Giving Joseph Campbell a Second Look

I don’t recommend binge watching Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. The series needs to be savored and contemplated. Watched in two large chunks dilute the experience. And one should not read The Hero with a Thousand Faces at the same time. Too much Campbell at one time is not a good thing. Maybe I should have just focused on one or the other, but I chose to go with both at the same time. Regardless, my opinion of Joseph Campbell has changed over the course of reading and viewing both works.

Engaging in Joseph Campbell’s works comes in two forms: literary theory and philosophy of life.

I will be honest, I’m not interested in Campbell’s philosophy of life. I find it interesting and agree that it is a valid way to live one’s life. And I admit that I am more favorable to it now than I was when I first wrote about Campbell over two years ago. However, that has never been what I find most compelling about Campbell’s interpretation of mythology. 

What I’m really interested in is Joseph Campbell as a mythologist and literary theorist. 

As such, I find myself split on his work. I agree with him in some ways. But I also disagree with him in others. 

A mythologist must wear many hats. In Campbell’s case, he is part anthropologist and part psychoanalyst with some literary scholar thrown in. And here is where I have a problem with him, though he himself is not at fault, only that he is a product of his time.

Campbell is (was) unavoidably part of a tradition of psychology which has been, at least since Campbell’s death, steadily marginalized to the dustbin of science. Psychology today is radically different than it was when Campbell first wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces. While myths predominate, there are also a good amount of excerpts from psychoanalytic texts (in the form of patient dreams and their subsequent interpretation). Needless to say, Campbell’s interpretation of myths from around the world is dependent upon his own psychoanalytic framework.

Campbell as anthropologist (probably more like an armchair anthropologist) is equally problematic. But again, anthropology as practiced today is far different from how it was practiced in Campbell’s day. So can Campbell really be held responsible for utilizing an ideological framework which, to today’s eyes, seem at best quaint and ill informed? Can Campbell be held responsible for using sources which might not be accurate?

No, because he obviously could not have known when he wrote how the intellectual frameworks would shift. But, one may ask, did he ever modify his views in the face of changing interpretations? Did Levi Strauss influence him? What about Lacan and Kristeva? 

I don’t know. But it would be interesting to find out if Campbell evolved in his interpretations as he grew older. (From watching The Power of MythI would say no. But the real test would be in any scholarship he wrote and what he taught in his classes).

So how valid is Campbell? In some ways, he has been passed by more recent scholars and newer frameworks of interpretation. But as an influence on writers, especially writers of fantasy and science fiction, Campbell’s influence lives on. Seriously, one could ask if anyone, Bill Moyers included, would have been interested in producing The Power of Myth without Lucas crediting Campbell’s influence.

And this is where my opinion of Campbell has changed. While I may not agree with Campbell’s specific interpretations of various myths, I do see the structure of the Hero’s Journey as being a valid and useful framework for a writer of science fiction and fantasy. And that is largely why I read him in the first place. 

My issue with Campbell can best be illustrated by the story of Prince Kamar al Zaman. Before his deus ex machina forced love for Princess Burdur, one could interpret Zaman’s refusal to marry as either homosexuality or asexuality. Regardless of how one interprets his sexuality, one should ask themselves why the young prince should marry anyway. And the answer is obvious for Princess Burdur as to why she refuses to marry. But marry they must, so bam, an ifrit driven deus ex machina which forces both young people to fall in love. I have a problem with this story because it makes stark an uncomfortable realization.

The Hero’s Journey is based upon a heteronormative reading of the world. Again, Campbell is a product of his time, but I feel that it is permissible to point this out. How do LGBT people engage in the Hero’s Journey?

Part of me wishes to answer by taking the structure of the Hero’s Journey and interpreting it through other ideological frameworks. How would a more contemporary psychoanalytic framework influence the Hero’s Journey? Or feminism? Or poststructural marxism? Or queer theory? Or postcolonial theory?

Is the Hero’s Journey dependent upon the ideology that gave it birth? Or is the Hero’s Journey independent of the Father?

I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find the answer. 

 

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Posted on December 19, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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