Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove speaks with Joseph Campbell on Thinking Allowed Conversations On The Leading Edge Of Knowledge and Discovery.
Jeffrey Mishlove: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is “Understanding Mythology,” and our guest is perhaps the world’s foremost mythologist, Joseph Campbell, the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Masks of God, and the Atlas of World Mythology. Welcome to the program.
Joseph Campbell: Thank you.
Mishlove: It’s a pleasure to have you here. In your approach to mythology, you’ve come to take the view recently that mythology stems from the human body itself, from our own experiences—that every mythological story or experience comes from our experiences as human beings in a physical body.
Mishlove: I would think that would be quite contrary to an earlier idea that mythology is pretty much the product of fantasy or imagination.
Campbell: Fantasy and imagination is a product of the body. The energies that bring forth the fantasies derive from the organs of the body. The organs of the body are the source of our life, and of our intentions for life, and they conflict with each other. Among these organs, of course, is the brain. And then you must think of the various impulses that dominate our life system—the erotic impulse; the impulse to conquer, conquest and all that; self preservation; and then certain thoughts that have to do with ideals and things that are held up before us as aims worth living for and giving life its value and so forth. All of these different forces come into conflict within us. And the function of mythological imagery is to harmonize them, coordinate the energies of our body, so that we will live a harmonious and fruitful life in accord with our society, and with the new mystery that emerges with every new human being—namely, what are the possibilities of this particular human life? And mythology has to do with guiding us—first, in relation to the society and the whole world of nature, which is outside of us but also within us, because the organs of our body are of nature; and then also, the guiding of the individual through the inevitable stages of life, from childhood to maturity, and then on to the last gate. And this is concerned with those matters.
Mishlove: So in a sense, behind every fantasy, behind every mythological story, there is some type of deeper truth about life.
Campbell: Well, yes. A mythology is not just the fantasy of this, that, or another person; it’s a systematized organization of fantasies in relation to the values of a given social order. So that mythologies always derive from specific social environments. And when you realize that every one of the early civilizations was based on a mythology, you can realize the force of this great, great heritage that we have.
Mishlove: You point out in your most recent book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, that we’re coming to a period in time where our society is becoming global—that we can’t think of ourselves as a group of competing tribes any longer.
Campbell: This is a crucial problem today. Every mythology—and by mythology I include religions—every religion has grown up within a certain social order. And today these social orders have come into collision with each other. All you have to do is look at what’s going on in the Near East now, and it’s a horror. There are the three major monotheistic religions of the world, creating havoc. I’ve been in Beirut; it was once a glorious, beautiful, darling little city, and now it’s just hell, because each of these units of religion thinks it has all the values on its side, and it doesn’t know how to open up and recognize those are human beings also.
Mishlove: Their particular god is the one god, but it’s the only one.
Campbell: We’ve given them three names, you know; you have Judaism, Christianity, and Islam there. They’re all right out of the same box. They can’t get on together.
Mishlove: So what you’re suggesting is that a lot of our social conflict results from the failure of the leaders of these communities to properly understand the role of their mythologies.
Campbell: The role of their mythology has been to support their society. And they’re hanging onto that. I think one could say there are two main types of mythology. There are mythologies like that of the Biblical tradition, which have to do with coordinating the individual into a group. He is a member of that group. He is baptized or circumcised or whatnot into that group. And that is his realm of compassion and sympathy, and aggression he projects outside of that group. There’s another kind of religion which grows out of the emotional life of the natural order. We are nature beings, after all, not members of a society primarily. Such religions as the Dionysian religions of ancient Greece; and Hinduism is full of this. And all the religions that have to do with meditation—they’re coming over here from the Orient.
Mishlove: And I suppose the shamanistic traditions as well.
Campbell: That’s also inward. But the main thing for people today are these religions of contemplation and meditation—recognizing within you the powers that are those of the gods. You know, all the gods are simply projections of human potentialities. They’re not out there. They’re in here. That word, “The kingdom of heaven is within you,” is a good word. And who’s in heaven? God is. So where is he? Look in here. You have two kinds of religion—that which is addressed outward like that, and that which is turned inward, here.
Mishlove: I’ve noticed, though, that the boundaries seem to be becoming more and more fuzzy in today’s world. For example, the TV evangelists all the time seem to be talking about God speaking inside of them, and to the people in the viewers.
Campbell: Well, good for them. I haven’t heard them, and that’s not the message I’ve heard when I have heard them. I’ve heard them saying it’s in this book—you know, the big black book.
Mishlove: I’ve heard it in a funny context.
Campbell: It’s certainly there, but not in the language that says it’s only for this group, or in this group. I’ve been interested all my life in what we might call comparative mythology. And you see that what these people are saying in that language, these people are saying in this language, and they’re getting mixed up, simply because their language is different. If you go into a bakery shop and say you want pain, they’ll say, “Oh, we don’t have that.” But you’re asking for bread, which is what they have. And that’s the way it is, across the lines. Now, I suppose one could say the prime, great example is the contrasts and affinities of Buddhism and Christianity. The idea of Buddha consciousness is that all beings are Buddha beings, and your whole function in meditation and everything else is to find that Buddha consciousness within and live out of that, instead of the interests of the eyes and ears. Do you understand what I mean?
Campbell: These can distract us from our own true, deepest being and purpose. And the goal of meditation is to find that inside, and then let that take control. Translate that into Christianity, that is finding the Christ in you. And it’s exactly the same idea, and here they call it Christ consciousness; there they call it Buddha consciousness. Well, the figures that represent the two ideas are quite in contrast, in that the Buddhist imagery concentrates on the pacific aspect, you might say—you know, having found peace within and serenity. Whereas the Christian, with Christ crucified, concentrates on the heroic attitude of living life which is tearing you apart, and finding the one within you, in the midst of the turmoil of the world. You have that in Buddhism also, in the idea of the Bodhisattva—the one who has found the eternal within himself, and recognizes it in the world. And so they have a beautiful term: joyful participation in the sorrows of the world. You accept the sorrows for yourself and for the world, in the realization of what the radiance is that a well lived life can bring forth out of this. These are the same things—one in the active, you might say tragic, aspect, and the other in the serene, fulfilled aspect.
Mishlove: It would seem as if paying attention to myths in this sense really brings out many subtle and deep emotions that we might not otherwise—
Campbell: Oh, listen, the way this hits deep, you see it all over the place. I’ve taught in a college for thirty-eight years, and this is my subject. And I’ve seen what it does. Students come in with their religions, and then you let them know what the religions are really talking about, and boy, something happens.
Mishlove: In your most recent book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, you seem to be suggesting that all of our science, all of our astronomy for example, is our modern myth, and that this too exists inside of us, the whole universe.
Campbell: I would say that all of our sciences are the material that has to be mythologized. A mythology gives the spiritual import—what one might call rather the psychological, inward import, of the world of nature round about, as understood today. There’s no real conflict between science and religion. Religion is the recognition of the deeper dimensions that the science reveals to us. What is in conflict is the science of 2000 B.C., which is what you have in the Bible, and the science of the twentieth century A.D. You have to disengage the messages of the Bible from its science.
Mishlove: Scientific context.
Campbell: The context that science is out of. For instance, the theme that constantly occurs to me—in the Roman Catholic religion it is dogma to believe that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended bodily to heaven, and that his mother, Mary, in sleep ascended to heaven. OK?
Mishlove: I’ve seen it in television shows. They show him rising up.
Campbell: And you know that going at the speed of light they would not be out of the galaxy yet. And you know what it means for a physical body to go up into the stratosphere.
Mishlove: So it’s a great mistake—
Campbell: The image, the mythic image, does not fit the contemporary mind. So the message can’t get into the contemporary body. You’ve got to translate these things into contemporary life and experience. Mythology is a validation of experience, giving it its spiritual or psychological dimension. And if you have a lot of things that you can’t correlate with contemporary nature, you can’t handle it.
Mishlove: And I suppose one of the first things to go with modern science is the idea that the gods and the heavens are somewhere out there in space.
Campbell: Of course they’re not. I mean, you’ve got—I think they’ve got hundreds and hundreds of galaxies now, and clusters of galaxies, and so forth, and every galaxy as great, and some of them greater than our whole Milky Way, with our sun on the outskirts of one of these—my God, you know. So then God is particularly the one who thought of this whole thing. Of course that’s not the one in the Bible at all, because all he thought of was a three-layered birthday cake.
Mishlove: And yet doesn’t it seem that some of the Hindus have anticipated this universe?
Campbell: Oh, they’ve got it, they’ve got it, they’ve got it. Not only that, but they’ve got the cycles of the coming into being of stars, and their going out in grandeur. We’ve got a cosmic cycle of about—what would it be? About twelve thousand years. This is ridiculous.
Mishlove: The Hindus seemed to know that there were cycles within cycles, and gods within gods.
Campbell: God knows how they found it out, but when you read the myths of the Puranas of India, the Mahabharata, there’s no problem correlating that with modern science, no problem at all.
Mishlove: I have often wondered whether many of the myths of magical powers and the siddhis, or the psychic powers that appear in myths, aren’t somehow evolutionary precursors of what we might become—that the myths are guiding us into our future.
Campbell: Well, insofar as they revealed potentialities of the human spirit, they are prophetic, because I think the human spirit is developing. I don’t take a negative attitude toward what’s happening with the human spirit. I take a very negative attitude with what’s happening to our politicians, but that has nothing to do with the human spirit. I mean, the chaos in the world today is not a function of the illumination of humanity today; it’s a function of the bungling of a bunch of self interested politicians.
Mishlove: It’s ironic that as we seem to be getting in touch more as a culture with our deeper powers, we’re also confronting deeper challenges.
Campbell: That’s right. And I think they’ll probably work out.
Mishlove: One would have to assume though, if we’re to solve the problem that’s confronting the world today, that we will develop a new mythology—that the old myths are no longer serving us in some sense.
Campbell: There are two things that have to happen if you’re going to have a mythology that’s appropriate to man today. One is to take the world of nature as it is known, and my God, I’ve been hearing recently about some of the things that the physicists and astronomers are finding out, and it is magical and incredible. That’s the ground. It’s not difficult to turn that into a mystical inspiration. And the second thing is to realize that the society with which you are involved is not this group or that group, or this social class or that social class, or this race or that race, but the planet. And we don’t have a mythology for people recognizing the humanity of a person on the other side of the tennis net. So it’ll come, it’ll come; but it isn’t here.
Mishlove: I’ve often wondered if some of the notions coming out of quantum physics, such as quantum interconnectedness, don’t express that.
Campbell: They do. You find all kinds of suggestions in the modern world of physics. And boy, you can translate them right into Sanskrit without any trouble. The Hindus have the whole thing already.
Mishlove: Yet there seem to be vast sections of our current culture that want to take the old religious myths literally.
Campbell: Well, this is a disaster, and this is monstrous—in what’s going on today in the way of illuminating the mind, to go back to something that’s four thousand years out of date, in every sense whatsoever—in the sense, in the first place, of realizing what humanity is. They had no historical knowledge of anything but their own little corner of the Near East—no knowledge of the Americas, no knowledge of the Far East at all. And to pull back in that, I think it’s criminal. That’s what I say.
Mishlove: And yet on the other hand, you pointed out as we started the interview that these myths are based on our bodily experiences, and our bodies haven’t changed.
Campbell: They are, but they have been translated—
Mishlove: Into the culture.
Campbell: — into a local commitment. That’s the point, when I speak of comparative mythology. This one sees it this way, this one sees it that way, but they’re all talking about bread.
Mishlove: Let’s talk a little bit more, though, about some of the underlying unities that occur in myth. For example, what are the common bodily experiences that we have to confront? I suppose part of our existential reality here in the world is the same, regardless of culture.
Campbell: One existential reality is that of the mystery of birth. That’s more than a biological phenomenon, believe me, the mystery of a new being coming in. And the next—every culture, everywhere, forever, has had to bring that little nature phenomenon into relationship to a society. That’s where the problem comes: Into what society are you going to bring this nature phenomenon? And the local myths stress you’re coming into our society, our way. That wouldn’t be bad if the society didn’t think of itself as the only one worth being incorporated in. Every society has had to guide this little biological phenomenon through the inevitabilities of growth, childhood, adolescence, then moving into marriage—and this is something that right today is a disaster, just because the mythology of marriage has been forgotten.
Mishlove: Could you expand that, what you mean by that?
Campbell: I will a little later. And then to move on from that to the release of yourself from commitment to the world, and passing on then. And that isn’t a loss, it’s a gain, when you realize that you’re gaining an inward life. I mean, death is not loss. All it’s losing is simply this passing phenomenon of a body. But the consciousness is becoming more and more of itself. Proper mythology tells you how to die.
Mishlove: And there are some universals there, aren’t there?
Campbell: Those are the universals. The problem of the relationship of this mortal, passing, phenomenal vehicle of consciousness to the mystery of consciousness, and finding this more enduring aspect of your life in yourself—that’s what the religions are talking about. And they personify that mystery—you know, particularly in governing our lives, we have to have thoughts that govern us, certain images that we can target to. And these images then become the end. The Christ idea—you put that before you, and it helps you to move to this thing which transcends the Christ idea. Do you understand what I’m saying? The myth is this side of the truth, but it leads you to it.
Mishlove: It’s as if that Christ image is again one of these guiding images leading us into our own future nature, so to speak.
Campbell: Yes, and think what else it does socially—namely, the Christ image that is your life is the life of everyone else too. And so this relieves you of your sense of special ego privilege.
Mishlove: And I suppose really understanding the myth is when Jews or Arabs or Hindus can also appreciate that Christ essence within themselves.
Campbell: Yes, they have the counterparts in their own religions, and it’s a shame that that aspect is not accented. What is accented is the local value, not the universal value of the image that happens to be in the religious tradition.
Mishlove: One of the other trends within our culture, I suppose, is that individuals who see the horror of the religious wars would have us do away with myths completely.
Campbell: Well, that’s been the result. I mean, the word myth has come to mean lie—because it is a lie to say that somebody has ascended to heaven. He hasn’t. What is the connotation of that metaphorical image? That’s a metaphor. And mythology is a compendium of metaphors. But when you understand a metaphor—you know, just high school grammar language—when you interpret the metaphor in terms of the denotation instead of the connotation, you’ve lost the message. That’s like going into a restaurant and reading the menu and deciding what you’re going to eat, and you eat that part of the menu. The menu is a reference to something transcendent of that piece of paper.
Mishlove: And I suppose, like a fine meal at a restaurant, when one really understands the connotations, one’s life becomes far richer. There are so many flavors and tastes.
Campbell: When you know what to order. You go in, you’ve been taught the message of this mythology, you might say, and this set of metaphors, and you know what to order.
Mishlove: I’ve had the sense from looking at your recent book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, that what your study of world mythology has led you to become in many ways, is a mystic.
Campbell: Well, I’m not a mystic, in that I don’t practice any austerities, and I’ve never had a mystical experience. So I’m not a mystic. I’m a scholar, and that’s all. I remember when Alan Watts one time asked me, “Joe, what yoga do you practice?” I said, “I underline sentences.” And that’s all I’m doing. I’m no guru or anything of the kind. I’ve just had the great good fortune to find this golden world of myth, and I was also well trained in how to write a book. And so all I’ve done is gather what has excited me into my books, and by God, it works for other people just as well as it worked for me.
Mishlove: There’s this sense in your writing, though, it reminds me of Walt Whitman when he talks about a leaf of grass.
Campbell: He had the revelation. Whitman was in that sense a real poet. Mythology is poetry. If you read poetry as prose, what have you got?
Mishlove: Well, I don’t want to add more to you than you wish to take credit for, but I have the sense in reading your work that there’s a wonder to every little thing in the universe, every grain of sand, that kind of comes through in your own writing.
Campbell: I have a beautiful Muse who has inspired all this. I don’t claim it.
Mishlove: Well, I think you’re being very modest.
Campbell: That’s very kind of you.
Mishlove: What would you want to tell people today—young people, people who are coming into this world, in a different phase of life? You who are now into your eighties and who have gone through so much—is there anything you could say in a few minutes?
Campbell: How do you find the divine power in yourself? The word enthusiasm means “filled with a god,” that’s what it means. So what makes you enthusiastic? Follow it. That’s been my advice to young people who ask me, “What shall I do?” I taught once in a boys’ prep school. That’s the moment for young boys—or it used to be; I don’t know what’s going on now—when they had to decide their life courses. You know, where are they going? And they’re caught with excitement. This one wants to study art, this one poetry, this one anthropology. But dad says study law; that’s where the money is. OK, that’s the decision. And you know what my answer would be—where your enthusiasm is. So I have a little word: follow your bliss. The bliss is the message of God to yourself. That’s where your life is. I remember when I was a student in Paris, at the University of Paris. I was studying philology—how Latin and vulgar Latin becomes transformed into French and Spanish and Italian.
Mishlove: It’s a good thing for you you dropped out of that, I suppose.
Campbell: Well, I’ll tell you why. I was sitting in the little garden at the Musee de Cluny on Boulevard Saint Germain, and I thought to myself, “What use is all this knowledge to me, when I don’t even know how to order a decent meal?” So I looked for the place where my bliss was, where I felt my life was, and that academic thing dropped off.
Mishlove: Joseph Campbell, you certainly have managed to exemplify following your bliss, in your life.
Campbell: Well, I tell you I have. And in the middle of the Depression, without a job for five years, I was still following bliss.
Mishlove: Thank you very much for being with me.
Campbell: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much.
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