Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.-- 2 Corinthians 3:6.
Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history, mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives becomes dissolved.-- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 249.In this 2009 essay I took issue with an essay by comics-writer Steven Grant on his Comic Book Resources forum. In this essay Grant oversimplified the themes of Joseph Campbell while taking some incoherent shots at George Lucas for good measure. Grant said, in part:
Obviously, almost no one using the "Campbell structure" had ever actually read Campbell, or they would have gleaned his important but widely overlooked caution that it only has meaning as unconscious structure – and conscious application voids it of meaning and resonance. But that's the result of most formal structures. If that's what you focus on, you end up with material whose only meaning if what it draws via reference. It's ultimately dead-end nostalgia, replicating form without content or context.As I noted in my essay, I queried Grant on his then-current message board, asking if he cared to name the Campbell work in which the author made the "unconscious structure" statement, given that he Grant was so disdainful of those who quoted Campbell without reading the work. He claimed very loosely that his remark on "unconscious structure" *might* have appeared in MYTHS TO LIVE BY, but that he Grant wasn't about to go looking for the source of his own interpretation.
With no great surprise, I didn't find anything resembling the "unconscious structure" quote in that book, but I allowed in my essay that Grant might have remembered something Campbell said elsewhere, and that even though Campbell might have said something of the sort:
The way Grant phrased the "caution," it's not in agreement with other themes in Campbell's work, but it's a given that from Aristotle to Wittgenstein there's never been any philosopher who has been able to keep his observations free from inconsistency. Given this inescapeable condition, one has to evaluate any philosopher -- even a "popular philosopher" like Joseph Campbell-- according to his dominant themes.Now, the aforementioned analyst Robert A. Segal also shared Grant's belief that Campbell had a penchant for preferring the unconscious, archetypal structure of myth over its specific manifestations. Segal quoted the above passage from Campbell's HERO in support of this view, and, after having read the chapter in which the passage appears, as well as selected passages of HERO, I would agree that this focus on "unconscious structure" is indeed *one* of Campbell's dominant themes, though not the only one, and certainly not one that supports Steven Grant's take on the topic, which I still consider as much hogwash as I did in 2009.
Further, my current readings also support my earlier notion that Campbell may have been guilty of inconsistency in his interpretations of myth, as Segal also argues.
In the chapter entitled "The Keys," from which the "unconscious structure" passage hails, Campbell gives assorted examples of cultural situations in which, as the author of Corinthians asserts, "the letter killeth." By far the longest example deals with the symbolism associated with the Catholic ritual of the Paschal candle, which Campbell believes to have been overlaid with "secondary anecdote and rationalization"-- specifically, the notion that the ritual "washes away original sin." Campbell insists that the primary meaning has more to do with the union of sexual opposites; that "the female water spiritually fructified with the male fire of the Holy Ghost" provides "a variant of the sacred marriage, which is the source-moment that generates and regenerates the world and man."
Yet at the conclusion of the chapter Campbell claims that "mythological symbols ... have to followed through all their implications" seems to be contradicting this edict by saying that one must consider one implications "primary" and the other "secondary." And of couse Campbell cannot be certain that the Paschal ritual started as a development from "sacred marriage" rites. The concept of "washing away sin" is a motif of considerable venerabillity in Judaic and Chrisitan mythologies, so it's not clear as to why it *must* be secondary.
In addition, though the Campbell of 1949 (when HERO was published) cannot be precisely held to account for what the Campbell of 1964 said (in his MYTHS OF GOD series), the Campbellian "four functions" theory which evolved within that book-series deserves to be seen as a heuristic tool by which Campbell did in fact continue tracing the assorted "implications" of "mythological symbols" in all their variety. And by that system, there's no reason for preferring what might be termed the "cosmological" implications of the "sacred marriage" rite-- in which qualities suggestive of physical femaleness and maleness are displaced into elemental states-- over the "metaphysical" implications of a "sin-purging" ceremony.
Both interpretations are, according to my current terminology, secondary symbolic elaborations in which the "ions and molecules" of concrete associations assemble themselves around the "axial system" of an originary but essentially formal archetypal experience. Could one not imagine that over the centuries humans have been ceaselessly fascinated with the fierce opposition indicated by the mixing of real-world fire and water-- perhaps sublimely fascinated?-- and that in some sense these real-world elements have become a part of the language of archetypal cosmos; a *coincidentia oppositorum* from which any number of specific symbolic elaborations can stem.
A fuller examination of Campbell's intellectual development might reveal whether or not he, working through his theories, ever managed (as Segal claims that he did not) to balance the demands of the abstract/archetypal and the concrete/symbolic. I will agree with Segal that at times Campbell was overly condemnatory of rituals that he personally felt to be mere "nostalgia." However, inconsistencies or not, Campbell was certainly never blandly facile in his condemnations-- a trait still appearing in many many current essayists, and often in far more intellectually embarassing manifestations than that of Steven Grant.