology expert, but I do know that Campbell’s is not the only interpretation in town. There is the historical interpretation similar to Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths. And there are cultural, literary interpretations that are, perhaps, not so popular with popular culture or television documentaries.
Watching the first three episodes of The Power of Myth, I am struck by nostalgia, a sense of loss, and questioning. I’ve seen the series several times in the past (there are a few good points about PBS’s pledge drives), and I have the same criticisms that I’ve always had. I’m not sure I agree that all mythology can, or should be, squeezed to a single range of meanings. Does this strip away the cultural varieties, the culture specific meanings, that are present in the myths? For a writer of fantasy, does The Hero with a Thousand Faces provide a decent scaffolding in world building and storytelling? Or is it, like cultural myths stripped of their uniqueness, producing derivative works that in the end limit the imagination of storytelling?
Perhaps its the questions asked that trouble me. Campbell asks what is the psychological and spiritual meaning of this myth and the corresponding condensation as Campbell looks for a way to subsume it into his monomyth. I on the other hand, ask what do these myths reveal about these cultures and why these myths have to be as they are. Take an example from the first episode of The Power of Myth. Campbell tells the tale of an Iroquois girl who married a powerful magician/ snake. Gradually, she is troubled by the fact that her new relatives are snake people and an old shaman aids her in escaping. What I want to know is what is the problem here? Why the sudden fear? There is another example from Hero with a Thousand Faces that equally raised those questions to me.
Do I like Joseph Campbell’s work? I don’t know really. Campbell comes out of a psychoanalytic tradition (Freud and to a lesser extent Jung) that I personally dislike. I don’t like condensing myth down to a personal spiritual journey that strips cultural and historical meanings from the myth. I’m going to finish off The Power of Myth as well as the other documentaries that are available online (thanks to Netflix streaming), but I am unsure if I will change my opinion.
What saddens me, about all of this, is that Joseph Campbell is likely going to be the final word on mythology in the popular consciousness. The Power of Myth (among others) is a testament to the informational possibilities of entertainment. But with the decline of PBS and the condensing of cable to only ratings grabbing reality programming, it is unlikely that anything quite like it will ever appear again. And that is the shame.