Joseph Campbell

Chill Out, Jo-Cam

The other day a friend of mine asked me what I have against the mythologist Joseph Campbell. Every time the guy’s name comes up, I swear; also, I love mythology. So what’s your problem, my friend asked.

That’s a fair question. I would like to give it a fair answer. Let me begin by acknowledging the petty aspect of my dislike.

When I say I love mythology, I mean I see it as part of my life’s work. So, when people conflate mythology with Joseph Campbell — as if the two were one, and there were no room in this realm of inquiry for anything else — I find it annoying.

I don’t disagree with everything Campbell says. He was interested in monomyth, and so am I. Monomyth (that’s James Joyce’s term) refers to patterns that repeat themselves in various stories all over the world, seemingly without regard to time, place or culture. And I’ve long believed, like Campbell, that one of the essential purposes of mythology is to answer our basic, existential questions, like who am I, where did the world come from, what does it mean and what should I do.

So what’s the beef?

I admit, as I said above, part of it is just that I want space to think my own thoughts. It’s a bit of a conversation-killer when every time something important to you comes up, it’s someone’s else conversation. I don’t want to peer at mythology through the lens that Campbell made. I’m interested in making a lens of my own, applying a different focus and filter to bring out aspects of mythology that Campbell (or whoever else) wasn’t after.

But I do have a serious disagreement with his starting point, and I think this matters.

I believe that some of the assumptions Campbell brings to mythology actually fly in the face of what myth is, and is for. In that sense I think he does it an injustice.

Campbell’s work has a psychological bent to it. One of his big influences was Jung. He agreed “with Carl Jung’s texts explaining psychological phenomena by using archetypes — which in Jungian psychology is a primitive mental image inherited from early human ancestors and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.” His approach has some flavors of psychoanalysis as well, a line of thought that Freud came up with to explore the unconscious thoughts and mental images that influence how we behave.

As a postmodern college graduate with a literature degree, I’m not about to say that’s an invalid way to look at it. It’s not wrong or useless to view mythology through a psychological or psychoanalytical lens. Literary criticism is big enough to look at anything in any number of ways.

What I will say is that as long as you’re analyzing mythology from a psychological perspective, you’re lifting it out of its genre and treating it like something it is not. Myths aren’t allegories. They’re not metaphors. They’re not there for us to study, pick apart and write papers on.

They’re there for you to take like communion into yourself, make them part of your body and become them, let them become you. Like this. Not like this.

In other words, the purpose of myth isn’t to tell us about the human psyche. It’s to tell us about the world.