Center for Story and Symbol

Joseph Campbell - A Scholar's Life

Joseph Campbell Biography - A Scholar's Life

For Joseph Campbell, the study of myth was the exploration of the possibilities of consciousness. His lifetime of scholarship was nothing less than the search for the Holy Grail of radiant living. The dialog between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers that became The Power of Myth was an event that changed many lives. It is more than a presentation of fascinating stories from all over the world. It is a vision of a rich inner life available to anyone willing to go on the initiatory adventures.

Joseph Campbell was born in 1904 in a suburb of New York City. His childhood was strongly Irish Catholic. This heritage led to an earnest immersion in the rituals and symbols of the church, including becoming an altar boy. His interest in mythology began at age seven when he saw the Indians in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Madison Square Garden. Campbell developed an intense fascination with Native American lore that ultimately led to vast learning. His boyhood was spent studying the Indian exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History and reading all the books he could find on Native Americans, including advanced anthropological reports.

Campbell graduated from Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut in 1921. On a crossing of the North Atlantic in 1924, he met Jiddu Krishnamurti, not yet the great world teacher of the Theosophists. This friendship led to a deep interest in the traditions of India. Campbell received his B.A. in English from Columbia University in 1925. He completed his M.A. in Medieval Literature in 1926 with a thesis on The Dolorous Stroke, the origin of the Wasteland symbolism in the Grail legends. His advisor was Roger Loomis, a leading Arthurian scholar.

During 1926, Campbell also took classes at the New York City Religious Science Church taught by one of the founders of that movement, Fenwick Holmes. As part of the course, Campbell read Science of Mind. A year in Paris (1927-28) for dissertation research included other significant learning experiences, such as tutorials in aesthetics with sculptor Antoine Bourdelle. He was impressed with the art of Picasso, Brancusi, and Braque. During this time, Campbell read W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce. He was befriended by Joyce's publisher, Sylvia Beach, who explained the intricacies of Ulysses.

At the University of Munich (1928-29), Campbell studied how Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung used myth in psychology. He also noted mythic dimensions in the novels of Thomas Mann. All these masters of modernity would greatly influence his thinking, leading him later to theorize that mythologies are the artistic expressions of psychological life.

Returning to Columbia University, Campbell wanted to expand the scope of his dissertation topic beyond the Grail myth to include parallels with psychology, literature, and art. His advisors made it clear that such an interdisciplinary perspective would not be acceptable.

Choosing not to complete his doctorate, Campbell spent several years in Woodstock, New York, reading extensively. He visited California in 1931-32 befriending novelist John Steinbeck and biologist Ed Ricketts. During this time, he first read Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West. Campbell's sweeping vision owes much in style to Spengler.

Joseph Campbell was professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College 1933-1972. He married a former student, Jean Erdman, who became prominent in modern dance as both a performer and choreographer. They had no children. He translated The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (1942), and a four volume series on The Upanishads with Swami Nikhilananda, the leader of a Vedanta center in New York City.

A principle mentor was Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, a colleague of C.G. Jung. Zimmer died suddenly of pneumonia in 1943. Over the next twelve years, Campbell did the editing and substantial writing of four books based on Zimmer's papers.

Campbell's other early writing included the commentary on a Navajo ceremonial story Where the Two Came to Their Father (1943). He also co-authored (with Henry Morton Robinson) A Skeleton's Key to Finnegan's Wake (1944). This was the first comprehensive analysis of Joyce's complex novel. It was from Joyce that Campbell drew the concept of the monomyth. This is the one great mythic story told in all eras and regions. It is the initiatory adventure of the hero.

It was the publication of The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1949 that established Joseph Campbell as the preeminent comparative mythologist of the twentieth century. He intended the book to be a guide to reading a myth. Campbell explained how challenging experiences could be seen as initiatory adventures. It was this connection between ancient stories and the emotional concerns of modern life that was distinctive. As Campbell observed,

The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.

Campbell's description of the hero's journey has been used extensively by generations of artists and scholars. It showed the similarities among the great stories of world mythology. It is a model of initiatory elements in myth, religion, literature, and ritual. Campbell worked from a simpler matrix (departure, transformation, return) developed by Arnold van Gennep in Rites of Passage (1912). Campbell used two theories to explain the universality of the themes. One was the principle of elementary ideas developed by Adolf Bastian. The other was the similar concept of archetypes from the psychology of Carl Jung.

The hero's journey as described in The Hero With a Thousand Faces explains an initiatory sequence. The opening stage includes: the call to adventure, meeting the mentor, and the threshold passage. Once into the adventure, the challenges involve: finding allies and guides, facing ordeals, resisting temptations, braving enemies, enduring the dark night of the soul, surviving the supreme ordeal, and winning the elixir (the boon). The concluding steps are: the return threshold passage, resurrection, celebration, accepting a role of service (sharing the elixir), and, finally, merging two worlds.

Campbell shows why societies must have heroes to incarnate values upon which a nation or world-order thrives or dies. The seeker provides a society with the vitality essential for continued existence. The The Hero With a Thousand Faces showed the similarities among the mythological traditions. Campbell followed this with a series of writings on the great differences among the world myths. The four-volume Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (1959), Oriental Mythology (1962), Occidental Mythology (1964), and Creative Mythology (1968) analyzed the distinctions among the mythologies of various regions and cultures.

Campbell introduced one of his principal theoretical constructs in the Masks of God series. It was in Occidental Mythology (1964), that Campbell outlined the four functions of myth:

  • First is the metaphysical function. Myth awakens and supports a sense of awe before the mystery of being. It reconciles consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence. Myth induces a realization that behind the surface phenomenology of the world, there is a transcendent mystery source. Through this vitalizing mystical function, the universe becomes a holy picture.

  • The second is a cosmological dimension deals with the image of the world that is the focus of science. This function shows the shape of the universe, but in such a way that the mystery still comes through. The cosmology should correspond to the actual experience, knowledge, and mentality of the culture. This interpretive function changes radically over time. It presents a map or picture of the order of the cosmos and our relationship to it.

  • Third is the sociological function. Myth supports and validates the specific moral order of the society out of which it arose. Particular life-customs of this social dimension, such as ethical laws and social roles, evolve dramatically. This function, and the rites by which it is rendered, establishes in members of the group concerned a system of sentiments that can be depended upon to link that person spontaneously to its ends.

  • The fourth function of myth is psychological. The myths show how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. It is this pedagogical function of mythology that carries the individual through the various stages and crises of life, from childhood dependency, to the responsibilities of maturity, to the reflection of old age, and finally, to death. It helps people grasp the unfolding of life with integrity. It initiates individuals into the order of realities in their own psyches, guiding them toward enrichment and realization.

The psychological function was the principal focus of Campbell's scholarship. He credited his women students at Sarah Lawrence College, with making his work accessible. He noted their insistence on hearing how the material from mythological traditions was relevant to their lives. Partly in response to their perseverance, Campbell put great emphasis on how the wisdom literature reflected psychological dynamics. The use of myth as a guide to the inner life simultaneously gained Campbell a large following and substantial criticism. Some colleagues believed that the original purposes of the mythic texts were primarily sociological.

Campbell was the editor of many books, beginning with The Portable Arabian Nights (1952). He was general editor of the series Man and Myth (1953-1954), which included major works by Maya Deren (Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti, 1953), Carl Kerenyi (The Gods of the Greeks, 1954), and Alan Watts (Myth and Ritual in Christianity, 1954). He was the editor of The Portable Jung (1972) which included a lengthy introduction on Jung's thought.

Campbell's involvement in the Eranos Conferences (founded by Carl Jung) led to editing six volumes of papers from the meetings: Spirit and Nature (1954), The Mysteries (1955), Man and Time (1957), Spiritual Disciplines (1960), Man and Transformation (1964), and The Mystic Vision (1969).

Campbell retired from Sarah Lawrence College in 1972, to focus on writing. His interest went beyond the texts to other dimensions of the mythic imagination. He argued that timeless wisdom can be approached from three directions. The mythic story would be a clear form of access to the mysteries beyond conscious knowing. The next primary avenue would be through ritual. Ceremonial practices often accompany major myths and allow participants to enter into a personal experience of the story through dramatic re-enactment of part of the text. The third means of entry would be the image. This could be a sacred image such as a statue or painting of a religious exemplar. It could be an image from a dream or the imagination. For example, pondering mythic stories brings images to mind. The image represents much beyond itself. This larger content can be reached through consideration of the metaphor implied by the image. Campbell wrote a richly illustrated book, The Mythic Image (1974) to explain this point.

Campbell was discovered by a new generation when George Lucas based much of his screenplay for Star Wars (1977) on what he had summarized from The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The most successful film series in history was retelling the initiatory adventures that Campbell had so vividly described. Lucas acknowledged using Campbell's work and considered him a mentor.

In his eighties, Campbell launched a multi-volume Historical Atlas of World Mythology that set out to investigate the major mythological periods. He proposed a stage model of cultural development. The earliest era is indicated by shamanistic hunter-gatherers. This is the beginning of symbolic thinking. Next come the planters' rituals of birth, death, and rebirth. The third stage involves high civilizations of Goddesses, heroes, and priestly orders. Finally, a stage that leads into the current era, in which the individuals are able to comprehend illumination directly as an internal state. All regions of the planet to not go through these stages simultaneously. In contemporary time, cultures can be found that exhibit the perspectives of each of the four stages.

Campbell's lasting eminence owes much to his gifts as a public speaker. He was able to convey the essence of ancient teachings through vivid storytelling and commentary. A series of public lectures at the Cooper Union in New York City became the very accessible book, Myths to Live By (1972). He presented annual seminars for seventeen years at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute. For decades, he gave annual workshops at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. He also spoke frequently for C.G. Jung Institutes, University of California Extension in Berkeley, and the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara.

His prizes and awards included several honorary doctorates. The Hero with a Thousand Faces won the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Contributions to Creative Literature. In 1985, he received the National Arts Club medal for honor for literature for his work on the Historical Atlas of World Mythology. At the ceremony, Psychologist James Hillman said, “No one in our century - not Freud, not Thomas Mann, not Levi-Strauss - has so brought the mythical sense of the world and its eternal figures back into our everyday consciousness.” In 1987, Campbell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The most memorable contribution of Campbell's career was made by way of television. It was the six-part series Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. Most of the interviews were conducted at Skywalker Ranch, the film studio built by George Lucas in California's Marin County. The interviews for the last episode were done at the American Museum of Natural History. This was where Campbell had pondered Native American artifacts as a boy. Public television stations broadcast the series for the first time in late 1987. It has been rebroadcast many time since then. This book based on the transcripts of the interviews became a best-seller in America. The Power of Myth radically increased public awareness of the wisdom to be found in mythology. In 1987 Joseph Campbell died at his Honolulu home from cancer of the esophagus. In his last days, he was once again reading the Bhagavad Gita. An obituary in Newsweek summarized his accomplishments, “Campbell has become one of the rarest of intellectuals in American life: a serious thinker who has been embraced by the popular culture.”

As it was for so many others, my own first encounter with Joseph Campbell was a life-altering event. His view of the great wisdom traditions vastly expanded my awareness of the richness of living. It was a great honor to assist Campbell at seminars in the last few years of his life. When I was later selected to be the founding curator of his archives, I felt the sense of calling that he had so vividly described. The years I spent on that project involved gathering books and papers from his homes in New York City and Honolulu. Those materials are now archived on the campus of the Pacifica Graduate Institute, just outside of Santa Barbara, California. I can only say that working with Joseph Campbell and establishing his library has been an experience of true wonder.

Several books have been published posthumously, based on papers and recorded lectures. An Open Life is a book of interviews originally given on a radio series. A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflection on the Art of Living is based on tapes of a seminar given at the Eselan Institute in Big Sur, California. Thou Art That is a collection of studies of the meanings of key metaphors in the Judeo-Christian traditions.

Campbell still stimulates debates in myth and folklore scholarship about whether it is appropriate to use mythology to illustrate psychological principles. Meanwhile, an ever-expanding audience is seeing and studying the Moyers interviews. The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell is set to include several additional new books based on lectures and papers. It is clear that Joseph Campbell's vision of the mythic imagination will have a lasting influence.

-Adapted from two articles by Jonathan Young. The first is the entry on Joseph Campbell in The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophy. The other is the introduction to an international edition of The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell. If quoting, please reference www.folkstory.com.

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