Wednesday, September 08, 2010

7: Approach

In another of the Mythos lectures, Campbell asserts that there are two concepts of God. The first kind of God, the kind he approves of, believed in mainly by dark-skinned people in the Olden Days, is the one which purports merely to be a symbol.

The Indian spirits (we are told) were symbols of and things which pointed to the Final Incomprehensible Mystery – but not the F.I.M itself. Indians (we are assured) would sometimes point to a physical place and say that this was the mountain on which God made the world, but they knew quite well that it wasn't. They knew quite well (says Campbell) that someone from a different village would have pointed to a different mountain, but that all the mountains were just symbols for the F.I.M. Was this really part of the timeless wisdom of the ancients, I ask myself? Or did it merely show that a process of "demythologisation" had fairly recently, occurred?

Or again. A dead Egyptian dude named Ahknaton (father of the more famous Tutankhamen) tried to set up a new religion in which the myriad gods of Egyptian polytheism were replaced by a single figure called Aten. Freud got very excited about this, particularly since Ahknaton married his own mother (almost definitely). Even C.S. Lewis acknowledged that it's quite...interesting...that there was a monotheist movement in Egypt at about the same time as Moses is meant to have been leading the monotheistic Jews out of, er, Egypt. But according to Campbell, although Ahknaton replaced the pantheon with Aten, he was quite clear that Aten was not the F.I.M. Aten was merely a symbol which could point you towards the F.I.M.

Again, maybe. People who know about this stuff seem more inclined to think that what Ahknaton really said was "Aten is the name of the old Sun God; and it's still OK to use the Sun as a symbol of Aten; but we ought to remember that Aten is not the Sun but merely the being who created the Sun". In other words, he was a bog standard monotheist who thought that you should take care when fooling about with graven images.

Now, the other kind of God, the bad kind, believed in by modern, light-skinned people and especially Jews, says that He Himself is the F.I.M and is therefore the only possible God. This bad religion is described as being "closed"; the good kind is described as being "open".

Now, that fella Jesus, dont'ya'know: he believed in the good, "open" version of God. That's why he said "I and my father are one." That's why the Big Bad Jew crucified him. Well, naturally: Joseph Campbell believes in a Jesus who agrees with Joseph Campbell about everything, in the same way that Elton John believes in a Jesus who agrees with Elton John and Tony Blair believes in a Jesus who agrees with Tony Blair. (Don't mention Philip Pullman. It will only upset me.) The trouble is that the line "I and my father are one" is embedded in a text, the Gospel of John, which is pretty clearly a literary creation with an argument running through it. It's true that John says that when Jesus said "I and my father are one" the Jews threw stones at him. But you could not possibly take John's Gospel to be saying "They threw stones at him because they thought that he was saying that the YHWH of the Old Testament was only a symbol for God, not God himself; and that YHWH was in any case not a personal being but an abstract symbol for the final incomprehensible wassissname." John thinks that the Jews threw stones at Jesus because they thought Jesus was, blasphemously, claiming to be YHWH, which, according to John, was precisely what Jesus was in fact claiming. From the opening paragraphs where John tells us that "the Word was God", through the passages where Jesus applies the divine Name to himself, to the scene where Jesus asks God to "glorify me with thine own self... with the glory I had with thee before the world was" John is highly committed to the doctrine of the Trinity. You can't rip a particular phrase out of a philosophical dialogue and use it to claim that John thought Jesus was a pantheist.

Unless, of course, Campbell is playing a Jesus Seminar game. He may think that "John's Gospel" is a text without value but that, by accident and without understanding it, "John" preserved a fragment of what The Historical Christ really said, and from this fragment, he, Joseph Campbell, can reconstruct T.H.C's true teaching which, very conveniently, is in complete agreement with the historical Joseph Campbell. But a position as subtle as that surely needs to be argued for, not taken for granted?

This kind of thing happens over and over again in Campbell's writing. A phrase, and incident, a story, a symbol seems to have an intrinsic, built in, essential meaning regardless of what it is doing in the story where you found it. It doesn't seem to matter what a story means to the person who told it; or to the people who heard it; or to the people who repeated it. The story, or the components of the story, have their own meaning. Don't go to Jews, or Christians, or Indians or Eskimos to find out what Jewish, Christian, Indian or Eskimo mythology means. Go to Joseph Campbell.

The Greeks had a god of wine, and the cult of the wine god involved drinking wine. And get this: when the Greek wine-worshipping dudes drank wine, they used, get this, a cup. And, get this, when a Catholic Priest celebrates Mass in a Cathedral, he also uses a cup. So a picture of a Dionysian mystery on the side of a Grecian Urn [*] looks a bit like a Mass, inasmuch as they both involve cups. And wine. And human beings. So you can point to Grecian Urn and say "Oh, look! A Eucharist!" or even "Oh look! A Western Grail Tradition."

What does drinking wine mean to a catholic at Mass? What did it mean to an initiate of the Dionysian mysteries? It would, of course, be extremely interesting if we could show that the Very Early Christians borrowed some of their ceremonies from the Mystery Cults. It would show, for example, that some of the Very Early Christians knew what those ceremonies were. It would show that some early Christians thought it was already to borrow ceremonies from pagan temples. It wouldn't show that Catholics were really Dionysians or that Dionysians were really Catholics. "They both involved cups" doesn't seem to be very strong evidence one way or another. Neither does "If we study different mythologies, we will be able to intuit a picture language in which cups always and irreducibly mean the same thing, even when that irreducible meaning wasn't apparent to the people who were actually participating in the cup-ceremony." Paintings of mothers with babies are very likely to look like paintings of mothers with babies regardless of who paints them. This doesn't mean that any picture of a mother with a baby is a Madonna and that all Madonnas have a hidden meaning which Campbell knows and the Pope doesn't.

Have you ever been at a church service when a little Brownie [=Girl Scout] has carried a little flag with a picture of a fairy on it down the aisle and handed it to the Vicar, who put it in the place where the alter would be if we hadn't had a Reformation? It doesn't take any vast insight to spot that this ceremony is based on a military church parade. We can work out why flags were an important part of military communication in the olden days and why they continued to be an important part of military symbolism even when they stopped being useful. But I think it would be reckless to say that the little eight year old is "really" performing a military ceremony and that the Brownies are "really" a paramilitary movement. (Or that the Marines are "really" interested in baking cookies and taking baskets of fruit to old ladies, come to that.) I think its more likely that some person in authority, very likely Lady Baden-Powell, thought it would be nice for little girls to have some ceremony to perform on the first Sunday of the month excluding school holidays and invented one based on military church parades because she remembered them from the last War.

Just because two things look the same it doesn't follow that they are the same.

[*] Not as much as he did before the global economic meltdown.


If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of George and Joe and Jack and Bob >which contains all of  my essays on Star Wars (going right back to the opening night of the Phantom Menace!) and related subjects.
Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.


Pete Darby said...

Word of the day: Synecdoche

Andrew Rilstone said...

That's when you say "Nelson had a hundred sails under his command" but the reader assumes that sails all had boats attached to them, isn't it?

Keith Schooley said...

Love love love love love this series, Andrew. I hope, now that the Antihero of 1000 Faces has coalesced into Joseph Campbell, that we're not done with Jack Kirby and George Lucas and Douglas Adams.

"John is highly committed to the doctrine of the Trinity" is anachronistic, though, isn't it? More correct (although more wordy) to say "John is highly committed to what would eventually develop into the doctrine of the Trinity," or, "John is highly committed to the doctrine of the Trinity, even if it would take the Christian church another few centuries to stick a label on it."

Rich Puchalsky said...

This post is a good deal closer to an attack on what Campbell actually wrote. 'This bad religion is described as being "closed"; the good kind is described as being "open"' is something that's a recognizeable simplification of him, unlike 'Eastern myth good, Western myth bad.'

As for the anti-Semitic charges, well, it's a bad sign when someone is called an anti-Semite and one of his defenders says no he's not really, he's just a crypto-fascist. (From here.) I have to admit that once I found out about Mircea Eliade I did wonder whether two mythic universalists attracted to fascism makes a trend. This is again Dawkins-style criticism, which I don't really object to, but don't see why it shouldn't be turned in all directions.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Did I say he was anti-Semitic? Doesn't think much of the Jewish god, and the Old Testament. Dislikes Jewish people en masse? Not so far as I know.

INTERESTING CULTURAL NOTE: I didn't quite say that he said "Eastern myth bad, Western myth good". I said that he thought that Eastern Myths were A Good Thing. People of my cultural heritage would spot that this was a reference to two of my tribes most celebrated historigraphers, W.C Sellers and R.C Yeatman. Furriners may not spot the nuance.

Rich Puchalsky said...

As a cultural Jew myself, I can only read "Now, the other kind of God, the bad kind, believed in by modern, light-skinned people and especially Jews, [...] That's why the Big Bad Jew crucified him" as a charge of anti-Semitism. I don't see any difference between "the bad kind of God is believed in by Jews, and the Big Bad Jew crucified Jesus" and a dislike of the Jewish people en masse. I don't think that many Jews who grew up a predominantly Christian country would see the difference either.

If you wanted to say that you weren't really charging Campbell with anti-Semitism, you'd have to take his argument more seriously than to characterize it as you have. As I remember it, it's first of all an attack against religious literalism, of the "closed religion bad, open religion good" sort. Campbell thinks that the kind of Christianity that doesn't really believe in anything Christian except as symbolism is better than the kind that says that it believes in a literal Jesus etc., and he thinks that turning religion into psychological symbolism is much more prevalent in Christianity than in Judaism. Secondly, it's an attack on the specifically Jewish mythic background, which Campbell says is more brutal in its justification of war than other mythic backgrounds. (And -- as I keep coming back to Dawkins here for reasons that may eventually become clear -- this is essentially the same thing that Dawkins does when he talks about the damage that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have done and puts them together as the Abrahamic religions.)

I don't think that Campbell's argument is particularly good, for lots of reasons. But to approach it as anything but plain anti-Semitism, you have to stop seeing Campbell as a person who simply believes that all myths are the same and allow him some greater complexity.

Phil Masters said...

It strikes me that there is (or was, more often, in the past) a certain category of romantic intellectual, prone to grand theorising about Cultures and Peoples and Mythologies, who would end up drawing grand and negative conclusions about "followers of the God of Abraham" or "Semitic peoples" or "the Jewish race" (or "the black race" or "the Asian peoples" or whatever) - but if you pointed out how what they said would apply to any given Jewish person (or black or Asian or...), would be genuinely shocked and would wave their hands and would say that of course they didn't mean...

See also: H.P.Lovecraft.

Post-1945, such people might get very irritated that that nasty Mr Hitler had made it so difficult for them to express and develop their Grand Theories without being accused of such irrelevant and unjustified unpleasantnesses as anti-Semitism. Kind of missing the fact that said nasty man got where he did largely because people took such Grand Theories a bit too seriously.