Does Joseph Campbell Talk Out Of His Butt? Signs Point To 'Yes'...

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It seems somehow appropriate to discuss this on April Fool's Day.

Joseph Campbell was a Mythologist - a student of mythology, and to some extent, comparative religion. He became famous for popularizing the concept that all myths - all stories, really - are simply variations on The One Story. That is to say, that there's a certain framework that all myths fall into, which is a way of showing the fundamental psychological interconnectedness of all things blah blah blah blah. It's the kind of thing that wild-eyed accademics in the mid-19th century went even wilder-eyed about because it's basically reductive thinking: It turns big, scary, inscrutable, and generally (Gasp!) non-Caucasian societies into something you can dismiss with a wave of your pseudointellectual hand. The beauty of this is that it allows white folks to tell non-white folks what non-white folks believe and think without ever botheirng to ask them, nor even considering their opinions in the first place.

As an unforseen side-effect of this, Campbell's theories became essentially a framework that George Lucas built Star Wars around. Well, one of several, really. Let's not forget that Lucas ripped off Kurisawa's "Hidden Fortress" for a story, but curiously Georgie Boy never cops to that. He's been pretty much drooling in his adoration for Campbell, however. This, in turn, led to an overwhelming tide of films that attempted to conform to the Campbellian "Heroic Myth Archetype," in essence aping Star Wars. When the story didn't fit, they tried to force it. I have to say, I think this is a bad thing, though the reasoning behind that is probably an entry for another day.

Joseph Campbell has always bugged me. It's a hard kind of annoyance to nail down because he's definitely smarter than I am, and I've always been aware of that, but at the same time I always had this vague sense that he was talking out of his butt.

When I was younger, I just assumed it was because most of the people I met who raved about Campbell were increidbly irritating folks that I knew for a fact were talking out of their backsides. You know the type: Star Wars geeks claiming the "Holy Trilogy" followed Campbellian archetypes (without, I suspect, ever having read his damn books in the first place), High School Social Studies teachers (one in particular bugged me because he couldn't pronounce Nicaragua, which was always in the news in those days), pretentious undergrads who claimed to listen exclusively to the local public radio station and espouse trendily counter-trendy communist sentiments, but who secretly had Wham! and Rick Astley tapes squirreled away in their cars, people like that. Almost definitely some aspect of my Campbellphobia was the product of guilt by association.

I eventually got fairly adept at spotting these types. I was a religious fanatic in my youth, and even after I'd become more conventionally religious, the lessons learned in my over-strident days have still occasionally served me well. For instance, "Campbellites"  tended to make broad generalizations about the Bible in conversation. "Campbellites" who don't personally know each other tend make some of the same specific mistakes over and over. Obviously, they were using the same source, and sure enough most of 'em come from trying to apply Campbellian "Heroic Motifs" to people like Moses and Joshua and Paul et al. This was clearly a case of attempting to shoehorn a fact into a pet theory, and it was irritatingly disingenuous as such things always are.

Having perused some of his books, I could never quite pin down why Campbell bugged me - to be fair, I never fully read them when I was young, just kind of skimmed them to appear more intellectual than I actually was (I was a religious fanatic, after all), but I was willing to allow that he was a sharp guy, even if the people who avowed him were pretty much talking out of their hinders about things they had no personal knowledge of.

Eventually, however, I saw his PBS shows with Bill Moyers, and quickly decided that although Joe was way the hell smarter than me, he really was mostly talking out of his backside. Again, I can't entirely nail down why his demeanor on those shows struck me as oddly similar to an aging Vegas entertainer telling his old "Ain't I cool" war stories, but it did. Eventually I really read his books, and was a bit taken aback at how people placed so much emphasis in the sweeping generalities that he dashes out.

Understand that I don't think the guy is completely wrong: there are undoubtedly some recurring themes in mythology as in fiction: we are all human, after all, living on the same planet, so it only follows logically that we'd find similar things to be rather entertaining. I don't believe that necessitates an existence of a Jungian Cosmic Unconscious that dictates the kinds of stories we tell. I'm a huge, huge, huge fan of Jung, my copy of "Answer to Job" is dogeared from frequent use, but I've never considered the notion of a mystical Cosmic Unconscious to be anything more than utter horsecrap. So, yes, there are similarities, and I'm even the kind of guy who gets all worked up about the obvious similarities between Bifrost in Norse Myth, and the Chivnat Bridge in Zoroastrian theology; about the similarities between the Death of Ymir, Noah's Flood, Ducaleon's Flood, Manu's Flood, and Utnapishtim's flood; about the death of Balder in Norse myth, and the similarities to the Persephone myth as well as Mithra's own death-and resurrection.

I love that kind of stuff, but, come on kids: there's a zillion ways to explain that kind of thing that don't involve a Cosmic Unconscious! One of my favorite stories about that kind of thing involves a "Cherokee Lawgiver" who's life was remarkably similar to Moses. In the 19th century many 'learned' people cited said Lawgiver and spoke about the 'universality' of mythology to the point where a whole bunch of silly white people believed this guy existed, and it was just accepted as a matter of fact.

No one bothered to ask the Cherokee, however, and in fact, it turns out, they never had such a figure in their lore. Ultimately, all the 'sources' who commented on this were simply regurgitating one mid-19th century source written by a man who had been told a somewhat garbled version of Exodus by a Cherokee Christian who spoke no English, and ended up mangling Moses’ name! The Cherokee had been telling a story from the Bible, but the man who reported the story simply assumed otherwise, which led to a whole bunch of confusion.

Likewise, the similarity of The Death Of Balder could simply have been a case of cultural diffusion: They heard the Persephone myth, or maybe even the story of Christ, and incorporated the story into their own mythology. Such things happen all the time.

Anyway, I just found this site that takes Campbell to task for exactly this kind of broad generalization. It's from an overtly Christian source that I generally wouldn't link people to because this is a Science Fiction site, and not a Religion site (Though we do talk about Religion as it intersects SF quite a bit), but as I find it so refreshing to find someone else who thinks Mr. J.C. was talking out of his back door, I'm gonna' link  to it anyway.

If you wanna' discuss Campbell after you read it, I'm cool with that. If not, I'm cool with that, too.

Here's the link:

http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/campbellj01.html

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