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 personal 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'm not interested in peering at mythology through the lens that Campbell made. I'm interested in applying a different focus and filter to bring out aspects of mythology that Campbell wasn't after.
I don't disagree with every last thing Campbell says. 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.
But the way he approaches the stories is gross to me
Take monomyth, for example. Monomyth (that's James Joyce's term) refers to narrative patterns that repeat themselves in stories throughout the world. It's a fascinating topic as long as you're not flattening the differences between stories and treating their cultural specificity as a bothersome burr, which Campbell absolutely does. That's disrespectful. To do so requires you to ignore not only distinctions between stories, but whole swaths of storytelling that don't fit the mold you're constructing, that don't fit your theory. By requiring you to ignore, it requires you to be ignorant.
Then there's gender. I don't have space in this post even to start on that one.
What I want to focus on today is Campbell's starting point: the psychological assumptions that he brings to his work. There's a serious problem here, which makes me question whether he knows what myths even are.
One of his big influences was Jung
Joseph Campbell 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 with a literature degree, I'm not about to say that's an invalid way to look at any given story. 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 psychoanalytical perspective, you're lifting it out of its genre and treating it as 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.
The purpose of myth isn't to tell us about the human psyche, in other words. It's to tell us about the world.