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Thursday, November 30, 2017
EDITOR’S FOREWORD by Nancy Allison: An excerpt from THE ECSTASY OF BEING by Joseph Campbell

New World Library is very excited to be publishing a brand-new book by the well-known and much-loved comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. His wife, Jean Erdman, was a leading figure in modern dance who worked with Martha Graham. The Ecstasy of Being brings together seven of Campbell’s previously uncollected articles on dance as well as the treatise he was working on when he died, “Mythology and Form in the Performing and Visual Arts.”

In many ways, this book is a love letter both to his wife and to art-making itself, celebrating dance and the performing arts through the unique mythological lens that only Joseph Campbell can provide. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book’s foreword by editor Nancy Allison.

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From the Editor’s Foreword by Nancy Allison, CMA:

“Art is the funnel through which spirit is poured into life,” Joseph Campbell often said. He believed deeply that art, like mythology, has the power to open the contemporary, individual mind to a direct experience of the timeless, transcendent wisdom of the universe, a wisdom based in the body and visited in our dreams. According to Campbell, the artist’s job is to create “significant forms” that stir the modern, fractured psyche, “offering to consciousness an aesthetic object while ringing, simultaneously, undertones in the unconscious.”

Campbell’s philosophy of art was deeply shaped by his travels in Europe from 1924 to 1929, where he was introduced to the literature of James Joyce and Thomas Mann; the paintings of Cézanne, Picasso, and Paul Klee; the work and teaching of the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle; and the groundbreaking psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Through this heady brew of different yet related influences, Campbell eventually came to his belief that “the individual artist must study the psychological effects produced by the various devices of his particular craft” and that “these devices must then be associated with their appropriate elements of myth.” In this way, the artist fulfills the task of pitching the individual psyche beyond fear or hope to the “wonder of the world-harmony that keeps in circulation (whether life be sorrowful or gay) the spheres of outer space, the electrons of the atom, and the juices of the living earth.” 

Throughout his life, Campbell patiently explicated the rigorous standards and defining characteristics of what he, following James Joyce, called “proper art,” art that stills the chattering mind and by means of its wholeness and harmonic rhythm illumines the arrested mind with the radiance of beauty. With wit and warmth he inspired generations of young writers, poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, composers, actors, directors, and filmmakers to seek radiance in their artistic meditations. But as can be seen in this small volume, he had a special passion for choreographers and dancers.

We know very little about Campbell’s earliest musings on the art of dance. We do know that as a child of just five or six, he had a life-altering experience when his father took him and his brother, Charlie, to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden. There, Campbell “became fascinated, seized, obsessed, by the figure of a naked American Indian with his ear to the ground, a bow and arrow in his hand, and a look of special knowledge in his eyes.” Did he perhaps also get his first glimpse there of the spiritually organized colors, forms, and rhythms of Native American dance? 

Campbell Sr. also enjoyed what he called “good shows” and perhaps took Joe and Charlie to these vaudeville-style shows, too. More than likely the young boys saw amazing African American tap dancers, as well as female chorus line dancing typical of the era. Stephen and Robin Larsen’s biography, A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell, documents that Campbell was a very good musician and a wonderful social dancer, but we don’t know if he picked up the steps and style of the various dances by watching or by learning them through instruction, thereby developing an appreciation for some of the formal aspects of dance.

Campbell never mentions in his voluminous journals or correspondence that he saw a ballet, either as a boy in New York or as a young man on any of his European trips between 1924 and 1929. During that time Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the students of Rudolf von Laban—most notably Mary Wigman, the leading figure of German Expressionist dance—were performing regularly. So, too, were the Americans Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, yet there is no record of Campbell having seen them, or any of the other dance artists who were revolutionizing the art form during this period.

But in 1937, something happened that changed his understanding of dance altogether. At that time, Campbell was living the life he had dreamed up for himself, teaching comparative literature at the all-female Sarah Lawrence College with plenty of time on the side to continue his reading and study of world mythology. The same year he arrived, a young woman named Jean Erdman began her studies there, too. 

Born and raised in Honolulu, Erdman grew up dancing hula at family parties and picnics almost as soon as she could walk. The daughter of Dr. John Pinney Erdman, a Protestant minister, and Marion Dillingham, a member of one of the major industrialist families of Hawaii, Jean attended the exclusive Punahou School, where she learned Isadora Duncan–style interpretive dance. After a year spent at Miss Hall’s School for Girls in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where her intellect was ignited but her mind was troubled by the prevailing Puritanical attitude toward dance—she was disciplined for teaching hula to her classmates—she arrived at Sarah Lawrence full of youthful enthusiasm and a questing mind. 

Erdman dove into the dramatic, percussive dance technique taught there by modern dance pioneer Martha Graham and members of her company, and she continued her study at the Bennington Dance Festival during the summers. She also studied comparative religion and Irish culture and theater. By her junior year, Erdman was committed to a life in dance and wanted to expand the breadth of her studies to include philosophy and aesthetics. Judging from her friends’ descriptions of his classes, Erdman decided that Professor Campbell, heartthrob of the campus, was the ideal tutor for her interests, and she asked him for a private conference course. Self-selected private tutorial courses were a distinguishing feature of the program at Sarah Lawrence. 

A chance encounter at the library on a rainy night turned into an interview at Campbell’s office where, as the story goes, Campbell asked her, “What do you want to study?”

“I want to study aesthetics. I want to study Pluto,” she replied.

“Pluto?” he asked. “You mean Plato!” 

Despite her error (or Freudian slip), Campbell agreed to the tutorial as long as Erdman also attended his lecture course on Thomas Mann, which included reading assignments on Schopenhauer, Kant, and Nietzsche. Erdman was happy to comply.

So, much to the envy of the entire campus, the dashing scholar and the beautiful dancer met every Tuesday from 12:30 to 1:30 to discuss art and philosophy. By the end of the semester, neither wanted the relationship to end. But Erdman would not be returning to campus the next year; instead, she was taking a trip around the world with her family. As a parting gift, Campbell gave her a copy of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, knowing that she would need to stay in touch with him in order to understand it. As her parting gift, Erdman invited Campbell to see her perform at Bennington later that summer.

What he saw there was not only the talent and beauty of his special student, but a whole new evolving art form, rooted in a glorious exploration of the possibilities of the human body. Here was a whole cadre of young choreographers—Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm—searching for original aesthetic forms through which to express their keen observations of the human condition, both inner and outer. Here was a field where Campbell could explore his burgeoning theory of the relationship of myth to aesthetic form and psychological structures. Here was a dancer, Jean Erdman, with whom he could share his passion for art, myth, and a soul-directed life. 

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Joseph Campbell (March 26, 1904–October 30, 1987) is widely credited with bringing mythology to a mass audience. His works, including The Hero with a Thousand Faces, rank among the classics in mythology and literature. He died after a short struggle with cancer in 1987. From 1976 to 1985, Nancy Allison, editor of The Ecstasy of Being, was a member of the Theater of the Open Eye, the dance company and theater founded by Campbell and his remarkable wife, artist Jean Erdman. In 2008, Allison founded Jean Erdman Dance to preserve and promote Erdman’s dance repertory, technique, and aesthetic philosophy. Find out more about Nancy Allison’s work at

Excerpted from the book The Ecstasy of Being: Mythology and Dance. Copyright © 2017 by the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Printed with special permission from the Joseph Campbell Foundation.






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