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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. Read the rest of this entry

A Planetary Myth

Joseph Campbell once said that any new myth, in the “high” sense of the word as an overarching, meaning-making narrative, would necessarily have to be planetary in scope and nature, given the global outlook of our modern technological civilization. He said the famous image of planet earth as photographed from space — an image unknown to any previous generation before the mid-20th century — might serve as a suitable iconic symbol to accompany such a myth. Bear that in mind as you watched the video below with speakers turned up and the player enlarged to full-screen, because it could well serve as a kind of initiation, both cognitive and emotional, into this point of view.


Joseph Campbell: If you think of ourselves coming out of the earth, rather than having been thrown in here from somewhere else, you see that we are the earth, we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth. And this is the voice of the earth.

Bill Moyers: Scientists are beginning to talk quite openly about the Gaia principle.

Joseph Campbell: There you are, the whole planet as an organism.

Bill Moyers: Mother Earth. Will new myths come from this image?

Joseph Campbell: Well, something might. You can’t predict what a myth is going to be any more than you can predict what you’re going to dream tonight. Myths and dreams come from the same place. They come from the realizations of some kind that have then to find expression in symbolic form. And the only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet, not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody on it. And what it will have to deal with will be exactly what all myths have deal with — the maturation of the individual, from dependency through adulthood, through maturity, and then to the exit; and then how to relate to this society and how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos. That’s what the myths have all talked about, and what this one’s got to talk about. But the society that it’s got to talk about is the society of the planet. And until that gets going, you don’t have anything.

Bill Moyers: So you suggest that from this begins the new myth of our time?

Joseph Campbell: Yes, this is the ground of what the myth is to be. It’s already here: the eye of reason, not one of nationality; the eye of reason, not of my religious community; the eye of reason, not of my linguistic community. Do you see? And this would be the philosophy for the planet, not for this group, that group, or the other group. When you see the earth from the moon, you don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come. That is the country that we are going to be celebrating. And those are the people that we are one with.