I recently watched Mythos – a series of (apparently amateur) recordings of lectures which Joseph Campbell himself gave towards the end of his life, with links by a hippy lady who hasn't yet worked out the correct way of sitting on a chair.
They horrified me.
In episode 2, the Spirit Land, Campbell reads out the entire text of a speech by a Native American leader named Chief Seattle. The gist of the speech is that the Suquamish were prepared to sell their ancestral homelands to the white settlers, but only on condition that the white folks loved and cared for all the trees and fish and wild horses and buffalo as much as the Indian did.
I think we have to be very careful of ascribing timeless natural wisdom to the Indians or the Gypsies or the kinds of Jews who play violins on people's roofs; of saying that they are more in touch with the natural world than us sophisticated people, and, what's more, that they have a wonderful sense of rhythm. In even savage bosoms there are longings, yearnings, strivings for a good they comprehend not, don't you know? I think that the native Americans probably had their own, culturally specific way of looking at the world, and that if we take particular poems and speeches out of context we are likely to misunderstand them. I also wish to ask questions about precisely what kind of timeless natural wisdom it is which tells us love the wild horses and if they are the same wild horses introduced to the Americas by the Evil Spanish Catholics, less than a century earlier.
This is by the way.
I am uncomfortable about the romantic environmentalism of the message. How many of us are prepared to live in a world without trains, cars, and telephones? I know I'm not. So in what way is it useful to beat ourselves up about how our "talking wires" have made it hard for the redskins to see the pretty landscape? (Do modern native Americans, in fact, wish to go back to living in their aboriginal, pre-Columbian state? And why would that kind of nostalgia be any more respectable than that of a white European who wishes we could all go back in time and live in a pure, pastoral, organic, pre-industrial-revolution society with happy rosy-cheeked peasants and bubonic plague?)
This is incidental.
Campbell is moved to tears when Chief Seattle asserts: "One thing we know, which the white man may yet discover: Our God is the same God". "Compare that with Genesis 2" exclaims uncle Joe. Joe thinks that Seattle's view, in which the whole of the world is sacred and in which "to harm the earth is to heap contempt on the creator" is preferable to the Biblical view in which God is separate from the created universe, and in which He kicks the human race out of Eden and places the land under a curse. I struggle to square Campbell's universalism in which all religions of the world really say the same thing with his apparent belief that the hippy god of the Injuns is different to and better than the nasty deity of Old Testament.
But even this is not really my point.
My real point is this.
Everybody knows that the speech which so desperately moves Uncle Joe was not written by a native American leader in 1854 but by a white, Christian screenplay writer in, er 1972.
Well; it's pretty speech, and it contains a lot of stuff which is true for Campbell. ("A noble heart embiggens the smallest man – regardless of who said it.") But given that Campbell's original academic background was in studying native American mythology, this sort of thing makes me jittery. It implies a scarily gung-ho attitude to his source material.
In the same series, Campbell purports not to understand what the word "God" means. He apparently once asked the famous Jewish theologian Martin Buber to define the term, but didn't stay for an answer [MODERATELY GOOD THEOLOGICAL JOKE]. He thinks that "God" probably means the incomprehensible mystery that lies behind the galaxies.
I am not sure how helpful this is.
What does Campbell mean by "mystery"? Does he mean "the bits that science hasn't worked out yet, but which will probably weird us out when we do know about them"? In this case, he's a bog standard western materialist, pointing out that the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but in all probability, queerer than we can imagine.
Or does he mean "The Thing or Things which we can't weigh or measure or quantify or detect, but which nevertheless exists in some way, and which came before the galaxies and caused or intended them in some way"? In this case, he's a bog-standard agnostic, reluctant to be tied down on what's going on in the universe, but thinking that there's probably a Force or Spirit running the show.
Or is the thing or things that we can't weigh or measure or quantify in some way analogous to a human mind? In that case, he's simply a theist, albeit an atypically non-dogmatic one.
In the book Masks of God, he comes over all Kant and says that the Final Incomprehensible Mystery is literally un-knowable. The Final Incomprehensible Mystery is not God: rather, God is our cultural symbol for "that which is absolutely unknown and un-knowable." In Western Mythologies (a Bad Thing) the F.I.M stands in some kind of relationship to the universe. All mythology and philosophy and religion is about defining that relationship, which you can only do by analogy. If you think that Humans are to the F.I.M as children are to their parents this does not (NOT) mean that the F.I.M is anything like your father. It only means that there's a quality in the F.I.M which is in the same relationship to the universe as a father is to his children.
Eastern Mythology (a Good Thing) on the other hand, says that the F.I.M and the Universe are the same thing. This is Good because it allows the universe and everything in it to be sacred. "Everything is sacred" is another phrase I suspect of being literally meaningless. "Sacred" means "set apart, special, separated out". What does it mean to say that "everything" is special? ("When everybody's somebody, then no-one's anybody.") "Everything is sacred" translates to "Nothing is sacred" or "There is no such thing as sanctity". I suspect that "All Gods are one One God" and "There are no Gods" also come out the same.
I seem to recall once hearing an orthodox Jew patiently explaining that you could, if you liked, say that Judaism had no sacraments; and you could equally well, if you liked, say that in Judaism, everything was a sacrament – but really it was a silly question because "sacrament" was a Christian concept with no Jewish equivalent.
Towards the end of Mythos (the TV show) Campbell remarks that he is sometimes asked how modern people can get some sense of "ritual" back into their lives. Aha, says the sage: but we eat, we drink, we make love to our wives – what more "ritual" do we need?
And this is the inexhaustible whassisname that is crying out to us through all the stories in the world? This the One Truth which the Sages call by many names? "Mythic living" turns out to mean "doing whatever it was we were going to anyway, but applying the word 'mythic' to it" The great secret is that from now on we should eat our Weetabix more respectfully.
Follow your bliss. Whatever you do take pride. Keep calm and carry on.
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