Friday 24 October 2014

There are many myths - there are even new myths

The greatest evangelist for myth of recent generations was Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) - but he was a man of contradictions.

On the one hand he was fascinated by the many and various myths of the world, throughout history - and he was Jungian in finding myths not just in anthropology and 'folklore'; but to be equally the basis of dreams, the creative arts... and pretty much everything. He spent his life extracting, collecting and disseminating multiple myths.


Yet Campbell is best known for his book The Hero with Thousand Faces which - in its most extreme moments - says that behind this vast seeming-diversity, there is only one underlying myth: the Hero's Journey.

Indeed in his introduction (writing in 1949) Campbell makes clear his overall purpose in studying and teaching myth:

Perhaps it will be objected that in bringing out the correspondences I have overlooked the differences between the various Oriental and Occidental, modern, ancient, and primitive traditions. The same objection might be brought, however, against any textbook or chart of anatomy, where the physiological variations of race are disregarded in the interest of a basic general understanding of the human physique. There are of course differences between the numerous mythologies and religions of mankind, but this is a book about the similarities; and once these are understood the differences will be found to be much less great than is popularly (and politically) supposed. My hope is that a comparative elucidation may contribute to the perhaps not-quite-desperate cause of those forces that are working in the present world for unification, not in the name of some ecclesiastical or political empire, but in the sense of human mutual understanding. As we are told in the Vedas: Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.“

Campbell was still making the same point - that the underlying unity of all myth implies the unity of all mankind, up to his death; and that we should focus on this unity in the myths we live by, since the modern world is interconnected and inter-dependent. He was - in this respect - an extreme universalist, which accounts for his continued appeal to the mainstream, politically correct, New Left - which permeates academia, New Age spirituality and radical politics.


In his personal religious preferences, Campbell was most positive towards Hinduism (as the above quotations shows), followed by Buddhism - and reserved mockery and animosity for Christianity (he was a lapsed Roman Catholic) and Old Testament Judaism.


Although in the middle 2000s (before I became a Christian) I was immersed in Campbell's work, I always dissented from the trope that he was 'a great storyteller' - I found his recountings of myth to be tendentious and facetious - very seldom 'mythic' in style, but instead modernist and reductionist.

That which was 'mythical' was usually stripped away in the re-telling,  and there was a quasi scientific focus on basic symbols and plots - as must inevitably happen (it seems to me) when engaged in unifying what appears to be multiple.


In his heart Campbell was an Eastern-style Hindu unifier - which is to be immersed in the specifics but simply to assert, non-rationally, that ultimately everything is one. But in writing for a Western audience, Campbell was a rationalistic unifier - asserting that the real underlying structure of all myth, all things, was identical. His pseudo-scientific method of unification came from Freud and Jung mostly, but also from pattern-recognising cultural criticism.


My own views are almost the opposite of Campbell's in that I regard myths as open-endedly various.

I accept his broad brush definition of 'myth' as including not only the explicit myths of anthropology and folklore; but also dreams, psychosis, arts, fantasy, and all types of narratives.

What makes something a myth is, at the first level of analysis, psychological - a feeling, a way of thinking: this is indeed one of the primary human emotions - the feeling we sometimes get that tells us: 'This is a myth!'

In fact this feeling is more profound than mere recognition that something is a myth - it is the recognition of 'Me, Here, Now - inside a myth'.


I am talking about the difference between recognising and discussing or recounting the myth of Father Christmas; and the magical feeling of being inside, of enacting that myth on Christmas Eve. The difference between describing the quest of Frodo in Lord of the Rings, and that feeling of actually living mythically (inside a 'story') which - by identifying with Frodo - the book is able to induce in some people.


And, in contrast to there being one (or just a few) basic stories, I think that all successful myths are significantly distinct: so it is possible to make new myths, and even new kinds of myth which others can replicate. Lord of the Rings is one example: to reduce Frodo's quest to a Hero's Journal requires significant omissions and distortions, and is basically dishonest - yet the mythic aspect is undeniably successful and real.

And powerful new myths continue to be made - for example many of the best children's animated movies of recent years have genuine mythic power (e.g. Toy Story movies, Rise of the Guardians, Maleficent), yet the myth feels new, and the plots are significantly non-stereotypical and surprising.


Of course not all attempts to make a new myth succeed - and some (many, most?) 'new' myths are in fact subversively motivated and anti-mythical in effect. They destroy or deny that mythic feeling in favour of a political agenda or avant garde modernism; they mock, invert, permutate and distort myths; rather than create new and psychologically profound myths.

This happens a lot, because real myths are a very important force for good in the modern world - one of ever-fewer places where people can live (for a while) un-alienated, and in relationship with reality.

Because myth is real; mythic modes of being are indeed more real than the world outside them; indeed the non-mythic mode never feels real but always alien, un-engaging, and merely a means to some other end.

By contrast, mythic experience, living inside myth, is an end in itself - not sufficient in itself, to be sure; but the essential basis for all the real things of life.



Nicholas Fulford said...

You are correct about the role of mythic narrative to place the reader / viewer / listener "inside the myth". That is the point, without regard to the specific narrative in question. It is to produce a state of deep association through symbols with what lies beneath the symbols - i.e. what is primary and real and hence common even as the tale itself and its cultural origin is unique. The unity within myth is not in the story but in it placing the participating people in a state of common-unity within the story. Great mythic narrative does that. Great mythic music also does that. They unveil the common heritage of humanity in what is hidden within the myth and that is its transformative power to evoke those who participate through active experience inside the myth.

There are characteristics of mythic tale which are similar between peoples - the hero's quest being one, and the one that Campbell placed greatest emphasis upon.

An emphasis on underlying unity is not facile, it is primary. We are more similar in fact than we are different. We are common as a species, sharing the same general genetic characteristics and having the same evolutionary heredity. Yes, there are substantial variations of expression, but those are minor in comparison with how much is common, including the ability to be placed inside mythic narrative via deep and intimate association.

To be a great storyteller requires having made the journey inside myth many times, to then having been so intimately familiar with it as to begin creating other trails and markers into it. It requires being a Shaman because the role of the Shaman is to draw people inside through his telling of a story - to commune-icate the core heritage of his people.

Adam G. said...

Very good.

Anonymous said...

Don't know too much about Campbell, I read one or two of his books years ago. But what he says makes a certain sort of sense. As far as Judaism goes, the hero is the Jewish people collectively, as far as Christianity goes, Jesus.

The hero idea is very powerful, and was specially for the Romantic era. The German Romantic hero of Goethe, Faust, was I think the model for both communism and Nazism.

The Romantic existential hero was a powerful idea up through the fall of communism, but hold quite as much interest today. The progressive hero has been the vanguard social-political-cultural leader, the activist or protester. The progressive hero of today is more likely to be a tech billionaire like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg. A generation ago the revolutionary billionaire was conservative/libertarian/Randian hero, ironically, but that's how society has changed.

Really all human heroism is futile and deep down we know it. There is only one real hero, Jesus, and while we do well to emulate him at best it will be pretty weak. Most people can't be heroes, and they need a hero, and even heroes need a hero, and him we have.