Tuesday, September 07, 2010

6: Tests, Allies and Enemies

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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Sam Dodsworth said...

Gene Wolfe had a reasonable go at "everything is sacred" in the Book of the New Sun, from what I assume is a Catholic theological position:

The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But everything had approached and even touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic. I drew off my boots, that had traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground.

If it is Catholic theology and not some complex Wolfean point about heresy then it does seem to falsify Campbell's orientalist view of "eastern religion"; partly at least.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I think that you're doing the same type of critique that Dawkins does, here. Specifically, it doesn't seem like you've actually read much Campbell -- I recommend skimming through his four-book set that begins with "Primitive Mythology", or really just looking at the last one, "Western Mythology", as an antidote to both the simplistic idea that he thinks that all religions are the same, and the even more simplistic one that his enjoyment of the fake Seattle speech (which, yes, is odd) means that he thinks that Western myth is bad.

But if you don't actually want to read that material, that's fine. I generally think that your criticisms of Dawkins for not wanting to read a heap of texts are wrong as well.

Andrew Rilstone said...


a: It is no part of my critique of Richard Dawkins that he "hasn't read a pile of books"


b: I quote directly from Masks of God

it is rather hard to know how to respond to this. Perhaps you have me confused with Terry Eagleton?

Andrew Stevens said...

It may not say much for Joseph Campbell that he didn't spot the anachronisms and inaccuracies (of which there are a great many) in the Chief Seattle speech, but when he was admiring of it, it was not the case that everybody knew it was fictional. It was partly his own popularization of the speech and Al Gore's subsequent printing of it in Earth in the Balance which caused it to be debunked by the New York Times and many, many others. By that point, Joseph Campbell was dead.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Ah...Now that is a good point.

It does seem odd, though, that an anthropologist and specialist in native Americans didn't go back to the primary source as a matter of course, in which case he would (presumably) have discovered that there wasn't one. But yes, "everybody knows" is clearly unfair.

Rich Puchalsky said...

All right, I'll try to write a bit more carefully, then. (My first comment was dashed off to the point where I didn't remember that the name of the four-book series was The Masks of God, and I also misremembered the name of the last of the books.)

If you have read the series -- and my assumption that you hadn't and that you were just quoting randomly from part of it was boosted by you writing previously that you'd never read The Hero With a Thousand Faces -- then you must have read a very different series than I did. You seem to have come away with a summation that includes Eastern Myth Good, Western Myth Bad. What I came away with was something like this quote about Campbell's later writing from wikipedia:

"The Way of the Animal Powers—the myths of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers which focus on shamanism and animal totems.
The Way of the Seeded Earth—the myths of Neolithic, agrarian cultures which focus upon a mother goddess and associated fertility rites.
The Way of the Celestial Lights—the myths of Bronze Age city-states with pantheons of gods ruling from the heavens, led by a masculine god-king.
The Way of Man—religion and philosophy as it developed after the Axial Age (c. 6th century BC), in which the mythic imagery of previous eras was made consciously metaphorical, reinterpreted as referring to psycho-spiritual, not literal-historical, matters. This transition is evident in the East in Buddhism, Vedanta, and philosophical Taoism; and in the West in the Mystery Cults, Platonism, Christianity and Gnosticism."

Agree or disagree with that, there's more there than simply a monomyth and "all heroes are the same", much less a simple denigration of western myth in favor of eastern.

That you were simplifying Campbell in this way didn't really matter in this series of posts up until now. After all, what does it matter if you're really getting Campbell right, if you're criticizing a famous movie-maker who was influenced by him? The movie-maker may well have simplified him in the exact same way. If you're criticizing what amounts to Pop Campbell, then you need not really know anything about what he actually wrote. Or there may not really be any Campbell that you think need be dignified as anything but Pop Campbell, but, in any case, your characterization of his views doesn't match his actual books.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself here, but:

In the piece, I claim that in Creative Mythology (pp 339 - 348) Campbell argues

1: That mythology is a language with which we talk about "the absolutely un-knowable, which in our tradition is called God."

2: That religions of the West regard the absolutely un-knowable thing as being in some kind of relationship with the immanent universe. (cRx)

3: That religions of the East identify the Universe with the absolutely unknowable thing. (c=x)

4: That Campbell approves the latter and disapproves of the former because the the former tends to empty the empirical universe of its sanctity and spirituality and locate them elsewhere.

Are you saying:

a: That I have misread Campbell, and that he regards "cRx" and "c=x" as equally good?

b: That although I am correct that in general he approves of "c=x" religions and disapproves of "cRx" religions, I should have qualified this by saying that there are many individual examples of "Western" myths and folk-tales which he approves of.

c: That I expressed myself in hyperbolical language, and shouldn't have done so.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I think that you've misread Campbell, basically.

I just re-read pgs. 339-348, which hopefully are the same in my edition as in yours. First of all, I think that what Campbell is doing in this sequence is characterizing a mythic system, not endorsing it. You're moving too easily from his description, which starts with Kant etc., into saying that Campbell personally approves of this or that.

But more importantly, I don't see anything in those pages that corresponds with your point 4. On pages 346-347, he goes through c=x and explains how this becomes c+-=x. Then on page 348, the concluding page of the subsection, it's:

"In Schopenhaur's philosophy [...] both ways of conceiving of the inconceivable mystery are represented: the way of the oxymoron c+-=x being that of "the world as will," and the way of relationship, cRx, that of "the world as idea" -- which two, in Nietzsche's vocabulary, became respectively the Dionysian and Apollonian modes -- with these, in turn, corresponding to the contrasting Indian types of religion associated respectively with Shiva and with Vishnu."

Do I believe that Campbell is saying that the Dionysian mode is great and the Apollonian mode sucks? No, I don't. I think that you've misread this.

You can make plenty of criticisms of Campbell. Orientalism? Sure. Did he wax enthusiastic over Eastern (or non-Western, whatever) systems in his TV shows? Sure, although I don't think that a TV show is really going to communicate someone's best or more complicated thought. But I think that really you're criticizing Pop Campbellism in all its hideousness.