The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work.
By Joseph Campbell
Edited with Introduction by Phil Cousineau.
Novato, California: New World Library, 2003.
Pp. 249. $24.95, cloth.
Reviewed by Dennis Patrick Slattery
Some books have their day in the sun and on bookshelves and then fade into the
out-of-print abyss. Others have a sustained stamina because they continue to
speak to new audiences. Such is the case with this beautifully-crafted edition
of The Hero’s Journey originally published in 1990 but released with a
very insightful foreword by Stuart Brown and a fine overview of Campbell’s thought
in Phil Cousineau’s introduction. In some important ways, this text might even
be a better portal into Joseph Campbell’s work than The Power of Myth with
Bill Moyers, for I believe it is more wide ranging on the life of the man
and the methodology of mythic thinking.
Published along with an entire series of titles by
New World Library and the Joseph Campbell Foundation in Novato, California
in time for the 2004 centennial of Campbell’s birth (1904-1987), this book
allowed me to grasp, perhaps for the first time, the wide range and extent of
Campbell’s learning that includes literature, art, philosophy, psychology,
archeology, eastern and oriental cultural history, dance and painting.
At one point in his young life, he relates in a story, he retired to the
woods to a cabin and read for nine hours a day for five years. Part of his
genius, the reader sees in group gatherings with Campbell, is that he seems
to have forgotten nothing of what he read. More importantly, the Hero’s Journey
that put him on the mythic map in the popular imagination is in effect his own
life’s journey mythologized through the lens of related world mythologies.
His individual life and work mirrors his most famous opus on the place of the
heroic within a universal monomyth: The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949)
which is still the best selling book in the entire Bollingen series.
Arranged according to themes, but primarily consisting
of interviews and seminars conducted by Campbell, or with his work as the
central theme, The Hero’s Journey delineates, for example, “The Call to Adventure,”
“The Road of Trials,” “The Vision Quest,” “The Meeting with the Goddess,”
“The Master of Two Worlds,” “The Tiger and the Goat” to name several headings.
I liked especially the list of all works by Campbell as well as a rich and
varied bibliography of related topics of interest.
It is astonishing to learn in reading these pages,
how widely Campbell’s work influenced the cultures of music (The Grateful Dead),
dance (Jean Erdmann), film (Lucas, Spielberg), as well as the personal lives of
millions of individuals and thousands of students he taught at Sarah Lawrence
College for 38 years. It was in that classroom setting of women, he says in more
than one place in this book, that he learned from his students: the material of
mythology must have some personal relevance to their lived lives, or it is essentially
meaningless. From them Campbell decided to inflect his writings and research not to
scholars in academe but to an intelligent readership that wanted to pursue the meaning
of their own lives and to see their lives mirrored in the world’s great stories..
Repetitious in places, nonetheless, this volume is a primer of the
essential tenets of mythology for the reader coming to Campbell for the first time.
For example, a constant with Campbell is his belief that “the function of myth is to
put man in accord with nature….The function of art is to bring out the grand lines
of nature” so the possible accord can become more evident. Another motif of his work:
“Mythology opens the world so that it becomes transparent to something that is beyond
speech, beyond words, in short, to what we call transcendence.” A third tenet: myths
are not to be read literally/historically but imaginally and metaphorically. As soon
as myths concretize into literalism, they move from mythology to ideology and their
vital life passes from them. A fourth axiom in his belief system: “the advantage of
being mythologically indoctrinated….[is that] you know where you are when these stories
take place.” In other words, myths are centering forces or energies that ground and
organize our being and can lead to a fuller sense of self. A fifth axiom: Mythology
is a function of biology; myths grow from the energies of the organs of the body in
conflict with one another. A sixth axiom: mythology takes us out of ourselves, out
of our egocentric lives and places us within reach of something beyond us, that
includes but extends us. Our primary myth today, Campbell ends by arguing, must be
planetary, global, and not a retreat into vested interest groups.
Few writers and teachers have carried the passion
of the subject matter with the ease and grace of learning as has Joseph Campbell.
His work is an embodied eye witness of a human being who indeed followed his own
bliss and in the process encouraged each of us to do the same. Reading his lively
observations and quick-witted, often humorous responses to a variety of people in
a vast array of disciplines, will allow the reader to feel the heated energy of a
joyfully engaged consciousness who never tired of seeking the mysteries that lie
silent, expectant, behind the myths.
Dennis Patrick Slattery is Core
Faculty in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. His most
recent work is Psychology at the Threshold, co-edited with
Lionel Corbett. He is a Mythic Journeys guest speaker.
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