Myth and Meaning

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From My Buddhist Life on Facebook
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us find within ourselves.

So says Joseph Campbell in an interview with Bill Moyers, 1987, published in the book, The Power of Myth. The book is based on a 1988 PBS documentary about Campbell’s life and studies. You can see the episodes of the show on and read the transcript. The above quote comes from the book (paperback edn, p.4) which has considerable material not aired in the TV series.

Campbell was the doyen of mythology and comparative religion studies, and author of numerous books on the subjects. He was closely associated with the Jungian school of psychology, too. He died just before the TV series was aired.*

Campbell wrote the now-famous The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1949, a book that has hugely influenced writers and screenwriters ever since. It lays out the core ‘hero’s journey’ in all mythology and great literature. Anyone interested in becoming a novelist will have read it by now, or at least read one of the many spin-off titles that explain the progression and cycle Campbell expounds.

In The Power of Myth, Campbell explains why reading mythology – and by extension by reading fiction – we humanize ourselves and connect with our collective past. And how it broadens our understanding of the world and other cultures:

Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts – but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message.

When you consider the parallel rise of the Christian and Islamic fundamentalists – the scripture literalists – you can appreciate Campbell’s advice. Reading only the mythologies of our own religion and culture, we fail to appreciate that they are myths. Without the broader vision, we collectively interpret our myths as facts, rather than allegories and metaphors.

One of the reasons I oppose home schooling as dangerous is that it tends to breed this sort of inward-looking approach; to keep children within the narrow confines of a particular religious interpretation, rather than let them experience the culture and myths of others. It creates irrational beings.

Home-schooled children never get to glimpse the rich possibilities of life, to see the choices and the options available to other children. They never get to realize their own visions, only to fulfill the visions of their parents. They never get to go through what Campbell called the necessary rituals to become members of the tribe and the community. They cannot function rationally in the world without those rituals.

Home schooling instead rolls out easily-indoctrinated child soldiers, sexist and racist, armed for the culture wars against the heathens, the pagans and other inferiors.

Campbell, as Moyers says, believed everything begins with a story. All of our rites of passage, our life’s landmarks, our own personal adventures, have parallels in stories that have been told since the beginning of time. Some of them have been immortalized into myth, catapulting mortals into deities to add a spiritual ascension to the acts and rituals.

In the interview, Campbell himself describes two types of deed:

One is the physical deed; the hero who has performed a war act or a physical act of heroism in saving a life, that’s a hero act. Giving himself, sacrificing himself to another. And the other kind is the spiritual hero, who has learned or found a mode of experiencing the supernormal range of human spiritual life, and then come back and communicated it. It’s a cycle, it’s a going and a return, that the hero cycle represents.

Heroes, he continues, have a moral objective. Morality is conspicuously missing from the fundamentalist cant; their actions – often murderously violent – are based on self interest and blind ideology, but not morality or ethics. Yet they justify themselves through their own, very restricted, mythologies – which they interpret as truth and fact.

To get out of that trap of myopic ideology, Campbell offers this:

Sit in a room and read–and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time.

Campbell has a lot to tell us about ourselves and about our psyche, and how we can escape the current trap of fundamentalism and phobias, if we bother to listen.

* I started reading Campbell in the late 1960s and early 70s at the same time I discovered the works of Carl Jung and Buddhism. I had not re-read him since the 80s until a few years back when I dug out my battered copy of The Hero With a Thousand Faces while researching fiction writing, plots and style. Reading the interviews with Moyers is both entertaining and enlightening because Campbell expresses himself in a more open, less academic way than in his books. It’s for me time to re-read his other works, I think.

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