Meet Joe Campbell
Insights into the ideas of a mythologist
(more about Joseph Campbell)

Sources #9: German Philosophy

German was among the many languages Joseph Campbell read fluently; indeed, he studied at the University of Munich in the late 1920s.

The influence of German philosophy on 20th-century thought cannot be overestimated. Kant, Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud--these are just a few of the names that come to mind.

Campbell was particularly interested in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and his emphasis on will. He also read deeply, and often quoted from, the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, who was also influenced by Schopenhauer.

One of the lesser-known philosophers (today) to whom Campbell was deeply indebted was Oswald Spengler, whose The Decline of the West detailed the theory that civilizations--including ours--rise and fall in a series of cycles. Further, as the title says, we are now in the "fall" stage.

This is from Stephen and Robin Larsen's biography of Campbell, A Fire in the Mind:

The Decline of the West was a brilliant if unconventional book, and an unusual purview of history and culture from ancient to modern times, from Chinese and Indian civilization through the classical cultures and into the contemporary West. Spengler's generalizations were sweeping but highly informed.

At the outset of his opus, Spengler declares that he is proceeding not by the painstaking methods of exact science, but by a series of intuitive analogies, often informed by mythological ideas. [It is easy to see the significance of this approach to Campbell's work. -J.B.] Some of his categories of cultural styles, such as the Magian, the Apollonian, the Faustian, have achieved historical quasi-respectability as metaphoric terms of reference for the greater patterns of culture which are manifested through time.

Next time: Anthropology

Sources #8: Pop Culture

Most of what we've said so far is kind of, I don't know, high-falutin'. It makes Uncle Joe sound like some kind of Ivory Tower type.

And although he certainly became a kind of "grand old man" in his later years, you can't discount the effect of having taught college for decades on his youthfulness.

The activities of his younger days prove hime to be a "regular Joe":

  • He ran on a track team
  • He played jazz saxophone
  • He liked swashbuckler movies

Two interesting co-incidences with pop culture stand out, though.

One is his well-known influence on George Lucas, who attributed the structure of the Star Wars saga to The Hero with a Thousand Faces. We'll be digging into that eventually. And he's only one of countless filmmakers that have shaped their work around Campbell's thought, especially since the publication of Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey.

The other is less well known, but I think more fascinating. In 1986, he presented a discussion along with Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart of "The Grateful Dead." Its title was, "Ritual to Rapture, from Dionysus to the Grateful Dead."

Prior to that, however, he had attended a concert by The Dead, of which he said: "The Deadheads are doing the dance of life and this I would say, is the answer to the atom bomb."

Read more about Joe and the Dead here.

While classics and great art were certainly his main sources, we cannot discount the influence of popular culture on his ideas.

Next time: German Philosophy

Sources #7: Jung

From its infancy, psychology has used mythology for source material. Freud's famous use of the Oedipus myth is but one easily-noted sample.

Some might even see psychology as successor to the role of mythology in culture, as a parallel to the more-commonly-stated progression from religion to psychology.

In a fair turnabout, Joseph Campbell and other mythologists have used psychology as source material for mythology.

It's no surprise, then to learn that Campbell was closely associated with the thought of Carl Jung.

In 1953, for example, he was chosen to edit the Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks This series of papers was presented at the Eranos conferences in Ascona, Switzerland over a twenty year period. In his role, Campbell met the great man himself, as well as such other scholars of religion (and therefore mythology and psychology) as Mircea Eliade and D.T. Suzuki.

Although not a psychologist, he was chosen by Viking to edit The Portable Jung. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Bollingen Series of books on psychology, anthropology and myth (a list at Amazon).

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, written before the link-up with Jung, Campbell swings back and forth between Freudian and Jungian interpretations; later work is more solidly based on Jung (though from Campbell's own unique point of view). His reliance on interpretation through metaphor is closely intertwined with Jung's theory of archetypes; we will explore this more thoroughly as we get into Campbell's works.

Next time: Pop Culture

Sources #6: Eastern Thought

This is where Joe and I really "click."

Campbell "went East," as I have, and found there some of the purest soundings of the themes of world mythology.

Here are some notes from a chronology of his life:

The journals of this last item have been published as Baksheesh and Brahman and Sake and Satori.

Also from the 1950s, Campbell lectured on cross-cultural matters at the Foreign Service Institute for the U.S. State Department, being an early expert on Asia and other cultures. 

Next time: Jung and Psychology

Sources #5: Art and Creativity

Throughout his work, Joseph Campbell often returns to the nature of the creative process, saying that in the past the shaman was the poet and artist of the tribe, and that today the poet and artist is our shaman.

Like so much else in Campbell's life, this interest in art was shaped by early encounters. While on his European sojourn, he encountered the 20th-century art of Picasso, Brancusi, Braque, and others. He had a friend, Angela Gregory, who was a student of the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, who in turn had worked with Rodin.

Bourdelle was also a renowned teacher of esthetics, and taught Joe a thing or two on the topic.

Campbell's interest in the arts was solidified when he married the important dancer, choreographer, and dance teacher Jean Erdman. She was a former student, who had studied under Martha Graham and, with Campbell's encouragement, started her own company. Later, she and Campbell co-founded New York's Theater of the Open Eye in 1972.

Joseph Campbell, born 1904 and died 1987, was a quintessentially 20th-century man. Both the literature and the arts of the time were as deeply important to him as the "primitive" and medieval works that he drew on so frequently.

Sources #4: Modern Literature

Joseph Campbell was, after all, a literature professor.

He read modern literature with as much passion as he researched medieval materials (described previously). In fact, the next book he wrote (after the commentary on Where the Two Came to Their Father) was
a commentary on Joyce's very difficult Finnegans Wake, which he co-authored with Henry Morton Robinson. (At this time, he also wrote the commentary for a volume of Grimm's Fairy Tales.)

And his first major "solo work," The Hero with a Thousand Faces, was a triumph of literary analysis.

Meanwhile, he was reading (and, after 1934, teaching at Sarah Lawrence College) the work of modern masters like Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Mann, and Goethe, in addition to Joyce, and the then-modern psychologists Freud and Jung, both of whom looked deeply into literature, ancient and modern.

Long ago, he wrote down a reading list. It has been published in various formats, both in print (in the back of The Mythic Dimension) and on the net. I have posted a copy here for download.

Next time: Art and Creativity

Sources #3: Arthurian Romance

The next major source of Joseph Campbell's thought and work is medieval literature in general, and Arthurian romance in particular.

Medieval lit was his specialty at Columbia (B.A. 1925); he returned for a Masters in 1926, where in 1927 he completed his thesis on " The Dolorous Stroke," a motif found in the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, as well as other Celtic stories.

He was then given a fellowship to study in Europe; he studied Romance philology, Old French, and Proven├žal at the University of Paris (a serious medievalist's toolkit).

The fourth volume of his great work The Masks of God is titled Creative Mythology. It is largely occupied with medieval literature, including a masterful retelling and analysis of Wolfram's Parzival.

This stands in deep contrast to his interest in Native American and other "Primitive Mythology" (as the first volume of Masks is called). His deep linguistic study denotes the seriousness with which he approached this body of literature, and his glee in retelling the stories (as, for example, in the Bill Moyers interviews--book--DVD) is evident.

Next time: Modern Literature