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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Campbell’

Have you found yourself stating a fact in a conversation–say some arcane statistic from baseball, the conjugation of Lithuanian verbs, or the air speed velocity of an unladen African swallow–only to be asked how you knew such a thing?

The latter of that list illustrates the kind of exchange that often happens:

The question as to how someone knows a particular fact generally carries specific implications with it:

1. Is that in fact a fact?

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As the saying goes, 78.6% of all statistics are made up on the spot–including this one.  One reasonable implied challenge in the question above is in regard to the accuracy of the fact being cited.  Take the origin of the Guinness Book of World Records.  Said tome was marketed as a way of settling disputes in bars.  Today, with smartphones as ubiquitous as opinions, a world of information is available at our fingertips–or, at least, thumbtips.  Verifying a statement is easy, so long as we understand the difference between reliable sources and otherwise.  The person who can quote facts from memory is treated as something of a fossil, someone who wastes time and effort by storing knowledge in a biological hard drive.

What this postmodernist view fails to comprehend is that absorbed information becomes a part of the person holding it.  Who you are is a combination of your memories and your personality.  The more diverse and expansive the former is, the more the latter can make of itself.

2.  How is something learned?

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One method of learning is research, the act of combing through available sources to find the desired fact.

Another is that dreaded plague of childhood:

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practice.  Whether it’s threading a needle, producing pleasing sounds from a musical instrument, or hitting what you aim at, learning is often a process of doing the same damned thing over and over until the skill is mastered.

The other method, namely experimentation, is illustrated by the first image in this article.  Yoda’s claim that there is no try is silly pablum, evidence that George Lucas would have made a better film if he’d never heard of Eastern mysticism or Joseph Campbell.  There is indeed try.  Try is what we do to find out if a given notion is possible or practical.

But in all of these, the essence is work.  And that’s why some are astonished when a person comes out with some curious bit of lore.  It disturbs their settled laziness to find that someone else put forth such effort.

 3.  How do you know that?

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But the most common meaning of titular question is to express surprise that the person addressed has absorbed a particular piece of knowledge.  An example of this comes from my experience discussing Tarot cards with a writing acquaintance of mine.  She was shocked to learn that I know anything about a divination practice, since she held a view of me more suited to the fellow with the pointy ears.  And that’s the point here.  When we find that someone knows a fact that isn’t in keeping with our view of the person, we feel offended.  How dare a person not conform to our theoretical model of the person?

Instead, we recall Aristotle’s opening to the Metaphysics that we all desire to know by nature.  While we may justifiably explore the path a person took to knowledge, ultimately, its possession should come as no surprise.  Learning is one part of the essence of being human.

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Writer and student of myths, Joseph Campbell, has had the kind of influence that no colleague of a fabulously successful scholar can tolerate. Public television viewers may know him from the Bill Moyers series, The Power of Myth, but his largest influence was indirect. His book, The Hero with a Thouand Faces, shaped the thinking of generations of writers and filmmakers in the years since the work first appeared in 1949. Included in Campbell’s spell has been a director of whom a few have heard, namely George Lucas. If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the Jedi religion, for example, now you know. The book is an effort in syncretism in myths, the belief that all myths can be explained by a single story, the monomyth or the hero’s journey. (Note that myth includes the religion that you believe, not just those that other people believe.)

To my way of thinking, the book suffers from three fundamental flaws:

1. The idea of a monomyth itself

The social sciences in the twentieth century decided that all cultures are of equal value. Whether or not that’s true, the idea is difficult to accept. Is a culture that hates Jews or enslaves Africans the moral equal of one that insists on basic rights for all human beings? I don’t think so. But an anthropologist does, at a minimum, have to set aside judgements about the worth of a culture to study it. So be it. The problem comes when cultures and their products are compared. If they are all equal, then their works–their paintings, their stories, their music, etc.–must also be equally worthy. This by implication creates the thinking that all such art must be reflections of one central truth. There is the claim, for example, that all religions are merely different paths to the same God, something like the various climbing routes up Mt. Everest.

There is some sense in this. We are all human beings whose brains have the same architecture and functions. It is reasonable to suppose that the stories that would appeal to one person are likely to appeal to others. It’s also easy to show that the plot structure of all stories comes down to a handful of types. In that way, the statement that all stories participate in a monomyth is true.

But it’s trivially true. When we delve into stories, we find that their purposes, themes, and conclusions are often quite different. Consider one point of contention that is relevant to another major flaw in Campbell’s book: individualism. We can speak at length about the divide in ways of thinking between the East and the West, and we can come up with numerous counterexamples, but one fundamental difference in the two systems of thought is that in the West, the individual is the important unit, while in the East, the individual is merely an expression, and often an illusory one, of the One. The borders of this thinking shift with politics, so don’t take these terms in a rigorous geographical sense. Islam is a case of Western thinking that penetrated deep into the land of the East, and Buddhism has become quite popular in some circles here in America.

The point here is that thematically, the stories of different cultures arrive at different ends. Campbell works his way a little bit at a time through a long list of stories, and by weaving them together without giving each one its separate due, he attempts to demonstrate the truth of the idea that they all tell the same basic story. For the sake of variety and personal and cultural autonomy, it is fortunate that he was unable to succeed in that effort.

2. The dependence on Freud

Michael Crichton called Sigmund Freud the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. Certainly, the Austrian doctor was a poor psychologist. His work has little scientific merit. Sadly, his influence on the humanities has been long and pernicious. Someone once said that the films of Woody Allen would be much better had Freud never lived, and in the same vein, Campbell’s analysis of myths may also have achieved much more. Campbell accepts Freud’s psychoanalytic notions without question, and this leads him to shoehorn the stories that he discusses into narrow channels. He is particularly enamored with the idea of the mother and father images. To him, every hero deals with those two throughout the heroic journey. The hero finds the mother and father within himself and must resolve the conflicts therein. And on and on. Even when those two images are actual elements of the story, Campbell’s obsession with them is exhausting. He becomes the boy who cried Oedipus.

3. The acceptance of Buddhism

Campbell extends the Freudian notion of the ego into the world of Buddhist thinking in which the ego is an illusion. As I said above, Western stories don’t often support this kind of belief, but The Hero with a Thousand Faces goes to great lengths to make us think otherwise. I must acknowledge here that I am not a Buddhist. I don’t follow Campbell in his acceptance of that religion’s teachings. The flaw, though, is in his argument that all myths ultimately aim at a Buddhist message.

To Campbell, the hero’s journey ends in the annihilation of the self. The hero, having fought the father, married the mother, and understood himself to be the father, finally is absorbed into the All or the One or the Brahma or Nirvana. Nirvana, in particular, appeals to Campbell. He reminds us that the word means the extinguishing, the point at which all desires have ceased.

If such a thing is the goal of my readers, so be it, but I cannot go along. That, however, is a religious question. Surely we can agree that such a state is not the end of all myths. Perhaps you also agree that the Star Wars films would have been better stories had Lucas never read The Hero with a Thouand Faces. In any case, should you journey through the book yourself, you are now forewarned.

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