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Thursday, March 24, 2016
JOSEPH CAMPBELL ON THE ART OF JAMES JOYCE: An excerpt from MYTHIC WORLDS, MODERN WORDS
 

In 1927, as a twenty-three-year-old postgraduate scholar in Paris, Joseph Campbell first encountered James Joyce’s Ulysses. Known for being praised and for kicking up controversy, the novel left Campbell both intrigued and confused, as it had many others. For the next sixty years, Campbell continued his study of Joyce’s work—writing and lecturing on Joyce using depth psychology, comparative religion, anthropology, and art history as tools of analysis.

Arranged by Joyce scholar Edmund L. Epstein, Mythic Worlds, Modern Words presents a wide range of Campbell’s writing and lectures on Joyce, which together form an illuminating running commentary on Joyce’s masterworks. Campbell’s visceral appreciation for all that was new in Joyce will delight the previously uninitiated, and perhaps intimidated, as well as longtime lovers of both Joyce and Campbell. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from Epstein’s foreword to the book. 

# # #

Classically, it was with an enigma that Joseph Campbell entered the labyrinth of James Joyce. 

I had gone over to Paris in 1927 to study medieval philology and Old French and Provençal, and here’s this Ulysses, Ulysses, Ulysses. So I buy the book and take it home, and when I get to chapter three, it starts out: 

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read . . .” 

It had been published by Sylvia Beach, at Shakespeare & Co., at 12 rue de l’Odéon in Paris, so I went around there—you know, in high academic indignation: “What do you think of this!” And Sylvia Beach—I didn’t know who she was—just took me on and sold me the books that would sell me on Joyce. I took them back to my little room, and that was almost the end of my interest in medieval philology. 

So Sylvia Beach gave me the clues about how to read Ulysses, and then she sold me this journal called transition, published by Eugène Jolas, in which sketches of the early chapters of Finnegans Wake were appearing under the title “Work in Progress.” That’s what taught me. And there you have it. It’s funny how it changed my career.


For the next sixty years, until his death in 1987, Campbell moved through the labyrinth of Joyce’s creation; using the methods of depth psychology, comparative religion, anthropology, art history, discovering a great many things as he excavated that would form parts of his work in comparative mythology and religion. In the course of his study, he became one of the great students of Joyce. The book he wrote with Henry Morton Robinson, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, has been since 1944 one of the basic texts in Joyce criticism of the Wake. However, all the time he was evolving a total explanation of the works of Joyce, and all deriving from the passage in Ulysses that provided his initial puzzle. 

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.” At least that if no more; the desperation is palpable. Stephen is attempting to find in the phenomenal world what has vanished from his moral universe: a center for the soul. However, according to Schopenhauer, a philosopher who plays a central role in Campbell’s analyses, to embrace the phenomenal is to abandon the possibility of moral insight, of a feeling for others. As Campbell explains it: 

The notion of separateness is simply a function of the way our senses experience us here in time and space. We’re separate in this room because of space. We’re separate from the group that were here last night because of time. These are the separating factors, what Nietzsche calls the Principium Individuationis, the individuating factors. And Schopenhauer says this is secondary. The notion of you and the other is a secondary one, and every now and then, this other realization comes up. . . . [C]ompassion releas[es] you from the ego orientation.

From his first encounter with Joyce’s writings in Paris in 1927, Campbell remained deeply involved with the works of Joyce. He gave many lectures on Joyce, frequently read from his works, and published a number of articles on Joyce’s works. This book provides a survey of Campbell’s Joycean studies by conflating his articles and representative lectures, from his obituary notice on the death of Joyce in 1941 to lectures delivered within a few years of Campbell’s death. Also included, in the “Dialogues” section, is a selection of Campbell’s responses to questions from members of the audience at some of his lectures. Questions from listeners seemed to fire Campbell, and some of these exchanges provide a deeper insight into the material presented in the formal lectures. This book contains both elementary material and advanced analysis of the work of Joyce; it is, therefore, both an introduction to Joyce’s major works and a major contribution to Joyce criticism. The whole provides a representative portrait of Joseph Campbell as a critic of Joyce. 

It is an impressive intellectual achievement to go from an enigma to a schema which includes all the major works of a great writer. Whether or not one agrees with all the conclusions of Campbell (I have put some of my reservations in the “Notes”), it is possible to see the magnitude of his achievement for what it is—the fruit of a lifetime’s meditation on the works of James Joyce. 

# # #

Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) is widely credited with bringing mythology to a mass audience through his books The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. Edmund L. Epstein (1931–2012) founded and edited the first James Joyce journal, The James Joyce Review.  

Excerpted from the book Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce by Joseph Campbell. Copyright © 1993, 2003 by Joseph Campbell Foundation.

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