By Stephen and Robin Larsen
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 Arthuras 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,
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
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
anymorethe 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"