Friday, September 30, 2016

Myths to live by

I recently read a book called Myths to Live by, a collection of speeches and essays by Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of religion and mythology.

I first became aware of Campbell in college, when I watched a cassette my parents had of his PBS interview special with Bill Moyers.  I liked this show very much, and I wanted ever since to read some more of his work, but I never had the chance to until this year.

Myths to Live by is easy to read, in that it's split up into relatively short stand-alone essays, each on a distinct topic (though various themes overlap and repeat themselves between essays).  Most of the essays, especially the ones later in the book, match Campbell's style in the Moyers video of the 1980s.  This makes sense, as the essays later in the book tend to be from the late 1960s, and evince a tone that is at once enthusiastic about myth and religion, but also conciliatory in seeking commonalities and lessons from the broad range of human culture and mythology.  The first essays, on the other hand, hail largely from the earlier 1960s and even a few from the 50s, and seem to have a more confrontational tone, making broad generalizations and often deriding certain aspects of a given culture or mythology.  In this sense the later essays were more pleasant to read and more familiar to my conception of Campbell's work, while the first few essays were less pleasant but more interesting, insofar as they showed me a new side of the scholar that I hadn't known before.  In particular I am referring to an essay called The Separation of East and West, and another called The Confrontation of East and West in Religion.

However, the cultural and even logical framework in which Campbell develops these more confrontational ideas seems to me to have a few fundamental flaws, namely that Campbell exaggerates the differences between Western and Eastern culture (which he separates roughly at Iran).  He is clearly a man of his modernist time insofar as he heralds the steady forward march of Western progress (and implicitly supremacy), space exploration, and the like, while totally discounting the role in world history and human progress of most of the world that doesn't have a great Classical literary production (which is to say Africa, Australia, and the Americas figure very little in his survey of human thought and culture).  In this sense, Campbell unwittingly demonstrates his central thesis of the power of myth, by himself adhering to quite a few modern myths of his own creation.

Campbell's first intellectual myth relates to conceptions of the individual and the general idea of human progress in the West vs. the East.  He starts off an essay with the bombastic claim that "It is not easy for Westerners to realize that the ideas developed in the West of the individual, his selfhood, his rights, and his freedom, have no meaning whatsoever in the Orient. ...  They are, in fact, repugnant to the ideals, the aims and orders of life, of most of the peoples of this earth. ...And yet ... they are the truly great 'new thing' that we do indeed represent to the world and that constitutes our Occidental revelation of a properly human spiritual ideal, true to the highest potentiality of our species."  As I mentioned above, Campbell draws the line between East and West around Iran.  I'm not the first to remark on the difficulty of separating East and West--my latest understanding is that such a separation is not very tenable in any sense, except for an arbitrary, subjective sense of certain people in Europe and the US that they constitute the West, and everyone else doesn't.  What Campbell goes on to cite as the great achievements of Western civilization and character end up indeed being centered on Europe and the US in a brief historical window from the Enlightenment to the mid-20th century.

But this brings up a slew of problems of definition.  Africa is West of Campbell's line, and for most of the window he considers has practiced mainly "Western" religions (Christianity and Islam) but clearly is not what he's talking about when he refers to Western individualism.  Ditto for Latin America.  At the same time, much of the "East" is also Christian or Muslim in this timeframe, so how is Campbell claiming that the individualism inherent to the West (including its religions) somehow didn't bleed over into the East?  Black slaves in the Americas (and later their oppressed descendants), by both their very existence and by their thoughts and actions, forced their countries and the world in general to reconsider how we define humanity.  In other words they too pushed our conception of the individual, of rights, of the citizen, of the rightful aim of society and its relationship to individuals.  Was this a Western contribution to civilization?  It happened partially in the geographic West, but came from peoples not of Campbell's West.  What about Gandhi's and a whole slew of African leaders' fight to end colonialism and then racial and religious sectarianism?  Were these people Western because they had contact with Western colonial institutions?  I think not.

Lastly, from the mid-20th century to the present, many of the scientific, intellectual, technological, and artistic achievements that Campbell (I think rightly) claims are fruits of a new perception of the individual, are coming out of China, India, Africa, and Latin America.  Are these places then part of the West now?  Some might say so, but in this case the notion of West vs. East loses all explanatory power.  Are people from the East who live in the West Eastern or Western?  What about Westerners living in the East?  What about people of Asian descent living in colonial Africa and the Americas?

Again, I think Campbell is right when he says that people like Newton or Thomas Paine or Verdi or Ataturk or the citizens of the modern-day USA thought and think in a fundamentally different way from people in other eras and other regions.  But so did Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, Garcia Marquez, Steven Biko, and the bustling, urbanizing, questioning masses of most countries today.  To me the only resolution for this impasse is to accept that East and West have very little explanatory power.  I would propose to classify the sea change in conception of the individual vis a vis society as a result of modernity vs. pre-modernity.  This would explain the difference between most of the world's thinking in the 10th century, vs. its thinking today, while allowing for the fact that European peasants well into the 20th century still held very communal ideals that subsumed the role of the individual, while many Indian political leaders, migrants to other regions, and colonial citydwellers in the 19th century were clearly thinking in terms of modern citizenship, modern statehood, and modern economy, in other words of a modern role for the individual in society.

I hope I've made a convincing argument that Joseph Campbell's division of East and West insofar as the role they conceive for the individual is not valid, that what he is in fact describing in a change in our perception of the individual as societies become more modern.

Ironically, at the same time as Campbell claims that Eastern peoples are laconic and kept from modern conceptions of humanity by their commitment to collective identity, he uniquely values Eastern religious precepts over Western ones.  Indeed, though he believes that Eastern peoples are uniquely ill-adapted to modernity, he essentially argues that their religious beliefs are more relevant for modernity and postmodernity than are the childish literalist visions of Western religion.

Here again I tend to agree with the larger point Campbell is trying to make, which I render into something like this, "The old ideas of myth-as-fact are patently irrelevant in an age where science explains many of the natural phenomena, and in fact disproves many of the mythological explanations.  But at the same time, myth-as-metaphor becomes more relevant in the modern and postmodern age, because we still need guidance about the essential truths of life, challenge, love, suffering, and joy, which are not apt to be elucidated by scientific inquiry." 

My problem is that, as with his treatment of the role of the individual, Campbell is on shaky ground when he tries to draw grand generalizations about the nature of Eastern vs. Western religions.  While I see a certain anecdotal coherence to his assertions that Western religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) tend to focus on scripture as literal, factual truth, and Eastern ones tend to more readily accept contradictions and metaphor, there are too many exceptions for this generalization to hold.  My understanding is that Hinduism is a syncretism of an Aryan warrior religion focused on individual god-heroes (as reflected in many of the foundational texts like the Ramayana) and a more animistic, contemplative Dravidian faith.  At the same time, European-evolved Christianity was at once mystical, Messianic, anti-authoritarian, and hierarchical, not to mention heavily syncretized with pagan Nature-worship.  Modern India has plenty of hardline Hindus who take their scriptures as literal truth (cf. destruction of the Babary Mosque because it was sited on the literal birthplace of the god Ram), while there are boundless examples of syncretism, coexistence, and metaphorical readings in the Messianic religions (cf. Sufism, ecumenical interfaith communities, Liberation Theology).  So again, the East vs. West division doesn't quite hold up to explain who holds doggedly to the literal truth of their religious traditions, vs. who accepts a more tolerant, metaphorical reading.

What I do agree with is that the metaphorical reading (what Campbell ascribes to the East) is the only viable option in the present age.  According to Campbell (and to me), in an age when science is explaining more and more of the physical phenomena that surround us (stars, planets, biological processes, aging, ecology, evolution of living species and soils and rocks), our ancient religions no longer can or should serve that factual narrative role.  Coyote did not literally strew the stars across the sky, God the Father did not literally create the passion flower to reflect different themes of Christ's Passion.  That said, the metaphorical truths of our myths and religion are as relevant now as ever.  For Campbell, this consists chiefly in the quest for eternity as "finding your bliss", which is to say to find what you love to do and to dedicate your heart and soul to it, and in general to fully live whatever moment you happen to be in.  Hence in the modern age Eternity comes down to earth, within the hearts of those who are truly living the moment, and God becomes an impersonal force governing the universe as opposed to the anthropomorphic deity intervening daily in human affairs.  This is for Campbell the rightful place of myth and religion in the 20th (now the 21st) century.

The main problem I have with this conception of correct modern faith is that it is totally self-centered, with no social element.  Where is the impetus for social change, for righting the world's wrongs, dare I say for bringing about the Kingdom of God here on earth?  I imagine that Campbell would respond that A) life is inherently full of suffering, so it is better to accept this than to fight it, and B) that the Messianic impulse to bring about Heaven on Earth has in fact been responsible for much of the wholesale murder and misery propagated in the world, from the Inquisition to the colonization of the New World to the horrors of Hitler and Stalin. 

I can understand and appreciate the value of contemplation, of seeking your bliss, and certainly the danger of a one-sided vision of a rightful world order to be forced on others.  But for me the most resounding part of religion is social communion.  The Godly presence I feel at church comes mainly from the solidarity and conviction and voices raised in unison of the congregation.  Christianity's most powerful contribution to faith and morality is for me the idea that Christ dwells in each of us, so as we help or harm those around us, so we are treating the Godhead itself.  If we are to find our bliss, it must be in losing ourselves in others, in devoting our lives to others, from our children to our neighbors and even strangers.  The modern faith I avow is that of Gandhi, of Malcolm X, of Romero, not that of Osho.  And of course the secular humanist values that have contributed so much to a coherent, universal modern morality also must temper our concept of the good and the desireable, such that any effort to bring about the Kingdom of God must always respect human dignity, the right to freedom of the individual.  Neither a navel-gazer nor a zealot be. 

At the other extreme, Campbell's self-focused religion is socially agnostic, to the point of possible sociopathy.  For Campbell the warrior fully living his vocation of sacking and pillaging is doing the right thing, just as is the untouchable peasant living under the yoke of oppression without protest, or the rich-world consumer devotedly pursuing his Pokemon Go collection.  They are all equally valid as long as they are fully embracing their place in the world--their effects on those around them are not important to a right livelihood.  I can't ever get on board with this.

Anyway, when I recently picked up Campbell again after a few years without much contact, I dug around on the Internet and learned that there has in fact been a lot of criticism of him from varied corners of academia.  Most of the criticisms seem to focus on Campbell's "wishy-washy" intellectual style, wherein his assertions are often unfalsifiable and border on tautologies.  (Critics also assert that Campbell's self-centered religion is too cozily aligned with 1980s-style thoughtless consumerism).  In this sense he is painted as a Paulo Coelho self-help type, conveying only platitudes.  But while I can't stand Coelho, I do appreciate and enjoy reading Campbell.  As for his spiritual, non-falsifiable assertions, I don't have a problem with them.  Positivism is one way of describing things and understanding the world, but it's not the only valid way.  In this sense I feel that both Campbell's arguments and the myths that were his subject matter confound positivist academic discourse; while it's impossible to assert the factual veracity of the animist beliefs of a remote Amazonian tribe like those studied by Mark Plotkin and Richard Evans Shultes, no one can deny the potency of their medicine, or the sustainability of their lifestyle.  In other words, it may not make perfect sense, but it works.  I feel the same way about some of Campbell's admittedly lightweight psychology and anthropology.  Nevertheless, here is a very coherent criticism of both that I feel in fact rescues Campbell's work by giving us the grain of salt with which we should read Campbell.

Other criticisms of Campbell focus on his apparent racism and Fascism.  I can't speak to that, since I haven't read anything by him that explicitly avows such beliefs.  However, he does seem to relish at times the amoral glorification of war and battle, without any condemnation of oppression.  Campbell's philosophy of boldly following your own desires (and to hell with everyone else) is easy to twist into a justification or even a celebration of the strong conquering the weak.

Lastly, I wanted to touch briefly on Campbell's relationship to the Star Wars franchise.  Both Campbell and George Lucas himself have been explicit about the mythological inspiration of Star Wars, and its intent to be a great Hero story in the Campbell mold.  I have long appreciated and enjoyed the original three Star Wars movies, in part thanks to this mythological reading that made them more for me than just a pop phenomenon (for this same reason I have consciously avoided the subsequent films, which clearly seem to follow a commercial logic more than any noble artistic impulse).  My older son Sam had heard a lot about Star Wars from the kids and adults around him, but had never actually seen the movies.  I finally got to show the original film to my family, which I was really excited about.  My wife Caro had never had any interest in seeing it, but she was nice enough to humor me.

Nevertheless, Caro was not too impressed after actually seeing the film.  I'd assumed she wouldn't have much use for the science-fiction angle of spaceships and laser beams, but that she would appreciate the underlying story and mythical allusions.  But it happened the other way around!  Caro liked the fantasy aspect of different planets and peoples and space travel, but had little use for the story.  All too conscious of the foggy morality of the long Colombian civil war and many others like it, my wife is offended at the way Star Wars divides good vs. bad with no apparent reason.  As she puts it, you know the bad guys are bad because they wear the bad guy uniform, and the good guys are good because they don't wear the bad uniform.  But the underlying cause of the conflict, the justice of the claims of one side or another, are nowhere to be found.  And Caro just can't bring herself to root for one side and wish for the demise of the other simply because that's what she's expected to do.

On this latest watching, I was impressed by the revolutionary rhetoric of the Rebel Alliance, and surprised that a widespread insurgency against a stable government would find such resonance with audiences at the height of the Cold War, when we in the US were suppressing insurgencies throughout our Hemisphere.  But after hearing my wife, I was forced to admit that the Rebels' cause is so unclear that it's sheep-like of me to root for them just because.

Later on, I read this excellent article from the Jacobin magazine, which asserts that the Rebels are really proto-Fascists driven by the sinister religion of obsolete feudal warlords.  The article even ties this back to Joseph Campbell's own Fascist sympathies.  It's all pretty damning of the Force, and it totally reinforces my wife's misgivings with Star Wars.

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