Joseph Campbell Rounds Up Things


My assistant, Ivan, finds the book adventurous, stimulating. He reads it as if it were a thriller of sorts and denies it has any scientific depth, though it was initially published by Princeton University, hence as a book that could be considered academic in its field, hence in a way scientific. He is right though on the entertaining side of things, but he is misled on the scientific side of things, at least in 1945–1949 when it was written and first published. As an academic book in 1949, it was nearly a revolution. He brought together mythologies, myths, stories, folklore, even fairy tales coming from the past, any past, from all over the world and he considered all that stuff as equal to Greek mythology and literature, to Christian or Jewish myths and fables, including the Bible, the Quran and even sacred books from the southern sub-continent of India, though here he mostly refer to Hinduism and when he speaks of Buddhism it’s certainly not the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and South East Asia in Pali. It is, in fact, the Tibetan branch of Buddhism. His reference to Chinese and Japanese mythologies is rather reduced to a bare minimum. He refers to Native Americans but from the North or even rather the southwest of the USA. He does not include South American and Mesoamerican Indians, or hardly. True enough in 1949 these neglected mythologies were far from being known and the Mayas were to start being really known only when their writing was finally deciphered, that is to say, accepted to be phonetic and based on a syllabary. That will become the standard approach not before the mid-1970s, after the death of the absolute master of Maya deciphering, Sir John Eric Sydney Thompson, who considered the glyphs were nothing but decoration and symbolic signs, thus refusing any decipherment based on any phonetic approach.

I am not going to discuss the whole book, only some essential passages. I will not repeat that this book has become obsolete today because of the phenomenal research done in such fields over the last thirty or forty years. It is a fact and we cannot reproach a 1949 book with not knowing what was not known then, though to have it republished in 2008 sounds rather provocative.

The first element is the very heavy and constant reference to dreams and the principle that dreams and myths work the same way. To prove it — in fact, this does not prove anything — he uses Freud’s method to analyze dreams and applies it to myths from the religious side of things to simple fairy tales. By doing this he crushes history from a 3-D reality to a flat 2-D rendering. It loses all anthropological and historical value. By using Freud’s method, he very quickly runs into a difficulty that he does not identify and then he shifts to an even heavier reference to Jung and his archetypical approach of dreams. That works better with myths, but that imposes onto all myths from all periods and from all places a set of symbolical values that are of course in no way a scientific approach. Joseph Campbell was a professor of literature, for sure and he was born in 1897. He had no reason then to ignore the work of Kenneth Burke, his contemporary,who had been active as a music and literary critic and then a university lecturer since the early 1930s. In fact, Kenneth Burke implemented the proper Freudian method, certainly not Jung’s. For Freud as much as for Burke, no “symbolical” element has any a priori value, hence any archetypical value, but it only has the value it takes in the very context of the particular dream where it appears. The first thing to do then is to build up the clusters of “symbolical” elements and their value separately and collectively will come from the architecture of that cluster. It is clear that — he hints a couple of time at it — the sun is feminine in German, masculine in many languages. It is obvious that Venus is masculine in Maya and feminine in many other languages and cultures. The moon is masculine in German whereas it is feminine in many other languages. One can assert as much as one wants that the sun is a male symbol and the moon a female symbol, that the sun is a father symbol and the moon a mother symbol, that goes against the grain of many languages that have genders. It is even more complex with languages that do not have genders but only classes.

In a dream, in a certain configuration and architecture the feminine sun in German may have a male symbolical value, but not from the word itself, but from the context, the cluster of elements to which is it associated. And then there is a contradiction between the contextual symbolical value and the gender of the word. What can we do with it? What does the dreamer do with it?

That reveals an enormous shortcoming in this approach. Never does he speak of language, of the emergence of language, of conceptualization and the conceptualizing power of the human mind and human language. He would have been well inspired to look at the languages of the myths and other stories more closely and especially to wonder where these myths come from. There is a difference between a fairy tale or a folkloric story, and a religious myth of a dead civilization. We can consider some of the folkloric stories or fairy tales are maybe not that old, and that once writing appeared they were codified and transformed. But that could not be in Black Africa since Black Africa till very recently was an entirely oral continent. The Malian Charter Kurukan Fuga that was instated at the beginning of the 13th century when the Mali Empire was conquered by Islam did not have till recently a written version (not even in Arabic) and it was reconstituted from memory by the famous “griots” in 1998, what’s more in French (Check it at Homo Sapiens started developing his human articulated language something like 300,000 years ago and that was done in order to speak of course since the various writing system we know appeared in full realization for most of them something like 3–4,000 BCE. But it must have taken quite a few thousand years for these writing systems to be devised, as well as the tools to inscribe it in stone, on clay, on “paper” (provided paper existed), etc. That does not go beyond 7–6,000 BCE. We could say that it started developing after the peak of the Ice Age (19,000 BCE). This might be right though there seemed to be some “antecedents” in the fact that all over the world 2D representational painting appeared around 40,000 BCE. And it is even more complex when we consider the more or less 50 geometric signs that are present in all the caves along with paintings, the same signs for most of them all over the world.

I am absolutely sure Homo Sapiens started building technology, science, religion, hence mythology and knowledge as soon as his language reached the second articulation. The first articulation does not go beyond thousands of words, but the second articulation categorizes these words as static or dynamic, as spatial or temporal, as “nominal” or “verbal.” Then syntax can become hierarchical, hence 3D and not only the simple 2D lining up of undifferentiated lexical items. This would have led Campbell to real anthropology. In spite of that, he uses the method of comparative literature which mostly tries to find common points from one culture to the other, but he forgets the basic principle of de Saussure: “meaning is in differences not in similitudes.” The result is a perfectly haphazard yet personally re-arranged and re-oriented potpourri of hundreds of stories from a great number of civilizations, some dead, some still alive, only considered in their lexical content translated into English. When the foreign languages are actually quoted it is for one word or at best a nominal or verbal clause, rarely a sentence and with no indication of how this foreign language works, thus translating any language (VOS, OVS, SVO, SOV languages) into English which is an SVO active (the subject is an unmarked item and the object is marked) language (quite a few languages are ergative, the object is the unmarked item whereas the subject if marked).

Those are the main shortcomings of this book. It is brilliant like a sky full of stars in which you can recognize some constellations, though the stars that are brought together in any constellation may be millions of years away from one another (constellations are mostly a visual phenomenon and these constellations are in the eye of the beholder more than anything).

It is important to clearly say that reducing psychoanalysis to Freud (a little), and Jung (a lot) without quoting the third character of the triad, Wilhelm Reich, is suspicious. But to create a triad with Roheim as the third chap is even more suspicious. Roheim is in perfect phase with Jung in many elements except one. Instead of looking at trans-individual, hence collective archetypical symbols, he insists on the ontogenetic nature of symbols, and it is this approach that will lead to what some today say, that dreams and myths and all symbolical activities represent a projected image of the inner architecture of one individual’s nervous or cortical system. That is only possible because language is not taken into account and language is not possible if the pattern-discriminating power of the cortex does not associate some brain-identity to each one, and the human articulating and phonatory apparatus is going to produce vocal items to identify vocally the same patterns and thus be able to communicate with other individuals. Ontogeny is not phylogeny because it is entirely contained in the organism itself, whereas phylogeny is taking into account the context of what is considered, and it is never locked up in one individual. The phylogeny of language is not locked up in one language but considers the ability to create, develop, learn a language as the material form the linguistic ability of a human group and its individuals in agreement with the needs and the general functional life of both.

So here I come to a simple conclusion: it is not because this looks like this or that that we can say the two (this and that) are related. To assert the relation between A and B we have to, sure enough, have some resemblance, but this resemblance has to be proved as true by the identification of the route the older element took to become the younger element, even if it is only a borrowing procedure. That’s the main method used by the Indo-Europeans in their move from the Middle East to Europe: they were a minority (25% at best proved by European DNA) and yet practically nothing of the Turkic languages of the original Homo Sapiens population of Europe has survived (except place and river names) because the Indo-Europeans brought a new culture, agriculture, new religions probably, and of course new languages. Adopting these elements led to adopting Indo-European languages.

Another shortcoming is the fact that he hardly sees the symbolical value of numbers. Counting is not natural, it is human, and this counting has a history and most of the myths and most of the heroes are dealing with elements that come in three, four, five, six, seven or eight, at times nine or twelve. These numbers are based on the human body, but the symbolical value has to be found in each particular culture, language, civilization. He, in fact, overestimates, even overemphasizes the dual side of his stories (and yet he does not explore the innumerable twins and pairs of brothers in all sorts of myths all over the world: what makes such twins or pairs of brothers special?) but hardly speaks of the triads and other ternary groups. The most ignored triad is the triple goddess. He never uses the term. In fact, page 302–303 he reduces “the universal goddess” to “the mother of life” and “the mother of death.” And yet page 307 he speaks of “the three stages of procreation” and in his chapter II he has three sub-section entitled “Mother Universe,” “Mother of Destiny,” and “Womb of Redemption,” which leads him to give a fourth subsection “Folk Stories of Virgin Motherhood.” But the ternary nature of pre-monotheist gods is never seen, except accidentally and on the side. But of course, he does not even think of the spiritual power, role, and function of women in Homo Sapiens emergence. His story is altogether male-centered, hero-centered, and symbolically Christian-centered. At the very end of his exploration (p. 377–378), he has to finish up with Jesus and the rejection of “false Christs.” Is that the conclusion needed to pacify his readers? Probably.

The epilogue and conclusion are typical of 1949 Within the triumphant Transatlantic alliance dominated by the USA and in spite of the omnipresence of religion in the USA, Joseph Campbell rejects religion out of any political, economic, social or cultural approach of modern life. He assumes Nietzsche’s prediction about the death of all gods, but of course he could not know what was going to happen with decolonization and the emergence of fundamentalist religions, be they Christian and the absolute fixation, on anti-abortion and even anticontraceptive actions; or be they Islamic; or be they from any other religion even basically pacific Buddhism. And he sure did not see the present problem of climate change or instability.

“The notion of a cosmic law, which all existence serves and to which man himself must bend, has long since passed through the preliminary mystical stages represented in the old astrology, and is now simply accepted in mechanical terms as a matter of course.” (page 390–391)

And I will not quote any further because then it sounds like optimistic West-centered ranting and raving. This book is all in all a patchwork of thousands of small pieces and small stories, at times exploded in various parts with an artificial, I mean Joseph-Campbell-made, composition that all in all present the secular vision of the world of US academic intellectuals in 1949 as being the acme prediction of the future that has cruelly found its negation in our real present, in Joseph Campbell’s future. All in all ther monomyth he advocates is only a reductive vision that enables us to see and have the same thing everywhere but it is at best a skeleton and it always neglects all details, variations and differences that make each myth original in meaning. Jung and Roheim are unluckily simplifications of the extremely lively cultures and mythologies of Homo Sapiens or the human species.