Joseph Campbell On the Lack of Modern Mythologies

In a 1978 interview with Michael Toms, Joseph Campbell argued that one of the reasons our world is pulling back into a state of separation and fragmentation is that we don’t have a mythology for the modern world. In the wake of the global political chaos of the past year, from Brexit to Trump, his views seem to offer, at the very least, a compelling anthropological explanation.

Myths come from a different place than intellectual thinking. They arise from “that source of life within, which compensates for the limitations of the intellectual life”. Their symbols are universal: they appear in all societies and show up unbidden in our dreams. Mythological symbols point at our common humanity — or at the very least at our common nervous system — and are the constant in our psyche that makes possible framing change.

How is this relevant in a collective sense?

One of the main functions of myth is the integration of a social system. Myths support the social order and work on the integration of the individual with his group. But our social order has changed, and all our existing mythologies were born into horizons which don’t exist anymore. The modern world has no horizons or confines; everything is open. National borders are less strict than they once were and, thanks to the Internet, feel like they are dissolving. We hardly know how to identify what our social system is or even what social group we are part of.

The challenge of the modern era is that our social group can only be all of mankind, but our existing mythologies only offer in-group vs. out-group dynamics.

If it’s true that we can’t help but think in terms of myths and narratives to make sense of the world, it might be wise to try and recognise that the ones at our disposal are outdated and will only pull us back. We need to start looking for new ones.

In the Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell writes:

“The symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are the spontaneous productions of the Psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.”

Later, to Michael Toms, he adds:

“You can’t predict what your next mythology is going to be any more than you can predict tonight’s dream. It doesn’t come from the place that intellectual thinking comes from.”

You can’t manufacture a new mythology. You might, however, be able to discover it.

That is the role of art. Where philosophy and political debate appeal to intellectual thinking, art and myths appeal to instincts. They connect with those primal processes in the mind that cannot be engaged with through reasoning.

Although craft is essential to art, craft itself is not art. Where pure entertainment tries to manufacture something to please or shock the audience, art in itself is also a process of discovery for the artist himself; it means engaging with one’s own humanity, exploring what one feels, what is right and what is easy. This might be why we react negatively to propaganda masked as art, even when it’s expertly crafted (Ayn Rand comes to mind). In those cases, the author has already reached a conclusion and it’s trying to convince us of it. It’s non-fiction in fiction form and is aiming at our emotions. Even when we agree with it, we feel manipulated.

A world without relevant mythologies

Following on from what German philosopher Günther Anders was already pointing out in the 50s, Italian philosopher Umberto Galimberti argues that, as modern individuals living in a world run by technology, we can’t help but being outdated. Our brains didn’t have the time to evolve as quickly as technology did and we don’t have a map to make sense of the world.

As a consequence, we’re less involved, less emoting, and out of sync with reality. All concepts of self, identity, liberty, truth, meaning, nature, ethics, politics, history, which were food for the pre-technological age — and are, arguably, what makes us human — are not particularly valued.

We need to find a way to reconnect with a sense of awe that works for the modern age, to grasp for insights on what it means to be humans in modern times, within a universe that breathes and expands.

“You don’t find those psychological grounds in the culture,” said Campbell. “The mythology is left to the individuals to find and we need it, everybody needs it, and each is on his own quest right now.” “I don’t even know whether a culture can survive without a mythology. This is a moment of questions and mysteries.”

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