In my senior year of high school (1989-1990), I took a World Literature class, first period, from an interesting teacher, a Vietnam vet who had a reputation for being unstable, but who I found very knowledgeable and entertaining. As part of his lit course, he showed us this series of videos in which a journalist and a “wizard” talked about myths and religions and about how those stories related to everyday life. While many of the students in the class slept through these videos, I was hooked…
Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers – The Power of Myth (1988/1991)
Joseph Campbell was a professor of comparative religion studies and a storyteller who wrote several books on mythology. His theories are sometimes contested, partially because he never completed a Ph.D., meaning he didn’t received the official, academic seal-of-approval (me neither), and partially because he tended to gloss over differences in various ideologies while looking for similarities. But this is where his SECOND, and I’d argue more interesting, qualification kicks in. He was a STORYTELLER—an exceptionally well read, analytical, and personable storyteller, whose obvious love for the myths that he incorporates into his tales more than made up for any “rough edges” he removed in the telling. (Not unlike Neil Gaiman!)
This book, The Power of Myth, is actually a transcription of a series of interviews Campbell filmed with journalist, Bill Moyers, in the late 1980s, shortly before Campbell’s death. The interviews were filmed for PBS, and they cover a number of topics in which Campbell believed mythological stories could apply directly to modern concerns. Interestingly, to me, Moyers is a Christian, a devout Catholic, and Campbell tended to be more of a spiritual but non-religious person, so there’s more than one place in these interviews where Moyers gets very uncomfortable while Campbell is talking about his understanding of how the world works and what myths can tell us about it. For example, early in the book, Moyers challenges Campbell’s definition of “myth” in this interesting exchange:
Moyers says, “You changed the definition of myth from the search for meaning to the experience of meaning.”
And Campbell responds, “Experience of life. …There’s no meaning. What’s the meaning of the universe? What’s the meaning of a flea? It’s just there. That’s it. And your own meaning is that you’re there. We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about” (p. 5).
Moyers, as a Christian, sees life as a testing ground, and the meaning of life is to prove that you are good enough to go to Heaven when you die. Campbell, who was raised Catholic but grew through his studies to see Christian concepts as more metaphorical than literal, believes that living life, HERE AND NOW, is more realistic than considering life the launching pad for some posthumous, secondary existence. This idea (throughout the book) makes Moyers very uncomfortable. For a sick individual like me, this interplay, between the believer and the extremely knowledgeable non-believer, is part of the entertainment value of this book.
I also appreciate Campbell’s suggestion that myths HAVE to keep up with the times, that a myth that is no longer in sync with modernity causes confusion and strife. Campbell says, “On the immediate level of life and structure, myths offer life models. But the models have to be appropriate to the time in which you are living, and our time has changed so fast that what was proper fifty years ago is not proper today. … The old-time religion belongs to another age, another people, another set of human values, another universe. By going back you throw yourself out of sync with history” (p. 16). Though Campbell warns us not to get stuck in ancient belief systems, he also states that our times are moving too quickly for a new, MODERN mythology to solidify. We are in a state of flux, untethered… (And you can see this every day if you look at the headlines in the newspapers.)
Although some people might find mythological and philosophical discussion boring (certainly all those high school kids sleeping through the videos of these interviews can attest to this), I enjoy the discussions. Not every chapter kept me as riveted as some of them did, but the food for thought in this book is very nourishing. Campbell’s optimism is also very evident, and his love for stories comes through with every line. You can practically hear him smiling as he answers Moyer’s questions and challenges, and hearing him smile makes me smile.
The book may, obviously, be a bit unsettling for people who are deeply entrenched in their religious beliefs, as it treats Christian and Muslim beliefs as mythology, right along with the other ancient gods and heroes, but for people who enjoy stories and who won’t mind the Bible being treated as metaphorical, it’s a fun, entertaining book. There are also videos of these conversations floating around on DVD, as well as an expanded version of this book that includes lots of illustrations and photographs of sacred objects. (I’m poor, so I opted for the cheaper version…) Ready to “get your MYTH on?” Then this book isn’t a bad place to start…
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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