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The Power of Myth Paperback – June 1, 1991
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Among his many gifts, Joseph Campbell's most impressive was the unique ability to take a contemporary situation, such as the murder and funeral of President John F. Kennedy, and help us understand its impact in the context of ancient mythology. Herein lies the power of The Power of Myth, showing how humans are apt to create and live out the themes of mythology. Based on a six-part PBS television series hosted by Bill Moyers, this classic is especially compelling because of its engaging question-and-answer format, creating an easy, conversational approach to complicated and esoteric topics. For example, when discussing the mythology of heroes, Campbell and Moyers smoothly segue from the Sumerian sky goddess Inanna to Star Wars' mercenary-turned-hero, Han Solo. Most impressive is Campbell's encyclopedic knowledge of myths, demonstrated in his ability to recall the details and archetypes of almost any story, from any point and history, and translate it into a lesson for spiritual living in the here and now. --Gail Hudson
"The symbols of mythology and legend are all around us, embedded in the fabric of our daily lives, and the Moyers-Campbell dialogues are a welcom guide to recognizing and understanding their meanings." -- Cincinnati Post.
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"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 purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive." - Joseph Campbell, "The Power of Myth"
It is pointless to go into the content of the book because that is what reading it is for. By reading this book, it helps you understand (or reaffirm) beliefs like viewing comparative mythology as a road to uniting tales and legends common to many cultures into a theoretical framework. Incredibly, you can find that most narratives created by human cultures have very common underlying themes: the most prevalent example is the idea of the 'hero', an ordinary person who lives in confusion, is met with an opportunity where he is forced to go on a journey that ultimately results in an inner reawakening leading him to return to his previous tribe and change it - a common theme in historical epics and religious texts. He mentions different conceptions of the hero, but this interview is a repetition of his ideas written with more detail in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)'.
Campbell mentions instances from a large range of traditions, not only the large dominant ones but the smaller ones including those found in tribes isolated from civilization. For someone like me who is not well versed at all in this subject, the book's accessibility came to me as a great relief. He mentions great points about how the decline of classical education leads to a lack of spiritual reference point to self-reflect in the western world. Some ideas made me understand a few religious concepts far more clearly, such as the idea that people associate Jesus with love because he is more relatable as a human and not a perfect and overbearing figure like God.
However, the brilliance of his work is how doesn't dwell excessively on the grandiose and transcendent and instead focuses on the day-to-day challenges faced by us. He talks wonderfully about marriage and the importance of rituals. This same importance is why despite not being a particularly religious person, I keep all my fasts during the month of Ramadan - purely due to the experience itself and not due to the perceived validity of it. Campbell brilliantly expresses how a lack of myth results in spiritual bankruptcy as all cultures (including the scientific worldview that trace our descent from Darwinian forces) use narratives to create moral justifications: A Muslim would say that incest is wrong because it is prohibited by scripture, a person who holds a Darwinian view would say that our repulsion towards incest comes from cultural programming that survived because rules that prohibited inbreeding allowed for a reduction in the possibility of hereditary problems - allowing those subscribers to survive and carry on the tradition through a memetic process.
After all, myths are something that we live and die for regardless of our philosophical inclinations. An interesting comparison is how myths drive people towards the idea of sacrifice - letting go of the ego and possessions to integrate into the larger community, the family, then the tribe, country and against all possible odds, perhaps into humanity itself (e.g. Mandela, Abraham when ordered to sacrifice his son). Some of his ideas bare great resemblance to recent history, such as the anarchy created when modernity is imposed at a rapid pace on primitive (or rather less developed countries) by colonial powers - threatening people's myths and by extension their very identities. I think this book is a treasure and it is a good defense against the Dawkins-like Atheists who reject religion altogether by focusing on religions lack of epistemological basis while ignoring the fact that religion has survived for so long because it is an integral part of the human experience and carries useful heuristics ("don't take on debts") . Furthermore, the ideas in this book by extension challenge the view that the modern secular worldview relies on pure objective analysis of morality and social relations - after all, even modern cultures have a belief in some myth, be it progress, liberalism, futurism or the ability for economics to secure human happiness. I am not disregarding the validity of any of this philosophical viewpoints - simply that no culture can exist with the complete absence of a narrative that drives the community. It unveils the irony of atheist groups that reject mythology and group into their own cults, giving credence to the very ideas they claim to reject.
Campbell deals with a couple of other interesting ideas including the understanding that "the myth is a public dream and the dream is the private myth". For him, when the union of these two ideas is disturbed when one's private myth is not compatible with the larger mythology of a culture - it results in the birth of a 'hero' that reawakens a culture by molding his culture in accordance to his newfound personal convictions. This is the dramatic explanation of how cultural innovation is thought to take place and why tracing a tradition's history of itself, its birth comes from the journey of a hero. (Muhammad meditating in his cave, Moses seeing God in a tree in the Sinai desert during his exile).
Campbell also tackles a central tenet of mythology, the use of language to express the transcendental. He talks about how language stimulates the imagination despite its limitations of being reductive, powerfully reducing incredible inexpressible experiences into short tales and stories. However, the ambiguity of language could mean that it captures the metaphysical with astounding beauty by virtue of the use of abstract words, or not meaning anything at all in the first place. Someone with an analytical background might say that mythology has no epistemological bases and while mythologists might say that science itself doesn't have the power to determine morality and meaning. Both sides have their virtues and it wouldn't be wise to disregard either view without first pondering on both sides of the arguments.
Finally, let me start with my criticisms of the book or rather mythology in general. I don't like how Campbell always talks about dreams as meaningful experiences, not emphasizing the possibility that they don't mean anything at all. Yes, dreams are very important to fables, tales, stories and legends but while scientific method is testable through experiment, mythological explanations can be attributed in hindsight to nearly any narrative. Despite this, I firmly believe that the knowledge of common narratives and patterns can be used as an important mental tool. Again, the use of vague and overbearing language and terms often means that anything and nothing can be interpreted in mythological terms - hence making it unfalsifiable. However, giving credit to Campbell - he doesn't seem to believe in hippy or new age mish-mash and simply gives metaphor the importance it deserves. Lastly, I feel that Campbell should have openly taken the stance that while people may use experiences like drugs to journey into consciousness, these attempts are rather futile because self-knowledge arises from years and years of challenges and by immersing into knowledge and not through the hedonistic urge to consume a substance.
However, altogether I loved this book and it was a great read.
Kudo's to anyone who understands rather than rejects!
PS: As a childhood Star Wars fan, I was intrigued to see that George Lucas actually took advice from Campbell while filming the movie, that not too surprising as I could not help but notice that mythological elements in the character of Anakin Skywalker myself.
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