Art, creativity, fate, and the end of the world: Revisiting Joseph Campbell

When The Power of Myth, the six-part PBS television series featuring Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Campbell, first broke upon the unsuspecting American public in 1988, it became an instant sensation and Campbell became an instant celebrity (I mean in a pop cultural sense, beyond and in addition to the substantial academic fame he had already achieved for his groundbreaking work in the scholarship of comparative mythology). The series became the most widely viewed program in the history of American public broadcasting, and it uncovered a massive television audience made up mostly of middle-class, educated individuals who were hungry for information and conversation about mythological, philosophical, psychological, religious, and spiritual matters. Ironically, Campbell himself never got to see this, because he died in 1987, shortly after his interviews with Moyers were completed but before the television series was put together.

Campbell’s work has also had a massive impact on popular culture. Star Wars is only the most famous instance of his monomyth of “the hero’s journey” being employed by filmmakers. The same storytelling pattern was also the direct basis for Disney’s Aladdin and The Lion King. The Wachowski brothers channeled it into the Matrix mythos. It influenced the 2007 I Am Legend adaptation and Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. It even shows up in the Rambo franchise; as David Morrell explains in The Successful Novelist, his thoroughly wonderful book about the art, craft, and business of writing, he consciously employed the Campbellian monomyth when charting John Rambo’s character arc and relationship to Sheriff Teasle in First Blood.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to a now-famous seven-page memo written in the 1980s by Disney story consultant Chris Vogler and circulated throughout the upper echelons of Hollywood, the monomyth has become the central guiding concept in American screenwriting, especially for films intended to achieve blockbuster status. (For a capsule recounting of this story, see “What Do Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Lion King Have in Common?“, Wired, March 2, 2012. For a more in-depth treatment that also includes the full text of that memo and a detailed explanation of the monomyth, see Vogler’s own account of what happened.)

Speaking of movies, the 2011 documentary Finding Joe was all about the application of Campbell’s insights to the project of achieving a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Almost as suddenly as Campbell rose to celebrity status, it became fashionable among a pretty wide swath of American intellectuals and culture pundits to scoff at him, or if not at him then at his bustling army of newfound fans, because of a supposed “New Agey” flakiness to the overall tone of the “power of myth” craze. And indeed, the craze coincided with, and was in some ways implicated in, the peaking of the 1980s and 1990s New Age movement. As evidenced by the Finding Joe trailer, such criticisms are still not entirely off-base.

They are, however, rather unfortunate if they effectively put people off from learning and appreciating Campbell’s wisdom, for in the quarter century since The Power of Myth first appeared, the value of his insight has only continued to grow. I say this not just as a general observation but as statement of something personally significant. A growing number of Teeming Brain readers are familiar with A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius, my ebook about authorial creativity and the crucial discipline of aligning with one’s muse, daimon, or genius, which I frame not only as a metaphor for the unconscious mind but in less reductive fashion as a truly autonomous power and intelligence from the ego’s viewpoint. I don’t reference Campbell in the book, but whenever something comes along to remind me of him — as happened a few days ago when Jesús Olmo emailed me a quote from The Power of Myth — I’m reminded that he really deserves a place in there, since his insightful and penetrating (and greatly Jung-influenced) words about art, creativity, spirituality, psychology, and the imaginal realm of the soul were deeply implicated in my own early awakening to a basic awareness of such things. (Interestingly, I first watched The Power of Myth and “turned on” to Campbell during the same general period of my life when I was also introduced to Robert Anton Wilson, another formative influence, via the Illuminatus! trilogy.)

The following words from The Power of Myth, and more specifically from the excellent book that was published in conjunction with the television series, continue to resonate long after Campbell spoke them, and they illustrate the important fact that the scope of his interests and contributions extends far beyond his explication of the heroic monomyth. Readers of A Course in Demonic Creativity will also notice how they intersect in multiple ways with its themes and lessons.

On the necessity of a sacred space for creative incubation:

MOYERS: You write in The Mythic Image about the center of transformation, the idea of a sacred place where the temporal walls may dissolve to reveal a wonder. What does it mean to have a sacred place?

CAMPBELL: This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

[M]ost of our action is economically or socially determined, and does not come out of our life. I don’t know whether you’ve had the experience I’ve had, but as you get older, the claims of the environment upon you are so great that you hardly know where the hell you are. What is it you intended? You’re always doing something that is required of you this minute, that minute, another minute. Where is your bliss station, you know? Try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the records, the music, that you really love. Even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects, I mean, the one that you like or the book you want to read, get it done and have a place in which to do it.

On art and the seat of the soul:

Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you. When your mind is simply trapped by the image out there so that you never make the reference to yourself, you have misread the image.

The inner world is the world of your requirements and your energies and your structure and your possibilities that meets the outer world. And the outer world is the field of your incarnation. That’s where you are. You’ve got to keep both going. As Novalis said, “The seat of the soul is there where the inner and outer worlds meet.”

On fate, guidance, and the sense of living in a dream or a novel:

Schopenhauer, in his splendid essay called “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” points out that when you reach an advanced age and look back over your lifetime, it can seem to have had a consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that when they occurred had seemed accidental and of little moment turn out to have been indispensable factors in the composition of a consistent plot. So who composed that plot? Schopenhauer suggests that just as your dreams are composed by an aspect of yourself of which your consciousness is unaware, so, too, your whole life is composed by the will within you. And just as people whom you will have met apparently by mere chance became leading agents in the structuring of your life, so, too, will you have served unknowingly as an agent, giving meaning to the lives of others. The whole thing gears together like one big symphony, with everything unconsciously structuring everything else. And Schopenhauer concludes that it is as though our lives were the features of the one great dream of a single dreamer in which all the dream characters dream, too; so that everything links to everything else, moved by the one will to life which is the universal will in nature.

On discovering your deep vocation by “following your bliss”:

Just sheer life cannot be said to have a purpose, because look at all the different purposes it has all over the place. But each incarnation, you might say, has a potentiality, and the mission of life is to live that potentiality. How do you do it,’ My answer is, “Follow your bliss.” There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam, And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.

On the paradise of the present and the end of the world:

CAMPBELL: Eden is. “The kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it.”

MOYERS: “Eden is”? In this world of pain and suffering and death and violence?

CAMPBELL: That is the way it feels, but this is it, this is Eden. When you see the kingdom spread upon the earth, the old way of living in the world is annihilated. That is the end of the world. The end of the world is not an event to come, it is an event of psychological transformation, of visionary transformation. You see not the world of solid things but a world of radiance.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 7, 2013, in Religion & Philosophy, Writing & Creativity and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This was a perfect day to be reminded of Campbell’s work — Thank you, Matt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.