The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I came to this book via the serendipity of the bookstore and a nudge from a great TED talk. (Go watch it, I’ll wait… really marvelous, isn’t it?)
I mean, I love mythology, I love stories, I’m interested in learning more about the hero’s journey–what’s not to like?
Let me tell you, I really wavered on those stars up there. It was thisclose to earning a 2. In fact, I almost gave up on this book a third of the way in.
First, the problems:
In my opinion, Bill Moyer, esteemed journalist that he is, completely failed in his duty in this book. I understand that it’s a transcript of a conversation, and perhaps it would have worked better in a visual medium, but Moyer is so transfixed by his subject (Joseph Campbell) that he loses the ability to control the flow of thought and respond critically to anything Campbell says. He says as much in the introduction; he is enamored of this interview.
Maybe, on TV, it isn’t as clear how frequently conversation derails, but in print, in a straight transcription, it’s a trainwreck. Had Moyer taken the time to construct a real book–with transcriptions, and sources, and clear structure–this book would have been dramatically easier to follow. As it is, the reader is just expected to hang on and sort of passively observe the literature, to sort of be transformed by its aura.
And that’s my next criticism: if you didn’t know (because Moyer says so) that Campbell is a leading scholar, you’d think he was a crackpot. He relies heavily on a swill of mixed metaphors and images pulled from whatever story happens to be handy for his current theme.
Seriously, you get things like this:
“If you undergo a spiritual transformation and have not had preparation for it, you do not know how to evaluate what has happened to you, and you get the terrible experiences of a bad trip, as they used to call it with LSD.”
If you didn’t know a professor said that, wouldn’t you think you were talking to an inebriated hippy? And that was actually a milder example; others were too long to transcribe.
Other problems with the text are products of the time it was written and Campbell’s (and Moyer, since he can’t help but butt in all the time) experiences as a child. Campbell especially has a sort of obsession with the “noble savage,” idealizing Native Americans to such a degree you lose a sense that they were a real people. He seems to apply the same idealization to “Orientals” and non-Western religion.
Paradoxically, much of the book revolves around Christian theology and ideals–in fact, it would probably be hard to understand this book without being able to reference the Bible and Christian tradition.
In a sort of one-two combination of these and a 1950s upbringing, you also get a lot of negative depictions of women and their role in society. Campbell’s pretty clear that a woman’s place is in creating children, and that requires a necessary sacrifice of any other priority in her life. He doesn’t even seem aware how these references, again and again, deprioritize women’s personal drives–heck, any sense of women as people with any desires outside of getting hitched and producing heirs for her husband–because he’s so busy deifying the process. It’s hard to argue that you aren’t meant to raise children when you’re being compared to the Virgin Mary at every turn.
Mix all that in with a giant dollop of “Back in MY day,” and you’ve got The Power of Myth.
And yet, despite all those problems, I kept reading. Weirdly, this is a book that does well if you don’t think about it too much as you’re reading, but let it marinate in the back of your head. It’s good as a general philosophy (though thank goodness no one ever thought to make a religion out of Campbell’s beliefs!) and has some good overall messages.
For example, his message for everyone, no matter who they are is “Follow your bliss.” Now that’s a nice big ebullient idea, but it’s a lovely sentiment and can be a good motivation.
Because of the philosophizing nature of this book, it’s also rife with juicy inspirational quotes of all kinds. This is the one that stood out to me:
“”Do you think I can be a writer?”
“Oh,” I would say, “I don’t know. Can you endure ten years of disappointment with nobody responding to you, or are you thinking that you are going to write a best seller at the first crack? If you have the guts to stay with the thing you really want, no matter what happens, well, go ahead.””
I’m sure anyone, regardless of their personal bliss, could find a similarly provocative quote in this book.
I wouldn’t recommend this book to most people. It’s twisty, poorly constructed, and full of sort of New-Age-y mumbo-jumbo. But I wouldn’t talk you out of reading it, either; it might provide just the right magic words for you. And besides, the message that we are all heroes traveling our own mythic journeys is pretty nice.
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