The Return of Joseph Campbell

It would take books to describe the influence Joseph Campbell’s work had on my life, a view I share with many. The lover and teacher of mythology brought his field of study into national consciousness with his 1988 television series and companion book, The Power of Myth, alongside journalist Bill Moyers. His ascension into mainstream culture was bittersweet: Campbell passed away mere months before this series was released. Years later Campbell’s wife, the dancer Jean Erdman, commented that was not necessarily a bad thing, since Joe would not have enjoyed any sort of fame for what he considered his duty.

It’s not like the man was not highly regarded during life. His book The Hero With A Thousand Faces literally made comparative mythology an academic discipline, and his four-volume Masks of God set is the most rigorous exploration of world mythologies this side of The Golden Bough. (Sir James George Frazer’s opus originally spanned twelve volumes; most people, myself included, are more familiar with his 1,000-page “condensed” version.) Anytime something new from the Campbell Foundation emerges, I’m on it in an instant. The 2007/2008 Mythos DVDs are as rich as the Moyers’ series, and the recently released three-volume lecture series, The Collected Lectures of Joseph Campbell, has just been downloaded into my iTunes.

While listening to the first I purchased, “The Individual in Oriental Mythology,” Campbell’s poignant take on Eastern philosophies immediately caught my attention. In the third “song,” “Are You Your Body,” Campbell discusses a commonality in the world of Dante and the Greek thinkers: “you are born once, you live once, you are that.” He highlights this by mentioning that in the Inferno, Dante recognizes each person from his life; in the afterworld, they are exactly the same as in life. This is a common theme in Western thought, where “you” are judged at the end of your individual existence, believing the person to be kept intact into the next world, heaven, hell, or otherwise.

In Eastern thought, Campbell refers to the “reincarnating monad,” borrowing Leibniz’s famed term. This is the idea that there is something reincarnated, though it is not “you.” Karma, for one, does not work on an individual basis; in many ways it supersedes the ego. The bodies that we “wear” or “borrow” are opportunities to live out the reincarnated energy that has been proceeding through time. If you were to walk through the hell worlds of the East, you would not recognize faces; you would, however, have an intuitive feeling about what you are experiencing. It would come from an internal recognition, not something to be witnessed with the eyes.

These sorts of “eternal returns,” this phrase borrowed from Mircea Eliade, are in fact more “natural” than the continued perseverance of the individual. A plant’s seed does not produce an exact copy of the plant from which it fell, even if the likenesses are great. So it is with humans: our genetics ensure certain characteristics to be shared with our ancestors, but you would never say you are your mother or father. A culture that prays for an “eternal afterlife” may wish that to be so, but nothing in nature supports this idea. And if we want to learn about ourselves, it is best to look into nature, rather than try to conjure scenarios that have never before taken place and treat them as reality.

When I began studying religion and mythology at Rutgers in 1993, I was taken aback by all the talk of death — perhaps this was why I entirely avoided the subject for my first eighteen years. It didn’t take me long to realize that to contemplate death is really to consider life. Only the Occidental thinkers (and not the best ones, at that) treat death as opposing life. In the Orient, it is part of life. What a beautiful perspective from which to live from! Think of all the ways in which your philosophy would change if you understood all aspects of life as embraced by it, not opposing it. It is a much more humanized mode of existence: not humans coming down from outer space and invading the planet, but humans as being part of the process that spawned life as we know it. When you give up the individual, you gain the world.

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