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Tuesday, March 24, 2009


"The artists eye, as Thomas Mann has said, has a mythical slant upon life; therefore, the mythological realm-the world of the gods and demons, the carnival of their masks and the curious game of "as if" in which the festival of the lived myth abrogates all the laws of time, letting the dead swim back to life, and the "once upon a time" become the very present-we must approach and first regard with the artist's eye."-- Joseph Campbell, PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY, p. 21.

The above sentence is the first line, and possibly even the "theme statement," of this early Campbell work. Obviously, by privileging the "artist's eye," Campbell is parting company with countless anthropologists and mythographers who privileged the viewpoint of the scientist. Campbell finds this viewpoint useful only in a secondary sense, for "the gods and demons are not conceived in the way of hard and fast, positive realities" (p. 21) and so he declares that we can only understand myth through art: "mythology was historically the mother of the arts and yet, like so many mythological mothers, the daughter, equally, of her own birth" (p. 42). A full re-reading of Campbell might show him at times too quick to promote this myth-art equivalence, without exploring the differences between these complementary yet divergent forms. Perhaps that's one reason why academic literary criticism has shown scant interest in Campbell's insights, often preferring to promote a reductive psuedo-science of the sort that takes seriously chimerae like "commodity fetishes."

As I've commented here I find that Campbell's four functions of myth could be advantageously applied to all forms of literary as a means of understanding its ontological and phenomenological functions. But Campbell's myth-art equivalence deserves comment in its own right, though I'll confine my comments to PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY as it's the only book I've recently reread.

Much of PM is devoted to Campbell's Kant-like endeavor to discern what aspects of myth are (to borrow the terms of his predecessor Adolf Bastian) "elementary" (and therefore universal to human culture) and what aspects are "ethnic" (particular to the way a given culture expresses its myths; the local coloring, as it were). Campbell admits that the question probably does not admit of a definitive answer, but suggests that though mythology cannot be rationally understood, it may be "viewed in the light of biological psychology as a function of the human nervous system, precisely homologous to the innate and learned sign stimuli that release and direct the energies of nature." Campbell, building largely on the ethological researches of Lorenz and Tinbergen, calls this psychobiological system "the supernormal sign stimulus," and implies that it is through such stimuli that both myth and art work their wiles on audiences.

As one can see in this, my first blogpost here, I'm certainly not hostile to the notion that some signs are "more equal" than others:

'At this point I won’t go into talking about what Frye calls “signs,” which is a term he loosely derived from early writings on semiology. The essential thought here is that there is a hierarchy between simple and complex manifestations of the units of communication—whatever one chooses to call them—that make up a narrative. Frye doesn’t go into great depth in terms of using “complex variables” as a means of evaluating how well a narrative communicates, but it’s a centerpiece of my theory. Often, in the critique of popular artforms, I have seen any number of complex symbolic formations show up in narratives that are, on the surface, apparently simple, as are most of the myth-stories in the handed-down forms that we have them. This appearance of the complex within the apparently-simple convinces me that even these variables that we call “archetypes” have a propensity to generate themselves, at times without the conscious intent of the author.'

For the purpose of this argument I'll assume that though Campbell's "supernormal sign stimuli" don't share the same philosophical etiology as Frye's "complex variables," the two writers are essentially talking about the same thing: the power of certain signs to evoke far stronger responses-- affective and perhaps cognitive as well-- than do their opposite numbers: "normal sign stimuli" and "simple variables." Both Campbell and Frye frequently addressed the interpenetration of art and myth, though naturally each man hewed to his specialty.

Then the question arises: are there aspects of Campbell's work that are better applied to myth than to art?

I find on rereading PM that though Campbell undoubtedly knew the differences between the two forms, he was primarily focused on arguing for the existence of "elementary ideas" in the form of his "supernormal signs," and so his argument is dominantly about how such ideas appear in myth, and not so much in all forms of art. While trying to make his point that myth cannot be rationally understood, Campbell quotes poet A.E. Houseman, who asserts that:

"the intellect is not the fount of poetry....; it may actually hinder its production... and .... it cannot even be trusted to recognize poetry when produced..... Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual..." (THE NAME AND NATURE OF POETRY, 1961).

Here Campbell's equivalence of myth and art is altered to that of myth and poetry. This is a revealing change, for the literary form of poetry could be viewed as much more emotionally expressive than, say, its cousin prose. I would allow that all art begins with a desire to express emotion, and that intellect can be a stifling influence on the artist's vision, but still Houseman's assertion gives scant credit to the shaping influence of the intellect on art-- including, I imagine, his own.

With myth this seems less of a problem. True, the genesis of both prehistoric myth and prehistoric art-- as well as how prehistoric people came to separate the two forms-- can only be imagined as so many heuristic speculations. But it seems safe to speculate that even in primitive societies some people were better at telling stories than others, and that this became their calling in tribal life, whether strongly or weakly associated with the tribe's religion. Religious concepts, like concepts of art, surely evolved through a process of trial and error, in which the storyteller perceived patterns of meaning and managed to communicate them to his audience. But as Frye observed, religion's purpose is to say "this is so," while art's purpose is to say, "what if such-and-such were so."

Though I reject the simplistic notion that myth, as myth, was unchanging, or even universally intended by its makers to be unchanging, obviously art (at whatever point it became definitively separated from myth) could change to meet the needs of the community much more quickly. This would lead to a greater emphasis on the use of the individual intellect to use symbolic tableaux for didactic purposes-- one of the earliest being the Gilgamesh Epic, where the hero, derived from older and cruder-seeming myth-tales, becomes an object lesson on the meaning of man's mortality.

Intellect was surely used by those who framed the earliest myths that Campbell imputes to prehistoric man-- the tearing of the shaman's body, the human sacrifice that engenders a new staple of food. But in myth the intellectual function is in a subordinate position to the expressive function. In art, intellect and emotion constantly struggle for supremacy, like two boys playing king-of-the-mountain.

The differing status of the intellectual function is one reason why one must resist a total identification of myth and art, even though both are indebted to man's expressive function and could not exist without it. However, a theory of art that tries to privilege the intellectual function, as one might see in Shaw's twitting Shakespeare for not being progressive enough, is a worthless and barren theory.

Therefore, any poetics that tries (as mine does) to wed aspects of Frye and Campbell will tend to let Frye be "king-of-the-mountain," at least most of the time, because Frye has a superior cognizance as to how both mythworks and artworks are made.

My next (planned) post will touch on how Campbell's emphasis on the expressive function has caused his work to be grossly misunderstood by at least one member of the comic-book community.

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