Read this powerful dialogue on the relevance of mythology in the modern world. This is an excerpt from “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell, a famous American writer who traveled around the world and wrote books comparing the different mythologies which connect us all.
MYTH AND THE MODERN WORLD
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. 1 don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.
MOYERS: Why myths? Why should we care about myths? What do they have to do with my life?
CAMPBELL: My first response would be, “Go on, live your life, it’s a good life — you don’t need mythology.” I don’t believe in being interested in a subject just because it’s said to be important. I believe in being caught by it somehow or other. But you may find that, with a proper introduction, mythology will catch you. And so, what can it do for you if it does catch you?
One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We’re interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour. It used to be that the university campus was a kind of hermetically sealed-off area where the news of the day did not impinge upon your attention to the inner life and to the magnificent human heritage we have in our great tradition — Plato, Confucius, the Buddha, Goethe, and others who speak of the eternal values that have to do with the centering of our lives. When you get to be older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and you turn to the inner life — well, if you don’t know where it is or what it is, you’ll be sorry.
Greek and Latin and biblical literature used to be part of everyone’s education. Now, when these were dropped, a whole tradition of Occidental mythological information was lost. It used to be that these stories were in the minds of people. When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what’s happening to you. With the loss of that, we’ve really lost something because we don’t have a comparable literature to take its place. These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don’t know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself. But once this subject catches you, there is such a feeling, from one or another of these traditions, of information of a deep, rich, life-vivifying sort that you don’t want to give it up.
MOYERS: So we tell stories to try to come to terms with the world, to harmonize our lives with reality?
CAMPBELL: I think so, yes. Novels — great novels — can be wonderfully instructive. In my twenties and thirties and even on into my forties, James Joyce and Thomas Mann were my teachers. I read everything they wrote. Both were writing in terms of what might be called the mythological traditions. Take, for example, the story of Tonio, in Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger. Tonio’s father was a substantial businessman, a major citizen in his hometown. Little Tonio, however, had an artistic temperament, so he moved to Munich and joined a group of literary people who felt themselves above the mere money earners and family men.
So here is Tonio between two poles: his father, who was a good father, responsible and all of that, but who never did the thing he wanted to in all his life — and, on the other hand, the one who leaves his hometown and becomes a critic of that kind of life. But Tonio found that he really loved these hometown people. And although he thought himself a little superior in an intellectual way to them and could describe them with cutting words, his heart was nevertheless with them.
But when he left to live with the bohemians, he found that they were so disdainful of life that he couldn’t stay with them, either. So he left them, and wrote a letter back to someone in the group, saying, “I admire those cold, proud beings who adventure upon the paths of great and daemonic beauty and despise ‘mankind’; but I do not envy them. For if anything is capable of making a poet of a literary man, it is my hometown love of the human, the living and ordinary. All warmth derives from this love, all kindness and all humor. Indeed, to me it even seems that this must be that love of which it is written that one may ‘speak with the tongues of men and of angels,’ and yet, lacking love, be ‘as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.’ ”
And then he says, “The writer must be true to truth.” And that’s a killer, because the only way you can describe a human being truly is by describing his imperfections. The perfect human being is uninteresting — the Buddha who leaves the world, you know. It is the imperfections of life that are lovable. And when the writer sends a dart of the true word, it hurts. But it goes with love. This is what Mann called “erotic irony,” the love for that which you are killing with your cruel, analytical word.
MOYERS: I cherish that image: my hometown love, the feeling you get for that place, no matter how long you’ve been away or even if you never return. That was where you first discovered people. But why do you say you love people for their imperfections? .
CAMPBELL: Aren’t children lovable because they’re falling down all the time and have little bodies with the heads too big? Didn’t Walt Disney know all about this when he did the seven dwarfs? And these funny little dogs that people have — they’re lovable because they’re so imperfect.
MOYERS: Perfection would be a bore, wouldn’t it?
CAMPBELL: It would have to be. It would be inhuman. The umbilical point, the humanity, the thing that makes you human and not supernatural and immortal — that’s what’s lovable. That is why some people have a very hard time loving God, because there’s no imperfection there. You can be in awe, but that would not be real love. It’s Christ on the cross that becomes lovable.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
CAMPBELL: Suffering. Suffering is imperfection, is it not?
MOYERS: The story of human suffering, striving, living —
CAMPBELL: — and youth coming to knowledge of itself, what it has to go through.
MOYERS: I came to understand from reading your books — The Masks of God or The Hero with a Thousand Faces, for example — that what human beings have in common is revealed in myths. Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. We all need to tell our story and to understand our story. We all need to understand death and to cope with death, and we all need help in our passages from birth to life and then to death. We need for life to signify, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are.
CAMPBELL: People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves.
MOYERS: Myths are clues?
CAMPBELL: Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.
MOYERS: What we’re capable of knowing and experiencing within?
MOYERS: You changed the definition of a myth from the search for meaning to the experience of meaning.
CAMPBELL: Experience of life. The mind has to do with meaning. What’s the meaning of a flower? There’s a Zen story about a sermon of the Buddha in which he simply lifted a flower. There was only one man who gave him a sign with his eyes that he understood what was said. Now, the Buddha himself is called “the one thus come.” There’s no meaning. What’s the meaning of the universe? What’s the meaning of a flea? It’s just there. That’s it. And your own meaning is that you’re there. We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about.
MOYERS: How do you get that experience?
CAMPBELL: Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts — but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. It tells you what the experience is. Marriage, for example. What is marriage? The myth tells you what it is. It’s the reunion of the separated duad. Originally you were one. You are now two in the world, but the recognition of the spiritual identity is what marriage is. It’s different from a love affair. It has nothing to do with that. It’s another mythological plane of experience. When people get married because they think it’s a long-time love affair, they’ll be divorced very soon, because all love affairs end in disappointment. But marriage is recognition of a spiritual identity. If we live a proper life, if our minds are on the right qualities in regarding the person of the opposite sex, we will find our proper male or female counterpart. But if we are distracted by certain sensuous interests, we’ll marry the wrong person. By marrying the right person, we reconstruct the image of the incarnate God, and that’s what marriage is.
MOYERS: You’re saying that marriage is not just a social arrangement, it’s a spiritual exercise.
CAMPBELL: It’s primarily a spiritual exercise, and the society is supposed to help us have the realization. Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute.
MOYERS: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology?
CAMPBELL: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times.
MOYERS: And you’d find?
CAMPBELL: The news of the day, including destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society.
MOYERS: Society has provided them no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, of the community. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind. I think of that passage in the first book of Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
CAMPBELL: That’s exactly it. That’s the significance of the puberty rites. In primal societies, there are teeth knocked out, there are scarifications, there are circumcisions, there are all kinds of things done. So you don’t have your little baby body anymore, you’re something else entirely.
When I was a kid, we wore short trousers, you know, knee pants. And then there was a great moment when you put on long pants. Boys now don’t get that. I see even five-year-olds walking around with long trousers. When are they going to know that they’re now men and must put aside childish things?
MOYERS: Where do the kids growing up in the city — on 125th and Broadway, for example — where do these kids get their myths today?
CAMPBELL: They make them up themselves. This is why we have graffiti all over the city. These kids have their own gangs and their own initiations and their own morality, and they’re doing the best they can. But they’re dangerous because their own laws are not those of the city. They have not been initiated into our society.
What struck you in this dialogue?
What new insights did you learn about mythology?
Why is mythology still relevant to the modern world?