I get a similar feeling from reading The Power of Myth that I get from listening to Little Richard and Chuck Berry’s songs after being brought up on Elvis and Beatles covers of “Long Tall Sally” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” There are hundreds of diluted explanations and direct portrayals in film/TV of the Heroes Journey and the creation myth being a constant in all civilizations, but there’s only one original.
Joseph Campbell’s interviews with Bill Moyer are famous, the kind of big intellectual paperback that can be found in a lot of home libraries. It’s accessible enough that a lot of people earnestly read it or want to, and it also looks good sitting on the shelf or on a coffee table. I put it off for years because I was intimidated as hell. But once I picked up a decent pace, I sped through the last half. Campbell is an entertaining, warm subject, as engaging as I expected, and I felt genuine chills reading his account of the same basic ancient creation myth appearing in every culture, almost instantaneously. About half of what he say has a clarity to it, an absolute, very spiritual truth about the world and our place in it that is hard to dispute. As someone who loves stories, I loved half of The Power of Myth.
The other half is compelling as hell, and deeply fucking frustrating.
I can only speak for this book, and I’ve avoided reading other criticism of Campbell until I’m done here. But like many public, and often liberal, intellectuals of the 20th century and beyond, Campbell rarely looks at his pet subjects from a perspective of political power – who has it, who doesn’t, and who stands to gain from social and geopolitical control. This is a simplified account, but he insists that myths are largely a creation of elite interpreters, working from the unconscious (it’s a rare moment where Moyers pushes back slightly) and that folklore is an interpretation of what the people are given. Why is this? What do have the elites have to gain from doing this? Campbell has a very idealistic conception of religion’s purpose, but it only goes so far.
And like a lot of older Americans, he has an odd blind spot with the Founding Fathers – it’s like these guys can deconstruct the Soviets and Marxism fine, but can’t ever see them as a kind of mythology, or confront the “owning people” elephant in the room. (And when they do, the answer is outright offensive or dismissive of genocidal atrocities.)
I kind of expected these flaws already from Campbell, so while they bother me, this doesn’t exactly detract from the reading. I’m an adult and I can live with disagreeing with the author (except Christopher Hitchens – baffling taste as a critic). Moreover, if I couldn’t live with what I consider obnoxious, vacuous liberal sentiment, I would have to block many of my more well-meaning Facebook friends. (Compared to other intellectuals, Campbell actually does seem appalled at what modernity, especially wage labor, costs people.)
What actually bothered me, and I didn’t expect them, were two things. (1) Campbell discusses heavily the journey, found in most religions, not of death, but letting the physical body go, and joining the great “oversoul” or the energy of the universe. It’s something I’ve definitely sought myself, but part of me is still an existentialist – there is nothing else here, only the body and what it experiences. I find a lot of common ground with the medieval artists, the Bosches, Cronenbergs and Blakes of the world, who think ecstasy can be found in the tactility and sensation of life. Something in me doesn’t trust an argument for losing the flesh, maybe because I still want autonomy over my body and mind.
(2) The Heroes Journey famously has the chief flaw of being, y’know, pretty elitist. There’s a chosen Special who is gonna do Special Things and bring Specialness back to his community! ALRIGHT! That’s obvious enough.
But what’s also a bit jarring about it, and this has become more apparent in the decades since it became more popularized, is how easily the Journey can become a plug n’ play experience for movies, books, whatever story in whatever medium. Write some average dope into a new setting, make them a Chosen One, and hopefully success follows. When an artist like George Miller takes the story seriously, the result is like strong cold medicine. When half of films become versions of it, you have a sleeping pill. This isn’t necessarily Campbell’s fault, but at his worst, what he’s doing is providing a formula for an ancient way of thinking.
Lately I keep looking back on the Joss Whedon/Dan Harmon/Justin Roiland/Rick & Morty of it all. I had years where I related to these pop culture nerds and their extraordinarily self-aware, depressive understanding of storytelling and pop culture, even being (mildly) excited when they conquered Hollywood to some extent. But after reading more of the Solute and watching Spartacus and The Shield close together, first I decided I wanted more plot and sincerity in the things I watched and saw. Then I became outright fed up with the meandering self-awareness which had slowly mutated into the New Blockbuster Mode of writing (“I don’t not like you…”) At a certain point watching Solar Opposites or Moon Knight, it’s hard not to ask, “Why don’t you just tell the story instead of making fun of yourself for telling it all the time?”
It’s nice to go back to a more official source for this kind of thinking about stories then, even if I also don’t want to be a Dan Harmon or Whedon anymore. Not just because they aren’t great people*, but I actually don’t want to directly reference the techniques I’m using and the frameworks I have in mind in my work. It’s maybe the difference between applying concepts to your own individual ideas, and letting those concepts take over how you see everything within a story.
*Harmon does seem sincere compared to Whedon’s total delusions about himself.