The Region

A Fire In the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell

Book Review

David Levy - Vice President

Published March 1, 1992  |  March 1992 issue

By Stephen and Robin Larsen
Doubleday
636 pages

Ayn Rand, through her life and writing, had an extraordinary influence on her contemporaries. Her conclusions about the role of the individual and on the moral dimension of the marketplace, among others, have become a part of our world view. For some, she was an intellectual hero on whom to consciously base a political philosophy, and for others, Rand was a great story teller who always left you with something fascinating to ponder. And of course, for some she represented a great shadow, promoting what they felt was the dark side of human nature.

Joseph Campbell may have had a very similar effect on the world in which he lived. He was a mesmerizing story teller who had a grasp of the great myths from all times and from all corners of the world. To this day he has an international following that grew throughout his lifetime, and within that, a devoted core of aficionados who might even be described as a bit cultish.

My first experience with both Rand and Campbell was to read, without preparation, one of their published works: in the case of Campbell it was Myths to Live By, and Atlas Shrugged for Rand. In both cases I found that I had developed an appetite for more of their style and message, which soon led to a dedicated and quite full shelf in my library for each writer.

But simply reading wasn't enough. The next step would require some real-world exploration. Following Rand's trail leads many directions, but for me it went to free market philosophy and flirting with libertarian ideas. With Campbell, I was soon moved to probe the world of Carl Jung, read endlessly various versions of the Arthurian legend, trace mural-by-mural the Ramakien in Bangkok, and visit Merlin's cave in Tintagel, while retracing the steps of those who have tried to verify the existence of an historical Arthur—as opposed to the metaphorical one we know.

Why this intense curiosity about Rand some years ago and Campbell more recently? What made them different, so much more engaging to me, and I suspect, to so many others? I thought perhaps I might find that answer in a newly published biography about one of the two: Joseph Campbell.

Stephen and Robin Larsen have written A Fire in the Mind, which now stands as the authorized, full-length (it's long) biography of Joseph Campbell. The Larsens knew Campbell for more than 20 years and were given exclusive access to his personal papers, journals, diaries and letters. In their book they track Campbell's relationships with spiritual leaders, artists, writers and others, among them Krishnamurti, John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, Heinrich Zimmer, Carl Jung, Robert Bly and George Lucas.

The authors also follow the evolution of Campbell's ever-expanding personal philosophy which seems to start with a child's curiosity about the American Indian, and can be traced, as Campbell matures, through Edwin Arnold's "The Light of Asia," Sir James Frazer's "Golden Bough," William Sumner's "Folkways," and Oswald Spengler's "Decline of the West" which he read seven times.

Perhaps most striking about Campbell in his search for life wisdom was his range. Central to Campbell's work was always mythology and because of this we can think of him as a comparative mythologist. Mythology typically was Campbell's common denominator, but he usually included seemingly unrelated other elements like the art of preliterate people, ethnographic studies, Oriental philosophy, Medieval literature, or dance.

Campbell collected and integrated information indefatigably as he traveled the world; studied languages; crossed paths with celebrated scholars, novelists, dancers and spiritualists; and explored the great stories from culture to culture of creation, rebirth and heroism.

His was indeed the life of the mind as he lived, professed and became the ultimate intellectual generalist. He delighted in his wide range of understanding of the humanities and the arts, according to the Larsens. Unfortunately, this did not endear him in most cases to the academic world, who saw him as 10 miles wide and two inches deep.

His greatest but not exclusive appeal would be to popular audiences. A review of one of Campbell's best selling books, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, gives a sense of how he resonated:

"He performs two incredible feats: he blends mythology, psychoanalysis, poetry and scholarship into compelling narrative; then, as if this were not enough, he proceeds to convince the thoughtful reader that myth and dream, those fleeting and neglected "unrealities," are the most potent and permanent forces in the lives of men."

And his appeal to popular audiences was not limited to dedicated students or like-minded "seekers." According to the Larsens, Campbell took all of his audiences seriously, "whether the achievement-oriented Young Presidents, the freethinkers of the Cooper Union, the
outward-bound Foreign Service officers, or the hip New Age visionaries of Esalen Institute."

Over the years his presence grew and from 1985 through 1987 he taped interviews with Bill Moyers, which in the next year aired on PBS as the "Power of Myth." It was Campbell's time to enchant the viewing public with his mythological stories and his thoughts on how they relate to our lives. In A Fire in the Mind, the Larsens tell of why Moyers himself thought "The Power of Myth" was so successful:

"...Joe was giving us the vocabulary for a new effort to define what it means to be spiritual today, The old stories don't work anymore—the old way of understanding the universe. The traditional biblical construct which for centuries helped people find their place, raise their children, define their roles, answer their questions, —that's been dying away ... And here was a man on television talking about the old stories that could he looked at in new ways, stories that helped people discover again what it means to be spiritual. Joe was not a "how to" man. [But] people who listened to him found that his vocabulary made sense of their own experience. People began to see that it was possible to explore spirituality in a way that was both personal and authentic; yet it had universal implications, and it had roots. Somebody said to me, 'Joe Campbell helped me know what I knew.'"

Campbell hypnotized most of his viewers and even managed to weave in his lively sense of humor with the ongoing perspective on the human condition. According to the Larsens, a favorite question he would pose was: "Do you know what depression is?" And then responding to his question he would say: it's when you have spent your life climbing the corporate or whatever kind of ladder and you finally reach the top and it's against the wrong wall."

Campbell put his ladder against a wall and it never moved; it was the right wall for him. Climbing that ladder is what he would call following one's bliss, a phrase he often repeated in his lectures. By following his bliss he inspired many, some famous like George Lucas with Star Wars and tens of thousands of not-so-famous who curled up with one of his books or heard a taped lecture.

The Larsens' book is a fine documentation of Campbell's life and it will go on my Campbell shelf. Clearly, it isn't a critical review of Campbell and probably lacks the balance demanded by the biographers' craft. It's obviously written by two people who profoundly respected and no doubt loved their "subject." No warts discussed, while others are quick to point out that he did have them.

Did the Larsens' biography help answer why I was so enthralled with Campbell in the first place? Yes, in a small way. But mostly reading A Fire in the Mind sparked further curiosity about Joseph Campbell and added volume upon volume to my "to read" list.

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