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New World Library Unshelved

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Thursday, March 27, 2014
THE LIFE AND WORK OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL: An excerpt by Phil Cousineau, editor of THE HERO'S JOURNEY
The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work is based on a documentary of the same name about Joseph Campbell’s life. Editor Phil Cousineau rescued hours of outtakes from film vaults and organized it into the book, which is now available in a new paperback edition. In what amounts to Campbell’s only spiritual autobiography, this beautifully crafted collection of conversations and interviews reveals and illuminates Campbell’s personal and intellectual journey.

Behind the man who devoted himself to exploring the mythologies of the world was someone whose life was a deep personal quest for his own immortal hero. The Hero’s Journey follows the footsteps of Joseph Campbell as he tells stories of his life, his love, and his passion.

We hope you’ll enjoy this short excerpt from Phil Cousineau’s introduction to the book.

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Joseph Campbell’s long odyssey through the seas of ancient mythology was as much a spiritual quest as it was a scholarly one. Through his prodigious readings, writings, and travels, as well as his crossroads meetings with many of the century’s most influential men and women, he discovered remarkable parallels in our world’s mythological heritage and reinforcement for the deep conviction he had held since he was a young student: that there is a fundamental unity at the heart of nature.

“Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names,” he often quoted the Vedas. To synthesize the constant truths of history became the burning point of his life; to bridge the abyss between science and religion, mind and body, East and West, with the timeless linkage of myths became his task of tasks.

“My hope,” he wrote in his preface to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “is that a comparative elucidation may contribute to the perhaps not-quite-desperate cause of those forces that are working in the present world for unification, not in the name of some ecclesiastical or political empire, but in the name of human mutual understanding.”

Campbell’s comparative historical approach to mythology, religion, and literature, in contrast to the conventional scholar’s emphasis on cultural differences, concentrated on similarities. He was convinced that the common themes or archetypes in our sacred stories and images transcended the variations or cultural manifestations. Moreover, he believed that a re-viewing of such primordial images in mythology as the hero, death and resurrection, the virgin birth, and the promised land—the universal aspects of the soul, the blood memories—could reveal our common psychological roots. They could even show us, as seen from below, how the soul views itself.

“Myths are the ‘masks of God,’ ” he wrote, “through which men everywhere have sought to relate themselves to the wonders of existence.” The shock of recognition we receive from the timelessness of these images, from primal cultures to the most contemporary, he believed, was an illumination not only of our inward life but of the same deep spiritual ground from which all human life springs.

So as Albert Einstein pursued a unified field theory for the energies of the outer realms, Joseph Campbell dedicated himself to forging a kind of unified field theory of the equally prodigious energies of the inner realms, the personifications of which we call “the gods.” And what physicists call the “fabric of reality” Campbell called “the net of gems,” a sparkling metaphor from Hindu cosmology that is also a keen image for his own unique weaving together of myth, religion, science, and art. His teachers in those disciplines, he concluded, were all saying essentially the same thing: that there is a system of archetypal impulses that have stirred the human spirit throughout history. It is, as he synthesized it, “one grandiose song.”

The iconoclastic road he took as scholar, teacher, and writer was not unlike the “left-hand paths” he discovered in myriad myths: what the Kena Upanisads call the crossing of “a bridge as sharp as the edge of a razor”; the taking of the “middle way” of the Buddhists; or the entering of the dark forest of the Grail Quest “where there is no way or path.” Intuitively he followed his Tao of Scholarship beyond the hallowed halls of traditional academia and into a spiritual and psychological view of mythology, which embraces the transcendent Reality referred to by saints and shamans that can be directly experienced. This form of direct perception of what the mystics called cosmic consciousness is nothing less than a personal encounter with the gods. It is the healing vision of order underlying apparent chaos, the seizure of life-affirming Beauty in the heart of darkness. If “snatching the eternal out of the ever fleeting is one of the great tricks of human existence,” as Tennessee Williams said, then those who can experience eternity now, from Campbell’s challenging perspective, become our tricksters, our spiritual guides.

Campbell’s decidedly unconventional career deprived him, he used to joke, of some prestige from his fellow scholars. But it was obvious to those of us who knew him that he took great pride in being the maverick and the “dilettante,” “the one who takes delight in,” as he once described his own mentor, the Indologist Heinrich Zimmer. He could afford to. His enthusiasm—literally his being full of the gods—had won him the hearts and minds of students early on in his career at Sarah Lawrence, and later, of scores of artists. His own fascination with the “great stuff of myth” turned thinking into an adventure, translated knowledge into wisdom, and revealed the personal relevance of mythology for those who heard or read him. To them he was far more than the popularizer who trivializes his subject; he was what the French elegantly call the “animateur,” the charismatic teacher who not only animates complex material for the average audience, but evokes what Vladimir Nabokov called the frisson, the telling shiver of truth about your own life. For that gift alone he became one of the most beloved teachers of our time.

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Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) is widely credited with bringing mythology to a mass audience. His works, including The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth (with Bill Moyers), rank among the classics in mythology and literature. Phil Cousineau is an award-winning writer and filmmaker, teacher and editor, lecturer and travel leader, storyteller and TV host. 

Excerpted from the introduction by Phil Cousineau to The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, copyright © 1990 by Joseph Campbell Foundation. Published with permission of New World Library. 


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